AP English Literature and the Pedagogy of Whiteness

Why content and the canon is only part of the problem

Arthur Chiaravalli
Jul 26, 2018 · 14 min read
From Dead Poets Society (1989)

Racism only ever appears…as what it is not, as something other than it is. It is essentially misleading, suggesting that the underlying affective system operates only to the extent that it does not appear as such. — Jared Sexton

Recently, the College Board has come under fire for its changes to AP World History, announcing that the course would now limit itself to covering only history after 1450 CE. Critics of the move point out that removing the 8,000 years before that date threatens to further enshrine a Eurocentric view of history, marginalizing the history and accomplishments of African, American, and Asian cultures before colonialism. Amanda DoAmaral articulated these concerns during a shocking exchange with the College Board’s Trevor Packer at the AP Reading Open Forum in Salt Lake City.

Amanda explains to AP Trevor why it is so important to show

“…our black and brown and our native students that their histories matter, their histories don’t start at slavery, their histories don’t start at colonization. And you’re just another person of authority telling my students that their histories don’t matter. And you need to take responsibility for that.

You can tell me all day that Period 3 [600–1450 CE] matters, and you can tell me all day that we should teach those things. But if it’s not on the test, people are going to stop teaching it.

Let’s just say that AP Trevor took DoAmaral’s accusation a little personally. “How dare you claim that I do not care about them,” he quipped. Since then, he has walked his stance back somewhat.

For a while, it looked as though the College Board was reconsidering the 1450 CE cut-off and instead starting with Period 3, still with an eye to ensure “that students and teachers no longer have to race through the course.” This would allow teachers to teach the African kingdoms, the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, and the Islamic Golden Age. Now, it seems they’re rolling out 1200 CE as the starting point for human history that matters.

As an AP teacher myself (English Literature and Composition), I admire DoAmaral’s courage in standing up to Trevor Packer and the College Board. I also appreciate the efforts of teachers like Nate Bowling who continually challenge gatekeeping and inequity in advanced courses.

As Bowling explains in a recent article,

In my role as 2016 State Teacher of the Year and in my advocacy since, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many schools. These visits are almost always rewarding, but there’s a repeated sin: You enter the school and are greeted by hallways full of diverse, energetic, chatty students. The principal or counselor proudly walks you around, talking about their recent test score history, extracurriculars, or rising graduation rate. You round a corner and all of the sudden things shift. As you look in the doors of classrooms, something is different. Suddenly a school with the demographics of Oakland has math classes that look like Oslo. You’ve entered the Honors hallway or the Dual Enrollment Small School, or the IB wing, and it looks nothing at all like the school as a whole. I’ve seen it time, after time, after depressing time.

As I look at my own AP English Literature class and at advanced classes throughout our department, I see that both these areas need improvement. Our advanced courses do not represent the demographics of the school, and neither do the authors and protagonists cluttering our closets. So, in terms of both content and inclusion, we center white stories and students and are thereby complicit in a system that degrades and damages black and brown students. This year, I am part of a committee to address these problems, as well as other race-related concerns in the school at large.

But arguably — and unlike AP World History — the College Board is off the hook with AP English Literature and Composition. Indeed, in recent decades they seem to have consciously served up an increasing number of prose passages and poems by authors and poets of color. Posts on the AP English Literature and Composition course website are frequently devoted to broadening the canon to include a wider array of voices than dead white men, with posts on teaching the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley and Rita Dove, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Islamic women authors.

AP English Literature and Composition has seemed immune from most recent controversies, including the overhauls of AP courses and exams away from memorizing facts and toward understanding big ideas, reasoning, analysis, and evaluation of evidence. I admit I felt a little smug as my non-AP English colleagues scrambled to make sense of a new curriculum that was no longer so clearly cut and dry. Since imaginative writing defies neat classifications, there has never been a step-by-step way to equip oneself via towering stacks of index cards or dozens of practice problems. This meant that my students almost always felt a little less prepared than they did in those other AP classes, which could take more of a “Kaplan” approach to improving scores.

