Bardolotry or Cheat Sheet?
November 9, 2001 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Bardolotry or Cheat Sheet? I just clicked through from a TextAd to this "premier Shakespeare destination." I love finding reference sources available on the web, but this site strongly advertises its cheat-o-riffic functionality (more inside).
posted by BT (21 comments total)
I've got no beef with study aids, but here's a quotation they offer from a satisfied customer:

"I was having a hard time writing an essay on MacBeth, but the AllShakespeare critical commentary helped me tremendously by giving me great quotes from outside materials without having to comb through the entire book."

The site's primary advertiser is a plagiarism clearinghouse

I post this because I wonder -- am I (former lit teacher) oversensitive to this kind of thing? Or is it simply part of the necessary commercial give-and-take: if (potentially useful) introductory material on a subject is going to be organized and disseminated over the web, it's going to need a way to pay for itself, and that's going to mean pandering to the person who doesn't really want to read the play?
posted by BT at 6:41 AM on November 9, 2001

No, you aren't oversensitive to this kind of thing. I had to bust four students this semester for downloading all or part of their papers off the web. On the other hand, it's nice to know the site is there: next time I assign Shakespeare, I'll be sure to double-check suspicious essays against what's up on the page. I never cease to be astounded by students who think that their professors are incapable of using a search engine.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:09 AM on November 9, 2001

Anybody ever considered that, just maybe, the reason sites like this exist is because students are forced to take English classes that have quit teaching english? We took, count them, 2 classes of grammar the entire time I was in school.

Here's the entire repertoire of books I was forced to read during high school:

- Tempest, William Shakespeare
- Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
- Macbeth, William Shakespeare
- Hamlet, William Shakespeare
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

That's it. Not a single book written within my lifetime. People think English gives a broad education. Never more.

(the last sentence wasn't learned from being told to read Edgar Alan Poe in class, rather I had to learn it from the only outlet of English culture high school students can learn from anymore, outside Shakespeare, "The Simpsons", Matt Groening).

"I never cease to be astounded by students who think that their professors are incapable of using a search engine", Thomas J Wise

I'll never cease to be amazed that teachers wonder why students underestimate them when students quickly learn by example that most English teachers only know how to read books written centuries ago. (Yes, I know, that’s not true, but consider you are dealing with high school students).

English teachers would get a lot farther with students, IMHO, if they would just teach something relevant. BTW: I’ve heard the argument that Shakespeare’s works are great examples of the “human condition” and are therefore relevant. I consider the argument bunk; it’s coming from the same man that would have had us killing lawyers. And I can say that since I’ve read more Shakespeare than most.

Oh, please don't take this as a letter of dislike against English teachers. I'm sure most are quite good. I've just had some bad luck.
posted by shepd at 7:55 AM on November 9, 2001

I think you're oversensitive. Looking at the quotation above only, it seems like the "offender" found a quicker way of looking up quotes. If it works for him, then there's absolutely no way he should have to flip through hundreds of pages looking for a specific quote.

I never understood professors that insisted every damn thing be credited. Personally, I credit *original* ideas, not things that are repeated over and over on a specific topic. I think a lot of people in academia are too footnote-happy and cite every little thing they can.
posted by Witold at 7:58 AM on November 9, 2001

I'm going to allow myself to go moderately off track here, so apologies for any thread-derailment.

I will say, shepd, that the incredible limitations on the lit reading in your high school don't match my experience at all -- even at the singularly unambitious HS I attended in southern Mississippi for two years I read more broadly than that.

I sympathize with the frustration anyone who's had uninspiring teachers must feel (don't get me started on the crappy foreign-language instruction I had!) but the "relevance" argument is belied, for me, by my experience with students who came to classes ready to dismiss anything unlike their experience as boring, musty, and unrelated to the modern world. In general, I found that the problem wasn't with the alleged irrelevance of the text, but with an insufficiency in attention to what it has to offer.

It's true that an educational diet of nothing but Shakespeare would be as mistaken as nothing but contemporary literature. But, for me, the big argument against "relevance": most students in this country learn little about the past -- either in terms of history or in the sense of the works of art/literature/culture to which texts and art of our time react. Modernity is only interesting if you have a sense of what's come before.

Oh, and by the way, that kill-all-the-lawyers line comes from a character in an unruly mob; Shakespeare pretty clearly means us to see it as a hothead's battlecry; it's generally taken well out of context.
posted by BT at 8:18 AM on November 9, 2001

Whoops -- didn't make my point clear in the third paragraph above. What I meant to say was that students who expected to find, say, Wordsworth musty often wound up preferring the old writer to more modern figures. It depended on what the class (and the student) did with the material -- not the age of the text.
posted by BT at 8:24 AM on November 9, 2001

in all of high school, shepd, you read 2 books and 4 plays? that can't be right.
posted by moz at 8:42 AM on November 9, 2001

shepd was obviously not the most ambitious of students. i think that is reflected in his post here.
posted by dogmatic at 8:47 AM on November 9, 2001

I never understood professors that insisted every damn thing be credited.
Personally, I credit *original* ideas, not things that are repeated over and
over on a specific topic. I think a lot of people in academia are too
footnote-happy and cite every little thing they can.

