When it first crossed my mind that I might be able to rework the original version of The Critical Reader into a prep book for the AP English Language and Composition exam, one of the initial things I did was head over to the College Board’s website and read the AP Comp course description.

I’d done some tutoring for the exam a few years back, but it wasn’t a test I’d been constantly immersed in, as was the case for the old SAT. I also knew that in addition to changing the SAT, the College Board had planned overhauls for a number of AP exams. Interestingly, the AP English Comp test was not officially listed among them; however, as I read the description for 2014 and beyond, it became clear that the test had recently undergone some important changes.

To be sure, I knew that SAT Reading was being pared down to handful of concepts (“the skills that matter most!”). Nevertheless, I was a tad taken aback when I came across the following statement, nestled among endless paragraphs touting the importance of rhetorical reading:

Growth in skills cannot be measured or assessed as students’ mastery of a vocabulary of rhetorical terms. While older versions of this course (including questions on the AP English Language and Composition Exam itself) relied on knowledge of terminology as a way of assessing student work, the AP English Language and Composition Exam has evolved to emphasize the appropriate application of such terminology in students’ analyses of texts. Any rhetorical terms that appear in this course are best situated as part of the teacher’s vernacular, not the students’. A rule of thumb for students’ vocabulary may be to reinforce language often heard in public discourse, or what we may call terms for functional rhetoric. These terms may include, but are not limited to context, appeals, purpose, audience, attitude, diction, and syntax. (AP English Language and Composition Course Description, p. 21)

So essentially, the College Board is saying that AP English and Composition is a rhetoric course that should not include the actual teaching of rhetoric.

Take a moment and try to wrap your head around that one. 

It’s unlikely anyone would argue that AP English Comp should consist of nothing more than memorizing dozens of obscure rhetorical figure (although Shakespeare, to cite one prominent example, doesn’t seem to have had his creativity particularly stifled by that type of approach). I don’t think, however, that that approach was ever emphasized in American classrooms in the first place — or at least it hasn’t happened for a very long time. Arguing that students are only now being saved from rote drilling is the flimsiest of straw men.

This is essentially the application of a very misguided idea pushed to its logical extreme — namely, that the learning of specific terms and pieces of information is not only the opposite of true learning (which is held to be “authentic” or “natural”), but that acquiring this type of discrete knowledge actively prevents true learning from occurring.

Thus, in the service of promoting true learning, it is necessary to deprive students of knowledge. Reductio ad absurdum.

Now, the College Board is at least willing to concede that teachers can have some knowledge of rhetorical terminology, but as for students… well, it wouldn’t be quite proper for students to learn anything beyond the basics. Never mind that learning that kind of thing was traditionally the entire point of the course.

If this were a remedial class, that argument might have some credibility, but by definition, the whole point of the AP program is to provide students with advanced work. 

This is kind of like insisting that students can master biology without memorizing the parts of a cell or the difference between a gene and a chromosome.

As I wrote about a while back, memorization is a component of critical thinking, not its opposite. To suggest otherwise is a fallacy, a false dichotomy, and all sorts of other rhetorical/logical terms that people responsible for designing a college-level rhetoric and composition class should know about.

Obviously – obviously – students should learn to apply their knowledge, but one cannot apply knowledge that one does not have! 

Whether this is the work of true believers (of which I believe David Coleman is one) or merely a cynical ploy to further expand the appeal of AP Comp – already the most popular AP exam – while ensuring an acceptable number of students still pass is unclear. Most likely, it’s a combination of both. But either way, the philosophy of learning it promotes is deeply problematic. You can argue about the real-world value of learning rhetorical devices until you’re blue in the face, but as a general principle, teaching students less does not make them more knowledgeable. Ignorance is ignorance, not knowledge. That’s just how reality works. And eventually, reality has a way of catching up with you. 

I confess that I sometimes feel like a broken record saying these things, but I think it’s important to keep stating them publicly. When the driving philosophies of this powerful an educational organization are based on nonsense (albeit widely accepted nonsense), someone needs to call that out.

Rhetoric is the language of textual analysis, and rhetorical figures are the fundamental components of an analytical vocabulary. In their absence, there is simply no way to discuss a text with any degree of precision, to understand how it actually functions and what makes it effective (or not). Taking away that vocabulary impedes not only the’ ability to write about texts at an advanced level, but the ability to even perceive how they work. Reading rhetorically and writing analytically are not natural acts — acquiring the vocabulary is inseparable from acquiring the skill. 

On one hand, the College Board asserts that students should learn to write prose characterized by precise word choice and stylistic variation, and on the other it tries to deprive them of the tools necessary to do those things.

Clearly, someone lacks a sense of irony. 

But all that said, let’s consider what this means in terms of the AP Comp exam.

On one hand, the College Board’s statement is somewhat disingenuous. The rhetorical analysis essay is still a prominent component of the test, and clearly, the stronger a rhetorical vocabulary you have, the better an essay you can write.

