Q: What I have I been watching on Youtube lately?
A: Thug Notes http://www.thug-notes.com/, wherein Sparky Sweets, PhD. is droppin’ knowledge bombs on all y’alls. Each episode provides a succinct summary and accessible analysis of one of literature’s biggest ballers.
Thug Notes is more than just entertaining – it’s brilliant – and I appreciate the hell out of what they are doing because I know how hard it is. Back when I was in college I thought I wanted to be an English teacher, so I spent four years working as an in-class teaching aide and tutor at a high school. It was a great experience that taught me an invaluable lesson: I was not ready to teach. I was too young and too green to handle a classroom on my own. I loved what I did as an aide, but I also saw the grueling effort it took to get kids engaged with some of the musty classics that made up the curriculum.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was on the required reading list for the 10th grade literature classes. It’s a good book, but it was tough for kids who watched 16 and Pregnant on MTV to understand how Hester Prynne could be shamed by the judgment of her community. “Why don’t she just take off that big letter A?” one of my students asked. “Why don’t she move away? Hester be stoopid.”
I didn’t have an answer for that student. Her questions were valid, especially given that she had no real context for a story that was set 200 years ago. I had no idea where to start in providing context. Should I talk about Puritan society in the early Americas? About the biblical allusions? Maybe other stories set in the same era? The student lost interest before I could think of anything to say and the moment was lost. The Scarlet Letter remained a useless old story, just something to be skimmed and forgotten.
Maybe if Thug Notes existed back when I was teaching, I could have answered my student’s questions. The genius of Thug Notes is that it peels away the need for context by summarizing classics as if the stories took place today. It takes the characters out of the past and focuses on the timeless and universal themes – love, lust, betrayal, hypocrisy, oppression, ambition – and makes it possible for the audience to see the connection between the story and the struggle in their own lives. When that happens, it’s something like magic.
If there are any classics that you’ve never been able to connect with, look them up on Thug Notes. You might find a little more relevance in those stories. At very least, you’ll be entertained.