Join Us for ICAPLCPE4

This guy is probably walking into an AP Practice Exam. You should too.

As you all know, I’ll be holding the Fourth Annual Iowa City AP Language and Composition Practice Exam (ICAPLCPE) on the University of Iowa campus a week from tomorrow. That is, Saturday, May 3, at 8:00 AM. It will be at the Iowa Memorial Union, which is the university’s main building for hosting conferences, concerts, and other events. How do you get there? Here you go.

The value of going through a full practice exam, in my view, is that you’ll walk into the actual exam knowing what it feels like to answer 65 or so multiple choice questions, and write three essays, all in one sitting. Well, two sittings. There’s a little break. But you get the idea.

Try hard not to be late. Give yourself plenty of time to get there, in case you take a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Drive carefully. Bring a couple of pencils. Bring a bottle of water. We’ll take the first fifteen minutes to get settled, go over the rules, that sort of thing.


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Essayists for Author Study 3

Anthony Bourdain


Bill Bryson


Ta-Nehisi Coates


Nora Ephron


Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Malcolm Gladwell


Christopher Hitchens


Michael Pollan


Anna Quindlen


Oliver Sacks


David Sedaris


Peter Singer


Neil deGrasse Tyson


Sarah Vowell


Naomi Wolf





Taylor Branch


bell hooks


David Foster Wallace


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Book Review Essays, Spring 2014


This term we’ll talk about book review essays a lot. I insist on tacking the word “essays” on the back end of that phrase to help differentiate between those we’ll be reading, and those which might first come to mind. The latter might include reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads, reviews that offer a quick-glance judgment by seeing four-out-of-five stars reddened. If you’ve regularly read around in newspapers and magazines, you might think of a slightly more sophisticated version, a review that tells you in a more nuanced fashion about a newly-published tome, its strengths and weaknesses, and at least an implied final evaluation.

The essays we’re going to talk about do some of that, but more. They are essays in their own right, about the topic at hand, at some point discussing a recent book on that same subject.

To that end, I’ll frequently refer to the New York Review of Books, a magazine (and, of course, website) which publishes this and other sorts of essays (this morning I find an essay on freedom and spying by German Chancellor Angela Merkel). Clicking there this morning I see several great examples for us. Essays on books about weighty historical topics like slavery and anti-Semitism. There’s another about women at the top of their fields. Each of these is after something greater than even the kind, well-read man or woman at the sales counter of your favorite book store. Each is also an essay, in the sense we’ve discussed all year, hoping to persuade the reader of something, often hoping to change our focus on the world just a little.

When you need to find your way back to these essays, or those like them, click over on the right there, on the tag “book reviews.” It will take you to the posts over the past few years where I’ve linked to many such reviews.

UPDATE: Here’s Steve Coll’s essay, “The King of the Foxes,” which we discussed on Friday, which is a biography.

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Okay Kids, Time for the In-Class Essay




And so on.

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Finding Lit Crit: EBSCOhost

So, one of the things students have sometimes struggled to find is discussion and analysis of an author’s works by literary critics. In this post, I’ll offer some suggestions for finding literary criticism using EBSCOhost.

First of all, it’s important to remember that “criticism” in this context does not have a negative connotation. It does not mean you’re looking for authors who simply disagreed with the author, or thought the author’s works or ideas were flawed. The word “critic,” used in this sense, is similar to what we mean when we use the phrase “critical thinking.” Critics are presumed to have some level of expertise related to the subject, and are therefore able to effectively analyze and make coherent arguments about the substance, rhetoric, or influence of the work. What you’re looking for when you search for criticism is a smart, informed opinion about how we should think about your author’s work. In the best case scenario, you’ll find several different opinions on the author, all of which can inform yours.