You aren't supposed to footnote everything. When my students footnote the date of Browning's birth, they get corrected. If, however, my students happily insert an entire page from SparkNotes into their papers without footnoting it, they get thwacked for plagiarism. I believe the technical term for this is "theft."

Similarly, if my students decide to give me a Readers Digest Condensed Version of Victorian history, I want to know where the *$#! they got it from. (Especially when it's wrong, which, so far, it usually is.)

And I don't demand that my students footnote ideas when it's clear that they've accidentally reinvented the wheel; usually, that is sign of original and creative thought, and they get full marks for it.

I'll never cease to be amazed that teachers wonder why students
underestimate them when students quickly learn by example that most
English teachers only know how to read books written centuries ago. (Yes, I
know, that’s not true, but consider you are dealing with high school

Except that a) I'm not dealing with high school students, I'm dealing with college juniors and seniors who bloody well ought to know better, and b) far from being a revolt against "irrelevant" or "musty" material--I'm teaching an elective survey, for crying out loud--their plagiarism is a symptom of laziness, stress, fear, or some combination of the above.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:59 AM on November 9, 2001

tjw -- Bloody well right on. So says another Victorianist.
posted by BT at 9:10 AM on November 9, 2001

Shepd, you kinda have to know Shakespeare to identify and understand allusions in modern works (like The Waste Land). If you don't know Shakespeare, you'll probably miss out on a lot in modern texts.

Personally, I believe the reasons sites like this exist is because many students don't want to do the research. And I have had lousy teachers, too, but you know what? You find something you're passionate about, you go to the library, and you teach yourself. If The Simpsons turned you on to Poe, get thee to a nunnery---er, a library--and check his stuff out.
posted by acornface at 9:59 AM on November 9, 2001

I haven't had to write a report on Shakespeare, but I've used this site for just idle research. I find it a great resource for the things they offer free (sonnets being one). However, it is low of them to make you pay for the "good stuff". I don't plan on ever paying for someone else's research when I can go to the library and get a 500 page book that's been peer reviewed.
posted by geoff. at 10:21 AM on November 9, 2001

good post shepd.

thomas, just out of curiosity, what's your punishment (or do you just go by department policy?) on students who plagiarize?
posted by lotsofno at 11:26 AM on November 9, 2001

shepd, that's not bad at all.

In my HS, I had to read:
-1984 or Brave New World
-Book of your choice. I chose Crime and Punishment

There may have been another book or two.

My HS english classes consisted of short stories and grammar. Over the course of my four-year HS career, I recall reading only the two books above. I also recall watching about one dozen movie adaptations of great literary works that were shown in class.

How's that for pathetic?

I went to Hazleton Area High School (PA), which had about 1500-2000 students. Virtually all classes I took were AP or Honors, and the standards were just as low for other subjects. (One notable exception was Mathematics)

Here's the kicker: To show what a "smart" district we were, at the end of the year, school administrators went around all senior classes, passed around a pad, and asked everyone to write down how much "scholarship" money we got from colleges. According to them, need based financial aid is "scholarships". They would then proudly promote the number in the local papers.
posted by Witold at 11:56 AM on November 9, 2001

I suspect that if such sites become common enough, students will find themselves told to leave everything but their wallets and pens in their lockers, and given an hour to write a paper on a topic that isn't announced in advance except as "Tuesday you'll be writing about Hamlet." That wouldn't be progress--you lose any ability to teach research or encourage people to rewrite their first drafts--but it would make it much harder for students to buy term papers.

It would be nice if more grammar were taught--but I suspect the loudest protests would come from the same people who claim Shakespeare isn't "relevant." People--high school students, professors, business people, just about everyone--get upset when their grammar or spelling is corrected, even if it's not a term paper and no grades are being given.

For what it's worth, we did read things written during our lifetimes in my high school English classes. Choosing such books, though, can get into problems ranging from expense--Shakespeare is well out of copyright and available in inexpensive editions--to arguments about which books to read, and whose agenda is being pushed.
posted by rosvicl at 12:28 PM on November 9, 2001

rosvicl: I think people don't care to have their grammar corrected because they find themselves trying to make a point, and someone just stops them and points out something that is totally inconsequetial to the subject matter being duscussed. It's distracting and results in little more than a lost train of thought.
posted by Witold at 12:43 PM on November 9, 2001

On essaysnow and sites of that ilk:

As an English Lit college student, those sites don't bother me. I do my own work. I read my own sources. I do my absolute best to credit ideas appropriately. (Sometimes I will come up with an idea, get all excited, and then read that same idea in a source during my later research. I credit it.) That other students feel the need to download pre-fab essays is none of my concern, even if the teacher does not notice and they receive a better grade. All that matters to me is whether I have learned something, or not. I would never download an essay and use it, but I can see why some students might. If I were a math major forced to suffer through Freshman Comp I and II, I might be tempted to download an essay or ten. Too many English professors try to push students to be more than they are. Not everyone is a literary scholar or a gifted writer; professors should be more willing to recognize when a student has done his best and offer constructive criticism about his work, not lambast him in red pencil.

