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.

The 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 education.

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 ink.

Regardless, however, the marker-wielding reader generally smears large tracts of text with ink, never bothering to summarize or paraphrase information.

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.

Highlighters 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 Macbeth: "...tomorrow...life...shadow...stage...heh-heh...sound-and-fury...cool." Or Romeo and Juliet: "Soft...light...yonder window...sun...fire! fire! cool."

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 whatever followed.

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.

Alison Stuebe is a Trinity senior and editor of The Chronicle.

This article was published on May 26, 1994
Copyright © 1995, Duke Student Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may be distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice. However, it cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of Duke Student Publishing Co., Inc., Durham, NC

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