When I began teaching college-level English, I was a grad student, barely older than the students in my class. We were by and large on the same page, so to speak. We were members of the same generation. We spoke the same language.
Now I’m an academic dinosaur, one who’s even been known to wear his eyeglasses on a chain around his neck. Where can I turn to find someone to help me speak the language of younger, hipper students?
The man to help me might be Sparky Sweets, Ph.D., host of Thug Notes, a web series of videos in which Sweets (played by comedian Greg Edwards), a man with chains of his own around his neck and a do-rag on his head, lays out hip-hop summaries and analyses of literary classics in a leather-lined, PBS-like setting.
How does Thug Notes compare to the SparkNotes and CliffsNotes that helped countless students survive their high-school and college English courses? Well, here’s how Dr. Sweets rapped about Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground:
“Back in the day, the underground man decided to drop in on some old school homey named Zverkov who’s about to throw a bangin’ party. The thing is, the old undie ain’t tight with any of Zverkov’s crew no more. In fact, when they see him lurking around the party, sipping too much sizzurp and acting a fool, they start thinking, ‘What’s this fool smokin’?’”
Check it out for yourself:
Yeah, that’s not exactly the way it was taught to me back in the day. But, as I’ve learned in my teaching career, whatever works is worth using—and Thug Notes appears to have struck a chord.
“We just have a lot of fun shooting,” said Edwards in an interview with WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. “Just [reading] the comments from YouTube, the kids really enjoy it, and teachers are using it in the classroom. I think it’s great, and it’s just fun and funny.”
And the fun continues in the book, Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature by Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. (Vintage, August 18), which brings Dr. Sweets’ literary wisdom to the printed page.
Now sure, fun’s fun, but what about objections that Dr. Sweets is a racial stereotype—especially in an age when the word “thug” is seen by many as code for the n-word itself?
“We are using a racial stereotype,” said Jared Bauer, creator and writer of the series and co-founder of Wisecrack, Inc., “but what we’re really doing is we’re inverting that stereotype and making it look ridiculous—saying, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’
“You watch Thug Notes, and you see the smartest way to understand a book in five minutes,” Bauer said. “And because of that, it proves to the audience that there’s nothing inherently unrefined about urban vernacular, or about hip-hop settings.”
Additionally, Thug Notes will often take a moment to do what literature does best—relate to, illustrate, inform and inspire our own lives. In his analysis of Moby Dick (in which Queequeg is described as “some tatted-up harpooner”), Dr. Sweets signs off with an encouraging allusion to the Rachel—the ship that rescues Ishmael from the ruins of Captain Ahab’s ill-fated pursuit of the white whale.
“Keep floatin’, homies,” Dr. Sweets tells his audience, “cause somewhere out there, we all got our own Rachel that’s there to save us.”