As an AP Literature teacher, reader “resources” like Spark Notes are one of the banes of my pedagogical existence. Not only do they assist students in not reading, or not reading deeply, they have also gotten many a student into hot water when the “accidentally” cribbed sentences for an essay. I dislike them so much, I even have my students sign a “No Study Guide Contract” at the start of the year, to honor bind them from using Spark Notes and its ilk.
My exception to this is the fun and insightful Thug Notes, an internet web series published weekly that presents gangsta Sparky Sweets, PhD., in the Masterpiece Theater library doing the summary and analysis thing with major works of literature.
A student first drew my attention to it with the Pride and Prejudice episode.
I laughed my ass off. And then I jumped in, devouring the back catalog and awaiting the weekly upload.
Now as a teacher, I enjoy a good satire of lit. Many a student have thrown some Hamlet satire my way, like “Sassy Gay Friend – Hamlet,” but while these are funny, they lack substance. I just don’t learn much by watching Sassy Gay Friend try to straight talk Ophelia.
What’s truly fantastic about Thug Notes is that, yes, it’s hilarious, but it’s also absolutely spot on in its analysis. I’ve shown the Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart, and Slaughterhouse Five episodes to students in class. (The latter is one of my absolute Thug Notes favorites.)
My justification for these videos in class is two-fold: 1) they offer the students a review of the book’s scope and significance in 5 minutes, and 2) it’s straight up fun. Our society doesn’t much think of fun when it thinks of classic literature, but Thug Notes manages, no matter the text, to pump it with humor and relevance.
I just have one qualm. As a white teacher with a classroom of mostly white, affluent teens, I have an initial cringe at the caricature of the “thug”. Is it a portrayal that plays into stereotypes of urban black men, or is it subverting that image by having this so-called thug be an intelligent, highly educated reader? And if it is a subversion, will my students see it as such? I’m not sure, but I lean towards the subversive reading of Sparky Sweets, PhD., seeing him as a variation of Stephen Colbert’s parody of news personalities like Bill O’Reilly. Let me know if you agree or disagree–I’d love to hear some opinions on the matter.