Thursday, October 27, 2005

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. 10-17-05, observes, "That [SparkNotes text and audio] could be bad news for professors, who may worry that such small devices could easily become digital cheat sheets in the hands of unscrupulous students."

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 Rye. I hated reading it. I found Holden to be a whiny, simpering dolt for whom I had no sympathy. I kept hoping to turn the page and read, "Suddenly, Holden Caufield was run over by a bus. The End." But because I didn't like the book, and would have discontinued reading it were it not being forced by school assignment, I could barely bring myself to engage it much beyond getting through it, word by word, page by page, like sitting full of fidgits through a long-winded speech by a monotone speaker because you can't leave the room.

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.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Frankenstrunk is Shrunken Strunk

, Jan Freeman's The Word column, "Frankenstrunk," looks at the latest, cartoon enhanced edition of Will Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style and asks, why, why is this book still revised and republished.

Of course, the answer is, as Freeman says, because even though the book itself is now irretrievably --to use a White term -- bewhiskered, it's also beloved:
So rather than join the reality-based usage community, White stuck with Strunkian dogmatism. Hence a book that tells us, in 2005, that off-putting and ongoing are illegitimate; that hopefully is beyond the pale; and that six people is a solecism because there's no such thing as one people.

Why does this sort of thing send reviewers into raptures? Maybe they remember, from their college days, a reassuringly slim volume that pretended it could solve their writing problems. The ''Strunkian attitude toward right-and-wrong," in White's eccentrically hyphenated phrase, may still stir in readers the eternal hope that someone, somewhere, knows what he's doing.
The promise of certitude in Strunk's clipped delivery and the prose confidence of White's elegiac opening and closing (which, by the way, bespeak more fondness for his professor than they exhibit fidelity to his rules) comfort writers. You read the volume and can't help but think, White learned from Strunk, and if I can follow this advice, then I'll write like White.

No writer believes that as they think it, but they believe in the hope of it. The hope sustains them. So the book is less a guide and more a talisman of sorts, something to have on the shelf, something to touch and open for good-writer karma and energy. But good writers remember that White wasn't slave to Strunk, and that language lives, and that Strunk's "Elements" were Strunk's preferences. They're quirky and fairly arbitrary and curious. But not hard and fast universal rules.

Writing works best when the writer understands which words to use when. White understood this and so frequently broke from Strunk's dogmas because his prose and the needs of his pieces demanded as much.

And I keep my copy of the 1959 edition of Elements of Style handy. I hardly ever open it, maybe every few years just to read White's essay on style or to read the kind note inside from the friend who gave me the edition. I have a Strunk and White. I like having it. And it's clarity has helped me. Not because I necessarily followed the advice or even agree with it now, but because at a more formative time in my writing life, it gave me a simple place to depart from. It made me feel like a writer to have it. When I first read White's advice (far more than Strunk's), it cheered me to have a writer I love talk to me about writing. I keep the book for that feeling more than any other.

I've thus had no desire in reading the Angell revision from 1999, and certainly have no desire now to get the new illustrated version. I've skimmed the Angell, and the book seems less. What makes the '59 edition work is that it's the thing itself and of its time and place. It's closer in time to Strunk, and it's the personality of Strunk --more than his advice-- that is interesting now. These newer versions each seem more disparate and desperate as they stretch to stay relevant yet faithful.

As for Freeman, this urge to revise doesn't make sense to me, but given the continued praise of the book from readers who are new to it, the cult of Strunk and White lives and makes publishing sense. The beauty of Strunk's quirks and preferences are that they were born of man and a time and a place. It's the historicity of the original that makes it increasingly valuable and that makes the revisions increasingly useless.

I'm sure somewhere out there, among the roughly 4,200 two and four year colleges and universities where tens of thousands of writing instructors are toiling to help novice writers become more competent and confident in the ludicrously brief span of a semester, a new Strunk awaits. Some writing instructor some where likely has a short guide to his or her preferences for writing, and those preferences are tied to today's age, conventions, and writing technologies in ways that Strunk's could not be (and cannot adequately be made to be).

So I'm with Freeman. No more revisions, please. They diminish the original. If new a Strunk and White is needed, let it come from a writing teacher who is teaching today. Let it be new. Let it be original. Let it fit our time.