That said, the de-emphasis of rhetorical figures means that provided you write a well-structured, easily comprehensible essay with a clear thesis, you can get away with a pretty superficial knowledge of rhetorical terminology. As long as you know the basics – simile, metaphor, diction, syntax, appeal to emotion (College Board favorite!) – you don’t need to worry about things like chiasmus, litotes, zeugma, and anadiplosis. So if you’re at all tempted to spend these last few weeks before the exam trying to cram lists of rhetorical figures, you can put them aside and go study for AP Calc instead.

The area in which the change is most significant is the multiple-choice reading. In the past, the exam reliably featured questions that looked like this:

In lines x-y, the author makes use of which of the following

(A) apostrophe
(B) euphemism
(C) antithesis
(D) cliché
(E) metaphor

Now, however, virtually all rhetorical strategy questions have now been transformed into “purpose” or “function” questions, e.g.

The author’s use of the analogy in lines x-y primarily serves to

(A) call attention to an exception           
(B) defend a claim           
(C) emphasize an ironic point of view 
(D) evoke an emotion
(E) appeal to the audience’s sense of justice

While this question appears to revolve around the identification of a rhetorical figure (analogy), the reality is that it’s really asking about the larger point the lines containing the analogy serve to support or convey. Basically, if you can identify that information, the analogy itself is irrelevant. It is not necessary to know what the rhetorical term means to answer the question.

Yes, there are a handful of common terms that you need to know (anecdote, irony, metaphor, digression, generalization, assertion), but the more exotic stuff? Gone.

Now, I was curious as to whether these changes have registered with the major test-prep publishers, so I took a trip to the bookstore (from which I am writing this post) and checked out the AP English Comp guides produced by four of the usual suspects: Princeton Review, Kaplan, McGraw Hill, and Barron’s.

Sure enough, every single one included outdated multiple-choice questions that directly tested more advanced rhetorical figures. Clearly, these changes have not been widely noted. 

So if you are practicing with one of these books, please, please be aware that they give a misguided impression of what is actually on the exam in 2017. 

Why do I get so worked about rhetoric? Well, if you’ll humor me, I’d like to offer a personal anecdote.

People are often surprised to learn that I was never a straight-A student in English during high school. I mostly got an assortment of B-pluses and occasional A-minuses, but things never really seemed to gel for me. My English classes, like those at pretty much every other American high school, did not cover rhetorical terminology in any systematic way. I knew what similes and metaphors were of course, but beyond that, not much.

At the same time, I couldn’t really figure out just what my English teachers wanted. You know those kids who seem to just intuitively suss out what their teachers are looking for and give it to them? Well that wasn’t me. The whole business of analyzing various people’s writing was a mystery to me, even though I read a lot. The rules just seemed so fuzzy.

Interestingly, my first real glimpse of the world of rhetoric came when I was studying for the AP English Comp test. My school did not offer a formal “AP English” class, but students were encouraged to sign up for the exam regardless. Having virtually no guidance about how to prep, I sat myself down with a dictionary of rhetorical figures. The sheer number and foreignness of them made me panic (how on earth was I supposed to learn all this?) but it also gave me a glimpse of a new way of thinking. This rhetoric stuff, what was it really? Clearly it was important — entire books had been dedicated to it. But if it was important, why had my teachers been ignoring it for all these years?

A few years later, during my junior-year abroad stint in the hyper-traditional French university system, where I studied basically nothing but rhetoric in my literature classes, I discovered that knowing lots of rhetorical terminology actually made analyzing things (not just a literature) a whole lot easier. I had always struggled to start papers: I never knew what to focus on, or how to develop an argument, or how to engage with a text on a word-by-word level.

Learning about things like anaphora and parataxis and synecdoche gave me a language for approaching a text and describing what authors were doing; they allowed me to quickly understand how the parts of a text worked together to create a whole. All I had to do was start by describing how the language worked rhetorically, and I’d quickly find myself with a solid thesis.

For someone who used to compulsively procrastinate and torture herself over getting started on pretty much every paper she had ever written, this was literally a life-altering development.

But if that doesn’t persuade you, let me conclude by appealing to your sense of practicality: without a strong and varied set of tools for understanding how texts work, the range of things you can notice and discuss in your papers is greatly restricted. Discussing things takes up space – if you’re trying to fill five or 10 pages quickly, it helps to have lots of stuff to talk about. The more specific you can be, the easier a time you’ll have filling up space.

Otherwise, you are basically stuck rehashing the content, describing in great detail the reader’s probable reactions, or using lots of adjectives to talk about how great the author’s work is (the major things that I see in students’ writing). That might fly in high school, but it probably won’t work in college.

That is not to say your college professors will expect you to discuss rhetorical figures in depth in your papers – with the possible exception of a freshman rhetoric class, they won’t – but it will greatly expand your ability to notice how arguments are put together and create readable, interesting prose. And that is also a skill you can apply to almost anything that involves reading and writing in the real world, from writing a standout cover letter to soothing an angry colleague over email 3,000 miles away.