New Multicultural Editions of Cliffs Notes Get Mixed Reviews

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Yes, there really is a Cliff.

They may not know him by name, but countless English students facing term-paper deadlines have sought late-night salvation from Clifton K. Hillegass and his bumblebee-striped study guides since 1958.

Though best known for capsule summaries of classic literary works by such authors as Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Austen, Cliffs Notes Inc. has spawned a new generation of study guides. This month, the Lincoln, Neb.-based company will publish a guide for Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, the 22nd in a new series of literary supplements for novels written by and about members of minority groups.

English teachers, however, are giving mixed reviews to the new editions.

To many, study guides like Cliffs Notes or Monarch Notes have stifled, not stimulated, the pursuit of literature. Yet, it is no secret that the yellow-and-black booklets have also rescued more than one teacher who needed a quick review of Beowulf or Billy Budd.

In fact, much of the impetus to publish the new series came from teachers who said they did not feel confident explaining multicultural literature to their students, Gary Carey, the editor of Cliffs Notes, said.

"Teachers asked for Cliffs Notes because they, as well as students, are new to these novels," he said.

But the company's foray into the new genre irritates some English teachers who have assigned certain multicultural novels specifically because study guides were not available for them.

Allan Ruter, an English teacher at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., likened them to a virus. "Cliffs Notes are proving themselves amazingly and frustratingly versatile. They mutate in response to technology and play an ominous role in our current culture wars."

To insure the study guides are as culturally accurate as possible, however, Mr. Carey tries to match the ethnic background of the Cliffs Notes's writer with that of the novel's author. In several cases, authors have helped write the Cliffs Notes for their own novels, an impossibility for the vast majority of classic literary works.

To write the guide to Bless Me, Ultima, the story of a Chicano boy coming of age in northern New Mexico during the 1940's, Mr. Carey asked Rub‚n O. Martinez, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The Taos, N.M., native said he welcomed the publisher's departure from the standard western canon. "These Notes will really help students understand novels written from another perspective," said Mr. Martinez, who specializes in Chicano studies. "As a result, the novels are propelled to a new level of readership."

Lukewarm, however, would best describe some teachers' response to the new series. If anything, they say, the study guides make their jobs a little bit harder.

"If I see my students using Cliffs Notes, I look at what I'm doing wrong," said Carol Jago, the chairwoman of the English department at Santa Monica (Calif.) High School. "The challenge is on the teacher to work with students in powerful ways, to demonstrate how much you love the book."

Supplements, Not Substitutes

But Mr. Hillegass, the publisher, also believes much of that onus falls on the students themselves. Inside each of his more than 200 booklets, he warns students not to substitute the study guide for the actual text. Instead, he writes, "they are intended as a supplementary aid to serious students."

Many high school English teachers say the guides are pervasive. Some teachers estimate that most of their students use them at least once during the school year--often in an emergency--and about a third use them regularly.

Exact sales figures for Cliffs Notes are not available. The company does not reveal that information, said Connie Brakhahn, the director of advertising. A 1992 company brochure, however, reported annual sales of five million copies worldwide.

Like Mr. Hillegass, teachers believe consumers ultimately lose out when they rely solely on literary supplements.

"Instead of eating three meals a day, it's like taking a multi-vitamin," observed Bill Kennedy, the chairman of the English department at Friends' Central, a high school in Wynnewood, Pa. "The students get their minimum requirements, but lose all the taste."

There is no use fighting them, observed Miriam Chaplin, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

"Notes are a reality, like television. Students will always use them as long as they are there," said Ms. Chaplin, a professor of education at the Rutgers University campus in Camden, N.J. Study guides may be helpful for students who need a simplistic introduction to a work, but their use, she cautioned, is limited.

Approaches to Literature

James E. Davis, a professor of English at Ohio State University in Athens, agreed.

"The way a teacher approaches literature can give students the impression that the text is a puzzle to be solved, that an authority figure, like Cliffs Notes, has all the answers," he said.

In his classes, Mr. Davis, a past president of the English teachers' group, encourages future English teachers to be honest about literary supplements like Cliffs Notes or their primary competitor, Monarch Notes. If they or their students find them helpful, he says, use them.

"The hypocrisy and grandstanding surrounding study guides are the biggest problem," Mr. Davis said. "Often among the condemners, you'll find many teachers who have used them, but they have repented for their earlier sins and become pure."

Vol. 14, Issue 32

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