The English program is about learning to love to read and write. It is also about mastering the poetics of media and culture. We seek to produce introspective and informed young women who can express their views effectively. While establishing a firm foundation of reading and writing skills, our courses expose students to a broad range of works in traditional print literature. Students are also trained in critical analysis from the perspective of psychology, philosophy, history – any discipline that uses interpretive texts.
The literature component draws from classics and new world literature, especially works by and about minorities. We also capitalize on our all-girl status by choosing many books by and about women. Active participation through discussion is a main focus. A variety of writing assignments ensures that each student will have the skills needed for college and later life. Although assignments stress expository writing and clear, informed analysis, informal writing assignments are included in our core courses, the sophomore poetry workshop, and the senior electives. Our four-year study of vocabulary serves students on SATs while enhancing their broader verbal ability. We offer special instruction to Honors students, for whom the desire to learn exceeds course requirements, as well as intensive preparation for Advanced Placement.
The Writers’ Club publishes a literary magazine of student work, and each spring, in addition to a workshop led by our poet-in-residence, the Elizabeth McNulty Wilkinson '25 fund enables us to invite a nationally recognized poet to work with sophomore classes and present to the school.
Departmental requirements: 4 years
English Department Head:
Required classes and electives, though not all elective courses are offered each year or trimester.
English I- Founding Ourselves in Community and Self
This year-long course introduces students to the concepts, skills, and vocabulary that they will build upon throughout the rest of their high school careers. It gives students both a technical and intellectual foundation in the study of English literature, developing grammar and usage skills as well as the ability to analyze and critique a wide variety of literary texts. Students will develop their reading comprehension, literary analysis, and essay-writing skills in a group discussion-centered classroom where they will practice giving short presentations in front of peers. Thematically, readings explore the literary representation of self and community, while writing assignments address the writerly self and its social-community context.
The course begins with an intensive unit on the essay form, giving students the chance to explore the conventions of the academic essay and how the principles and practices of writing can shape thinking. The course then moves to poetry, allowing the students to familiarize themselves with the literary techniques and conventions of the form while they also deploy their developing essay-writing skills through literary analysis. Having acquired a comprehensive set of reading and writing skills, students finish the year by turning their critical eye to narrative fiction, beginning with the short story and ending with the novel. Representative authors include George Orwell, Joan Didion, bell hooks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Marvell, Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Hardy, William Blake, James Dickey, William Butler Yeats, Patricia McCormick, Sandra Cisneros, and Jane Austen.
English II - American Literary Expressions
American Literary Expressions is a year-long course that investigates the national literature of the United States. This course explores classical works and concepts alongside underrepresented ones, the aim being a comprehensive, multicultural study spanning different literary genres and historical periods. Students will learn to appreciate literature as art, analyze literature critically, and articulate their ideas clearly, succinctly, and with conviction. This course is an opportunity for students to learn, grow, and be heard.
English II Honors - American Literary Expressions
Honors American Literary Expressions is a year-long, reading- and writing-intensive version of American Literary Expressions. This course is designed for students who have established academic skills and a desire for rigorous literary study. To take this course, students must have superior grades, established work ethic, advanced analytical and writing skills, and a recommendation from their freshman teacher. The goals and themes of this course are similar to American Literary Expressions, but the course moves more quickly, and requires the students to read, discuss, and reflect upon more complex texts.
English III-- Exploring the Literary World
In this year-long course, students examine the principal authors and genres in world literature that ranges in time period, but is chiefly contemporary. We will discuss formal/stylistic attributes and literary value as well as seek to understand how cultural and historical values shape literature. While focus on every culture proves impossible, class texts are as different from each other as the peoples and places they bespeak; of course, influence of one author on another, cultural cross-pollination, and potential for new cultural identities are topics of interest to our Harkness Table discussions. Designed to prepare students for college writing as well, this course requires drafting and revision of formal papers on poetry and prose; a completed piece of original research will round out the year, as well as creative writing for potential submission to college admissions senior year.
11th and 12th Grade Trimester Electives
African-American Naturalist Novels
The naturalist literary movement flourished from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. It is a style and philosophy concerned with Social Darwinism and determinism; ideas of free will and choice are cast aside, and instead we read and imagine a world in which the gritty, dirty social and political realities of life pull characters inexorably towards preordained ends. We will study the history of this literary movement, which has European origins, and go on to read two African American author’s naturalist novels. We will read Ann Petry’s The Street and Richard Wright’s Native Son, identifying and interpreting the ways in which the literature lines up with and departs from the literary movement’s fatalistic pull. Students will write one college-level critical analysis paper in this seminar course.
