What Can CliffsNotes Do?

I’ve been engaged in a discussion regarding the term “radical theology” as employed by Homebrewed Christianity. You can read the various blog posts here and here. The second post sprung up as a response to a post on the An und für sich blog, here. I don’t like embroiling myself in these sorts of online debates (I very rarely post comments on things), but I felt that the original question over the use of the term “radical theology” was too important not to say something. This post isn’t addressing that, since I think enough has been said, and if you look in the comments of the second HBC post, Bo Sanders, one of the hosts of the podcast, concedes the point that was originally raised on that issue specifically.

But in a follow up comment, Bo makes it clear that the “CliffsNotes” he provided were a) not intended for those already immersed in the conversation but those trying to find a helpful way into the discourse and (therefore) b) not meant to be a part of the academic conversation.

Somehow. This leaves me a bit confused.

I was once in school earning a teaching credential to teach high school English in California. I remember one teaching methods course I took in which the professor advocated we use CliffNotes in our classes in conjunction with the actual text. I was appalled. I had quite common aspiring English teacher visions of everyone in my classes thoroughly enraptured by The Great Gatsby or Macbeth coming up with incredibly insightful comments and caring deeply about the discipline of literary criticism. That, of course, is more than idealistic; it’s ridiculous. This professor knew that. His argument was simply that in order to help students to even begin to see what kinds of things they should be looking for in the text as they read, they need to know what sorts of questions to ask, which might inspire a few of them to ask these sorts of probing questions in their day to day lives. Definitely still a pipe dream, but I suddenly saw the value of what CliffsNotes could be if put in the context of the right assignments. That is, if you assign CliffsNotes followed by a test on information about what happens in a novel, then it seems as though you’re just facilitating cheating. But if you assign CliffsNotes followed by an essay requirement or presentation in which students have to think more theoretically about the text, CliffsNotes actually show them how to think that way about the text. This is where CliffsNotes can provide a service to students of literature (e.g. freshman majoring in English) who really are trying to figure out what literary studies is in the first place. Yes, they summarize what happens in the novel, but more importantly, they show what sorts of questions one could probably ask of the text. They’re always basic questions about theme and character, but that’s okay because moving from reading for pleasure to reading in order to be able to make abstract theoretical claims about what a text is doing is really tough at first.

I readily admit that when I was first trying to get a handle on Derrida, I read a lot of encyclopedia entries (including Wikipedia) and relied on summaries by people like Caputo, Jonathan Culler, and James K.A. Smith. I was in my first year of graduate school (an MA in English), and eventually, I realized that I just needed to read more Derrida and a wider variety of treatments on and applications of Derrida (in literary theory) in order to know how my own reading was going to fit into that larger conversation. As I read more and more, I was able to confirm that by and large, I agreed with Caputo’s reading of Derrida (a position that has shifted somewhat), that I actually didn’t like Smith’s reading, and that Culler wasn’t going to be that helpful for my papers because he is primarily a summarizer. I began to see the landscape of the “deconstructive conversation” more clearly.

Here’s the big difference between what CliffsNotes actually do and what Bo is wanting to claim his gloss on radical theology is doing. CliffsNotes, in a very basic sense, participates (or at least tries to) in a broader academic conversation about the work it summarizes and poses questions about. Is it possible that a Melville scholar might look at a CliffsNotes version of Moby Dick and object to how some of the summary is presented or some of the questions about theme and character? Sure, but I’m pretty confident she would probably also admit that if intended as an entry point into how theoretical work on literature is done (say, for high schoolers or something), it does the job and is broadly attempting to be an introduction to an academic conversation.

CliffsNotes are not for people who are reading for pleasure or even looking to use literature to pontificate about… whatever they want based upon the literature. It’s a directed guide filled with prose that is not nearly as inspired or interesting as the original text with questions that resemble the very basic questions that an aspiring scholar would first ask consciously and later subconsciously as she begins to participate in what scholars of literature do. The purpose is very clearly entrance into an academic conversation.

So what is HBC doing with this? I’ve been listening to the podcast on and off for the last two years, with a little more consistency over the last year. I enjoy it because I like to hear how two pretty smart guys articulate ideas that are really complex to people without formal academic training and try to help them understand their practical implications. I’m interested in how one might make something like deconstruction intelligible to a lay audience. HBC interviews academics, they talk about academic things, and they encourage people to become armchair theologians–all wonderful things, in my opinion. When they introduced their “High Gravity” course a few months ago, I had assumed from their description that this was going to be for people who wanted a  more formal introduction to the academic discourse that surrounds these ideas. They were actually reading primary texts and trying to see how they function theologically. Shouldn’t that mean they’re going to be participating or attempting to participate in the tradition?

But Bo says no, it doesn’t.

“The cliff notes were explicitly written for those struggling in the High Gravity reading group.  Jeremy clearly does not need Cliff Notes. He was not my intended audience. Joel (JD) makes the point about academia… but this was a blog post about a reading group NEITHER of which was in the context of academia. That is why I have not been primarily concerned with answering their educated concerns.

Those for whom the Cliff Notes were intended have let me know that they were greatly appreciated and helpful.”

Wait–how does this have nothing to do with academia again?

