When planning our units at Literary Focus, we begin with the final essay first. Because our ultimate goal is to prepare students for the rigor and challenge of college-level curricula, we use AP Literary Argument prompts from previous AP Literature exams for our final essays. Since the AP Literary Argument prompt we choose determines the focus of the entire unit, we need to establish our thematic goals first and then choose the prompt that best achieves that purpose. For example, when teaching Toni Morrison's Beloved, we want students to examine how characters emotionally and psychologically handle traumatic experiences from the past. To achieve that end, we have chosen the prompt from the 2007 AP Literature exam for the final essay:
The 2007 AP prompt claims that "past events" can affect characters either "positively or negatively." While it might be tempting to focus solely on the negative aspects of the past in a novel like Beloved, we encourage students to explore the complexity of the issues raised in every AP prompt and avoid the either/or fallacy by turning the conjunction "or" into an "and." In other words, how does the past affect characters both positively and negatively?
In the first section of the novel, the narrator claims that Sethe devotes her days to the "serious work of beating back the past" (86). One can surmise that Sethe thinks—at a subliminal level, at least—that if she represses her painful memories, she can focus on the present and perhaps find happiness in the future. While Sethe's rejection of the past might have short-term advantages, Morrison makes clear that repressing the past will have debilitating consequences over time. When Paul D arrives at 124 Bluestone Road, we find that he has adopted a similar strategy as Sethe. Paul D has locked his painful thoughts and feelings inside a "tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut" (86). By repressing these painful emotions, both Sethe and Paul D think they have given themselves space to focus on the present; however, Morrison suggests that their unwillingness to confront their traumatic pasts has also stunted their emotional and psychological growth. Despite the "negative" associations that both characters have with the past, Morrison implies that the characters need to find ways to confront their painful memories in a "positive," life-affirming manner.
We encourage students to explore the complexity embedded in every AP prompt, and when it comes time to write the essay, we have them use the rhetorical framework of Hegel's Dialectic to construct their arguments. Hegel believed that in order to find the intellectual "truth" in any philosophical pursuit, one must use a thesis/antithesis/synthesis model to guide one's thinking:
In Hegel's terms, the "thesis" is not one's overall argument, but simply an initial claim that is contrasted with a complementary counter-claim, or "antithesis." The thesis and antithesis are the focus of the first two body paragraphs in a student's essay, which creates complexity and tension that must be resolved in the concluding third body paragraph, or "synthesis." The overall argument integrates all three elements, with one element leading logically to the next until it comes to a satisfying conclusion that reflects the overall theme of the work—or, to use the AP's terminology, "the meaning of the work as a whole."
To give students a better understanding of Hegel's Dialectic, we provide an overview that has been adapted from John Wetzel's article, "The MCAT Writing Assignment," which he wrote for the website WikiPreMed to help students prepare for the MCAT essay, which was required on all MCAT exams prior to 2013:
Using Hegel's Dialectic prevents students from writing simplistic responses by creating complexity in their arguments. For instance, when responding to the 2007 AP prompt, a student might argue in the first body paragraph (i.e. thesis) that Sethe and Paul D repress painful memories to help them live more fully in the present. This argument could then lead to the second body paragraph (i.e. antithesis), where a student could argue that the coming of Beloved represents how the characters cannot live, however, in perpetual denial of the past, especially when it involves traumatic events. Sethe's eventual embracing of Beloved, who symbolically represents the past, brings its own dire consequences. One could argue that Sethe overcompensates after Beloved arrives, becoming so absorbed in her past that she cuts herself off from the present and the people around her. Morrison suggests that there is a natural tension between these two appealing, yet ultimately self-destructive, responses to trauma that needs to be resolved in the student's third body paragraph (i.e. synthesis). The resolution of this conflict not only becomes the focus of the concluding paragraph, but it also should reveal Morrison's overall theme in the novel, which the AP would call "the meaning of the work as a whole."
Here is what a sample four-paragraph AP Literary Argument essay on Beloved might look like using Hegel's Dialectic. Note that the short introductory paragraph establishes the title, author, and argument by reflecting the focus (i.e. topic sentence) of each succeeding body paragraph:
Since students do not have a copy of the text when writing the Literary Argument essay on the AP Literature exam, they are not expected to use direct quotes. Students should still reference the text indirectly, however, to support their claims. The sample essay above is just one possible way to organize an argument on Beloved using the 2007 prompt. When preparing our units, we make sure we examine every aspect of the prompt to help students understand the various options they have in organizing their essays.
For instance, the 2007 prompt states that "past events" can affect characters not just "positively or negatively," but can also determine their "present actions, attitudes, and values." In other words, the prompt wants students to consider what characters do in the present that has potentially positive and/or negative impacts on the future. Secondly, the prompt asks how characters feel about the present based on what has happened in the past. And, finally, the prompt wants us to examine what characters believe is important in the present as they grapple with the burdens of the past. Since the major characters in Morrison's novel are not static, students should also examine how the characters' "actions, attitudes, and values" potentially change over the course of the novel.
Another angle that the prompt suggests is how past events affect characters not just from a "personal" standpoint, but also from a "societal" one. In this regard, students should consider the larger implications of Morrison's novel for our society and country as a whole. How do the characters' "personal" struggles reflect the larger "societal" struggles that our country still faces in trying to overcome the traumatic legacy of slavery? Since the novel was written in 1987, Morrison implies that the ghost of Beloved does not just haunt the characters in the novel, but that the specter of slavery continues to haunt our nation to this day. Ultimately, readers need to consider how Morrison suggests we can potentially exorcise our "ghosts" of the past to move forward as a society and country.
There are many options for students to consider when writing the AP Literary Argument essay, and teachers need to make sure every aspect of the prompt is addressed at some point in the activities and assignments of the unit. The AP Literary Argument essay is not just the culminating student assessment; it is also the pivotal first decision that teachers need to make when planning their units.