Sparknotes misguides students, ignites debate

Meredith McMahon
January 27, 2010
Filed under Features

SparkNotes: a brilliant invention saving time and trouble or a slippery slope to bad grades and essentially, missing out on the actual reading of the literature we are supposed to read in English class?
SparkNotes is a website that is similar to “Cliffnotes” in that it gives a synopsis of more popular books used in English classes and even sometimes has different sections , such as “No Fear Shakespeare.” The idea of SparkNotes being an online version of literary study guides was born in 1999 by founders Chris and his Harvard College roommate Eli due to the large number of college and high school students on their original website, The Spark, founded in 1998.

Sonja Petermann

Sonja Petermann

Freshman Deb Steinberg thinks that SparkNotes is a dangerous, yet sometimes helpful tool.
“I disagree with teachers when they say SparkNotes is bad,” Steinberg said. “It is a great tool but it can be used badly, however it’s still useful. Any good thing can be used in a bad way.”
Despite Steinberg’s disagreement with teacher’s disapproval of SparkNotes, often teachers are do not fully classify this site as being outright bad.
“I am not against the use of summaries to help a person recall what he or she has read,” English teacher John Ryan said. “I am against them as a substitute for reading.”
The basic reason why SparkNotes has so many teachers’ general disapproval is because of its factual structure.
“SparkNotes’ design implies that the only reason a person reads is for “just the facts”: who the characters are, what they do, what happens to them,” Ryan said. “This basic information might help a student beat a “Did-you-read-it” quiz, but it does not begin to broach other issues of reading: predicting, interacting, interpreting, relating, discovering a sub-text, to say nothing of appreciating style, historical context, moral (or immoral) behavior, and other higher-order concerns.”
Students such as senior Andrea Goldstein, an AP Literature student, agree that reading the book is much more fulfilling.
“I don’t think that using Sparknotes is cheating, but I do believe that reading books is much more fulfilling than reading a summary of them on SparkNotes,” Goldstein said.
The lack of the deeper issues of reading makes those who use SparkNotes instead of actually reading the material have a much lower understanding of the material, which not only becomes apparent on tests but also apparent to their understanding of how to read English literature.
“I think part of the problem with the SparkNotes issue is that in almost every other discipline, reading is a means of gathering information or instruction in the service of some other task (directions for a word problem in math; an explanation of mitosis in a biology textbook),” Ryan said. “This fact may condition students to view reading as having just a single purpose—at least academic reading, that is.”
Although SparkNotes does dive into the zone of analyzing sometimes, this analyzing proves to be misguiding.
“I mistrust their analyses,” Ryan said. “They are either shallow or obvious—or worse, inaccurate. Who writes them? Are they trained in the way teachers at CHS are, most of whom have Masters Degrees?”
Steinberg thought it was a question of availability.
“I use it [SparkNotes] to clarify my questions about the text I have to read,” Steinberg said. “If teachers won’t always be there to answer my questions, SparkNotes helps to further my learning.”
Goldstein thinks that older students rely more on SparkNotes.
“I think older students do rely on it more, especially seniors,” Goldstein said. “This is the time of year when everyone starts to feel the effects of senioritis, so I guess instead of taking the time to read the books some are assigned, they refer to SparkNotes.”
Overall, Ryan believes SparkNotes has its limitations as to how closely they relate to the book.
“In English, students may read for information or instruction, but they also must become accustomed to reading books as sources of value in their own right,” Ryan said. “This is difficult to accept, much less master, when we live in age of immediate utility.”

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