Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Trying NOT to explode... laughing and horrified

I'm almost laughing at myself because I'm completely astounded at this moment.

I got an email cc'd this morning from one of our Administrative Assistants, a person responsible, effective, efficient, and wonderful. She'd noticed some weird annotations on a printout the bookstore sent her (dot matrix printout, so very difficult to read), and asked the bookstore contact person about what she had listed. Here (roughly) is what she had emailed:

English XXX - Bardiac - Canterbury Tales (Sparknotes?? hard to read this word
on the report).

So I sent an email to the contact person basically reiterating what I'd ordered for the class, and wondering if instead of "Sparknotes" it should have said, perhaps, "seminar"?

Within a very few moments, I got a note from the bookstore contact person explaining that they'd

put in some "Bookstore Recommends" texts to be available as supplements for your
And, apparently, what they recommend for my Chaucer seminar is, yes, you guessed it, the Sparknotes text for The Canterbury Tales. And the way the contact person worded his message is so innocent, in a sort of "look at this GREAT thing we did to help our students" kind of way.

I think that's why I'm laughing. He has no clue that the whole English department is going to be sending outraged emails shortly, perhaps even stomping down there for a personal visit. I imagine professors from a variety of disciplines will have similarly delighted reactions when they realize what the bookstore's done.

Bonus fun: The bookstore's apparently ordered such "supplements" for ALL of our classes, including not only the stupid notes books, but other texts as well.

Our Admin Asst didn't know what Sparknotes are, but (since she now knows) just sent out a department email so everyone knows what happened (she'd been sending them out one by one, but that would involve, apparently, one email per class).

Yes, since you're asking in your head, our NWU bookstore is now run by an outside chain. Not hard to guess, was it?

A pretty happy ending: I emailed the contact person again, and even had a colleague check to make sure my language wasn't too strong, abrupt, or whatever. I asked him to have the Sparknotes book moved away from the shelve to discourage students from buying it unnecessarily, and just got an email saying that he would take care of it, and even thanking me for my feedback, because they need to know if we don't like something that lots of other professors do.

Does anyone order Sparknotes for a Chaucer or other upper level literature class? Anyone? Bueller?

ps. In case it's not clear, perhaps I should explain why I object to our bookstore putting Sparknotes texts as "Bookstore Recommended" alongside the books I ordered on the shelves.

Chaucer, when you first encounter the language, is hard. It took me about HOURS to get through the "General Prologue" the first time, for my very first Chaucer class (five hours for 25 pages in that edition). My old Everyman paper edition of The Canterbury Tales is covered in inked notes, lots of glosses on words especially. (I made my own glossary in the front cover: the first word in it is "eke." It's VERY important to me to remember that I had to learn "eke" and had to write it down along the way. I keep that in the front of my tiny little brain when I teach Chaucer.)

There's value in working hard to read, learn, and understand a text. There's value in working hard to learn anything, pretty much.

Putting the Sparknotes text next to the Chaucer edition implies first that I've recommended it (yes, it may say "Bookstore Recommended," but many students will see only the "recommended" part), and I haven't.

The most careful and studious students are actually the most likely to trust the recommendation and spend the extra money (just under $5.00 in this case) to buy the extra texts. These students aren't rich: that $5.00 could be better spent in so many other ways. Yet the bookstore is misleading them into spending it on Sparknotes.

Sparknotes may be validly useful for some students, but in my experience, students use such "supplements" to avoid struggling with really difficult texts. They read the explanations, and then don't really work through the text.

With Middle English, especially, the language itself is incredibly wonderful; by working through it, you learn to read it (I find it takes most students 3-4 weeks to get a basic grasp), you learn to feel it in your mouth. In the process, you learn a lot about Modern English and something about medieval English culture, thought processes, and even some great stories. You also learn that you're capable of learning something if you work at it.

That very lesson is one of the most important things everyone should learn in their education.


  1. I can't decide whether that is more funny or sad. Sad, I think.

    In my opinion, if you don't read Chaucer in Middle English, you're not really reading Chaucer, you're just reading some amusing stories.

  2. Learning Middle English helped me with learning Latin. YOu'd think more German, but it really helped open my brain for Latin. I hate sparknotes, even when I was in undergraduate. I saw how the other students used the sparknotes to look so well read and so insightful and it pissed me off. How dare they trick the teachers, but then I found that the teachers knew who sparknoted and who didn't. I didn't, and I learned how to read ME so much more quickly. I also made me ME dictionary, even though my Riverside had its own glossary that included a very good dictionary, but I found that if I only put the words I didn't know, and went through the trouble of doing a spread sheet for the words and kept it up with each reading, well it helped me learn. It's nice the bookstore worked so quickly removing the cheaters-guide to-trying-to-look- intelligent-but-only looking-like-an-ass-book.

  3. Oh, dear. I really wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of most of the phone calls that book store will be getting from professors during the next few days.

    It's just *bizarre* that they honestly think profs recommend SparkNotes! In my experience, any college instructor who's bothered to mention those sorts of study aids has done so to tell students (a) not to use them, (b) that they're often inaccurate and unhelpful, and/or (c) that profs know what's in the relevant versions of SparkNotes and will therefore be able to spot people who are reading them in lieu of the assigned texts.

  4. Wow, your bookstore may be more clueless than mine. Mine regularly under-orders texts and then tells me, "Students don't always buy the books." Um. Not in ENGLISH LITERATURE. Sheesh.

    I dislike Cliff and Sparknotes, etc., mainly because they're so ridiculously simplistic and often very out of date in their critical assumptions. I don't even like students to read them in *conjunction* with the actual text -- they encourage people to think there's a single "key" to a text.

    Btw, I find giving comprehension quizzes on Middle English helps prevent students from relying on notes or translations.