Reading, Writing and Rhetoric

In my Rhetoric class, I seek to make students persuasive communicators with a high regard for truth and a desire to imitate Christ. It’s a lofty aim. More pedestrian is the purpose of the AP English Language & Composition course, which, according to the College Board, exists “to enable students to read complex texts with understanding and to write prose of sufficient richness and complexity to communicate effectively with mature readers.” While these two purposes are not identical, there is much overlap between them. Ideally, a rhetoric course acquaints students with what Aristotle called “all the available means of persuasion in any given situation.” The situations students encounter in AP English generally lead to written compositions, but the “complex texts” they learn to analyze are not limited to formal writing. Instead, they may include advertisements, political cartoons, letters, and quite often, speeches; in other words, AP English is about understanding and persuasion in a variety of rhetorical situations. Furthermore, when we delve into the course description for AP English Language & Composition (APELAC), we find numerous references to the concerns that confront any student of rhetoric: “rhetorical contexts,” “interactions among a writer’s purposes, audience expectations, and subjects,” “resources of language,” “cogent explanations,” “rhetorical strategies.” Indeed, there is so much continuity between the rhetorical tradition and the types of analysis and writing students do in AP English Language that a few years ago, the College Board released a special guide to classical rhetoric for teachers of the course.

Because of this continuity, I’d like to suggest that for some schools, offering a rhetoric course that doubles as AP English Language might be a good idea. While defending the aims of the broader AP program is beyond the scope of this short piece, and while the drawbacks do merit serious consideration, a quick response to the question, “Why AP English?” might include the facts that AP exams, materials, and requirements provide a barometer for a school, that the class pleases parents, who see AP as important in the college- admissions (and financing) game, and that it gives students access to and recognition for a depth and rigor of study that may not otherwise be available, preparing them for college and life.

I’ll discuss just two of these benefits. First, the barometer. Although some AP courses are better than others, I have found that the standards set in several, including APELAC, are reasonable and useful. By studying the objectives of the course, looking at exam questions and passages, and comparing my students’ scores to national averages, I get a good idea of how our particular classical curriculum is preparing our students for the university and the world, even if I don’t always agree 100% with what today’s English departments value. Second, rigor. Any school can create challenging courses, and classical schools have a well-deserved reputation for stretching their students and demanding deep, critical thought, instead of loading them up with “busy work.” But having an AP option gives teachers the chance to hold students accountable to a greater degree—this is, after all, a college level course, so quit the complaining!—and to reward them with nationally recognized nomenclature testifying to their hard work and accomplishment. If your school decides it would like to have the option of o ering AP English Language & Composition in tandem with Rhetoric, consider the following issues.

Content: APELAC is flexible, so teachers may tailor the course to their own preferences, without sacrificing the classical approach
they treasure. Adapting a classical rhetoric syllabus to meet the demands of the AP audit may seem onerous, but it doesn’t necessarily entail significant changes to the curriculum. A syllabus organized according to the five canons of rhetoric, for example, could easily satisfy AP requirements, provided that it demonstrates exposure to a wide variety of prose styles and demands that students write for a number of different purposes and in a series of drafts. Also, AP requires no specific reading list; nor does it mandate discussion of any one author, subject, or genre. The list of “representative” authors provided by the College Board is a plethora of possibilities: In the pre-twentieth-century list of forty or so suggested authors appear Addison, Hazli, Frederick Douglass, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emerson, Swift, and Samuel Johnson, while the much longer contemporary list features rhetors as dissimilar as Orwell, Woolf, Mencken, Chesterton, Wendell Berry, E. B. White, Martin Luther King, Jr., William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens, David Brooks, and Dave Barry! I provide this catalog only to show that the authors and themes your students will study is completely up to the instructor, as long as students get to read authors of “comparable quality and complexity.” Nevertheless, if you have no interest in your students reading any contemporary nonfiction, or in discussing the rhetoric of “visual texts” (documentaries, advertisements, etc. . . .), or in familiarizing students with documentation styles, then APELAC may not be a good choice for you.

Skills: One vital skill which may come with the addition of APELAC is that of speaking and writing in language that others understand. We should praise students for their understanding of rhetorical categories and the classical terms used to describe them, but today, even sophisticated readers are likely to be more distracted than persuaded by a sentence such as this: “Queen Elizabeth appeals to logos in her exordium in a way that is typical of epideictic discourse.” APELAC provides a testing ground for the translation of rhetorical concepts into lucid, comprehensible prose. This is just one example; most of the skills traditionally taught in rhetoric are pertinent to APELAC. Memory and oral delivery, though, may need to be given short shrift. Although reading elegant essays aloud is an excellent way of internalizing their rhythms and will serve an AP English class well, teachers may need to limit the time students spend memorizing their own original speeches and practicing movement and gestures, in order to make room for training in timed writing, synthesis of sources, and research.

Timing and sequence: At our school we offer the AP course as an option during the students’ eleventh grade Rhetoric 2 class, a class which emphasizes arrangement and style. APELAC could conceivably be taught at any high school grade, but most schools choose to offer it after tenth grade. Offering it earlier may put students at a disadvantage on the exam and hinder class discussions, because AP English Language requires students to bring their own life experience, knowledge of current events, philosophy, American history, and general culture to bear on contemporary—and eternal— questions. For example, on the same AP exam students might need the rhetorical savvy and reading skills to appropriately interact with a speech by Lincoln, a satirical editorial published last year in The Onion, and a writing prompt by Milan Kundera about the decline of privacy in the modern world.

In conclusion, Rhetoric taught with AP English Language can work. I don’t suggest that it’s the best possible arrangement or even that it is a good one for all classical schools. But it is feasible. There are drawbacks—such as the increased workload on teachers, and the potential pressure from parents to “teach to the test.” I have not elaborated on these because I feel that the classical school community is already well acquainted with them.

But there are also benefits. Virginia Woolf wrote that “the art of writing has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea.” Rhetoric often begins for high school students in a place where they do not yet have a clear enough idea of their idea to be “attached” to it. They may find themselves in the place of Astrophel, beating himself and biting his “truant pen.” Through a process of “invention,” arrangement, and putting words to paper, and always in dialogue with others, students look into their hearts, learn what they think—or what they should think—and then gradually persuade others of the same. Rhetoric and AP English together give students a valuable toolkit for coming up with ideas, for testing and tuning them, and for expressing them in a way that credits others but still contributes to the conversation.