This article is an editorial.
By: Trey Wagner
We all know that feeling: you come in to your first period English class at 7:45, and you remember the reading quiz you have in fifteen minutes on the chapter you forgot to read. So, like a typical student, you open your computer and find a summary of the reading on SparkNotes, CliffNotes, or Shmoop. These “online study guides,” while popular with a lot of the Gilman student body, are viewed by some English teachers as more of a burden than a benefit. Mr. Dan Christian, a veteran of Gilman’s English department, explained that, “Reading CliffNotes is like going to Busch Gardens and thinking you’ve been to Europe. It’s not the real thing.”
Although he acknowledges the “minimal positive use” these websites can have, Mr. Christian knows that students are using them “out of desperation.” SparkNotes, one of the more popular online study guides among the Gilman student body, offers plot summaries, character lists, and theme analyses for millions of books. So naturally, these resources are used as last minute efforts to learn basic information about novels in short periods of time. But Mr. Christian senses that these websites are not really helping students to gain a holistic understanding of the novels that they are reading: “I don’t think they’re particularly good, except for plot information. Also, in terms of criticism, there is much better criticism in the world… I would rather they be confused about the real thing than think they have a false positive experience of thinking they know the real thing.”
From a student’s perspective, these online resources benefit the user based on how he chooses to use it. Braxton Antill (‘17) acknowledged both the pros and cons associated with using an online study guide: “I think that there definitely are students who get lazy and don’t read the book and turn to SparkNotes to get a summary of the chapter. But I also know from personal experience that students use SparkNotes after they read the novel to get good details from the book and other background information that you might not have picked up.” Some teachers, like Mr. Patrick Hastings, Chair of the English Department, believe that these websites can be beneficial when used with the right intentions, not as a final effort to perform well on a reading quiz or test. Although he doesn’t encourage his students to use SparkNotes in general, Mr. Hastings believes that, “those sorts of resources can be really helpful, either as a pre-read or an after-read guide to either give you a sense of where you are going and what’s going to happen, so when you read the text you spend less time being confused, or afterwards to clear up any confusion you might have had while reading.”
Although substituting a twenty page reading assignment for a twenty line summary may seem like an obvious choice, it cannot provide us with the details and in depth information found in one chapter of a book. So the next time you contemplate using SparkNotes rather than doing the actual reading, remember the words of renowned literary critic and theorist, Northrop Frye, “The most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented is the book.”