AP English Language and AP Literature
This two-trimester course emphasizes rhetorical form in reading and writing for students preparing for the AP Language exam (and, in some cases, the AP Literature exam). For reading, literary texts may include Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Shakespeare’s sonnets; for timed, 40-minute analytical essays, students will encounter presidential speeches, autobiographies and memoirs, photographs, and advertisements. Particular attention is paid to applying visual rhetoric to the “synthesis essay,” which asks students to draw upon a variety of contradictory sources in order to argue a position on a debatable topic. We will devote time to multiple-choice exercises taken from past exams, as well as memorize over two hundred literary terms, which will be useful for both multiple choice and essays.
Author Study: Octavia Butler
This course will explore the fascinating and innovative fictional worlds of Octavia Butler. Arguably the most important science fiction writer of the last twenty years, Butler’s novels and stories use tropes such as time travel, vampirism, genetic mutations and global apocalypse to explore themes of racism, gender identity, sexuality and class inequality. What happens when a black woman travels back in time to encounter Antebellum slavery? What happens when human beings must combine their DNA with that of an alien species in order to survive? How might communities subsist in an imagined future when there is no law and the society resembles a Mad Max film? Butler’s fiction asks these fantastical questions in order to reflect upon the conditions of our world today and the possibility of developing a different world tomorrow. Her body of work is a crucial intersection of African American literature, science fiction, and the contemporary black aesthetic movement known as Afro-Futurism. Thus, engaging with Butler’s writing necessitates that we also engage with the history of African and African American literature, the stylistic conventions of science fiction, and recent music, visual art and writing in which artists such as Flying Lotus, Funkadelic, Renée Cox, Stacy Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are imagining a black future. Throughout the semester, we will study these cultural galaxies through which Butler’s fiction travels as we read a number of her key works, including the novels Kindred, Parable of the Sower, Dawn and Fledgling. Through our studies we will produce two short critical essays, a research paper and a creative work in which you will have the opportunity to develop a visual, musical or literary work using Afro-Futuristic conventions.
This trimester course helps students examine their lives so far and, in the process, to find their own voice. We will read from some of the best memoirs and pieces of autobiographical texts and use them as models and inspiration. Using the writing workshop model, students will learn to appropriately critique their classmates . In addition to auto/memoir reading and writing and projects, students will work with a partner on reading a piece of college-level critical writing and presenting it to the class. At the end of the trimester, students will combine their pieces into a larger project, creating a short book or online portfolio of their work.
Conspiracy Literature I: Ghost Hunters and Haunted Houses
This reading-intensive course features a history of early American conspiracy narratives that helped shape politics and religion, from Puritanism to modernism. We begins with Gladys Fry’s study of Reconstruction-era American slave masters’ use of the supernatural folk tale to scare and control newly freed slaves. We then look at Victorian-era scientific investigation into and the debunking of paranormal mediums, magicians, and “true” ghost stories. After exams on the readings, we turn to Mark Z. Danielewski’s infamous House of Leaves, the “impossible to finish” book, on which students will write their own creative essay. AP Literature (seniors) will have extra work on rhetorical terms and definitions.
Conspiracy Literature II: Utopias, Dystopias, and Cults.
This reading-intensive course focuses on the way early American history set the stage for what Susan Jacoby’s account of the 1960s calls a “breeding ground” for new religious cults and “secret organizations.” Beginning with early noir and conspiracy films of 40s and 50s, we will discuss continue to bookend the 1960s by discussing the 1970s Manson Family trials, the Jim Jones massacre, and the falsely-accused West Memphis Three, who were part of the 1980s and 90s “Satanic panic” that swept the nation. We will have several exams and a critical analysis, while AP Literature (seniors) will have extra work on rhetorical terms and definitions as well as timed essays.
Conspiracy Literature III: Natives and Aliens
In this course we begin by analyzing popular alien films of the 1980s by Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg. Next, we examine the 1990s through Jesse Walker’s analysis of terrorism, militia groups, and the LA riots, as well as Jodi Dean’s book on alien abductee narratives as they figure into contemporary fears about the government, technology, and other cultures, most notably featured in the television show The X-Files. Students must screen films and television at home, respond in writing online, and produce a well-researched essay on a topic of their choice.
