Composition Theory and Pedagogy
AP US History and Me
by Dan Gremmler
“Your final exam will be in three parts: multiple choice, primary source analysis, and three major essays. I won’t be allowed within 2 miles of you when you take the exam.” The words of Mr. Flaws, my AP US History teacher, reverberated between my ear drums. He either didn’t notice or didn’t seem to care: “The AP US History exam will be on a Saturday in mid May. It’s graded on a scale of 0 to 5. Zero being the lowest possible score, 5 being the highest.” A student in the front row raises her hand, interrupting our baptism by fire. Mr. Flaws motions for her to speak.
“Are you related to Stephen King?” I didn’t realize it at the time (because let’s face it, I didn’t voluntarily read anything that wasn’t a motorcycle magazine until my senior year of high school) but Mr. Flaws bore an uncanny resemblance to the best selling suspense author. Even their eyeglasses were similar.
“He’s my cousin.” the teacher nodded, pausing to recollect his thoughts. “The test is pretty simple, but it’s probably more difficult than anything you’ve taken before.” I had yet to learn the eccentricities of the oxymoron, but that fact didn’t hinder Mr. Flaws as he grinned slyly while he mouthed the previous statement. “The Regents exams have 4 possible answers. The AP has 5, and they’re usually more difficult to discriminate between. The primary source section will be basically the same thing you run into on Regents Part 2s: political cartoons or other documents accompanied by a set of questions. The essays are probably going to be the biggest hurdle for you. You are required to write three instead of the usual one or two on a Regents exam. Like the Regents, you will be given a limited choice between essay topics to write on, and at least one of the essays will probably be based on a primary source document . . . likely a political speech, cartoon, or another essay. Your grade on this test will be the sole determinant of success or failure. Most colleges will accept a 3 on the AP exam, which is roughly equivalent to a C. Others require a 4 or 5 and others don’t award AP credit at all.” He paused a moment, as if to cue a silent shift in his lecture.
“You’ll receive letter grades, but they won’t count on your quarterly average. They’ll be based on how well you perform on tests and quizzes modeled after the AP exam. Every unit test you take will be a mirror of the format you’ll run into in the AP exam, and many of the questions will be culled from past years’ exams. The most important area of the exam to prepare for is the essay section. It’ll account for two thirds of your score . . . .” The lecture continued for the duration of the period. Every student had his or her silly question or comment about the AP process. I was relatively pleased with the outlook of the course. Multiple Choice was like a gift from Heaven to me; I’d always been proficient at following my intuition . . . or instinct . . . or whatever that intangible force is which propels us toward the correct answer even though our conscious self is uncertain. And essay questions were much the same. They had always been the equivalent of free points for me, especially in English where every test contained an obligatory 20-point essay question at the end. That was 20 free points per test! Unfortunately, I came to learn over the course of that year in Mr. Flaws’ AP History class that essay was no longer a synonym for easy.
As long as teachers have been telling me how to write, there has been a standard form for essays, particularly the formal essays accompanying unit and standardized tests. There is to be an “introduction,” usually a paragraph, which includes a clearly defined thesis statement. The “introduction” is to be followed by the “body.” The body is the bulk of the essay and will include specific information used to support the general statement made by the thesis. The typical “body” of an essay includes 2 to 5 paragraphs, each paragraph designating a different subtopic, argument or body of evidence. And finally, there is the “conclusion.” The “conclusion” often consists of a simple restatement of the thesis with an addendum of a sentence or two which includes something relating it to the “body.” This was a form originally learned in the English setting, but it was universally applied to all essays in elementary and secondary education with, more or less, little alteration. In short, this was the “correct” form one should use in writing an academic essay.
The irony is that the people who taught me this magical formula for essay writing, my English teachers, encouraged me to play with and alter the form . . . not completely, but to experiment with it. While other academic disciplines, most notably History but also others, strongly discouraged any deviation from the template. Two of the most hotly contested cardinal rules of the standard formal essay are 1) don’t - DO NOT - use contractions and 2) never speak in the first person. I never liked nor fully understood those rules, but they have been so deeply ingrained into my own writing process over the years that, to this day, I actually find myself asking professors in graduate classes whether contractions or the first person are acceptable in formal writing for their courses.
