Discussing Complexity in AP Lit

One of the most common words in AP Lit essay prompts is “complex,” usually paired with the word “relationship.” When we prepare for writing our first FRQs, I tell my students that the word “complex” is the most important word in the prompt. But when asked what complexity means, my students are often confused. Some interpret complex writing to simply be advanced or “fancy-sounding.” Others think it has to do with the inclusion of literary elements. However, there’s one simple way to help your students understand complexity and score high on an essay.

Complexity simply means pairing two things in your analysis.

How it Looks in Writing

For example, take a look at the first paragraph from this released essay from the 2020 exam, which scored a 1-4-1 (a perfect score).

In this paragraph, we see the student’s claim. He or she says that the narrator, Philip Hutton, is experiencing anger and resentment as well as peace and reconciliation. This is a complex argument! This blending of different emotions makes it unique and complicated, thus the complex attitude that College Board is looking for.

So How Do I Teach Complexity To My Students?

Complexity in AP Lit

Once you’ve grasped the concept of complexity, your students will probably still need practice in making complex claims. I recently attempted this with my AP class in our discussion of Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” First, I asked students to analyze the narrator’s attitude towards motherhood. After a lengthy discussion, I asked them to shout out any word they could use to describe or associate with the mother from “I Stand Here Ironing.” The image on the right shows the list of descriptors we came up with. Then, we talked about how a complex argument would say the mother felt a sense of both guilt and pride. Or we could talk about how she shows feelings of inadequacy but also a lack of regret for her daughter’s trauma. Another wanted to talk about she seems helpless and defensive at times, but proud and assertive at others. What complex arguments!

Other Ideas for Complexity

If you’re looking for more ways to discuss complexity with your students, consider analyzing non-literary texts, such as music, movies, or art. Here are some ideas I came up with, but I’m sure there are plenty of other and better options out there too!

Music

One of my favorite songs of the moment is “If the World Was Ending” by JP Saxe and Julia Michaels. As a mother of three kids, I don’t get to drive alone very often. However, when I do, this is one I love to jam out to.

If the World Was Ending by JP Saxe
“If the World Was Ending” with JP Saxe featuring Julia Michaels presents a complex feeling that many students will relate with–a desire to be with someone but an understanding that they’re not a good fit in a long term situation.
The First Few Weeks of AP Lit
Check out this blog post for some more ideas for writing, analysis, and lessons in AP Lit.

The lyrics of this song are very relatable and easy for teenagers to understand. Essentially, both singers in the song express understanding that the other isn’t a good fit for a relationship. However, a physical desire remains. The chorus of the song is, “If the world was ending you’d come over, right?” The singers end almost every question like this with the word, “right,” showing their hesitancy and fear of looking vulnerable. I love the complexity in these lyrics. They capture the mixed emotions of desire and fear of looking vulnerable, which is one of the most relatable complex feelings.

Art

"A Sunday Afternoon in the Garden of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Jatte
“A Sunday Afternoon in the Garden of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Jatte

Another example of complexity, and possibly interpretation, comes from both an art piece and a movie. One of my favorite movies is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In one scene from that movie, Cameron looks into this famous painting while Ferris and his girlfriend make out. The message is clearly on introspection and peace, until the camera begins a gradual zoom-in on Cameron and a figure in the painting.

As the camera zooms closer into Cameron, it also zooms closer into the child in the center of the painting. If you get extremely close, it looks as though the child is screaming, presenting a new perspective to the painting. Is it simply a trick of the pointillism used in the art? Or is it a complex perspective behind the painting, that a peaceful afternoon in the park cannot be interrupted by the distraction of your screaming child? Cameron’s backstory in the movie adds to this complexity, as Cameron, too, is silently screaming throughout his whole existence.

Movies

I had a hard time picking a clip to show complexity from movies. In the end, I like this one from Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a brilliant thriller. In this scene, Chris has traveled to his girlfriend’s parents’ house for the first time. Upon meeting his girlfriends’s parents and their friends, race becomes an uncomfortable barrier between Chris and almost every other character. Things move from awkward to spooky when the few other African American characters behave strangely towards Chris, almost as if they’re struggling to say something they cannot.

Get Out Complexity
This clip from Get Out is perfect for practicing in complexity – how does Chris feel during this scene?

In this clip, Chris depicts his complex feelings of both fear and intrigue when he talks to the housekeeper. For context, the housekeeper is inhabited by another person’s brain, which has taken over her entire personality. She gravitates towards Chris because her original body, or host, is trying to find a way to warn him that his girlfriend’s family wants to lobotomize him and do the same thing to him. Chris is completely creeped out by this woman’s strange behavior, but her eerie desperation seeps out through her fake smile. Her depiction is complex, as is Chris’ curiosity and revulsion.

More on Teaching Complexity in AP Lit

Looking for more lesson plans and strategies for teaching complexity? Check out these other web pages for more information! You can also learn more about complexity, making claims, and the elusive sophistication point in my AP Lit Test Prep materials, available for purchase from Teachers Pay Teachers.