OK, so what about Cliff's notes?

Inspired bythis thread about calculators in the classroom.

I remember in my comp & lit classes in high school seeing those annoying yellow-and-black booklets all over the place. I personally never used them. I regarded them as a form of cheating, the literary equivalent of using a calculator for a basic math class instead of working out the equations with a pen and paper.

I almost always got A’s on my composition (occasionally a B when I was being lazy, once a D when I strayed from the orthodox view of What The Story Was About).

As I would wander through the Purgatory that was high school, in the lunchroom, in the library, yes, even in the classroom, I would see students reading the Cliff’s notes. I very seldom saw anyone reading the actual assigned book, just the Cliff’s notes. Yet these kids would generally get the same A or B as I did. I’m not going to deny the possibility that they were reading the actual text of the books at home, but I have my doubts. The required formats for the comps were basic enough that a person could have probably gotten by, and even gotten good grades by reading the Cliff’s notes and letting the actual book gather dust.

Now, maybe “cheating” is too strong a word- using the little black-and-yellow books probably wasn’t any more cheating than using a calculator in a math class where it was permitted. But I must say that I felt a little ripped off. I felt that I had earned my grades through honest hard work, reading the books and putting alot of thought into what the meaning/message was while I was preparing my notes for my composition, while my classmates got the same grades by taking the easy way out and using artificial aids. Basically, they weren’t working as hard, but they were getting the same payoff, academically.

So, what think ye of Cliff’s notes? Are they simply a useful study aid, or are they a crutch for students who are too lazy to read the books or too cerebrally deficient to be able to draw meaning from the text without consulting the oracle?

I only used notes like that for character names and such. I have a hard time with names and plot points.

I used Spark notes, though, and never in class.

A crutch. And not a good one.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind so much if they were pure plot summary with maybe some historical background and a few open-ended study questions – I can see how that sort of study aid might be useful for a student struggling with Shakespeare’s or Milton’s language for the first time. But they cross the line into interpreting the text for the student, which is never a good thing (and generally leads the student to believe there is a One True Interpretation, and anything else is wrong).

A crutch.

I can read the book as fast as most people can read the Cliff’s Notes.

They weren’t getting the same payoff. They were getting the same grade. After which they probably sank back into their accustomed dullwittedness. By actually reading the books and thinking about them, you got the much bigger payoff.

The only time I ever used Cliffs Notes was for Wuthering Heights, and that was because I hated the book and didn’t care enough about the characters to be able to keep them all straight. I’ve since re-read it and enjoyed it, but I have to be really really happy before I begin, or I drown in all the Atmosphere.

I was one who struggled with Shakespeare’s language, so I read the Cliff’s Notes beforehand, then read the actual plays.

It was like the difference between night and day. Once I knew what was going on, my understanding of what I was reading fell into place, and I could enjoy the actual wordplay. Before, it was like trying to enjoy the view of a hike while dragging a boulder around.

No doubt a lot of people read only the Cliff Notes, but to those honest enough to read the work too the Notes can be a tremendous tool towards understanding and appreciating the work itself.

It always pissed me off when students who read the Cliff Notes got the same grades that I did, too.

I normally read the book, then read the Sparknotes just to refresh my memory. This was especially useful in English last year, because the teacher wouldn’t give us the date of the test when he assigned the book, so there was often a large gap of time between when I read the book and when the test ended up being given. Thus, I brushed up on names and places right before the test.

I enjoy interpreting the literature myself, however, so I normally just read the plot summary and characters and skip the interpretation. I don’t want someone else’s views on the book, I want my own.

I did have to read the interpretations in 11th grade, however, because my teacher would take his questions right from Sparknotes. If he asked an interpretation question, he only understood the one given by them to be the “right” answer.

Ooo, I hated them, too. I read everything the teacher gave me. (Thank Og I never had to read Wuthering Heights though. Hate that book). As a matter of fact I would hear books other classes got to read (The Great Gatsby was one) and want to read them, too.

Obviously I loved reading! I can’t say there is really a solution, though, to the Cliff Notes so I guess I won’t complain much.

I used them for books I absolutely hated and couldn’t deal with (Wuthering Heights) or for the first few times I studied Shakespeare. We often didn’t have particularly good teachers, and, in a non-footnoted edition of a Shakespearean play, most high school students are going to have a lot of trouble figuring out what the heck is going on!

I also used them as a crutch, though – for example, taking too many honors classes at once, I struggled with calculus a lot, so I would use the Cliff’s Notes to crank out a quick essay for my lit class so I could study more. Unfortunately, due to switching schools and some nasty teachers, I didn’t understand major portions of the fundamentals of math (I basically skipped a half a semester of Algebra II by being bumped from honors, back to basic, and back to honors, and was told to figure it out on my own from the textbook) so calculus was a huge uphill struggle for me.

The Cliff’s Notes that I have read were full of errors and inaccuracies. People who cheat with them probably get what they deserve.

