May 26, 1994
By Alison Stuebe
I woke up Tuesday morning with a strange sense that I was not alone in
bed. Something was jabbing me in the left hip. I opened one eye tentatively.
It was 8:47 a.m., and I did not want to be awake. I investigated the source
of the jabbing feeling to discover, to my horror, a florescent yellow,
uncapped highlighter that I had let slip after falling asleep while reading a
report on science and engineering at Duke. I shuddered, moved the higlighter
to a more innocuous location on the floor, and went back to sleep.
perils of highlighters, however, extend well beyond my now-fluorescent-yellow
sheets, nightgown and left hip. Having highlighted my way through three years
of college, four years of high school and a few years of junior high, I have
reached the shocking conclusion that highlighters have undermined my
Before the days of transparent yellow markers, readers took
notes on reading, or wrote in ball-point pen in the margins, forcing
themselves to transmit information from words on a page to coherent thought
to at least somewhat coherent squiggles on the page. The highlighter offers a
seductive shortcut--the reader can bypass the "coherent thought to
squiggle" step of the process and simply smear interesting passages with
fluorescent ink, no analysis required. Particularly impressive phrases may
merit an emphatic mark in the margin, and, on rare occasions, the holder of
the fluorescent wand may even add a note in blue or black
Regardless, however, the marker-wielding reader generally smears
large tracts of text with ink, never bothering to summarize or paraphrase
I know the pathological symptoms of highlighter-addiction
because I am a victim. I shouldn't have turned out this way--I had a strictly
traditional fifth-grade history teacher who required us to take notes on our
reading in outline form. But something happened in high school, I think in
European History, when I realized I could never write down every iota of
information in our menacingly dense text book--so I grabbed hold of a
highlighter and started marking interesting facts in bright yellow. I meant
to make notes in the margins, but there wasn't time . . . and so I launched
myself down the highlighter path to mental oblivion.
should shoulder at least as much of the blame as MTV for Generation X's short
attention span and anti-intellectual leanings. Neither existential thought
nor Marxist rhetoric can fit within the confines of a fluorescent-ink
universe. Somehow the Communist Manifesto loses something when reduced to
"man...born...free...everywhere...chains." Highlighted Shakespeare
reads more like Beavis and Butthead than the Bard of Stratford. Imagine
Or Romeo and Juliet: "Soft...light...yonder window...sun...fire! fire!
But even as the classics are reduced to late-night MTV,
for the post-highlighter generation of authors, these brightly-colored
solvents of thought bode even more evil. Just as the rise of TV journalism
spawned sound-bite politics, the emergence of the highlighter has produced
fluorescent-smear prose. What reader will grab hold of an idea that cannot be
stripped of prepositional phrases to yield an easily-highlighted topic
sentence? The pressure on writers is daunting.
Even more tragically,
the highlighter-wielding reader does not sculpt main points into coherent
shorthand--he or she simply draws brightly colored lines through them,
scanning for phrases such as "to summarize" and scribbling until a
period ends the sentence. The potential for mind control is ominous.
Subliminal messages could creep into textbooks, surrounded by key words that
would prompt highlighting, coercing students into memorizing and acting on
The evils of the highlighter were notably absent
from a set of reports on campus life released earlier this month--the effects
are so subtle that few students or professors realize the insidious nature of
these florescent demons. I've managed to face that I have a problem, so I
hope to be on the road to recovery.
Or at least, I'll try to put the
top on my highlighter before I fall asleep tonight.
is a Trinity senior and editor of The Chronicle.
This article was published on May