When you’re in college, you’ll find you’re using databases all the time to search for different sorts of articles. EBSCOhost will probably continue to be one of the databases available to you. Click on the link there, and log in using the username and password taped to every computer in the lab. Then click on High School Magazine Collection. It will give you a list of databases to search. You should have the following databases checked for an author study criticism search:

  • Academic Search Elite
  • MAS Ultra – School Edition
  • History Resource Center

Then click “continue.” There are various limitations you can put on a search. For example, you might think to yourself, “I bet there were a lot of articles written about my author right after his/her death.” So you could run a search that limits results to the, say, six-month period from just before to several months after the date of his/her death. You could do a similar search around the date of the 50th anniversary of a notable book’s publication. Et cetera.

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Prepare Yourselves

Prepare Yourselves

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On Lying to Your Test Scorer

Earlier this fall I took part of a day to introduce students to the three essays that are usually components of the AP Language & Composition test most of them will take in May. These include the synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis essay, and what I have long referred to as the argumentative/persuasive essay. On this third question, students are typically given a debate on which they are supposed to articulate a position, supporting that position with whatever appropriate evidence they can come up with. That evidence might be from what they’ve read, what they’ve seen on television, what they’ve learned in other classes. It can also come from their own personal experiences.

When I said that last bit to my class, one clever young man asked, “Can we make things up?” Someone always asks this. It’s often a clever young man. I responded, obnoxiously, with a paraphrased quote from Twain: that if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said. (As an aside, I have no idea whether Twain actually said this, or if it’s just one of the many things misattributed to him.) In any case, the point is, the kid asked. I dodged. And I dodged for the same reason that he asked: it’s fairly obvious to everyone that the scorer won’t know whether the kid’s telling the truth or not, sitting in that room with a hundred other scorers and a million other essays. And yet it seems wrong to say to students, who are sitting before you, innocence glinting in their eyes, “B.S. away, my children. B.S. away.”

This issue came to the fore yesterday, at least if you read Matthew J.X. Malady’s article in Slate about the essay portion of the SAT. (Is that the author’s real name? I guess I’ll never know.) Posted under the horribly misleading title, “We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly,” Malady details what he sees as the harmful, unintended consequences of standardized essay exams.

So, for instance, in relaying personal experiences, students who take time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives are at a disadvantage, he says. “The best advice is, don’t try to spend time remembering an event,” Perelman adds, “Just make one up. And I’ve heard about students making up all sorts of events, including deaths of parents who really didn’t die.”

This is apparently cause for alarm. But rather than making some sort of moral case against it, Malady wants to argue that it actually causes students to write more poorly in the future. He goes on to cite university professors such as Anne Ruggles Gere at the University of Michigan:

College professors, according to Gere, expect their students to be able to demonstrate evidence-based argument in their writing. This involves reading and synthesizing materials that offer multiple perspectives, and writing something that shows students are able to navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument. For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging.

I’m sorry, but were college students showing they were able to “navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument” before the SAT writing portion came along in 2005? If you were teaching at the college level before then, I bet you’d argue otherwise. Now, there’s no question that the SAT, and other writing tests that ask students to write for half an hour to a mysterious, impersonal audience they’ll never hear back from, encourages students to game the system. And indeed, I need no convincing that college freshmen think more about whether a personal story will satisfy their assignments than whether that story is meaningful or even factually true. But to blame that on the SAT is to imagine an educational system that teaches writing primarily with standardized essay tests in mind. Happily, I don’t think we have that system yet. I think we still teach students the value of using writing processes that include brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. (If you want to panic about why we teach the wrong things, there are certainly programs for sale that justify some level of concern.)

Meanwhile, let’s not assume that students–high school or college–are such dupes that they can’t tell the difference between a writing situation where they are actually trying to communicate with someone and one that doesn’t actually matter beyond a number. If the way you assess writing looks like a hoop, don’t complain when students try to jump through it.

As for my students, the best advice might be to return to the approach that I teach them about all writing: think about your audience, your purpose, and the occasion. Given those three factors on a standardized writing test, if you don’t feel gross making up a story, just make sure it’s a good one.

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