Maybe a better question is: Why would a CliffsNotes version of radical theology or a “High Gravity” course not be an introduction to the more formal academic conversation and tradition that has been going on since long before we knew what radical theology even was? How is it a negative thing if it is that sort of introduction? Engagement with the tradition as understood broadly by scholars doesn’t mean people don’t have freedom to get things wrong all of a sudden, or to wrestle with ideas, or to even question ideas. But chances are that that wrestling, those misunderstandings, those questions, have already been rehashed over and over again within the academic tradition and one only need to seek to enter that conversation in order to find them.

I have no problem admitting that in the beginning I drew crazy, baseless connections between deconstruciton and things like pragmatism. I was just trying to grasp on to whatever I could in order to try to get a handle on what Derrida was up to in his work, so I would say things to myself like, “It sort of seems like this.”

But listen: At a certain point I had to dump those props if I wanted my reading of Derrida to have weight in my application of his thought as I read literature and, later, theology. If I wanted to better understand how his work could be maximally fruitful to my own, I had to strive to understand him the best that I possibly could, and there was no way to do that other than seek out what was already being said about him.


5 thoughts on “What Can CliffsNotes Do?

  1. Yep. You make many good points. But you misses a couple of important things:

    1) They were CLIFF notes. Not CliffsNotes. It was a post-structural play on words 🙂 THey were never intended to play the role that you so articulately fleshed out in the Derrida-literary example in this post. They were CLIFF notes intended for those ready to pull out their hair/jump of the ledge in despair of not getting it.

    I can not overstate that distinction enough.

    2) I am not in the High Gravity group.
    I didn’t read the primary texts.
    I didn’t attend the online session.
    I did not watch the videos.

    I was simply attempting to help some stragglers. In FACT – I didn’t post those Cliff Notes on the Mission Solutions website OR the group chat-board. It was a behind the scenes ‘help’ to try and re-direcect those who were feeling disoriented.

    Those details seem significant to me.

    3) So I’m pretty confident that A) we will be friends when this all shakes out and B) that we have all learned a little bit from this engagement.
    I also have a suspicion that if it had not been for the Altizer-Death of God delineation that I clarified in the second post … I doubt you would have gotten to riled up. If this had been about some issue related to Barth, would you have put this much energy into it? Would you have watched my answers to Jeremy so closely if it were about Borg? There is something particular to this content that captivates you and I don’t want to generalize about HBC or High Gravity or CliffsNotes based on that. Does that make sense?

    sincerely and in friendship -Bo

    • I find Both of your’ assessments accurate. Yet I struggle to understand the relevance of naming a child Bo. Puzzling endeavor by your’ parents. Puzzling indeed.

    • Bo, thanks for the response. I think it’s probably safe to say that we’re just not going to see this issue the same, and that’s okay. I appreciate the practical perspective a lot since I have such a difficult time thinking that way sometimes.

      Despite my focus on what CliffsNotes are and can do, this post was more motivated by the suggestion that the HG group itself fell outside of an academic context. I suppose I see the idea behind the HG group as related to what CliffsNotes are for, even though the group is reading original texts; it’s meant as an introduction to the texts and the sorts of questions they raise. Maybe I misread your initial comment, or not, I don’t know, but either way, I think I was maybe thrown a bit by the way the comment was phrased: “this was a blog post about a reading group NEITHER of which was in the context of academia.” My misunderstanding of this point probably stemmed from my misunderstanding of the relationship of the blogpost to the group.

      So yes, those details in your second point are significant. From my perspective (and I think others too) it originally seemed like the claim was that HBC was going to defend defining RT however it seemed appropriate to its own goals with no responsibility to an academic conversation or tradition. If the aim is to give people an entrance into the radical tradition, even (what I think is) an alternative account of a tradition, I think you can understand why I would find that troubling. Without knowing that the blogpost was as distinct from the course as you say, it seemed like I maybe had been misunderstanding HBC’s relationship to academia; hence my comments on the blog posts and this blog post. My mistake. 🙂

      In the end, if this had been a face to face conversation, it probably would have been resolved quickly. Such is the nature of written Internet communication, I guess! Your final point after 3b is, I think, uncontroversial. I was immersed in post-structural discourse and critical theory and later both death-of-God theology and other “postmodern” theological discourses (post-liberalism, etc.) for the first five years of graduate school, and even though I’m working on a historical project in my PhD work, I’m still invested in and keeping up with what is happening in the radical tradition. So with regard to your other examples, I suppose it would depend on the Barthian issue.. 🙂 I’m not that familiar with Borg, so you’re right that I probably wouldn’t have chimed in.

      I initially voiced an opinion because I agreed that something was being misrepresented, but then I think the energy I put into this post and the latter comments on the HBC blog was more a product of me thinking I was hearing you say (and definitely hearing others say) that the broader academic conversation wasn’t important to a reading group in which academic texts are being read and discussed, but your second point cleared that up.

      I really do appreciate your thoughtfulness, Bo, and your willingness to engage with my concerns.

        • Yeah, probably. I agree that your question is still sort of unanswered–or at least answered in a way that I just don’t agree with. In my comment, I had initially included a short response to the first point about misunderstanding the play on words. To me, a guide is a guide, and regardless of the intention behind it, I think the material warrants some responsibility to the tradition, even if the writer wants the freedom to convey the ideas by whatever means necessary for the sake of clarity. That’s a point that Bo, as a practical theologian, and myself, as an academic one, are probably going to have to just agree to disagree about.

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