A Ku Indeed!

To Annotate, or not to Annotate

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Ethics by Chris on May 29, 2008

I’ve developed a new course in the fall that is meant to serve as an alternative ‘path’ for students at my college to fulfill their “values inquiry’ gen-ed requirement (ethics is a requirement for all students). The course is called Asian Ethics and allows students who are interested in Asian Studies (or just Asian-oriented themes) to opt-in to gen-ed courses more suited to their individual interests. My question here isn’t about the course itself, or even Asian Studies, but rather is about which translations I should use for the various Asian classics. And even here it’s not really about which translations read best (though I’d welcome suggestions there too). For me, it real thorny question is “to annotate, or not to annotate.”

There are some very good annotated versions of the classics (we’re reading the Analects, Tao Te Ching, Dhammapada, and the Bhavagad Gita ) out there. Straight up let’s face it — these books are written in a difficult way that, say, Plato’s Republic is not. Call it “obliqueness” (to use Francois Jullien’s term) or the “indirect method” (to follow Kierkegaard), it’s all the same — interpreting these texts isn’t just a matter of learning to penetrate dense argumentation — it’s a matter of learning to creatively interact with a series of koan-like poetic aphorisms. Philosophy through poetry (highly ambiguous poetry at that) is enough to drive the Western student totally nuts.

Using annotated texts that provide “running commentary” through the text can, of course, help. Slingerland’s annotated translation of the Analects is a notable example, and perhaps Ames’ new annotated translation of the Tao Te Ching is another. Annotations certain “take the edge off” for the student, providing a life preserver when the student feels most lost in the text. So the question is: should we, as instructors, use them? Take Slingerland — I have his copy of the Analects, I’ve learned quite a bit from it and find it helpful (his notes on the history of commentary on given passages are very useful). But I bought the book years after trying to figure out the content of the Analects on my own, without the help of any outside commentary. So basically, when I came to Slingerland’s text I already had an interpretation of my own to work with, and the confidence to resist specific readings that he advanced for certain passages.

If Slingerland had been my first text of the Analects (it was Lau, actually), this may not have happened. My way of interacting with the text may have been seriously altered — it would have been tempting to read such a difficult book with a “Spark Notes” sitting right there, tempting you to read it and provide “easy answers” (and you know students will reach for those). I would have likely been pulled into the world of the translator, taking his/her interpretation as the gold standard for the text. As a result, the hard (but necessary) work of putting together passages and trying out interpretations may not have happened and I may well have failed to interact with the book in the way it is supposed to be encountered. Perhaps starting with an annotated text would have made the encounter passive, where it is supposed to be active.

Yet, at the same time, I’ll say it again. These texts are hard for students, and I understand that. Sometimes I wonder whether using annotated translations is the right way to go, to allow the student at least a life-preserver when they feel really lost in the text. It’s risky, though, for the reason I outlined above. So what should an instructor do?

Are there any opinions out there? Should students be forced to “tough it out” through non-annotated translations? Or should we use annotated versions to help them along?


6 Responses

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  1. Million said, on May 30, 2008 at 12:09 am


    I don’t have much experience on the teaching end, but I don’t see anything wrong with using annotated version of any text for a Gen Ed class. That is, so long as you make sure to turn up the difficulty factor in order to compensate. 🙂 Maybe you could structure the course to where they have to “tough it out” in cases where you feel the training wheels should come off.

    The good thing about being an instructor is that you can use the position to direct their use of the texts… original or annotated.

  2. Chris said, on May 30, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Million –

    You may be right, I’m just not sure. I just worry that some students will invariably use it as a set of training wheels they won’t want to take off. After all, students start off hating Confucius because he doesn’t “just say what he means”. But by the end, they love him for the same reason. With annotation, the translator tries his/her best to tell you “what he means”. So there’s a journey through which one might learn to appreciate the book that a student might fail to take due to leaning on the annotations.

    I’m not sure, though. I’m leaning on using the annotations for the Tao Te Ching, not for the Analects. But we’ll see.

  3. Jay Mullen said, on May 31, 2008 at 1:58 pm


    Take a look.


    The most inspiring and interesting “gen ed” course I took as an undergraduate. Got my world spinning and most of the rest of the story you know.

    Fox’s background and interests run parallel to some of your current ones. Peak around his site (hasn’t been updated in a while). Even worth getting your hands on his lectures re: Asian themes/pedagogy.



  4. Chris said, on June 1, 2008 at 7:11 am


    Hey — how are you doing? Good to hear from you. Thanks so much for the link, and especially the route to some free lecture notes (which I’ll need, since this is my first time teaching Buddhism and Hinduism, though I’ve done the Tao before and I teach Confucius every semester). So some guidance on best past practices will help.

    What have you been up to? Christie and I are working on #2 — due in August. I’m assuming when there’s two, all hell breaks loose. But you should know — don’t you have more than two?

  5. Jay Mullen said, on June 1, 2008 at 3:26 pm


    In all of my years in education, Dr. Fox is the best teacher I’ve ever had. So indeed use his site. He’s an Asian specialist (it’s neat to see you’ve seen the light!).

    As for us, Trey just turned 4, Brynn is 2 and Amy is due with our 3rd in about a month. I sent you a quasi-update e-mail a few months back, but never heard from you. Thankfully, all is well with us.

    Rock on,


  6. Chris said, on June 2, 2008 at 8:28 am


    I don’t remember getting an email from you. But then again, last year was completely nuts and it wouldn’t surprise me if I lost it in the midst of my frenetic chicken-without-a-head behavior.

    In any case, congrats to you and Amy! That’s great! We’re thinking two might just about do it for us. But I know you’re from a big family background, so I’m guessing you guys might not stop at three?

    On Asian — I guess I have seen the light. I think I just got bored with the typical analytic stuff. Too disconnected for me, I got tired of trying to solve puzzles I didn’t much care about. But hey, you were there in the midst of learning all that stuff — I don’t have to tell you.

    Although I have great respect for Confucius, I have no shame. If Fox has stuff I can steal (er…borrow), I’ll do it!

    By the way, I don’t know if you remember Greg from UConn (he got his MA and left, he was, I think in his last year of coursework when I started, so I’m not sure if you knew him). Anyway, we just wrote “Existentialism for Dummies” (yeah, that series). It’s out in August, so keep your eye out! Pretty funny stuff. Not sure if the UConn department would put that up on their website as an “alumni achievement.” 🙂

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