Creative Non-Fiction is a one-trimester upper-level English elective that focuses on both the consumption and production of various forms of non-fiction media. As a whole class, we will sample exemplary published texts in several of the major genres of creative non-fiction, including the personal essay, the lyric essay, and literary journalism. As students become familiar with the features of each text type, they will write their own versions and offer constructive feedback to each other in a workshop setting. As the trimester continues, students will investigate additional genres and subgenres that are of particular interest to them on an individual basis, ultimately creating a portfolio of both annotated published works by other authors as well as their own works in the genre or genres of their choice. Students will analyze the connection between genre and form in order to guide the production of their final portfolio, as we will sample a variety of media and forms throughout the course. Assessment will be based on a series of short original creative non-fiction assignments, timely and constructive feedback for peers, and a final portfolio assignment.
Death in Literature I: Femmes Fatales and the Southern Gothic
According to Edgar Allan Poe, the death of a beautiful woman is the most “poetical topic in the world,” a phrase that has come to mean a union of Thanatos and Eros, the Greek words for Death and Love, both of which commingle in nearly every dramatic work ever written. We will interrogate Poe’s assertion about gender, but also note that when death occurs in literature, it is not about just a real or actual death; rather, it is a philosophical death, one over which living characters mourn and muse. Via philosophers, artists, short story writers, novelist Toni Morrison, and popular television, we will examine the psychological process of mourning as well as formal concepts such as apostrophe and prosopopoeia. Our chief goal is to consider death as something more than itself: a hub around which other narrative events revolve; a transformative--or simply formative--experience that shapes character more than other events, and a cathartic experience for the audience members who are open to change, growth, and emotional strength. Students will write several papers, one of which can be creative and/or autobiographical.
Death in Literature II: Eternal Life of the Warrior Soul.
Although Death in Lit I is not a prerequisite, we will continue to explore philosophical rather than literal death, here focusing on reluctant protagonists in literature as broad as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Mary Brave Bird’s Native American autobiography Lakota Woman, and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War memoir, The Things They Carried.
Expressions of Femininity in Literature & Pop Culture I & II
These one-trimester courses, which can be taken independently of one another, explore modes of femininity in literature and popular culture. Texts include historical and contemporary depictions of femininity that range across a broad spectrum of ideas about what it means to be feminine. Since this is a senior English course, this class also focuses on reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills that are necessary for success in college and beyond. Students are asked to analyze the writing of others as well as to respond to texts in a variety of ways, including formal and informal writing. Students analyze these depictions and their underlying messages about how women can and should perform their gender. Texts are drawn from multiple time periods and include classic as well as contemporary literature and popular culture. Expressions 1 focuses on the evolving expectations of women in different time periods, as well as the ways in which depictions of women have changed over time. Expressions 2 focuses on contemporary expectations of women, as well as the ways in which femininity and feminism are linked.
The Hero in Fantasy Literature
The driving objective of this reading-intensive course is to provide students with a thorough history of the genre of fantasy. We explore the hero archetype using Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, Hero With A Thousand Faces juxtaposed with works of fantasy literature that exemplify its main points in order to come to our own truth about this common character. Our thorough examination of this enduring and important genre across a broad range of literary and cultural forms and historical periods, includes texts such as Tolkien’s Hobbit, Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Baum’s Wizard of Oz, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Atwood’s Circe/Mud poems, and Cline’s Ready Player One.
The art and craft of journalism is best taught by reading news, writing and being edited. The students in this class contribute to The SEM Weekly, the school blog, which is updated and delivered once a week to our community of students, faculty, parents and alumnae. A weekly diet of news reading is required. At the end of a trimester, students have a portfolio of seven stories, a basic knowledge of the tools and business of journalism and the tools to discern bias and fake news.
Literature and Photography
The philosopher Roland Barthes has famously suggested that photography wounds and haunts us. A portrait of a deceased relative, a snapshot of a family vacation, a photojournalistic picture of horrific warfare: such images shape the way we see ourselves and the world. Indeed, since its invention at the turn of the 19th Century, photography has had an enormous impact on politics, culture and economics. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that – from the invention of the camera up to our present “Instagrammed” moment – literature has consistently responded to and commented upon our photographic life. In books such as Teju Cole’s Everyday is for the Thief and W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, snapshots inserted into the text seem to provide a window into the authors’ impressions as they wander through a world shaped by immigration and political upheaval. In William T. Vollmann’s Poor People, photographs of impoverished people confront us with the stark reality of global social inequality. In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine uses a combination of poetry and photographs to think about the relationship between blackness, visibility and politics. In this course, we will look at such “photography-embedded literature,” that is, works of literature that incorporate photographic images into the text. We will also explore key theoretical works on photography by Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and Michael Fried. How do we read these collages of visual imagery and text? How does a photograph impact narrative progression? What does such literature tell us about how technology, human perception, politics and artistic expression? These are the questions we will consider as we practice reading and writing on literature.
