Teaching: Assigning Unessays

For an updated take on the unessay, see my personal blog here.

Emily Suzanne Clark

I offered the option of an unessay to my students last semester for their final papers. I did not invent the unessay. It's important first to give credit where credit is due. The idea comes from some of our wonderful colleagues in English and Digital Humanities. I was introduced to the idea of the unessay by Ryan Cordell, an English professor at Northeastern University. In his awesome post "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities," he references this assignment. He expands on the idea for a class of his here. He also pulled the idea from a couple of others, namely Michael Ullyot and Daniel Paul O'Donnell. They center the unessay on a few characteristics: students choose their own topics, they present it in any way they choose, and we evaluate based on how compelling it is. The idea is to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity. (Cordell has posted some of his students' previous unessays here).

This kind of assignment intrigued me. Readers of the blog might remember that I assign faux primary sources in a couple of my courses. Last spring a Theatre major wrote and then recorded an mp3 of a Salvation Army hymn. The relative success of this assignment got me thinking: how else can I offer avenues of creativity for student assignments? This is where the unessay comes in. But it brings its own concerns: What about students who feel overwhelmed or intimidated by such an assignment? And how to heck do you assess such an assignment?

To respond to the first question, I offered the unessay this past fall as an option. Students could respond to the final paper prompt with either an essay or an unessay. So like many of us, I adapted another teacher's original creative assignment (Thanks English/DH scholars!) to suit my own needs. The final paper prompt this past fall for both my American Christianities students and my African American Religions students was the same: Pick the three most significant figures/events/communities that we covered this semester and construct an argument about their significance that makes a central claim about the story of Christianity in America or African American religions. There were two main parts of the assignment: make a case for the three choices as being the most significant and then argue a central claim or thesis. My assessment of their assignment was focused on those two parts, whether students chose to do an essay or an unessay. I warned those students who wanted to take the unessay route that they could turn in the most creative thing but they would lose points if it didn't fully answer the prompt. I figured assessing an unessay would be most difficult so I focused in on the prompt: explain your three choices and make an argument.

I think the option of the unessay worked pretty well. Not many students did an unessay, but that doesn't surprise me. There is something comforting about the traditional essay. But for those students who wanted to take a different approach, they found it freeing. One of my American Christianities students turned in an info graphic. Another wrote a short skit and turned in a script. Another created a prezi. One student in my African American Religions class was a Computer Science major and wanted to get away from computers for a weekend, so she handwrote her essay (and told me that it took longer than she thought it would). I recognize that that is not a big re-interpretation of the essay but it allowed her to do something different. Two other students in that class turned in art projects. The images here are of those. One is a collection of pencil drawings that centered on self-determination and resilience with nods to black theology, the "invisible institution," and demands for human rights. The other was a poetic short story about lynching inspired by The Crisis image "Christmas in Georgia" and the excerpts we read from James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. MLK and Malcolm X flank the scene.

Will I offer to option of the unessay again? Absolutely. It's on the syllabus for this spring.


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