One of the earliest literacy skills we learn after formal reading is reading for context. It’s something we all do — it simply means that when we come across a word or phrase with which we’re unfamiliar, we pick up context clues from the text that help us work out what the unknown part likely means.
Recently, I was considering the interesting ways in which the presentation of such contexts operate while I was working through various parts of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction for a class I’m teaching. If you’ve seen it, you know that the Norton features many footnotes, presumably designed to accomplish its stated aim, which is to “help college level teaching of the short story.” We are often taught that the purpose of a footnote is to share additional important information or thoughts in a separate space in the text so that it doesn’t otherwise thwart the presentation of the main text’s primary point or readability. In the case of the Norton, most of the footnotes are devoted to defining phrases or terms, presumably to make the process of reading flow more smoothly. The editors of the Norton don’t offer a discussion about the logic behind what terms they selected for footnoting in the volume, but common sense might indicate that the editors believe that the footnoted terms are less contextually legible for a college-level population today. Continue reading “The Politics of Footnotes”