Senior English

Senior English

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2023-24: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:00-2:30 PM Eastern

Course Overview

General Description

This course is a kind of literary grab-bag, and certainly the least historically-oriented of the Scholars Online English courses. It has less thematic unity than the rest, too, but is instead an attempt to do two things at once:

Under the former rubric, therefore, I am including such things as a smattering of French classicism, the Russian novel, a bit of German proto-romanticism, and the English gothic; under the latter, some further exposure to Shakespeare and Greek tragedy; some more Hawthorne, Melville, and Austen; and a variety of other works that partly continue themes from earlier courses and partly break new ground.

With the exception of a few Greek plays, we will be doing primarily modern (at least post-Renaissance) literature in the western tradition, and indeed, primarily things written originally in English — with a few excursions into areas that seem too important to ignore — some of which are also specially noted as relevant in the College Board's AP materials. (The Russian novel is high on their list, for example. Goethe is not, but I can't see dispensing with him.)

The other point of this class is to address the requirements of the College Board Advanced Placement English program, leading to the taking of the AP exam in the Spring. I do not require students to take the AP Exam, however — that is entirely up to you. But please note: If you choose to take it, you will have to make your own arrangements for it. I have given you a link to the College Board site, but you have to find a local school to administer it, and get yourself there on the appropriate morning.

I also need to make explicit the fact that I cannot formally claim that this is an AP course as such. I am no longer seeking the College Board’s approval for the curriculum. Their process has proven slow, arbitrary, and ultimately incomprehensible: they’ve been known to reject curricula that they have themselves offered as examples; some of the features currently part of the course would have to be abandoned to make room for other things (less useful, in my opinion) they insist on seeing. I’m not disposed to dumb the course down merely to fit their standards. Based on previous classes’ performance over the last twenty years, I can claim that a student who works through the course attentively will be in a position to take and do well on the AP exam.


Enrollment in Senior English is by instructor permission only. Usually, an established track record in other of our English classes will be my grounds for making such a determination; I am willing to consider making exceptions for students from other backgrounds, based on correspondence and demonstrated ability to do the work. In general, though, I expect a student to have completed both English Literature and American Literature (or their equivalents) before coming to Senior English, and while I do not suffer from the "not made here" syndrome that insists that only our own products have any value, I will insist on some particular evidence that the relevant ground has been covered. The broad historical perspective that comes from marching through the other courses is fundamental to this one, and is not something we can supply on the fly.

In general, too, I would not expect students to take this course prior to their senior year. This is not immutable law either, but I'd require a lot of persuading to allow a local change in the pattern. We deal with some literature that addresses mature themes, but which seems essential for its intrinsic merit.

I should point out that students specifically hoping to take the AP Exam will probably get more practical material from the English and American Literature sequence than from this one alone: and indeed, I have had students take the AP Exam on the basis of those courses in the past, and they have done well. Ideally, of course, they will take all three (or, better yet, all three of these and Western Literature to Dante).

Coursework and rubrics

The bulk of the course will be devoted to reading and analyzing longer works read entire, but we will also do a certain amount of poetry and drama. (The short story gets virtually no exposure here, unfortunately, because there's not time to fit everything in, and the AP examiners have a nasty habit of excluding the short story from their free-response questions.) There will also be some critical reading. We begin the course with a preliminary reading of C. S. Lewis's superb little treatise An Experiment in Criticism. Those who went through Western Literature Through Dante with me will be either appalled or delighted to know that we will return to Auerbach's Mimesis for at least one chapter, too. For the bulk of the course, in its three units on poetry, drama, and the novel, we will use the latest edition of Laurence Perrine's classic poetry text Sound and Sense, Bentley’s The Life of the Drama, and Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction.

Students in the class will be expected to:

Consider these expectations seriously: if they do not seem reasonable or achievable to you, I suspect you would find another program more to your liking.

In the past I have given exams as part of the course, but I have come to the conclusion that they are unnecessary and distracting: I gather a lot of scores from the writing assignments, and am able to provide a fairly thorough assessment of students’ abilities and performance. The students in this class work as hard as any I've ever taught.

Credit, bureaucratica, etc.

Finally, lest there be any misunderstanding:

Though some Scholars Online classes are cleared with the College Board as official AP courses, this one is not. It is not in any way officially recognized, endorsed, sponsored, or otherwise affiliated with the College Board. My reasons for choosing not to pursue official AP status are several, but the chief among them was the fact that in order to meet some of the qualifications that appear (at least to my eyes) to be arbitrary, I would have to reduce considerably the load of productive work and reading for the course — effectively “dumbing it down” to meet their qualifications. On reflection, this seemed like a bad deal.

On the other hand there is apparently nothing (other than common sense) to prevent a student from taking an AP exam in any subject, irrespective of formal preparation. In other words, if you think you can do it, you may choose to take the AP exam in English (or anything else) without the benefit of a formal AP course or option here, or, indeed, without any classwork at all. This course is therefore not a prerequisite for taking the AP exam. I do think it will give you some good preparation: I cannot recall any student from this class ever getting less than a three on the Literature and Composition exam, and a clear majority have received fours and fives. I don’t want to misrepresent anything, however: as I have already indicated above, students with a good record through English and American Literature have shown themselves capable of very good performance on the Literature and Composition exam without this course at all.

By the same token, it is certainly possible for a student to take Senior English and still choose not to take the exam. This is fine with me; I will not be offended. The goal here is merely to provide preparation at a certain level. What you do with that preparation is up to you. I like to think that it will benefit you in your further studies in college or elsewhere, but (more particularly) that it will make you a better reader and writer and thinker for life. Anything else is secondary.

As I have said before, if you do choose to take the AP Exam, making the arrangements for it is entirely up to you. We are (obviously) not in a position to administer or proctor the exams ourselves. It is up to individual students and their parents to arrange for a local administration of the exam. Usually in a subject like English, this is not too difficult: just get in touch with a friendly local public or private high school. (Just how friendly public schools are to homeschoolers will vary from state to state and region to region. In some places, I'm happy to say, a spirit of cooperation has replaced the earlier adversarial relationship.) For some subjects (e.g., Latin) it is quite tricky to find a school to offer the exam. Whatever course you pursue, if you want to take the exam, do not put off making these arrangements. Late enrollment is chancy and quite expensive. Though it is technically a non-profit corporation, the College Board does hundreds of millions of dollars of business every year, and pays its chief executives like for-profit corporate moguls. They like to be taken very seriously. You will pay for trifling with them.

I have attempted to meet the published guidelines for an AP English Literature and Composition course, taking into account both the expectations for the test itself and the profile of the remainder of the Scholars Online English curriculum. But there are no guarantees, both because the College Board’s guidelines are in many respects rather vague, and because in some areas their goals seem more targeted at political and attitudinal “correctness” than any objective standard of excellence. I prefer the latter.

I have offered this course for well over ten years now, but I continue to tinker with readings, methods, and so on. I don't know that I will ever stop doing so. But one implication of that is that there will probably be some bumps and hiccups along the way. I hope you are not too sensitive to such things.