Literary Merit: Diversifying the AP® Literature Classroom

by Heather Garcia

For over twenty years, the third free-response question on the AP® Literature exam asked students to write a literary analysis essay about a work of “literary merit,” or a work that demonstrated “literary quality.” Students could choose a title from the list they were provided or they could use a work “of comparable literary merit” that they felt fit the prompt. But in the 2019-20 school year, with the adoption of the new AP® Literature Course Exam Descriptions, the test changed. That phrasing no longer exists.

The rationale behind this switch is that in some cases teachers were holding too rigidly to the classic canon. Thousands of AP® Literature students from around the nation wrote about Frankenstein in 2017 when the prompt asked about “a character whose origins are unusual or mysterious.”  Students could have written about Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. They could have written about Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they wrote about the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There is nothing wrong with that title; there is a breadth of literary components to analyze in that piece of gothic romanticism. But there are so many diverse texts in the world, and the College Board wants to ensure we are not strictly teaching from an outdated canon just because we assume that is what the College Board is looking for.

To solve this problem, they removed the language that was holding us all back. In a session that AP® Literature Chief Reader, David Miller, gave at the 2019 AP® Annual Conference, Miller said that he wants students reading works from writers from around the world, works that represent more female writers, and more Caribbean writers, and more African writers; writers who do more than represent the predominantly white narrative the way the “traditional” canon does.

When I explained this to my AP® Lit students, they were SO excited. They tried tirelessly to convince me that this was their moment to transition into writing about young adult literature. I had to explain to them (more times than I care to recollect) that YA literature is lovely and provides endless hours of entertainment and thrills and is absolutely diverse, but that it doesn’t usually have the depth required to write a fully formed, college-level analysis. Every so often a title will sneak into the YA world that blows readers away. The two that come to mind are The Book Thief by Mark Zusak and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Both of these texts are rich in plot, characterization, theme, and language. They are not part of a series, and I would say they are AP® Lit-worthy texts to study, but I would be nervous to base my entire year around them. They are a nice bridge for students who are struggling to read the more sophisticated texts that we are trying to nudge our students towards, but their syntax still isn’t as complex as those of more mature works.

Instead, what gets to the heart of what David Miller was trying to say, is that educators should seek out important books that are meant to share important messages. We are encouraged to expose our students to these texts, to study them deeply, to analyze the craft behind the message. We are certainly permitted to keep the classics, but we are also given permission to stretch beyond our traditional canon of literature, to seek out 21st Century writers, to seek a balance of both male and female authors from places beyond the continental U.S. The title that David Miller specifically mentioned at the 2019 conference was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, winner of numerous awards and accolades. Miller used this title as an example of what he would love to see students reading. Homegoing was first published in 2016 and is initially set in Ghana before sweeping across a vast international and multigenerational landscape. The novel’s rich language and important message allow students to step outside of the world they are familiar with and to analyze a story, a piece of the world, they might have never encountered otherwise.

There are so many ways that we can enhance our students’ knowledge of the world and prepare them for college-level study, and the College Board gave us one more tool through which to do so. By eliminating the compulsiveness to teach works of “literary merit” and opening up the breadth of what we can teach, we are free to explore new themes in literature and to embrace diversity in all its forms.

Learn about using excerpts in your classroom in this article.

Heather Garcia

Heather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.

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