Medieval Literature and Chivalric Romance
This course will introduce students to medieval literature and allow them to become familiar with the genres and tropes of chivalric romance. Chivalric romance, which includes Arthurian legends and stories about knights, ladies, wizards, and monsters, is a staple of the Western literary tradition, and it continues to this day. Students will learn about courtly love, the formal social code that detailed proper courtly behavior. Courtly love was enormously influential on medieval literature. The core of the course will be a thorough reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and we will supplement our understanding of the genre with selections from Andreas Capellenus’ De Amore. In addition to a meticulous formalist reading of the text, we will also use a variety of theoretical approaches to understand this literature, including feminist theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory. Secondary readings will include Howard Bloch’s Medieval Misogynists, Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval or Chaucer’s Sexual Politics, and Geraldine Heng’s multicultural readings of the poem. We may also look at contemporary portrayals of chivalric romance, either in popular novels or other media. Student assessment will include writing assignments (analytical papers) and class discussion.
Modern and Contemporary Poetry
Not only is this trimester course an excellent introduction to poetic movements, literary terms, poetic structure, and accepted critical expressions, but it also prepares students for the poetry sections on the AP Literature exam. We will cover a 150+ year span (1850-2013) beginning with the spoken word of today and moving backwards to Whitman and Dickinson. Because this course is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the ultimate goal is for students to invest themselves in daily reading, writing and interpretation in order to create a lifelong confidence and interest in this mode of communication.
Moby Dick; or, The Man Who Hates an Animal
Moby Dick; or, The Whale, is arguably the greatest American novel. Herman Melville’s novel is capacious and complex. In it he aimed to boldly declare the truth. And throughout the tome Melville impels us to examines deep questions about the nature of human existence, the role of friendship, and the importance of diversity. While the storyline concerning Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale, Moby Dick, is at the popularized heart of the novel, in this course, we will focus our attention on the allegorical and symbolic significance of the ship that Ahab and the crew travels on, as well as the significance of Melville’s characterization of the multicultural shipmates. The only primary text we will read is Moby Dick; students will also read an assortment of secondary sources. *Note-This is a reading intensive seminar course, but there are great rewards that come with this tremendous scholarly effort.
Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
Not only is this course an excellent introduction to American poetic movements, literary terms, poetic structure, and accepted critical expressions, but it may also serve as a preparation for the poetry sections of the AP Literature exam. We will cover a 150+ year span (1850 -2013) beginning with the spoken word poetry of today and moving backward to Whitman and Dickinson. Our ultimate goal will be that in our investment of daily reading, writing and interpreting, we will create confidence and a lifelong interest in this mode of communication.
Music in Film
This cross-listed (with Fine Arts) course would introduce students to both music and film terminology, and we would cast a wide-ranging net: from the Greek "melos" meaning "music" (as in "melodrama") to modern notions of orchestration. Primary texts include Star Wars (and even the parody Spaceballs), Psycho, and many others, keeping both ears and eyes attuned to the way music interacts with editing and camera work. Students will write a final paper that uses the terminology and analyzes formal ways music informs the themes of the story.
Poetic Proclamations in Hip-Hop
Hip-Hop music is a creative and powerful form of expression that offers piercing commentary on the American experience. W.W. Norton and Co. defines poetry as having, “origins in music and oral performance and characterized by controlled patterns of rhythm and syntax.” With the history and definition of poetry in mind, this course will be centered around listening to Hip-Hop music and reading lyrics. Our main objective will be to appreciate and analyze this clever and complex artistic genre. Coursework will also include an introduction to literary criticism, and plenty of creative writing.
