Bob Henderson
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

The course and students

These are seniors in the Arts & Sciences Program, a small enclave within the university. Students in this program have a background of high academic achievement and are very motivated. Before they get to me, they’ve had courses in Western thought, statistics, calculus, creative arts, writing, logic, technology and society, literature, and physics. The 20 students in the class are a varied group, from different parts of Canada. Many are pursuing a second degree while in Arts & Sciences. All this means that a diverse group deal with issues of Ishmael that demand diversity. Though Environmental Inquiry is a very broad title, I didn’t want to be limited to any particular concept, like deep ecology or environmental management.

Why Ishmael?

I didn’t want to create a course that jumped in and answered students’ questions. I wanted to slow them down, so they would ask the crucial questions. I knew Ishmael would help them do that.

Class activity

In the first class of the first term, I tell students to read Ishmael, that we can’t move forward in the course until they’ve read the book! This intrigues them because they’re not used to getting assignments on the first day. (And I don’t do any of what they are used to, handing out reading lists, test schedules, etc.) I allow them a week to read it, introducing it simply as an overview to environmental inquiry, a frame in which to consider the course. When they’ve read it, we spend several class sessions on it, doing different things.

Sample: Class Activities

  1. We go around the room making open comments, then role-play. (I assign a different role to each student, who must then act what they think of a certain section of the book according to the that role. One might be told to think like a computer, another to be depressed, another a Pollyanna type, one to build consensus, another to create dissension, etc.) The roles ensure a variety of views and really help students understand what’s being said in the book.
  2. In groups students are asked to: a. Write an open letter to Ishmael; b. Rewind the story — go back to a certain point and explore a different direction from that point; c. Prepare a campaign slogan for the students’ future efforts in politics.
  3. They form a writing circle (a group of five with myself as part of one of the groups). After they read the section in Ishmael that describes the differences between the Taker and Leaver stories, they are to write their life as a Leaver (though still a McMaster student). Starting with getting out of bed, how would a routine day be different (e.g. ways of knowing, ways of valuing, ways of living )? At a signal, they begin writing and write stream of consciousness style, ignoring punctuation, capitalization, etc., until told to stop. At the end they can share some or all of what they’ve written with the class.

In a future class I may ask students to write a journal entry or a short position paper on the topic “He’s just a gorilla anyway, get serious, it’s dumb fiction.” Why this topic? Students, I hope, will see the absurdity of our contemporary view that all is okay, that a technological fix is coming, or we’ll change when we have to (à la the lifeboat ethic).

Student response

I found with this group a tendency to criticize everything. (Many thought the book’s narrator was just too stupid and the text dragged.) To them it seemed superficial to “like” something. There was always a “but.” The role-play helped because it took them out of the Arts & Sciences critique mode and made the material more personal. They’ve been trained to the idea that intellect = critique and fear celebration because they don’t want to look unintelligent. I challenged them to tell me (in their journals) what they actually celebrate without a “but.”

Summing up

It’s very unusual to ask a class to read one book well rather than read many books superficially. I think the students understood the book’s contents but didn’t take an “inside view,” a deep view, a celebratory view. Many will later. Their view of themselves as critics hurt the effect, and I’ll address this concern in future classes. Students read the book in September, but in March a few read it again and got a lot more from it. I think I’ll ask them to do a reread when I use it in 95/96. Or I might have the group listen to the audio tape in March instead of rereading the book, which will get a different response perhaps. (Though I read Ishmael again when my students read it, I also keep the tape in my car and listen to it as well. The tape provides a good overview of the book’s content.)