The 11th Grade Course

     At Episcopal School of Jacksonville, juniors who qualify may take Advanced Placement English Language and Composition in the context of an American Literature course, as is the case in many public and private high schools throughout the United States. This means that we will be reading texts of various genres by American writers, but our attention will be quite different from other English courses. We focus on rhetorical styles and strategies. Rhetoric is the art of making effective argument, taking into account the speaker's credibility, the characteristics of the audience, and the logic employed by the speaker to make the case and move the audience from one way of thinking to another. We will, therefore, be reading a substantial number of non-fiction texts, especially essays, rhetorical analysis our primary concern.

     Style is the art of choosing the right words (diction) and placing them in the right order (syntax) to make clear the rhetorical purpose. The test of effective choices in diction and syntax is coherent logic. In addition to diction and syntax, effective writers employ imagery and figurative language to generate weight and force in their rhetoric. Because literary texts such as novels, short stories, poetry and drama also have rhetorical purposes and are stylistically rich, we will read with the tools of rhetorical and stylistic analysis. Does this suggest that we are not concerned with literary interpretation? Certainly not!

     While there is a difference between this class and a literary interpretation course, the two are not unrelated. Literary meaning relies on effective language. We will examine the words, the phrases, the clauses, the logic, the audience, and the writer's own persona to see as clearly as possible just what is going on in a piece of writing before we suggest possibilities of literary interpretation. Thus the AP English Language course requires a very disciplined way of reading that studies the language in its rich complexity. Everything we read, non-fiction and fiction alike, requires "rhetorical readers" to ask the following questions:

     AP English Language and Composition will require us to become effective readers, deeply sensitive to the nuances of the language, sharply aware of the writer's use of style to make the meaning unmistakably clear. As we read material originally written for audiences different than we are, we must ask: how does the writer's style and logic work (or not work) for us?

   Various magazines that we can access online, such as The New Yorker, The Economist, National Review, The New Republic and First Things (note the wide range of perspectives reflected in these titles!) provide a rich variety of non-literary and literary writings to study and reflect on alongside the traditional texts from the American literary canon. We will identify, explore and respond to the variety of perspectives and voices shaping contemporary discourse.

     A great deal of information comes to us through images in various forms, especially in journalistic photography, advertising and cartoons. Visual information is heavily coded, making assumptions about how we see and how our response is shaped by content and composition of pictures. Often language accompanies the images we see, but the interplay between an image and the words that go with create some interesting effects. Does the image shape how we read the words, or vice versa? What assumptions shape how such images are presented to us? What assumptions do we hold that shape how we will either understand or misunderstand? Image makers have rhetorical purposes and use deliberate strategies to convey meaning to specific audiences. Creators of images seek to shape our thinking, just as writers do. We will examine pictures at various stages of the course, assessing their rhetorical composition and strategy and the success or failure of that strategy. Just as we must be careful critical readers, so also we must be careful critical viewers.

   Reading and analysis such as described above shapes how we write and communicate in other ways that require collaboration. As quickly as possible we must put behind us the kind of thinking that treats students as solitary learners who write solely for the teacher. Nothing could be more contrary to the very nature of rhetorical thought and communication. From the very start, our reading, thinking and presentation of what we learn will push us to engage and teach one another as we persuade, narrate, exposit and explore the powers of language. The daily Harkness Table form of discussion provides the crucible for our formation of the intellectual discipline for effective discourse. You will learn to assess and produce effective rhetoric. You will be asked to examine the texts and your own and your peers' essays with the same critical discipline. Your own work will become the subject of rhetorical and stylistic scrutiny to help you articulate things that matter to you with clarity and force. Expect to engage your own thought processes and open yourself to both giving and receiving from your peers.

   I hope you will develop "a voice of your own." The authors we study will in effect become our writing mentors. They will show us how to form good thinking habits and urge us toward a higher level of proficiency. I am certain that this course will change how you think and why you write. A good thinker with a clear purpose can with much work become a powerful writer. Train yourself to be "a force to be reckoned with." You already have enough experience to know that becoming a good rhetorical reader and communicator will put you in the minority in our world of shallow discourse and sound byte politics. Imagine yourself as one of those who can cut through the nonsense and whose words (written and spoken) carry the weight of strong argumentation and powerful, engaging style. This is a worthy goal! Engage the challenge with resolve. If you will rise to this challenge, you will be prepared to tackle the AP English Language Examination in late Spring. I expect to learn much from you!

Bert Harrell

August 2015