What Do We Do About SparkNotes?

Fall 2020

By Alex Barron

SparkNotes and similar resources are undeniably convenient. Should teachers continue their crusade against online summaries? Or accept that they’re here to stay?
 
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A few months ago, I gave a routine reading quiz to my ninth graders, which yielded some suspicious results. My antennae perked up when five of the students in my class of 15 used the word “bigheaded” to describe Curley, the antagonist in Of Mice and Men. It was an unusual word for anyone to use, much less a 14-year-old, and it’s certainly not an adjective favored by Steinbeck. So, it seemed likely that my students had picked it up from somewhere else—like an online summary. I pulled up the Of Mice and Men page on the website Shmoop, one of the most popular sites that specialize in these summaries. Sure enough, here was the first sentence of Curley’s Character Analysis page: "Curley is the son of the ranch boss, so he’s got a big head—which doesn’t quite match up with his body."1 Some of my more literal-minded students, it seemed, had taken this to mean that Curley literally had an oversized cranium—as though being a sadistic, abusive bully weren’t enough.

My kids had been using online summaries all right—and on the first book of the year, a 110-page novella with an engaging storyline and, save for a sprinkling of Depression-era slang, an eminently accessible vocabulary. They weren’t turning to the summaries because they had tried and failed with the original text; they were going there immediately, without having even cracked the book. It was depressing. And worst of all, I really wasn’t sure how to make them stop.

The research suggests that the use of online summaries is widespread and has been for quite some time—and not just in ninth grade classrooms but in high levels of academia. A 2013 survey in the Harvard Crimson found that 42% of that year’s incoming freshmen admitted to cheating in some capacity.2 It’s impossible to tell how many of those used SparkNotes and the like as their weapon of choice. Has the use of such sites reached epidemic proportions?

Of course calling it an epidemic implies that these websites are universally regarded as something to avoid. Many students don’t think so, and some are outspoken in support of their choice to use them. “SparkNotes and its kin came in handy for two reasons,” says Allie Long, reflecting in an article in Medium on her experience as a college English major. “I needed to do well in school, and I wanted to seem well-read.”3 In a 2012 article from Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, unapologetically entitled “Walking the Line: Why Would I Read the Book When I Have Sparknotes?” Nick Cafferky lays out his pragmatic rationale: “Not only does just about everyone seem to have some degree of ADHD (with computers and smart phones shortening our attention span to the second), but our entire society is based on streamlining everything. Time is money,” he argues. “People aren’t becoming illiterate—they just want to use their time more efficiently.”4

My kneejerk reaction to this line of thinking is utter disgust. It’s a philosophy based on the cynical idea that the pursuit of reading isn’t worth one’s time if it doesn’t yield concrete, quantifiable results like money—or grades (which promise to someday convert to money). It’s true that, as most English majors will tell you, reading a great novel won’t do much for your bank account. What it might do is make you a more empathetic person or give you a new perspective on the human condition. Plus, it’s fulfilling. Or maybe it’s just fun.

Still, even while I detest the “time is money” approach to literature, I will concede that online summary sites are not entirely without merit, as long as they aren’t used as a substitute for the text. For those seeking a refresher on what they’ve read, they can indeed be a time-saver. And, although we English teachers often like to complain that they oversimplify great works of literature, the truth is that many of the synopses are pretty comprehensive. Most of the writing on SparkNotes and CliffsNotes is rather bland and dispassionate, but it’s certainly adequate, and it covers a wide range of subjects. (Incidentally, SparkNotes’ presence on social media is another story. I’ve encouraged students to follow its Twitter account, which tweets amusing memes about classic works of literature. Truly, they’re speaking my students’ language.) I confess I’ve been downright impressed by some of the material I’ve read on Shmoop. It can be witty and insightful—and why shouldn’t it be? Its writers, after all, aren’t some dopes who wandered in off the street. They’re academics themselves—from the “crème de la crème PhD and Master's Programs,” according to the site.5 Renowned poet and author Adrienne Raphel outed herself—in The Paris Review, no less—as a writer for SparkNotes.6

Still, no teachers want their students to become over-reliant on these sites, and plenty have attempted to ban them entirely—an exercise in futility. So we’re left to try to thread the needle between outlawing these sites, which works about as well as Prohibition, and embracing them, which seems like selling out.

Since I started teaching high school English 15 years ago, I’ve gone back and forth on what I present as my Official Classroom Policy on SparkNotes et al., but I’ve concluded that it’s fruitless to pretend these sites don’t exist. My own shameful truth is that I’ve used these sources on occasion, both in my role as a student and a teacher. As a master’s student, I read plenty of difficult texts—Paradise Lost, Vanity Fair, Prometheus Unbound—and online summaries helped me reinforce the material and keep track of characters and plot. As a teacher, although I try my best to keep up with the readings I assign, I’ve found that a quick glance at these summaries before class can help jog my memory. So strong is the stigma attached to using online summaries that I have until now never admitted my secret to classmates or colleagues, much less to students, even though I doubt I’m the only teacher who does it. Of course, my guilt over having read online notes for Paradise Lost is tempered somewhat by the fact that I have also read the actual text of Paradise Lost—three times, in fact (twice as an undergrad and once in grad school). To me, the difference between reading SparkNotes and Shmoop as a supplement and reading them as a replacement is everything. Still, I’ve always felt a little hypocritical about unequivocally denouncing them to my students.

