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AP Language

Sample Responses to Questions on Francine Proses I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read

Questions on Rhetoric and Style

1. Discuss three appeals to ethos in this essay. What different roles, or personae, does Prose use to
establish her ethos?
Prose is careful to begin her essay by speaking on the friendly common ground of parenthood. As she
continues, her role as educator and English professor becomes a stronger persona; the way she presents
research she has done establishes this ethos (para. 29 is a striking example). She also speaks as a reader,
someone who loves books, especially fiction, and learns from them; the section on her reading of King Lear is
particularly germane to this persona (paras. 30 and 31). By the last few paragraphs, she speaks as an informed
citizen, perhaps even a social critic, as she makes the case for the long-term impact of commercialism and
commodification of literature on our culture.

2. Proses opening paragraph includes such words as appalled, dismal, and drearinessall with negative
connotations. Why does she start out with such strong language? Does she risk putting off readers who do
not share her views? Why or why not? What other examples of strongly emotional language do you find
in the essay?
Prose never shrinks from strong language, and, in fact, one could make the case that she deliberately
dramatizes the opening to shock the reader. She is, after all, attacking beloved works of literature and
questioning their worth. Although she certainly does risk putting some readers off, her careful building of an
argument through specific examples will draw in the more thoughtful ones, even though they may disagree.
(Its worth mentioning that the essay appeared in Harpers, a magazine with a fairly intellectual and liberal
readership. The people who are reading this essay are probably knowledgeable about the books Prose
references.)

3. Prose makes several key assumptions about the role and impact of reading literary works in high
school. What are they?
Several of her assumptions include: (a) reading challenging and well-written literature provides the reader with
ideas and perspectives that improve their lives; (b) assigning poorly written or superficial literary works
contributes to a lack of interest in reading; (c) school, especially the English classroom, is where we develop our
lifelong reading habits; (d) serious literature deserves to be read for its language, not merely its content.

4. What appeals does she make to logos?

Prose appeals to logos by constructing her argument inductively with numerous examples to support her
assertions. She builds her case deductively by using syllogistic logic, such as:
Major premise: Reading poor quality works discourages the habit of reading.
Minor premise: Schools are assigning poor quality works.
Conclusion: Schools are discouraging the habit of reading.
Her strongest appeal to logos, though, is in her use of sources. Although she speaks as a parent and reader,
throughout the essay, she backs up her ideas by demonstrating her wide and deep knowledge, much of it
research-based. She incorporates sources, usually with direct quotations, throughout the essay.

5. Prose cites many different novels and plays. Does she assume her audience is familiar with some of
them? All of them? Explain why it matters whether the audience knows the works.
Because of the readership of Harpers, Prose can assume that her audience knows the primary texts she
references, including Shakespeares plays, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, etc. In cases
where she alludes to a lesser-known work, she often provides a brief explanation. For example, in paragraph 5
she refers to Ordinary People, a weeper and former bestseller by Judith Guest about a dysfunctional family
recovering from a teenage sons suicide attempt. Thus readers would not need familiarity with the novel to
understand her point. In the case of secondary sources, she provides more elaborate explanation, often
quotations; see paragraphs 28 and 29.

6. According to Prose, To hold up [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings] as a paradigm of memoir, of
thoughtof literatureis akin to inviting doctors convicted of malpractice to instruct our medical
students (para. 13). Do you agree with this analogy? Explain your answer. What other examples of
figurative language can you find in this essay?
This example of figurative language typifies the strong language Prose uses; some students may think its
exaggeration, but its sure to generate discussion. Students might cite her criticism of Angelous metaphor as
evidence that she is not exaggerating (paras. 6 and 7). Perhaps this criticism, which takes on a mocking tone
with its sheer number of bad examples, has made Prose wary of using figurative language herself. Examples are
scarce. A few include:
Paragraph 3: . . . the vision of an artist can percolate through an idiosyncratic use of language, and for the
supple gymnastics of a mind . . .
Paragraph 18: . . . as is everything that constitutes style and that distinguishes writers, one from another, as
precisely as fingerprints or DNA mapping.
Paragraph 26: But to treat the geniuses of the past as naughty children, amenable to reeducation by the
children of the present, evokes the educational theory of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Paragraph 42: . . . love and respect the language that allows us to smuggle out, and send one another, our
urgent, eloquent dispatches from the prison of the self.

7. Toward the end of the essay (paras. 35, 39, and 43), Prose uses a series of rhetorical questions. What is
her purpose in piling one rhetorical question on top of the other?
By the end of the essay, Prose has made her case and might be seen as asking the reader to confirm what has
become obvious. In paragraph 42, Prose states directly what we can gain from serious literature seriously taught
and read: we will understand the infinite capacities and complexities of human experience . . . accept
complexity and ambiguity . . . love and respect the language that allows us to smuggle out, and send one
another, our urgent, eloquent dispatches from the prison of the self. After that list of lofty principles, Prose
seems to take a breath and then say, So we have to ask ourselves a series of questions whose answers have
become clear. This same pattern is seen in paragraphs 35 and 39, both of which are preceded by paragraphs of
answers to the questions posed. It is as if she is asking her readers, Will you settle for anything less? Should
anyone? (She thus moves from argument to persuasion.) Also in paragraph 39, she embeds in her questions the
very point she is making. Thus, when she asks Why not celebrate the accuracy and vigor with which [Twain]
translated the rhythms of American speech into written language? she is making the case for such celebration.

8. Would Prose have strengthened her argument by including interviews with a few high school students
or teachers? Why or why not?
Asking students if adding the voice of a neophyte to the conversation among scholars and researchers is likely
to generate debate. It is also likely to raise questions of how many: would one or two student voices add
authenticity? What if she had included comments from her own sons?

9. According to Prose, why are American high school students learning to loathe literature? Try to find at
least four or five reasons.
Let me count the ways! She quite literally piles up her reasons. Here are a few:
Assigned reading is often mediocre.
Teachers emphasize the individual rather than the universal, encouraging students to see themselves in the
work in the most pedestrian terms rather than probing for deeper meaning.
Teaching literature for values or character education reduces it to soporific moral blather (para. 18).
Teaching methods that narrow the world of experience down to the personal (para. 40) prevent students
from experiencing the world of the book.
Attention is not being paid to languagecareful and close reading of the writing itself.

10. Does she propose a solution or recommendations to change this situation? If she does
not offer a solution, is her argument weakened? Explain your answer.

The word doom appears in the opening paragraph; the spirit of doom reappears in the final one. Although
Prose does not explicitly offer a solution, one is implicit: assign and teach kids better books and teach them
(books and kids) well. If such action is not taken, then her prediction that well become a culture of people
unable to understand, appreciate, or even tolerate the gray areas of human experience and behavior will come
true. Students might consider whether recommending a concrete and practical solution would undermine the
effect of her predictions of
doom at the end of the essay.