On high school English:

My experience in high school English was horrendous. We read everything out loud. There is nothing more annoying than listening to some freshman stumble through the line breaks in Romeo & Juliet, or spewing Nathaniel Hawthorne in an unbroken monotone. And these were honors classes. Worse, my teachers despised originality. If I chose to write about the political undertones in Lord of the Flies, my teacher would intimate that the correct interpretation (invariably the one he taught in class) involved religion. I quit high school and went directly to community college at 17, where things were slightly better.
posted by xyzzy at 12:53 PM on November 9, 2001

xyzzy: I hated that kind of manipulative high school essay prompting, although I didn’t realize until years later that you might come at it a different way. But about the college situation,. I guess I don’t follow your logic. You say you take pride in your work, but you don’t mind if students “download an essay or two.” How is the teacher supposed to evaluate the work he or she assigns if some indeterminate number of the class are passing in purchased essays?

I took ball-busting calculus courses my freshman year of college. I was well out of my depth. I struggled to get C’s. I wasn’t happy about it at the time. But those C’s fairly (generously, really) assessed my ability to do the work assigned. What would have been served by faking it? Would I be happier with an A I didn’t earn?

I guess I don’t buy the argument about pressure: in my experience, most English professors are trying to push students a very little, because students who aren’t challenged don’t learn much (this applies to all levels – let me coast in a class, and I’m liable to coast). Curricula in colleges these days are open and flexible in an unprecedented way. If a class is too difficult for a student to pass, he or she can generally find a less demanding one to fulfill the same requirement. Whether that’s good or bad is another question.

Witold: I agree that adults naturally don’t enjoy having their grammar corrected during a conversation. That’s just rude. But speaking and writing grammatically doesn’t come naturally: aren’t primary and secondary students in an English class supposed to be learning this complex system? In any event, in my schools we were rarely interrupted or corrected in an off-putting way in my classes, although our grammar was corrected in what we wrote. But we were writing those things to learn about grammar, yes?

Sorry for the long-ass posts. Will shut up now.
posted by BT at 1:19 PM on November 9, 2001

thomas, just out of curiosity, what's your punishment (or do you just go by department policy?) on students who plagiarize?

My department allows us some leeway on this issue. As a general rule, I give the student an "F," with the injunction to "see me RIGHT NOW." After I give the kid a firm talking-to, I give him or her the option of rewriting the assignment, with the understanding that the second grade will be averaged with the "F."

However, this time I changed my tune slightly: I announced in class that I had caught some folks plagiarizing, and that if they would care to admit it to me, I'd allow them to rewrite their essays without penalty. If they didn't admit it, they would be stuck with the "F." Two of the four came clean.

I do define plagiarism for my students when I give them writing assignments, and I explicitly interdict copying anything off a web page without citing it. (In fact, I usually interdict the WWW altogether, but that's a different issue.) I'm still recovering from the student I had last year who plopped an entire web page into a paper, then "couldn't understand how it got there." Osmosis, apparently.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:33 PM on November 9, 2001

The guidelines behind research papers are quite funny. If you copy+paste and paraphrase Sparknotes on a research paper, you get an F. If you go to the library, look up literary critcism in the annals section, and quote some very qualified sources with appropriate referencing, you get an A+. There is a very fine line between "following-the-path research" and "plagiarism." I personally think teachers have proconceived notions about libraries being an idealistic noble learning environment and the internet as breeding grounds for cheaters. In reality, both are a type of copying except jumping through certain hoops makes it "inciteful research."
posted by alex3005 at 5:08 PM on November 9, 2001

Alex3005: It doesn't quite work that way. The idea, I think, is to look up stuff on a controversial topic and argue your side, and you get better grades if you bring up ideas from officially smart people (ie: published) and refute them using your own arguments bolstered by stuff from other officially smart people. At least, that's the way I was taught in Comp 101.

BT: It doesn't bother me because I am not doing it. It's ok to challenge students, but to act like YOUR class is the only class (especially if it's 101 required stuff, like Frosh Comp) and demand work beyond the level of most students, the students will feel doomed to fail from the outset. I had one teacher give us good essays from years past at the beginning of a class, and I felt postively stupid and terrified about turning in my essays for the semester. But the people who buy papers - it's their loss, and the teacher's loss, but not mine.
posted by xyzzy at 8:24 PM on November 9, 2001

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