I wish I didn’t feel as ambivalent as I do. Ninth graders don’t always do well with ambivalence; in my experience, hard yeses and noes are much more effective. Whether or not I agree with it in my heart, “Thou Shalt Never Use SparkNotes” is direct, unambiguous, and easily digested by the 14-year-old mind. What I’d really like to tell my students is something longer and more nuanced, with a lot more qualifiers:
If you have closely read the assigned text, and you’ve made an effort to process what you’ve read to the best of your ability, then—and only then—may you, on occasion, read the SparkNotes summaries. But if you choose to do so, you need to do it discreetly, and never in school, and obviously, you should never steal phrases and sentences from these sources for your own work. Certain works like Of Mice and Men, which are short and easily digestible, should never require the use of SparkNotes or any comparable sites. Using these sites for Shakespeare is marginally more understandable and will be condoned if not actively encouraged.
This is a mouthful. And I worry that my message is too subtle, too mealy-mouthed, and too easily misinterpreted by my students as outright approval.

Recently, I’ve tried another tack: I’ve stressed the illegality of these sites (at least in reference to school rules) rather than their supposed immorality. The use of online summaries is, after all, a violation of our school’s honor code. And though, truth be told, offenders are punished only slightly more often than jaywalkers, I can at least recite this rule to my classes with a straight face.

The problem with the rule, as both my students and I know full well, is that it’s virtually impossible to enforce. It will generally stop all but the most careless students from reading the forbidden material right under my nose, but if they want to access it at home, or even on their phones immediately before class, there isn’t much I can do about it. In this way, my policy toward online summaries is not unlike Major League Baseball’s attitude toward the use of pine tar, as I understand it. Officially, you can’t use it. But if you are going to use it—and let’s face it, you probably are—you should at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Otherwise, I’m going to have to call you on it, and that will be embarrassing for us both.

Whether or not the use of online summaries constitutes cheating, or causes English teachers and other readers to judge those who use them, these sites don’t seem to be losing any traction with students. And as tempting as it is to dismiss those who use them, I know it’s not the most productive response. The best way for teachers to deal with problems that aren’t going anywhere is to change their pedagogy, which is exactly what many of my colleagues have been trying to do.

Theresa MacPhail, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, argues convincingly that instructors may be better off assigning less reading, rather than vast amounts of pages that their students are unlikely to read:
I know the purists are going to disagree with any notion that we might adapt our syllabi to better fit Generation Z, but opposition to changing the way we assign material strikes me as less and less realistic as we tromp further into the digital age.7
My friend and former colleague Evva Starr, whom I taught with at a large suburban public school in Maryland, agrees with this principle. “SparkNotes is the reality, so I don’t waste time hating them,” she says. Instead, she has adopted practices that circumvent online summaries. “[Last semester] we decided to swim with the current and did Their Eyes Were Watching God almost entirely in class using an audiobook,” she tells me, “It was great—every kid ‘read’ every word.”

Online summaries will only get a student so far. On a pop quiz that asks questions about plot, SparkNotes readers will probably do as well or better than the ones who read the test, but they may have a harder time with assignments that call for more creativity or reflection. Reader-response journals, Socratic discussions, and creative projects tend to reward students who have a more nuanced understanding of the text, which can only come from having actually read the text itself.

It also helps to veer away from the canon, when possible. Entries for classic books, even very recent ones, can almost always be found somewhere on the internet. I would never propose that a teacher stop teaching something they enjoy, say Beloved or The Merchant of Venice, simply because one can easily find an entry for it on SparkNotes. On the other hand, I taught a Modern Short Story class this past year and drew great pleasure from assigning contemporary writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Saunders, and Karen Russell, for whom online summaries are scarce or nonexistent. I love their work anyway, but I enjoyed teaching it even more, knowing that all of my students had read the text itself, instead of a summary.

At the core of our anguish about the proliferation of SparkNotes and co. is a fear that it will undoubtedly lead to the death of books. But for all of their supposed inconvenient, old-fashioned qualities, books have proven surprisingly resilient so far. English teachers have done their best to ensure the survival of the book through the advent of the internet, video games, and television and through the hand-wringing that has accompanied each new development. And some have already found creative ways to work around this latest development.

I’m not ready to call myself a SparkNotes fan just yet. And I will continue to combat the “time is money” approach to reading in any way I can. But I can at least begin to imagine a world in which once-forbidden online summaries can actually enrich the reading experience, instead of threatening to replace it.

Notes

1 Shmoop, “Curley in Of Mice and Men”; online at https://www.shmoop.com/of-mice-and-men/curley.html.
2 Madeline R. Conway and Cordelia F. Mendez, “Freshman Survey Part III: Classes, Clubs, and Concussions,” The Harvard Crimson, September 5, 2013; online at https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/9/5/freshman-survey-academics-extracurriculars/.
3 Allie Long, “The Sparknotes Problem Isn’t About Laziness. It’s About Boredom,” Medium, September 9, 2017; online at https://medium.com/@allielong/students-dont-use-sparknotes-because-they-re-lazy-d73206fd45dd.
4 Nick Cafferky, “Walking the Line: Why Would I Read the Book When I Have Sparknotes?” Collegiate Times, October 17, 2012; online at www.collegiatetimes.com/lifestyle/walking-the-line-why-would-i-read-the-book-when/article_9082da4a-2b09-5385-a452-f11e6cd84df3.html.
5 Shmoop Editorial Team, “Who Writes for Shmoop?” November 11, 2008.
6 Adrienne Raphel, “My Harper Lee SparkNotes,” The Paris Review Blog, February 22, 2016; online at https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/02/22/my-harper-lee-sparknotes/.
7 Theresa MacPhail, “Are You Assigning Too Much Reading? Or Just Too Much Boring Reading?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 27, 2019; online at https://www.chronicle.com/article/are-you-assigning-too-much-reading-or-just-too-much-boring-reading/.
Alex Barron

Alex Barron (aleobarron@gmail.com) teaches English in an independent school in Maryland.