So on several counts, AP English Literature and Composition has been seemingly above reproach. Minus the World History dust-up, the College Board seems to make all the right moves, hosting yearly “A Dream Deferred” conferences focusing “on the state of college readiness for African American students and [providing] a forum for sharing best practices, key data, and research to drive measurable actions to ensure access to opportunity.”

Does Langston Hughes know that the College Board has the trademark on this?

I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s my natural distrust of monopolies who call themselves non-profits. Maybe it’s my disdain for how the scoreboards of standardized tests attempt to reduce the complex reality of teaching and learning to numbers. And even if concerns around content, equity, and inclusion are addressed, I still feel the Advanced Placement classes will continue to privilege white ways of knowing and understanding. Don’t get me wrong: shifting the start date of AP World History from 1450 CE to 600 CE would make a big difference. Additionally, access to advanced coursework of any sort is something schools should audit and address immediately.

But I have begun to have strong doubts that these steps alone can ultimately bring the kind of change we need. I am increasingly convinced that AP English Literature and Composition by its very nature privileges whiteness and a white view of literature. I would argue similar problems plague most Advanced Placement classes.

How, you ask? Well, in some ways, I wish it were as obvious as AP World History. Indeed, the thought barely occurred to me before this year. I just thought it was the literature that, over time, had accumulated in our closets, testifying against us. Once those first biased choices had been made, the story goes, it’s hard to change course. It’s much easier to buy 10 replacement copies for a set of books than to buy a whole new set of 90. So each year, teachers ask for $50–100 to replenish their supply. Replace a few tattered copies of Death of a Salesman and The Stranger and you’ve just recentered the plight of the white male protagonist for the next decade. Any nonwhite, non-male characters are either absent or relegated to a supporting role, comprising a nameless, primordial chorus who looks to the white tragic hero with fear, reverence, and awe. As Edward Said put it, “The Arabs of The Stranger are nameless beings, used as background for the portentous metaphysics explored by Camus.” This statement rings true of much of the literature we read in schools.

As with the cultures and societies that flowered before 1450, the clear message is that these lives do not matter.

Willy is really pissed off about modern life

But the College Board didn’t do any of this, right? We could have bought all different books, right?

Looking over a list of most commonly referenced works in 47 years of AP English Literature Exams, you see an overwhelming majority of white authors, but also James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Rudolfo Anaya, Richard Wright, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Fae M. Ng, Amy Tan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others. That’s more than enough literature to fill an entire AP English course.

One brief point I would make is that the College Board needs to do more than pay lip service by merely listing off authors — many of whom English teachers, having received an even more whitewashed education, have not studied. Throwing out titles is little more than food for thought.

But maybe this responsibility still falls on us. As DoAmaral states, the College Board’s obligation consists in what the test includes — that, in turn, will drive curriculum. In the case of AP English Literature, the College Board has made significant strides in this area by including writers of color. This, combined with regular calls for expanded access, would seem to exonerate AP English Literature of any similar claims of implicit racism or white supremacy. If they are able to resolve this AP World History kerfuffle correctly, the College Board can put this whole embarrassing episode behind them and get back on the right side of history.

So what’s the issue? Ultimately, it comes back to standardized testing and the racist assumptions baked into it. The problem is not easily fixed, but this much is clear: a testing organization can’t fix it.

And the problem is even more severe with AP English Literature and Composition.

Standardized testing, as well as the many problems associated with it (the achievement gap, gatekeeping, off-rolling, stereotype threat, test-cheating scandals, test-prep becoming curriculum in disadvantaged schools) is not a neutral, objective observer who just pops by to see what has been happening in the classroom. In fact, the impulse to get back to a so-called neutral, objective space is, in itself, a reactionary step that effectively whitewashes systemic inequities.

