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.
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.
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.
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."
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.)