Writing III: Rhetoric and Senior Thesis

Not offered 2023-24

  • Time & Tuition for the 2022-2023 Academic Year
    • 10:30 am – 12:00 pm, Wednesdays
    • TBA per month (10 months, August through May; tuition includes cost of materials/tools for the thesis project)
  • Location: Signal Mountain, Tennessee
  • Credit: 1 full credit in English
  • Grades: Graduating seniors only; Senior Thesis is optional for all non-Diploma Program students but is required for all seniors graduating from the Humane Letters Diploma Program
  • Prerequisites: Writing II or equivalent writing skills and at least two Scriptorium courses in history, literature, writing, AND/OR philosophy
  • Books Needed:
    • The Lost Tools of Writing Level III workbook from the CiRCE Institute
    • Lewis – Abolition of Man (ISBN: 9780060652944, HarperCollins)
    • Crider – The Office of Assertion – Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ISBN: ‎ 9781932236453
    • The core primary sources for the course are primary sources the student has read for previous Scriptorium courses.
    • In addition, students need to be able to access a wide variety of sources related to their topic, primarily via the internet but optionally through libraries and bookstores.
  • Description: This course, taken in the senior year, guides students through the process of writing a thesis of roughly 10-15 pages. This course allows students to review their previous studies while presenting an argument relating their previous studies to an aspect of modern American culture. Further details are explained below.


All senior theses respond to the question: “Of the primary source works you have read for your previous Scriptorium courses, what passages are most important for modern Americans to study? Why? Why should modern Americans read these books?”

In answering these questions, students must assume a hostile audience – that is, they must assume that a person reading the thesis (1) does not believe there is any benefit to studying the past and (2) does not believe there are ultimate standards of morality or truth.

Writing with these assumptions about their audience allows students to gain practice in thoughtfully considering and courteously addressing people who would disagree with their own views. This mindset is essential in today’s culture.


The senior thesis is not an abstract academic piece. It requires students to carefully examine their own culture as well as the cultures of previous historical eras. Students choose a set of primary sources that they have read for their previous Scriptorium courses. After re-reading those works, students identify an area or multiple areas of modern American culture that could be addressed by the works they have studied. Students choose key passages from those works, explicate the passages, and write an argument demonstrating how modern Americans can learn from those passages and why they should. Students conclude by addressing objections from potential opponents.


In addition to writing the thesis, students illuminate the passages from the great books they have chosen to focus on in their paper. They then bind these illuminations in a hand-bound book using medieval techniques – without using power tools.


In writing the senior thesis and creating their senior thesis projects, students will practice:

  • organizing and scheduling work for a complex year-long project;
  • finding reliable sources;
  • evaluating bias in sources;
  • reviewing, reflecting on, and explicating primary sources from past historical eras;
  • making connections between the past and the present while avoiding logical fallacies such as presentism and the sweeping generalization;
  • addressing potential opponents;
  • citation and documentation;
  • handcraft skills.


Thesis work is completed in addition to the student’s senior year coursework. Because of this, students considering undertaking the senior thesis need a great deal of self-discipline, diligence, and determination. They must already have developed habits of thoughtfulness as well as strong writing skills.


Students undertaking the senior thesis present on their thesis work during Defense Day in both semesters. They summarize their arguments, explain how they evaluated their sources, and describe the things they have learned during their studies. By taking questions from the audience during the fall semester Defense Day, students gain new perspectives about aspects of their work they may consider addressing before completing their theses.


Completed theses are considered for the King Alfred the Great Prize, awarded to the student who has composed the best senior thesis, and for the Michelangelo Prize, awarded to the student who has created the best semester project (a second Michelangelo Prize is awarded only for students completing the Senior Thesis project).

Students undertaking Senior Thesis are strongly encouraged to choose their topic and primary sources to re-read in the summer before their senior year. After students have been registered for the course, they may contact the tutor with questions and confirm their primary sources and passages before the school year begins.


What can modern Americans learn from:

  • …passages from Shakespeare’s Henry V on heroism? courage? justice? grace? law? taking counsel?
  • …passages from Homer’s Odyssey on leadership? loyalty? honesty? obedience? family?
  • …passages from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment on love? responsibility? beauty? self-government? unintended consequences? family?
  • …passages from Franklin’s Autobiography on language? community? diligence? perseverance?
  • …passages from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars on justice? manipulation of words? truth? heroism? piety?
  • …passages from Froissart’s Chronicle on taking counsel? heroism? loyalty? piety? justice? family?
  • …passages from Lewis’ That Hideous Strength on education? truth? beauty? piety? family?