Source: D. Quinn. Ishmael. Bantam, 1995.
My professor’s instruction:
Ishmael, in my opinion, is a book every human ought to read. It also covers many themes that are central to this class. So, over the course of the semester Id like you
to read it carefully and thoughtfully. Then, write a 5-10 page reflective paper based on your thoughts that stem from the ideas in the book. The paper will be due the
Monday of the penultimate week of instruction (so we can talk about it during the last week). Im leaving the prompt for this paper intentionally (and yes, I know,
frustratingly) vague. The reason is that each person is going to have very different reactions to the book, and I dont want to restrict your freedom of thought. My
only requirement is that you clearly demonstrate that you have read and reflected on the entire book (so reading and responding to just one chapter wont cut it). While
reading the book, keep notes of things that you find interesting, poignant, mind-blowing, unconvincing, wrong, etc. (but, in the spirit of the last sentence, Id like
you to respond to the books broad themes, not to nit-pick individual sentences). If you make it through the book without it having provoked any thoughts (you may need
to read it more carefully) you can come talk to me; Im always happy to discuss Ishmael.
As I wrote in the syllabus, I’ve left the Ishmael paper guidelines intentionally vague to give you maximum freedom to respond to the book in the way that you wish.
However, after talking to some of you about your papers, I thought I should maybe give a bit more direction. Not much–just a bit.
First, I do not want a summary of the book. I’ve read it; I know what it contains. If you need to summarize some main ideas in the book to make your argument, fine,
but this kind of summary should make up a very small proportion of your paper.
I’ve been asked whether a more personal, reflective approach or a more scholarly analysis of the text is better. I think either are acceptable, however, I do want to
know how the book affected you and your thoughts. It should not be wholly abstract. I would be surprised if the paper didn’t contain statements like “I think…” or “I
believe…” or “This made me realize…”.
The paper should not just be a rambling stream of consciousness on your musings about life. The paper should be grounded in the broad themes of the book, or particular
ideas that you find poignant, and your reactions to them.
Make an argument. This isn’t necessarily a persuasive paper, but you should have a thesis statement that summarizes your main idea(s), and the paper should work to
support that thesis. The thesis can be whatever you want, and can be as broad or narrow as you wish–but it must exist, and your job is to develop and support it.
I am not going to grade you on your opinion; that’s impossible. I will grade you on a) your understanding of the text (broad themes, ideas, main messages) as you
demonstrate it with your writing, b) how well you support your thesis statement (which means that things like organization, diction, grammar, eloquence, and
conciseness matter a great deal), and c) the depth of your analysis: I want you at a level of synthesis–taking the ideas of the book, combining them with your own
ideas and knowledge to create novel ideas–and deep self-reflection, not mere description.
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