Postmodernism and Literature
In 1962, an artist named Andy Warhol, who was then still relatively obscure, held the first solo exhibition of his paintings at the Stable Gallery in New York City. Now considered iconic masterpieces, Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup cans, dollar bills, and Coke bottles, reflected a remarkable change not only in art but also in culture, politics, economics and literature. We have come to call this sea change postmodernism, and it names a period in which, arguably, we are still living. In this course, we will explore some of the key literary figures associated with the idea of the postmodern. Echoing many of the ideas in Warhol’s work, these writers envision an oft-apocalyptic world in which advertising, money and media spectacle control our thoughts and human relationships. In White Noise, for instance, Don DeLillo imagines an American suburb besieged by mass media and toxic pollution. William Gibson’s Neuromancer ponders a grim future in which cyberspace becomes just as “real” as reality itself. Yet for all their grimness, postmodern writers often express a playful openness about what counts as literature and who can be a great writer. Writers such as Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, and Thomas Pynchon insist that nursery rhymes, television sitcoms and Rock and Roll have the same artistic power as Shakespeare, Picasso, or Beethoven, and postmodern literary aesthetics have allowed for radical queer, black and feminine voices of writers such as William S. Burroughs, Ishmael Reed and Rachel Kushner. By surveying some of the most definitive and most contemporary postmodern fiction and poetry, we will be engaging with critical questions about our present-day politics, economics, and psychology. How do we live in a world that sometimes seems like a cross between a gigantic strip-mall and an endless reality television show? What happens to notions of beauty and truth when art becomes indistinguishable from advertising? Can we continue to authentically love each other when our lives seem to be turning into sitcoms? These are only some of the questions we will be wrestling with in this course. During the semester you will produce two short analytic essays and a substantial research paper. There will also be a creative assignment asking you to generate your own visual or literary work of postmodern art.
Psychology and Literature I: Child Psychology and Self-Development
This course explores several theories of child development, from both Freudian and feminist perspectives, in such novels as Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? And Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to modern therapeutic techniques dramatized in HBO’s In Treatment. Students will write a critical analysis on one novel, construct an autobiographical creative piece that could serve as a college essay, and take an exam on basic psychological terminology. *Note: Students seeking an AP Psychology (juniors or seniors) designation will extensively study developmental terminology in addition to some of the work above.
Psychology and Literature II: Perception and the Mind
This course approaches the human brain through both scientific knowledge about dreams and human perception as well as literary techniques that seek to “get inside the head” of characters in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Students will write a critical analysis, write creatively about their own perceptions, and take an exam on basic psychological terminology.
Psychology and Literature III: Trauma, Memory, and Personality
This course asks how literature can help to recover from traumatic events such as war (O’Brien’s The Things They Carried) and slavery (Morrison’s Beloved). We will use both Freud’s theory of “working through” a trauma by storytelling as well as review some of the contemporary theories about short-term and long-term memory. Students will write a well-researched critical analysis on a topic of their choice, write creatively about their own perceptions, and take an exam on basic psychological terminology.
Introduction to Critical Theory: Queer Theory
This course serves as an introduction to critical and literary theory through the lens of queer theory. Using Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux’s The Theory Toolbox, it begins with an introduction to some of the foundational concepts of theory and philosophy: Author/ity, Reading, Subjectivity, Ideology, Difference, and Life. We go on to historicize notions of identity in general (and sexual identity specifically) and to denaturalize our understanding of ‘culture,’ ‘identity,’ and ‘biology’ by looking at the ways the discursive production of racial identity shaped and was shaped by the discursive production of sexual identity. We will read some of the foundational texts of the academic school of queer theory, including selections from Adrienne Rich, Michel Foucault, Eve Sedgwick, and Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” We’ll read selections from Thomas Lacqueur’s The Making of Sex, covering the historical construction of gender identity and anatomy during the European Renaissance. In anticipation of students’ eventual matriculation to university, this course will be reading- and writing-intensive, and students are required to submit two reading-response paragraphs per cycle in addition to giving two class presentations over the course of the trimester, along with two formal critical analyses.
Science Fiction and Progress
Science fiction is a literary genre that allows readers to imagine the future—to imagine progress. This course will examine the depiction of progress in (and through) science fiction, covering several short stories, novellas, films, and television shows in the genre. Furthermore, it will introduce students to various types of literary theories, using them as a lens through which to read and understand the literary texts. Theoretical perspectives include postcolonial theory, feminist theory, Marxist theory, queer theory, Afro-Futurism, ecocriticism, and disability studies. Genre texts will include “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Triptee, Jr., “What I didn’t See” by Karen Joy Fowler, episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, and selections from Octavia Butler and Ray Bradbury. Students will be assessed through writing papers and class discussion.
This course will focus on the craft of storytelling. Our guiding questions will be how a writer composes a story and why stories are told and listened to. Throughout the trimester, as we read and discuss a number of key short stories, we will be focusing primarily on the formal elements of narrative such as plot, characterization, setting, and pacing. In a sense, we will be taking apart these narrative machines to see how they work. Each of the stories we read will be accompanied by at least one short writing assignment intended both to stimulate the imagination and to practice certain structural elements of fiction writing. Along with these weekly small writing assignments, we will each be working on one major short story. All of this writing will be shared with the rest of the class in workshop and peer review formats. By the end of the trimester, we will all become better storytellers and have enriched our appreciation for the vital role that narrative serves in our lives.