Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cooter, Duck and the Anti-Christ

I remember these two guys who sat in the back of my school bus. They were known as Cooter and Duck.

Cooter looked exactly the way northerners picture backwoods southerners: buzzed hair, small head on stooped shoulders, beady eyes, high cheekbones, buck teeth, no chin (and I mean no offense to anyone who looks exactly like that). Duck, on the other hand, tried to mimic the James Dean teen-rebel look, but carried things way too far: His well-oiled hair, for example, teetered absurdly and precariously high on his head, so if he laughed, coughed or sneezed, it all came cascading down over his face, at which point he would shove it back up, all the while glaring at us as if to say, "Don't think this is funny. Think this is cool. Or I will beat you up."

Cooter chattered and cackled nonstop like a zany jackal or hyena sidekick in a Disney film, while Duck said maybe 12 words the whole time I knew him. Having failed a grade here and there, they were a little older than the rest of us. Occasionally, they'd giggle over some raunchy reading material they'd found somewhere.

So we're on our way to school one morning shortly after Duck and Cooter's 11th-grade teacher had assigned Moby Dick. Just after he gets on the bus, Cooter gives Duck a little "looka-here" nudge in the ribs and pulls out of his zip-up notebook a yellow book with diagonal black stripes across the front.

What the rest of us assumed was just more titillating reading to fan the flames of male teenage lust was actually titled "Melville's Moby Dick," followed on the bottom of the cover with the words "Cliffs Notes."

This, then, was my introduction to study guides or cheat sheets or whatever generic title they go by. It was an object of shame shared by a couple of barely literate goobers in the back of a bus who possessed it because they were unable to do what was required of them. And, for the balance of my education, right up through grad school, no one I knew wanted to be seen in public with one of those things and they'd certainly never carry one into a classroom.

I later learned that there was a rather lofty-sounding "Note to the Reader" on the inside of the front cover, warning young scholars that these notes only supplement the work of literature and are not meant to be a substitute for the text itself. But I don't think Cooter and Duck read that disclaimer.

Well, the years have gone by, and Cliff Notes seem to have gone the way of hula hoops, AM radio and rotary-dial phones. They have been replaced by the snazzier colored SparkNotes (sky blue! firetruck red! sunlight yellow!), available at book stores or for more clandestine online reading. There are many other online options, including Pink Monkey, Jiffy Notes, Shmoop (seriously) and one with the blatantly honest moniker of GradeSaver.

My students over the years have heard me somewhat playfully refer to these shortcuts as the Anti-Christ, and, in an effort to help new teachers articulate an argument against them, I will explain -- in a matter of days or even hours -- what I mean by this. But first I'd like to acknowledge that some students, but very few, really do use these abominations to solve a text's knotty problems, to fill out characters' family trees or to get some idea of the value of a quid or the length of a league.

I'd also like to allow for the possibility that the nice people who publish these things really are interested in furthering the literary education of our nation's youth, helping them to live the examined life and to apply classical wisdom to modern-day issues. I do not claim that they're trying to take advantage of young people's fragmented lifestyle, short attention span, laziness, illiteracy and pressure to get high grades to make a truckload of money.

Anyway, here's why I call "study guides" the Anti-Christ . . .

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