The Scoop on Shmoop (and Other Literary Help Sights)

It’s 9:44 pm. You got home from practice, ate dinner, took a quick shower, and started working on your homework soon after. The last time you went to bed before ten was when Obama was in office. All you have to do left is that 40 page English assignment, which will most likely crush your bedtime dreams. You open your laptop to check Haiku to see what pages to read and find all your friends texting about how well they did on their reading quizzes and how little time they spend on English from reading Litcharts. You decided to see what all the buzz is about and google “Frankenstein Litcharts,” only to see a link to a concise summary on the exact chapters you are supposed to read. What do you do next?

Nobles is a challenging school and grades are often one of the most important things in students lives. Yet, every student will encounter a night when he or she can’t complete all their homework. It is on nights like these that literary help sites such as Sparknotes, Shmoop, Litcharts, Gradesaver, ENotes, and Cliff Notes are helpful in alleviating the burden of unread English assignments.

Head of the English Department Shannon Clark made clear the policy for using literary help sites. “All students need to know that the use of Sparknotes or Cliffnotes or Shmoop or Gradesaver or any of those study guides without proper citation is plagiarism. We have to be absolutely clear about that,” said Clark. She explained that the use of any sort of literary help site, even for a simple plot summary, without proper consent from a teacher is academic dishonesty. Clark explained that students have entered into a “contractual understanding” with their teacher that they will complete their assignments, so reading a plot summary in lieu of reading is academic dishonesty.

Clark then addressed the problem with these sites from a teacher’s point of view. “The bigger problem in my mind has to do with our teaching pedagogy. In my mind, as young literary scholars, what we are hoping to help you to do, to guide you to do, is to learn how to ask the right questions and to make your own observations and to find valuable significance and meaning in those observations. And there’s immense value in reading; the literature we give you is always asking for you to read up, to read just beyond your comfort level because that’s how you grow,” said Clark.

Similarly, Clark explained that using literary help sites can suffocate your own ideas. “It can have the effect of shutting down your own interpretive faculties, your own observations, because that [the help site] sounds so much more persuasive, so much more compelling. And over time, if students get used to leaning on these professional study guides as crutches, you’re sabotaging your own growth as a literary scholar, and it just gets harder and harder and harder to have those good, fresh, original thoughts on your own,” said Clark.

Contrastingly, Ms. Batty, English teacher and former head of Academic Support, sees literary help sites as a helpful tool when used appropriately. “I tell students to look at a very short summary at the chapter you are going to read to give yourself an idea of what is going to come. And then as you read the chapter, it is very helpful for you to have a framework to put the information in,” said Batty.

Batty clarified that not all literary help sites are the same and that many contain errors. “Recently I went on Shmoop [while teaching the Scarlet Letter] and in the first three chapters alone I found errors-- simple plot errors as well as errors in the analysis. And so, I always tell kids if you are going to look at a literary help site, don’t use Shmoop,” said Batty.

Batty did stress the importance of actually reading the book and using the site as an addition, not in lieu of reading. “What’s important for me to include is that students need to read the chapter. What you do you miss when you use a literary help site and don’t read the chapter? You miss out on your experience with the text,” said Batty.

Despite the possible errors, online literary help sites can be helpful in furthering one’s relationship with the text. “The goal when I tell students to do that [look online and in the reading] is that they have a richer and better experience reading the text. It allows them to participate more in discussion, to understand more of what’s happening, and that’s the goal for me as an English teacher, and if that [the online resource] is going to help students engage, then I’m all for it,” said Batty.

In a survey sent out to the student body, 41.2% of the 306 responses said they use online literary help sites zero times a week, 45.7% said they use sites one to four times a week, and 13.1% said they use these sites every time they have an assignment. “Most of the time I try to read the book especially because teachers do reading quote quizzes a lot and you need to know the quotes themselves… If I have a lot of homework in another class, that’s when I’m most likely to use one of the online sources,” said Finn Harrington (Class II).

Caroline Finnerty (Class III) expressed similar ideas. “I am more likely to use the website because it takes less time, and many teachers often discuss the parts of the chapter they want you to know the next day in class,” said Finnerty. Both Finnerty and Harrington see these sites as beneficial in furthering one’s knowledge and understanding. “Yes, they are helpful because they save time and sometimes they have excerpts from the actual book but “translated” into similar terms. They are a concise version of the book that saves time on top of all the other work at Nobles,” said Finnerty.

Of the 306 responses, 35.9% said they only read the book, 8.5% said they only read online sites, and 55.6% said they read both. “When reading The Odyssey freshman year, I would read the Spark Notes to grasp the general idea of the chapter and then read the actual book so I knew what was going on,” said Finnerty. Furthermore, 52.9% of the responses use these sites for simple plot-based ideas, 13% for analyses, and 34.1% for both. Finally, 88.6% do not consider the use of these sites plagiarism, while 11.4% do. “I don’t think of it as academic dishonesty as long as you are not trying to say their ideas as your own,” said Harrington.

By Emily Orscheln, Staff Writer, December 2018

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