Let’s Kill the Book Report!

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.

18 thoughts on “Let’s Kill the Book Report!”

  1. book reports always followed the who what when where why during my education (which was only elementary school in the case of the dreaded BR). No one cared at all about my feelings

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      1. i think im jiust old and they changed to touchy feely after i grew up. we actually had these sort of forms you filled in in like 2nd grade 1. the main character (s) was …… 2. the plot was ….. 3. the setting was ….

        the epigraph, or “interest creating device” as it was called wasn’t taught to me until high school

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  2. Mercifully I was spared having to produce pro forma book reports in school (rather, I had to endlessly “reflect” upon a novel through the medium of a seemingly endless parade of ‘discussion questions;’ perhaps it taught me how to deconstruct literature, but probably not). If I had to guess, I would say that the uniformity of your students’ responses is probably a result of overreliance on standardized curricula in American high schools, but I have no data to back me up on that.
    Interesting note: even leaving aside the question of what point the author is actually trying to make, I find it odd that they assume that he can only make it through the use of “descriptive language.” It seems to me that there are some points which can be made through the use of less-descriptive language.

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  3. I don’t remember essays being called “book reports” after grammar school. It’s true that students can’t write. I really wonder sometimes how my students made it in to a top school. Did they really write those entrance essays, and SAT essays? And writing about feelings is after my time I guess.

    We had an assignment one semester where my students had to compare/contrast two scientific papers that supported different hypotheses. They were very focused on choosing and declaring a winner, which was not even part of the assignment; and they overused phrases like “in my opinion” I mean yes, this is your essay so we got that! And you aren’t supposed to just have an opinion, you are supposed to back it up, make a convincing case. What is the point of simply sharing your “opinion”?

    Telling them to use the active voice can backfire also, You have to be very clear what you mean and remind them that all their sentences shouldn’t start with “I” or “in my opinion” etc. And these are supposedly brilliant students. I think a lot of these problems may be the result of reading being a much less popular activity than it used to be.

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    1. Or, the absolute winner: ‘In my opinion, I personally believe. . .”

      “And these are supposedly brilliant students. I think a lot of these problems may be the result of reading being a much less popular activity than it used to be.”

      -Exactly.

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  4. We only ever had to “compare and contrast”. One of the things about those brought up under colonialism during my time was that we had an extremely high level of education, but we generally underestimated it and assumed that people in the more industrialized countries must be more up to date and in the know. In some ways this was true. Our educational system was strictly disciplinarian and old-fashioned. We also had the idea that knowledge was objective — including that is was capable of being objectively measured and ascertained.

    The writer I studied for my PhD generally aimed his books way over his readers’ heads and seemed unable to do otherwise. My memoir, similarly, makes the same mistake.

    I have to tell you, it was a weird realization that I was projecting my intelligence into the kind of people who are brought up write these sorts of essays. We don’t normally entertain the view that there are broad social and cultural blocs of consciousness that form “identities” in relation to other broad blocs — but now I am sure this is true.

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  5. It is a large part of why I have explicitly banned book reports — in favor of literary analysis — in my class. I will admit, not all of my students do it well (I get them for another semester yet!), but they *all* understand the basic concept of what it means to analyze an aspect of a piece of literature.

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  6. They hate my colleague in History, who is actually very good, because he makes them read whole books and review them, but not in the book report style.

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    1. I’m smart. I always get them do course evaluations before the final essay is due and they see my comments. 🙂

      In several of the essays I graded today, I left over 80 comments for 4-5 pages of text.

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      1. The most famous time I did that, I shot myself in the foot. I was afraid to let them do course evaluations (they were almost all US military, this is Louisiana) before reading Galeano (he is a socialist, essentially). So then they read him and said it was the best reading so far.

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        1. I agree! My lectures on Galeano are usually a great success. Even completely indifferent students wake up for that.

          In my online course, I will be basing the final exam entirely on Galeano and on his relevance today.

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  7. I was expected to write book reports in grades five, six, and seven. I think there were none after that. Most students did things like feMOMhist said above. In seventh grade, they were presented orally to the class.

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  8. These reports sound like they could be written by skimming rather than reading the book. Could that be the problem?

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