SparkNotes Come to the iPod: Chronicle of HE Points to the Darkside
Brock Read, writing in "After Songs and Videos, Crib Notes Become the Latest Offering for iPods," Chronicle of Higher Education.
It's not the technology that makes SparkNotes a cheatsheet. It's the kind of reading and thinking students are asked to do around chronically assigned texts (the kind of texts that SparkNotes bothers to create study guides for). The technology changes merely how students access the notes, but not the pedagogical place those notes should fill.
One of the first things I learned about teaching literature as a TA in Boston College's English MA program, was how to look to see what was in the Cliff Notes for a book or poem I wanted to assign and then to think of questions, approaches, and ways of reading that the Cliff Notes didn't cover. This was, ahem, in 1987. In 1977, ten years earlier, when I was in high school, our teachers there let us know that while there were Cliff Notes for say, Catcher in the Rye (a wretched book in my view), they'd be asking us to consider questions for which the Cliff Notes would not provide a ready answer. And they did ask those kinds of non-Cliff Notable questions.
In high school, I read Catcher in the
So by the time I'd trudged to the last page, the book was gone. I didn't care about it. But I had to know some basic things. Thus the Cliff Notes. They helped remind me of what I'd read; provided some insights into what my own eyes glazed by; gave me a few talking points for class discussion.
Between the reluctant read, the Cliff Note dip, and the class discussion (which was prelude to the essay exam questions our instructor had in mind, and which weren't in the Cliff Notes), I managed to do ok.
The notes were useful. They were legitimate aids. They helped me to read the book well enough to discuss in spoken and written words in terms that went beyond the Cliff Notes. They were a bridge I needed.
Now, had the instructor stuck to the limited analytic line of inquiry Cliff Notes provided then, would that have been cheating on my part for having read them? I don't think so. And what if I read the Cliff Notes instead of the book -- a Reader's Digest version of things -- and was able to write and discuss the work in my own words after that? Would that have been cheating? I don't think so. It would have been shirking the assignment, but still getting enough of an understanding of the book and learning it well enough to answer the questions posed about it.
In school, if you present a measure meant that asks little, that doesn't depend upon the students needing to read the thing assigned in order to pass, then why assign the thing? Or put another way, if your measure of student reading is thin enough that SparkNotes summaries and conventional analysis will suffice, and then isn't the approach reducing the book to trivia anyway?
Why not choose books and poems you really want to get into deeply; books that may be challenging and that students may not like. Encourage them to use SparkNotes or Cliff Notes to help them through it --saving you time to lecture and/or discuss other things about the work. How much time do teachers spend covering ground that is SparkNotes anyway? Let those notes do their thing, and do something more and better and richer.
Ask questions where having the notes doesn't matter so much. Where having them is like an open book test, which test only works pedagogically if you don't ask questions that can be answered simply by looking something up.