I'm at an AP Summer Institute this week, preparing for next year's teaching of AP English Literature. As is always the case, I'm enjoying the official instruction time and finding the unscheduled social time fairly stressful. And it doesn't help that I've got the killer summer cold that just won't quit; a week and a half into this virus and I'm still sneezing and wheezing and hacking up a lung every other minute, which makes me feel like a germ-spreading leper around other people anyway.
Our workshop yesterday afternoon reminded me of why I actually haven't been anxious to teach AP Lit (although I also resented the dept head's clenched grasp on the class, not letting anyone else take a stab at it). We were reading some sample student essays from the AP exam, on the function of a symbol in an important work of literature, ... and, oh my heavens, what a tedious bunch of essays! Reading a bunch of simplistic essays on the symbolism of blood in Macbeth or the green light in The Great Gatsby is pretty much everything I have tried to avoid in my career as an English teacher, and I had a moment of panic about what the next year might bring. Part of the issue is that, left to my own devices, I would never give students an assignment to discuss a symbol, because I know from experience that such an assignment will produce tedious, formulaic essays.
And then this afternoon we had a lively discussion with a local author, whose most famous novel (one that I had never heard of, but it was a finalist for the National Book Award back in the '90s). I liked his prose but not his characterization, so I won't be assigning his novel to my students, but he was quite the raconteur and an interesting speaker. Anyway, a couple of folks in my class -- all high school English teachers -- asked questions of him that betrayed such a tedious understanding of literature and how it works; when he was clearly a bit affronted, they expanded on their points by explaining the kinds of analysis they have their student do -- things like deciding how every pertinent detail was a symbol and of what -- and not only was the author not convinced (at one point he said, "One could certainly read the novel in that way, but it's the least interesting way that I can think of"), but I again had a sinking moment of thinking, "Oh no, is this what I'm in for in teaching AP Lit?"
And then our group leader -- a guru in the world of AP Lit -- gave a bit of a sweetly scolding admonishment about resisting reductionism, and my spirits rose again; clearly I wasn't the only one not thrilled about the things these folks were saying! And then I remembered that I have always been fortunate enough in my institutional contexts that I can pretty much do what I want in my own classroom, even (or especially) when I think my neighbors are doing something boring or silly or pointless, and that this hasn't changed. And I have always thought it's a huge bummer that English teachers are having their student regurgitate reductionist theses about how the green light in Gatsby equals this or that, but I've never done it myself, and I still don't have to. So I've calmed down again and remembered that I can teach however I think best, just as I always have.
Interestingly, it turns out that I've made peace with reductionism in another context, and that is the AP Lit multiple choice section on the exam. Getting all pissed off at the inadequate answers on multiple choice literature exams is actually one reason that I didn't go into public school teaching; eight years ago, when I was looking into a high school teaching career, I took a gander at the state exam I'd have to take to get certified and totally threw a gasket about how stupid the answers were on the MC test. (And I still think that it's a pretty stupid test, actually; in my supportive spouse role, I took a full practice test last year when D. was getting certified.) But over my four years of teaching the AP English Language course, I made my piece with the MC section of the AP exam, which I thought was pretty smart as far as MC tests go. Sure, I don't always love the answer options, but if you're going to hitch your wagon to the AP star, you have to learn to deal with the exam itself.
Anyway, I bring this up because our homework tonight is to do a full hour-long MC section of the 1999 exam. This afternoon I settled down in the library with a collegue from the class, both of us intent on doing the homework right away. I plowed my way through, got the whole thing done in 40 minutes, and missed only one question (yay, me! I brag here because I'm definitely going to be hiding that particular light under a bushel in class tomorrow), and then wound up in a conversation with the guy I'd walked over with. He was in the midst of the same sort of MC angst that I'd felt when I'd looked at the state exam eight years ago, and I gave him my "embrace reductionism in this one special circumstance, even as we resist it elsewhere" spiel, which he seemed to find helpful.
We're not quite at the half-way point in this AP Summer Institute, and I'm already longing to be home and wrestling with / preparing for my own AP course for next year, not burdened by some of the foolish things that other English teachers say. I don't mean that to be as snotty as it sounds; many of these folks are teaching in circumstances that I can't even imagine -- failing public schools with daily violence -- and I admire many of the things that they're doing with their students ... but not necessarily their literary acumen. And so, once again, I recognize how very, very privileged I am to be in a position where I actually get to value literary acumen because no one is trying to hurt me or my students.