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Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as ‘Literary’ Web Sites Aimed at Students Irk, Prod Teachers

‘Literary’ Web Sites Aimed at Students Irk, Prod Teachers

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John Steinbeck was "a really weird author who was a loner." Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is set in something "like a backwoods trailer community." Gregory Samsa is "the guy that gets turned into a big-ass bug" in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. The depictions are enough to send a collective cringe through the ranks of serious English teachers and bookworms everywhere.

But thousands of high school and college students are seeking insight from the irreverent plot summaries that spawned such descriptions of the authors and characters of classic literature.

Dismissing the venerable "Cliffs Notes" study guides as too costly and a bit abstruse, Mike Burgess and Mark Saldanha, recent college graduates from Buffalo, N.Y., started The World Wide Web site provides the plot summaries free, along with terse synopses of historical events and links to term papers on dozens of topics.

"We're not trying to replace literature," said Mr. Burgess, 22. "It's a supplement. It's really boring to read schoolbooks sometimes. This is a chance to get some humor into learning."

Since its launch in February, there have been as many as 1 million "hits" on the site, and its creators expect its popularity will surge as word of the service spreads in cyberspace.

'Cult Like' Following

Already Schoolbytes has attracted a "cult like" following among the 13-to-23 crowd, according to Mr. Burgess. Consequently, and perhaps predictably, the site has also drawn scathing denunciations from educators who charge that it is nothing more than a high-tech cheat sheet. University professors and administrators, commenting in local and college newspapers, have asserted that students who use the information are resorting to plagiarism.

The company's founders insist that they simply help students wade through dense texts, or provide another viewpoint to ponder while researching a topical paper.

A legal disclaimer on the Web site states that the materials are "only intended as study guides" and may not be copied without permission. The link to term papers, which Mr. Burgess said the organizers "take the most heat for," is being revamped to include tutorials on how to write a good paper, how to list references, and other instructions.

Jim Burke, a veteran English teacher at Burlingame High School in San Francisco, said he believes that most students don't cut and paste materials from the Internet into their own work and have no intention of cheating. They may, however, log on to Schoolbytes or the older and more irascible for the entertainment value. Both sites provide amusingly satirical commentary on what students have come to know as laborious tomes. The latter site offers pre-written and customized term papers, charging $9 or more per page.

Cynical View

It is the cynicism implied by the names and the content of the Web resources that insults Mr. Burke.

"It is frustrating as a teacher that the assumption is that you are not paying attention and you are not engaged," he said.

At the same time, he acknowledges that the cynics may have a point. His students, for instance, know that certain teachers don't read their work carefully and may not realize when something has been plagiarized, he said. Moreover, teachers who assign the same paper or project year after year may get what they deserve, he suggested, because students can simply regurgitate what their older siblings and friends turned in before them.

"As a teacher, you have to ask yourself whether you are asking them to do something so pat and standard" that they can turn to plenty of sources from which to pilfer, Mr. Burke said.

Such criticisms are what Mr. Burgess expects from what he calls "the over-30 crowd." Critics don't "speak the same language" as Schoolbytes' primary audience.

The feeling is mutual among some in academe, but there has been some praise from an unlikely source. Margaret W. Ferguson, a member of the executive council of the Modern Language Association and a professor of Renaissance literature at the University of California, Davis, credits Schoolbytes with providing another resource for students that helps them delve into the classics.

"Anything that can get students' interest and gives them some sort of translation of what they are studying is for the good," she said. "This is a culture of shortcuts. If someone can manage to make the Web site version sound good enough to take a teacher in, I say too bad for the teacher."

Vol. 19, Issue 2, Page 7

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