Mr. Flaws gave us some sample Multiple Choice questions on that first day of class, as a part of his lecture, just to prove to us that he wasn’t kidding when he said the 5th choice was a doozy (cardinal rule number 3: slang terms shall not be used unless specifically quoting another source). Of the 5 possible answers, I was sure only one was incorrect, and I was equally sure that at least the majority portions of 3 other answers were correct. The fifth answer was completely foreign to me (cardinal rule numbers 4 & 5: spell out all numbers under 100 and spell out words, do not us symbols such as “&” or “#”). It was clear to me from just one sample question that the AP exam questions were not simply more difficult, but the possible answers were supplied in a manner so as to trick you! If the correct answer was Franklin Roosevelt, and you knew only that the answer was Roosevelt, then you had, at best, a 50% chance of answering the question correctly. The AP would supply you with the correct answer plus Theodore plus any other Roosevelt the testers could possibly come up with, and then they would play with your long term memory by supplying Rockefeller, another prominent historical figure whose last name began with an R-O and included a doubling of one letter (cardinal rule number 6: abbreviations are acceptable for common usage, but they must not be abridged themselves). The visual and phonetic similarities between the two names, alone, were enough to ensure that any reliance upon “intuition” or “instinct” or “sense” would not insure a correct answer.
Two weeks after discovering Mr. Flaws’ genealogical connection to Stephen King, he passed back our first graded essay assignment. It was a timed essay in class, the same conditions as those of the AP exam - except Mr. Flaws was present to administer the test. Our training in the ways of the AP US History Essay had begun (cardinal rule number 7: any popular cultural reference is a bad one in the course of making an argument - all original movies are considered popular culture - “the ways of the . . .” is a reference to Star Wars. trust me. leave it alone. stop it. now.). I waited patiently in the second row for my essay. Mr. Flaws was a professional, and passed them out by hand so as not to embarrass any students. Finally, he made his way down my aisle, relieving himself of dirty, ink-stained, loose leaf paper in half-step intervals. Then, all at once and not nearly soon enough, it seemed as though he were hovering over me, cradling the remaining essays in his right arm like Lady Liberty: “. . . .” His silence was boisterous. He handed me my paper in the same manner as he had the 10 or so students before me and the 15 or so he would thereafter. He was a professional. I spun forward in my seat. Prepared to scrutinize the glorification of my work of art, immortalized in the permanent red ink of teacherdom, I clasped my paper by either side with both hands, and . . . 13!?!?! (cardinal rule numbers 8 & 9: avoid exclamation marks and never use multiple punctuation marks at the end of a sentence) I had a scale for essays out of a possible 20 points. 19 or 20 was to be expected. 18 was alright. 17 was borderline passable. 16 was technically passable, but pretty embarrassing. Anything below 16 was a bona fide disaster. I had more than my fair share of disasters in AP US History.
11th grade was a difficult time for me. I was experiencing the height of my athletic prowess and expectations and, at the same time, facing the most demanding academic challenges I had yet encountered. Physics ceased to be fun and became work. English was more demanding than it had ever been, but somehow meeting the higher demand made the subject more accessible and enjoyable than in past years. And History . . . I soon came to loathe the one class that I actually looked forward to for my first 11 years of public education. To this day, I find studying US history monotonous and devoid of interest. I learned a hard lesson about my own “innate talent” for writing in that horrid AP class . . . it wasn’t so innate, and “good writing” didn’t look very good anymore.
When I reflect back upon my experience and wonder how it influenced my process of writing and teaching writing, I cringe. I cringe not at Mr. Flaws’ grading policies nor how he taught the course. I don’t even cringe at the idea of teaching students to write intro-body-conclusion essays. Let’s face it, you have to begin somewhere, and breaking the format down into 3 specific parts or 5 specific paragraphs makes for a very effective transfer of knowledge. No, what makes me cringe is the fact that Mr. Flaws had to do what he did. He had to shatter my fragile little ego, and he had to enforce a highly structured, creativity and innovation dimming style of essay. And no matter what advice he tried to give me, no matter how much constructive feedback, he had to show me what the AP would think of my essay. Mr. Flaws wasn’t flawed. The whole process was - pardon the shamelessly obvious pun - flawed (you had to see that coming since the first 2 lines of the paper). Especially after having read Peter Elbow’s book on the teacherless writing class, thinking about that year of AP US History is absolutely appalling. The whole writing process was turned on its head. It wasn’t about learning to write or how to improve writing. It was about what to do in order to pass. I can only imagine how a member of the Iroquois Nation must feel about living in 21st Century New York: join us or be left behind in poverty. Write this way. It is the only way. Indians are subhuman. Be a man: become an American. No, a real American. Write this way. It’s the only real way to write. And then again . . . maybe I just don’t like US history.
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