Many works of literature deal with political or social issues. Choose a novel or play that focuses on a political or social issue. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue and explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.
AP Literature and Composition Exam, Form B (2009)
When my students sat down to respond to this prompt on the AP Literature exam in May 2009, 1984 was listed as one of the College Board’s recommended texts. But we had not read Orwell’s novel as a class. And while it is hard to imagine a more perfect fit between text and prompt, lacking the preparation provided by a group discussion, none of my 28 students chose 1984 as the subject of their essay.
Though 1984 had only appeared twice before on the exam — in 1994 and in 2005 — I chastised myself mightily for my failure to prepare my class. “I should have anticipated a socio-political question!” “How could I have overlooked dystopia and focused instead on bildungsroman?!” In retrospect, of course, my self-flagellation seems ridiculous. But such is the pressure of teaching AP Literature and judging one’s effectiveness by one’s students’ scores.
Once I forgave myself this transgression, I was — and continue to be — left with a lingering question: why did not a single one of my students decide to write about a text that I had omitted from our syllabus? Even those who had read it independently chose to write about novels we had read as a group. The only conclusion I have been able to reach echoes a truth I first encountered in bell hooks’ teaching to transgress more than 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education: the education most of us have received and are providing is not — and is never — politically neutral.
That is to say, my decision to include — or in this case to exclude — a text in my syllabus had a powerful impact on my students’ perception of its value, meaning, and importance. Instead, I chose Toni Morrison’s Beloved that year. And King Lear and The Handmaid’s Tale and The Things They Carried among others. Were those the right choices? I don’t know if there is any way to meaningfully answer that question. It is simply a truth. I chose those texts and, in so doing, inadvertently demonstrated my politics, my values, and my beliefs.
Or was it inadvertent? I made these inclusion/exclusion choices on my own without consulting my students. But that’s my job! As a teacher, I can’t teach everything. I must curate our resources. So what alternative did I have? I think the better choice would have been to be transparent about my selection process. And to emphasize that my decision to include or exclude a particular novel inevitably changed the nature of the class and of our discussions. And that those discussions would invariably be influenced by my personal perspective.
My inclusion/exclusion reflections also extended to my considering the kinds of questions I would have asked about the novel and the questions I ask about any novel we read as a group. While I certainly make efforts to present multiple perspectives, what is the impact of my focusing more on characters or themes? Literary elements or setting? Authorial intent or relevance to current events?
These are all foci I would address for any novel we read. But my raising a novel’s relevance to today would always be a loaded inquiry. How could any discussion of Beloved in the wake of Charlottesville or of King Lear following allegations of nepotism in the Trump Administration NOT be loaded? Yet what my reconsideration of 1984 has made most clear to me is that I cannot eliminate my politics. However, I can be as transparent as possible about how my point of view — and my experiences overall — must necessarily influence our dialogue. Especially when I recognize the fact that my students relied so heavily upon our discussions to write their essays.
Today, I am grateful for the opportunity Many Conversations is providing to return to 1984 and wrestle with the complexities of teaching the novel to students vs. facilitating a discussion about the novel with adults. My hope is that these adult conversations will evolve organically and that — absent the weight of an AP exam looming on the horizon! — participants will bring their own points of view and will share these and will hopefully push back when my questions appear disconnected from their interests.
I am positive that English teachers around the world are reading the headlines and looking at the countless bestseller lists which now echo the resurgence of interest in 1984. I imagine them dusting off old book room copies and proudly returning the novel to their required reading lists and whole group discussion lesson plans.
Personally, I think this is fantastic and welcome news. Otherwise, I would not have chosen to write this post or to moderate several of the upcoming 1984 discussions. In truth, I would have a hard time selecting a more fitting text to help us wrestle with the truths — and truthiness — the conflicts, and the challenges we face today. I simply hope these teachers will ask themselves, and their students, two questions I failed to ask: What brings YOU to this text today?
And perhaps even more importantly: What are you bringing to the text?
I hope you, too, will explore those questions thoughtfully as you read 1984 and then attend one of the hundreds of One Book, Many Conversations events next month. And I hope that during those discussions you take to heart Orwell’s ironic statement about the best books being “those that tell you what you know already.” Because we do Orwell a great disservice if we look to the novel and to discussions of the novel as a means of reinforcing what we know already. I hope that instead, we can relish the opportunity to explore the innumerable fresh, unfamiliar perspectives that any discussion of the text has the potential to provide. For I believe it is the explorations of the unfamiliar and of the uncomfortable that the text encourages which would be the ones Orwell would most cherish.
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Jonathan R. Werner is a Library & Instructional Technology Specialist at the Cape Elizabeth Library and Learning Commons in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He is a former English teacher and finds his Teacher-Librarian role offers endless opportunities for continuing to explore and discuss Middle Grade, Young Adult, and classic literature. He is the Immediate Past President of the ISTE Librarians Network and serves as an advisor to the DOE's Future Ready Librarians campaign. Learn more about his work on Twitter @maineschooltech