Beyond its associated issues, however, standardized tests are themselves problematic. No discussion of the racism of standardized testing is complete without an examination of its racist and eugenicist history, an origin story the tests have not outrun. As Ibram X. Kendi writes, “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

Tracing the tests back to their racist origins, Kendi explains how — even as most have moved away from geneticist explanations for the achievement gap (unfortunately, not all) — our continued credence in the validity of this measure is itself racist. Kendi states, “the belief that ‘inferior’ Black minds are capable of doing as well as the ‘superior’ White minds does not take away from the racist belief in the existence of the racial hierarchy itself.” The continued prominence of standardized exams in education is arguably a ritualistic reaffirmation of this belief, regardless of whatever “gains” our efforts produce. Thus, Kendi asks,

What if, all along, well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap has been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments actually cause different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different — and not inferior — to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school?

AP exams, including AP English Literature, lend further credence to the racist idea of the achievement gap. Pass rates on AP exams for Black students hover around 30% each year; Whites pass at a rate of roughly double that. And while some might say these results call attention to the quality of teaching these Black students receive, it seems just as likely that standardized tests, which were first designed to show a racist hierarchy, would reliably produce that hierarchy, even a century later.

As David Kirkland, Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, states in his interview with Brian Mooney,

We tell young urban kids that their identities don’t matter. We tell them that the way they see the world doesn’t matter, the way they construct selves within the world doesn’t matter…We twist their identities to the most deplorable things, we call them criminal. Not only do we call their identities criminal, we call them deficit…When I follow those same young people with burgeoning identities outside the classroom, they’re reading and writing in complicated and beautiful ways, yet in ways that we fail to recognize and value.

And AP English Literature may have even closer links to a white supremacist viewpoint than other subject areas. Literature, by its very nature, is subject to interpretation. There is no neutral, objective way of reading a literary text. Each approach is premised on a set of ideological and ethical assumptions. Some more established methods — such as Psychoanalytic, Archetypal, Critical Race Theory, Feminist, Marxist, and Historicist lenses — all provide fruitful ways of making sense of what is happening in a given text.

None of these lenses, however, lend themselves to valid or reliable measurement. Thus, the default lens enshrined by the AP English Literature exam is what Paul Thomas calls “a reduced (and often bastardized) version” of New Criticism, a critical lens which asserts that literature is best read independent of any historical, biographical, or social context or impact. Originally, this mid-century movement was, among many things, a reaction to a perceived overemphasis on the more subjective or emotional evaluations of a work’s worth. While it has now largely fallen out of favor at the college level, it is the perfect lens for the AP exam.

Why dumbed-down New Criticism? Because in the timed setting of an exam, there’s no time to provide any context beyond the occasional asterisk explaining an unfamiliar allusion. That essentially rules out other lenses which invite a more personal, critical approach. It’s not hard to see how those lenses would make the exam impossible to standardize and reliably assess. Would a scorer have a strong enough command of post-colonial or feminist concepts to evaluate a student’s application of those lenses? Probably not.

Instead, students get right to work examining the various poetic and literary devices writers use to achieve their meaning. Increasing frequency of enjambed lines? Might show some emotional turbulence. Short, pithy sentences? Might characterize the speaker as assertive. No context is required; all the student needs to do is convincingly point out which objective levers and pulleys the writer uses to reveal the particular meaning, attitude, or state of mind.

So what’s the problem? Seems rational and fair to be objective, right?

Here, too, an examination of origins may also be helpful. Although it has earlier roots elsewhere, New Criticism was largely codified and popularized by the Southern Agrarians, writers and poets who also valorized the southern culture and way of life. Although their ideological perspectives varied, many expressed a strong affinity with the antebellum South.

In The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and Politics of Whiteness, Angie Maxwell examines the consequences of this approach:

Ultimately, the “heresy of paraphrase” discouraged the critic from making any sort of comment of political or historical significance. Thus, this tenet of New Criticism, in a sense, enshrines silence as the ultimate critical virtue. And silence is most closely related to quietism, or status-quo conservatism, the political view that refuses to examine the influence of the historical past on the present…For the New Critics, channeling their energy into deciphering the language of the poem…allowed them to suppress the historical context of literature.

As with the original standardized tests, the development of New Criticism itself is grounded in a compulsion to codify elitist values associated with whiteness. As Kendi notes,

Gathering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives has long been the amusement of the leisured elite. Relegating the non-elite to the basement of intellect because they do not know as many abstractions has been the conceit of the elite.

