Summaries stunt students' studies

Dec. 31, 1969, 7 p.m. | By Gabriel Morden-Snipper | 51 years ago

Cliffs Notes and SparkNotes provide the shortcuts to literature for students in a hurry

We said, ‘we're gonna make books about books for people who like reading, and to help people enjoy reading.' And that's exactly what we've done," said Justin Kestler, editorial director of SparkNotes, in an Aug 1 interview for NPR's Talk of the Nation.

But according to an informal Silver Chips poll of 100 students on Sept 19, of the 58 percent of Blazers who use SparkNotes, 86 percent have substituted reading SparkNotes for reading the actual text, a dynamic largely encouraged by SparkNotes' convenience.

Junior Kai Rikhye, who calls use of SparkNotes "widespread," sings their praises. Rikhye says that the different perspectives that SparkNotes provide can help students gain a better understanding of the work. "Sometimes SparkNotes emphasizes things that you might not have picked up on. It helps you get a complete understanding."

English teachers, however, are quick to point out the flaws of such guides, which have earned the nickname "cheat sheets." English department head Vickie Adamson, who says she used Cliffs Notes in college to review concepts about books that she read, decries the content of the aids. She says the notes present a "formulaic, sterile interpretation of the text," that "doesn't promote critical thinking." She also cites instances in which the notes were factually inaccurate, such as the description of a character in The Invisible Man Cliffs Notes.

"I wish they'd disappear from the face of the Earth," says English teacher Silvia Trumbower. Her policy when she finds a student carrying the aids: "I take them and I don't return them," she says.

What further distinguishes SparkNotes from the printed notes that spawned them is their ease, says junior Matt Sheldon. "SparkNotes are more accessible than Cliffs Notes. Everybody can use them, and plus they're free," says Sheldon. "If you want to get Cliffs Notes you have to go to the library or the store. That takes time and money."

Eighty-six percent of Blazers said that students would not make the effort to get additional resources if SparkNotes were not available online.

But with increased availability, comes increased responsibility, says Adamson, who says that the issue is ethically delicate and that teachers have to create an atmosphere of honesty. "Any time a student consults an additional resource, that's good. The problem comes with excess," she says. "We have to create a responsible student population that understands the consequences of taking shortcuts."

Blazers take a divided view on the moral considerations of using SparkNotes. The poll shows that 56 percent of Blazers view SparkNotes as academically dishonest, results that reflect a wide range of opinions about how best to use SparkNotes.
Senior Roshan Randeniya says he uses SparkNotes as a refresher in conjunction with his reading. He lambasts students who forgo reading the text. "It's not right. It's not honest," he says. "It's good for reference, but people abuse it."

Rikhye, who says that he browses the SparkNotes for "pretty much every book," takes a more open viewpoint. He says that the content of the book is clear with notes alone. "You're reading the book to get something out of it. How you do that doesn't make a difference," he says.

The makers of the notes are aware of the moral dilemma their products pose, and they warn against replacing a book with summaries. Every Cliffs Notes has a message to the reader stressing that a student who only reads book notes "is denying himself the very education that he is presumably giving his most vital years to achieve."

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