I don’t know which enemy of humanity first came up with the idea that getting high school students to write the so-called book reports will teach them to write well. All I know is that I just got through over a dozen academic essays that are inspired by the high-school book report model. And I can say that the book report is a horrible practice that needs to be abandoned as soon as possible.
This is how these book-report essays are structured:
– The essay title is always of the “Essay 1, Essay 2, Final Essay” variety. All my exhortations to come up with a meaningful title seem to fall on deaf ears. Alternatively, people might think that this is what a meaningful title is like.
– Before the essay begins, there is always some exceptionally cheesy quote that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything but that kind of sounds warm and fuzzy. At this point, I’m almost tempted to offer bonus points to anybody who spares me the aggravation of reading an epigraph to their essay.
– The student starts the essay by offering at least a page-long analysis of whether the “reading was easy to read” (sic!). The miserable professor has to slog through the endless recounting of how “first, the reading was kind of hard for me to understand. In the middle it was sort of easy for me to understand. But then in the end it was again very hard for me to understand. Altogether I’d say the reading was fairly easy for me to understand.” (All of the essays I grade this semester were written in the students’ first and only language, by the way. And the readings they analyzed were also all in English.)
Now imagine getting through a dozen of those one after another. Fun, eh?
– After the hard to understand / easy to understand part, the inevitable “how this made me feel” portion of the essay always follows. After reading several pages of minute analysis of how each part of the text made
the patient the analysand the student feel, you forget whether you are a psychotherapist or a professor of literature.
– There is always (and I repeat, always) a discussion of whether “the author uses highly descriptive words to bring his point across.” What the point that is brought across with these highly descriptive words actually is always remains shrouded in mystery. I still have 17 more essays to grade this weekend and, I swear to God, if I come across the “highly descriptive words” once again, I will howl.
– A little less frequent topic of discussion in such essays is whether “the author’s outlook is positive or negative.” Am I the only person to feel that the word “outlook” is horribly overused nowadays?
– The book-report-inspired essay never fails to end on a note of condescension towards the writers whose work was being analyzed. “Overall, I’d say Julio and Jorge [Cortazar and Borges] are OK sort of writers. I mean they are nothing special of course. They obviously tried hard to create there little pieces so that’s commendable. But often they failed. They should be commended for trying hard though.”
I understand the need to get students to read and to reflect on what they have read as early as possible. These book reports fail to do that, though. All they manage to achieve is instilling really bad writing habits in students and it’s weary work eradicating those habits in college.