Similarly, in his essay “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” founding New Critic John Crowe Ransom idealized the “fullness of life” and “form of leisure” enjoyed in the antebellum South. This lifestyle, described with little reference to slavery (“monstrous enough in theory, but, more often than not, humane in practice”), was deemed a necessary basis for the “life of intelligence and the arts” and “life of the spirit.”

Thus, both standardized tests and New Criticism share an emphasis on so-called neutral, objective approaches to knowing, ones that thwart attempts to critically interrogate or respond personally to texts. Not surprisingly, these approaches also show a distinct preference for texts that can exist outside a social, historical, or political context — “universal” works unfettered by particulars or provincialism. Both the reading and writing of literature, then, is implicitly an activity for those who are unaffected by and silent about such contexts. This has largely been a privilege and prerogative of whiteness.

Earlier this year, after Donald Trump made his statement about “shithole countries,” I made a last-minute choice to read “quaking conversations” by the Haitian-American poet Lenelle Moïse for our Monday poem.

I’m not proud to say that I steered the poem toward the exam by creating a prompt modeled after the poetry free-response question:

The following poem, written by the Haitian-American poet Lenelle Moïse, responds to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Read the poem carefully. Then write an essay in which you analyze how Moïse employs allusion and other poetic devices to complicate and contextualize the event.

What amazed me about this experience was how this approach, by privileging the examination of the poet’s technique above any other feature, effectively neutralized its social and political valence. It’s not to say that we didn’t understand its basic message, it’s just that our mindset for the exam is to quickly discern the meaning, and then spend the bulk of our time identifying the formal characteristics that support or reveal it. I’m not sure why, but after being subjected to this reductive, empiricist lens, Moïse’s poem seemed too simplistic, too unambiguous in its message to be poetry with a capital “P.” She seemed to have paid little attention to formal or structural elements. The anger was there, but we couldn’t give her “credit” for it until we found a clear correlative for it in her technique. It was as if Moïse was “quaking” too much to muster the necessary Wordsworthian “emotion recollected in tranquility.” This caused the poem to score rather low on the Pritchard scale.

We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.

When it was all said and done, I felt that I’d done a grave disservice to the poem, the poet, and her subject. The lens of the exam regularly makes me hesitant about exposing so-called “political” poems (all poems are political) to this treatment. Amanda DoAmaral’s words about AP World History are true for me: if it’s not on the test, people are going to stop teaching it. Here what’s on the exam is not so much the content as a context and an approach that privileges and prefers whiteness.

As our school begins the hard work of addressing systemic racism and white supremacy in the coming years, I can’t help but feel that AP classes and their exams will continue to be a stumbling block, strongly influencing us to maintain the whitist status quo. By preferencing the neutral, the objective, the abstract, the universal, AP English Literature and Composition sets up a hierarchy that normalizes and privileges whiteness. Just introducing more nonwhite stories and students to this space doesn’t disrupt that hierarchy.

Maybe this critique is too pessimistic and doesn’t consider the the agency of the AP English teacher to creatively disrupt and evade oppressive systems. Perhaps, as Michel de Certeau argued, we should emphasize the role of “popular resistances”:

Innumerable ways of playing and foiling the other’s game, characterise the subtle, and stubborn resistant activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and representations…In these combantants’ strategems, there is a certain art in placing one’s blows, a pleasure in getting around the rules of a constraining space.

De Certeau’s statement calls to mind the work of brilliant teachers like Julia E. Torres who find ways to carve out culturally responsive spaces in the context of AP English Lit. Additionally, Julia, along with Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, and Kimberly N. Parker, have been using the #DisruptTexts slowchat to question mainstream literary classics. Indeed, we can’t wait for the College Board to loosen its oppressive stranglehold on American education any time soon. Still, I question the widespread acceptance of these so-called objective, neutral ways of knowing, ones that affirm our faith in a racial hierarchy and perpetuate the pedagogy of whiteness.

Arthur Chiaravalli

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Teacher, learner, thinker. Exploring what’s possible in education.

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