Notes For Twits?

Cliffs Notes, originally uploaded by Purple_man.

I stumbled into a local Barnes & Noble yesterday and happened to enjoy watching a small group of high school students studying together. One student had a laptop and was tapping away and the others were reading. It was at that point I realized these students were reading those insipid CliffsNotes. You know the ones: Those skinny little yellow pamphlets designed to help English students better understand literature. For those of you who just landed on the planet, a well-intentioned guy named Cliff Hilegass started the company in his basement with a few Shakespeare titles; the company (no longer owned by Hilgrass) now offers notes on hundreds of titles. Detractors of the guides claim they allow students to bypass reading the assigned literature. The company, of course, claims to promote the reading of the original work, and views its material as a supplement, not as a substitute to the assigned reading.

I can only tell you what I saw: Several high school students sitting in the café sipping expensive coffee drinks not reading the primary text. They did not even actually appear to have the original text with them, and in between reading the CliffsNotes, they alternately texted friends, took phone calls, listened to music on their iPod Touches, and chatted it up with other friends who entered the café area.

Here’s my feeling on this topic. Ick. While these were high school students, I have no doubt that this is a similar process with regard to the way my college students approach reading and, later, writing. These days I feel a little hesitant about praising the work of students whose work I think is interesting or fresh, as I worry I may be positively reinforcing the habit of some students of picking up critical information from an outside source – a practice commonly called plagiarism.

I know that there are a million other sources available to students today besides CliffsNotes. Hell, they can purchase entire papers right off the Internet. Last year, a student actually listed a posting on Craigslist requesting someone to write his final English paper because he just didn’t have the energy to do it. He was willing to pay $150. I believe someone from the Monroe Community College English Department responded to the post and nailed the lazy, little twit. But I do wonder what has happened to personal pride and the hard work ethic. I wonder how many parents actually sit down to discuss cheating with their children. Do students understand that taking someone else’s ideas and presenting them as their own (without giving citation) is actually unethical? Do their parents?

For me, the person who uses CliffsNotes is a type of person who is afraid to think critically. Reading literature gives students practice in making their own connections, drawing their own conclusions, which can be supported by the facts with which they have been presented. I want my students to practice critical thinking so that they recognize that their voices and opinions are vital, and have power, not only inside the classroom but outside the classroom as well. The fact that students would trust a person that they do not even know just because he/she has a few extra letters after his/her name (PhD, M.S., D.D.S., M.D., J.D., etc..) represents another problem we have today; namely, people are too willing to take it from “the experts” before considering things thoroughly themselves. Students who use “Notes” of any form are not only cheating themselves, but they are cheating the world of their ideas. The best students are ones who are willing to take risks, engage in a dialogue about the literature: They are the ones who will be prepared to deal critically and creatively with opposing views, and recognize they need not feel threatened by ideas or beliefs which are different from their own.

I know great students exist. It just seems so dang easy to cut corners these days, like we have made it too easy for students to not do all that hard work that must occur inside their brains long before the pen ever hits the paper, or fingertips ever touch the keypad.

What do you say to your children to encourage them to think independently and express their own ideas, especially if they are struggling with the material?

5 responses to “Notes For Twits?

  1. blake schifferstein

    O.K–you are really not going to like this.

    I totally agree with cliffnotes, internet papers and the hiring of people to write them in college.
    Do not get me wrong-I love to read-ALL OF THE TIME-but, have no delusions-I despise writing papers on what I just read. My entire college career was spent finding the easiest and quickest solution to complete my task and receive an “A”.

    “Students who use “Notes” of any form are not only cheating themselves, but they are cheating the world of their ideas.”.
    What if my idea’s are to go to a bar and discuss what I learned with the people around me over a glass of wine and a cig?
    Why should I miss that social experience because my face was stuck in some computer all night “writing” about what rattles around in my brain?

    Like you said, “The best students are ones who are willing to take risks, engage in a dialogue about the literature: They are the ones who will be prepared to deal critically and creatively with opposing views, and recognize they need not feel threatened by ideas or beliefs which are different from their own.” I totally agree!! Those ARE the best students. They ENJOY education and see it as an outlet to respond to the days teachings. They do not see it as a Homework Assignment. I ALWAYS had people in my class write my papers. I would read them over and change what I thought was “not my style” and hand them back over. A lot of people, I’m sure, would call me a cheater…I called it having a publisher.

    The issue is not the “notes” or “cheating” or even “trusting someone else’s work” , the issue is the teachers (some).
    If you can get away with turning in half-ass work then why shouldn’t the student deliver exactly what the teacher is requesting. Sometimes, learning how to be social and dealing with issues outside of the classroom will help you more in life than Business Calculus and a thesis of Gothic Architecture. If cliffnotes can get you that passing grade then by all means-use them.
    Please note that this will not work for ALL teacher’s-It is the students job to learn who their teacher is and how much they can get away with-this skill is only achieved by spending many nights and days outside the classroom watching behaviors of all people.
    Intelligent students are not always “book” smart, but “people” smart.

    I guess my point, simply, is that college is about time management. How to juggle a full load and enjoy life a little. The most important things I learned while in school (which I still apply everyday) is how to read a superior and know exactly what to give him/her in order to get that “A”.
    I prefer my time spent reading the cliffnotes and passing mundane workloads to others, so that I can have dinner with that superior and discuss ideas in person over wine and a cig.🙂

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  2. I also cant stand the fact they they were working in B & N and didnt even buy the book. They used it and put it back on the shelf. The cost of their friggin coffee was probably close to the same as the book. The same aggrevation applies for all the other cheap a-holes that sit for hours on end in a chair reading a book. It’s NOT a library, it’s a STORE!!!

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  3. Now, Feddy, to be fair, I don’t know that the students didn’t purchase the CliffsNotes. They very well might have. It seemed like a very well organized operation: One person in charge of the CliffsNotes, one in charge of tapping on the computer, and the third was in charge of texting and phonecalls.

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  4. Joanne Fisher

    I love your posting. So true. My husband knew someone who joined a book club–as an adult–and used cliff notes. Why? Such a weird idea. As a parent, I do think you have a responsibility to instill a love of reading in your kids. I never forced my kids to read before they were ready but I always read to them, and still do, even though they read a lot on their own.

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  5. Renee, I certainly agree with all your comments about critical thinking and creative intrepretation. I think the process needs to start well before these children got to high school. I’m parenting elementary school children and my sense is the limited, prescribed curriculuum of public school takes critical thinking out of the equation a bit. Even in elementary school, the goal seems to get the right answer not necessarily to think of all the possible options. I can see how cliffsnotes would fit right in for students that have been learning to standardized tests from their early years. I don’t like it at all and hope change can come eventually.

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