Barbara Bass
Towson State University
Towson, Maryland

The course and students

I’ve used Ishmael for the past few semesters in my Freshman Composition class to inspire students writing essays about their personal connections with environmental issues. This is a required course, and since Towson State has a very large business department, many of the students are career-track business majors. I had 18 students in each of my two sections.

Why Ishmael?

When I read the book, I was very enthusiastic about it and was sure my students would be, too. I like to see Freshman Composition as an avenue for, at the least, consciousness raising and, at the most, social change, and I felt Ishmael would help do that.

Class activity

We spend about two weeks with the book doing a variety of activities. 1. As students read the book they write a series of letters to me giving their reactions, raising questions, exploring their thoughts. I read the letters and respond, so we have an ongoing dialogue about it. This gives them a chance to say what they really think without exposing their ideas to anyone but me. (I initially had them use a journal format but found these responses very general. The letters brought out much more personal and individual response to the material. In future classes I may have them choose someone other than me to write to, even Ishmael himself if they want.) 2. They spend several class periods working in groups to develop lists of questions they have about Ishmael and things they learned from reading the book. These lists are written out on newsprint and become the basis for our class discussion. 3. For the final part of the assignment I ask them to write an essay, then work in peer groups to help each other with the organization and development of their ideas through several drafts. Their first drafts, peer group responses, and final papers are all turned in to me.

Sample: At Home Essay (Choose either A or B)

A. Write a well-organized and developed essay explaining a personal perspective on an environmental issue. Incorporate into the essay your readings from Ishmael, using the following format:

  1. Choose an environmental issue, preferably one with which you have a personal connection.
  2. Describe the issue and write about the conflicts involved in it.
  3. Use Quinn’s ideas on the environment and our connection with nature to support your thesis and main ideas.
  4. Once you have described the issue and the conflicts involved in it, suggest possible consequences and/or propose convincing solutions to the problem.

B. Compare or contrast the environmental philosophies of Forrest Carter as described in The Education of Little Tree and Daniel Quinn in Ishmael. Be sure to include your opinion in this paper. Be sure to support your ideas with examples from Ishmael. You can also refer to other environmental articles we have studied.


Basic writing; organizational skills; working together in groups; critical reading and thinking.


This final paper was my main assessment tool, but because of their letters to me I had an ongoing sense of the students’ understanding of the material and their ability to communicate their ideas in writing.

Student response

Ishmael gets my students thinking. Once they suspend their disbelief and accept a thinking gorilla, they become fascinated with the ideas. Even my fundamentalist students who are Creationists enjoy the reading. They tell their friends and relatives about the book. After reading the book, one of my students said, “This is what college is supposed to be like. I’m really thinking now.”

Summing up

One student who had trouble with the book in the beginning (a narrator who did not have to report to a daily job bothered him almost as much as a telepathic gorilla) ultimately suspended his disbelief and in his last letter said, “I think this book is great for these times and should be mandatory for students to read.” Ishmael definitely lived up to my expectations. It’s perfect for college students; it inspires them to think. For freshmen it’s a wonderful introduction to a liberal education. I plan on using it in my classes for the foreseeable future.