Everyone knows Sparknotes.com is better- it’s free!

I kid, I kid. I often forget names (especially in things like “The Republic”, etc.), so I use the “notes” as a reference point.

In my senior AP English class in high school our teacher handed out copies of Cliff Notes when he handed out Hamlet. Laziness on his part? No. He understood we were waaaaay overloaded and this would help all of us out. A crutch? Yup. Cheating? Uh no. Why? Because everyone could use the notes, you just choose not to.

No particular opinion on Cliff’s notes, but I don’t agree with taking notes, so Cliff’s is part of a much bigger lump.

To clarify, I only think using Cliff’s Notes is “cheating” when one skips reading the book entirely and just relies on the notes. However, such a person is probably only cheating himself.

Am I the only person who had teachers who always found the one or two things that Cliff’s Notes got wrong or left out and made sure those things were on the test? I never used Cliff’s Notes - I love to read and reading the book was pure fun - but I know that even my slacker classmates didn’t dare just read the Cliff’s Notes because they knew it wouldn’t work.

As I recall, we were actually encouraged to use Cliff’s Notes, in addition to reading the book. I can only recall doing so once–for A Farewell to Arms, because I found the book so utterly boring that I actually cried from frustration and went to the Notes. I was the only person in my junior class that not only read The Scarlet Letter all the way through, but enjoyed it.

I don’t think they’re cheating, per se, but then, I’ve only skimmed the one I lowered myself to buying. :slight_smile: A lot of the symbolism and such that kids just don’t seem to see is clearly outlined. But I think Cliff’s Notes are a poor excuse for actually reading the book, or for a teacher to actually discuss it in class.

Not exactly, but when I was an English lit major, whenever I glanced at Cliff’s Notes, I would find that the interpretation of the symbolism and whatnot that they offered was one that had been discounted by the professor as too simplistic, outdated, or based upon a faulty premise.

I’m curious about what people have found that are flat-out wrong in Cliffs Notes (and a nitpick, there is no apostrophe even though the word is based on a possessive of Cliff, the man’s name).

I know scholars certain may argue about what symbols mean or what the author intended, but I presume these are differences in opinion, not facts. So what facts are wrong? And why do you suppose Cliffs Notes wouldn’t change them? Their readership is wide enough that surely someone, somewhere, would notice the error and notify the editors.

I don’t have a copy lying around and the last time I looked at the one I’m thinking of (for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) was 10 years ago. I can tell you about my general impressions, but not about specific instances. And I’m just not motivated enough to track down a copy of the Cliffs Notes, pull my old Chaucer books and notes out of storage, try to remember how to read Middle English, etc.

I speak only about my general impressions. I remember that I saw a couple of major factual errors. I also remember that the interpretation of symbolism that Cliffs Notes stated as fact was discussed by my professor, one of the top medieval literature scholars in the country at the time. He said that those views had long fallen out of favor among academics, then gave us a bunch of scholarly articles that explained in detail why that was so. A student who skipped reading those articles and wrote their paper based on the Cliffs Notes (and they could have, as it was a theme of one’s own choosing) would have really screwed himself. Whether or not you call that an “error,” it definitely makes Cliffs Notes a dubious study aid.

I can’t be more specific than that. I also don’t remember what other Cliffs Notes titles I looked at over the years, since I only ever gave them a passing glance. I do remember the impression that they were of the same quality. I don’t claim to have done a deep analysis of every Cliffs Notes title.

As for reporting errors–the readers of Cliffs Notes who recognize those errors are likely to think it’s funny to let them stand and have their users take their lumps.

I love reading, but I did use a Cliffs Notes for one book in high school - Great Expectations. I didn’t like the book at all. I got through a few chapters, but it was annoying me. Why a whole paragraph just to describe opening a door? And the story was ridiculous, IMHO. Good on the people who slogged through the whole thing, and even more props to those who enjoyed it!

So yes, I read the notes to write the exam. And yes, I got an A. No shame. I also wrote a feature article for english in which I argued that studying modern books for english is just as useful as studying canonical literature. A for that too.

OK, I can see how using them for something like Shakespeare or for some work of medeival/ancient literature can be helpful, as the language or writing style may be dated and use idioms or forms of wordplay. But in my comp and lit classes, we weren’t studying Shakespeare or Chaucer. It was American Lit, both my sophomore and junior year. I transferred school districts, and it seems like the classes at the new school were a year behind the old one, so I basically ended up re-taking a semester of school before I wised up. I wished I had saved my composition for The Adventures of Huckeberry Finn so I could have recycled it. All of the assigned books were great reads, and Huck Finn was the only one that was studied at both schools, so I got turned on to some really great authors.

But it does seem like a frightening percentage of HS students simply read and write their compositions on the Cliffs Notes without reading the actual book. Shouldn’t a reasonably astute Lit teacher be able to spot one of these?

But then again, the subjects and formats of the books were so restricted and simplistic, mebbe it would be a lot easier to get by with this in HS than in a college class.