The Unessay

[Note: I first posted this here on my old blog in 2016 and on the Religion in American History blog.]

The Unessay

First: some history. I started assigning unessays in the fall 2015 semester. 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, who references the assignment in his essay “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities.” 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. (Professor Cordell has posted some of his students’ previous unessays here.)

To my students, you can respond to the final paper prompt with either an essay or an unessay. The unessay is as described above: it’s your opportunity to break open the corral of the traditional essay. Be creative. Find alternative ways to answer the prompt. Consider your strengths, talents, and skills and think about how to apply them. Previous students of mine have turned in ceramics projects, paintings, 3-D and 2-D collages, drawings, original song lyrics presented as an album, a bond financing deal for a faux 501(c)(3), a video, a play, even a couple fitness routines. Some have simply adopted an alternative writing format, such as a letter. There are numerous other ways to approach the assignment as well. Don’t feel constrained by this list of previous unessays. Play to your strengths. If the concept of the unessay intrigues you, it is required that you meet with me in advance to talk through your idea. This way we can make sure that you meet the assignment requirements.

To students in RELI250 or RELI225: Keep in mind that there are two main parts of the final paper prompt: make a case for the three choices as being the most significant and then argue a central claim or thesis. To students in RELI193: Keep in mind that your final prompt requires you to respond to at least one of the questions in a sustained manner. Be sure your unessay does that.

To all students, an important warning: you can turn in the most creative thing, but if you don’t fully answer the prompt, I can’t give your full credit. Fully responding to the prompt is of the upmost importance for an unessay. You will turn in a description or explanation of your unessay that helps illustrate how they answered the prompt. Think about pieces displayed in museums and art galleries; many of them come accompanied by a plaque that describes/contextualizes/analyzes the piece. Your explanation can range from a paragraph to a page.

The Assignment!

The prompts for the final essay/unessay for your class is uploaded to blackboard. Since not every class with the unessay option has the same prompt, there’s no need to confuse you here with all of them.

Rubric for Unessays!

An A unessay: This unessay constitutes a critical and active engagement with the course material that shows insight and creativity and demonstrates time and effort devoted to creating something thoughtful. The chosen medium works persuasively with the design and polish of the unessay. The project’s structural and formal elements productively serve the core concept of the unessay. The unessay includes a clear and insightful connection between your three choices and reflects a convincing and nuanced thesis. An A unessay come with a clearly stated explanation. This will include your thesis and an explanation of how your unessay responds to the prompt.

A B unessay: This unessay meaningfully engages course material and shows an effort to creatively evaluate the information with some degree of clarity. It reflects some time, effort, and forethought. The chosen medium works with the unessay presentation, but some additional design forethought would have helped. The unessay’s structural and formal elements serve the core concept of the project. The unessay includes a clear connection between your three choices. Accompanied statement provides some clarity to the piece but not complete explanation.

A C unessay: This unessay shows some engagement with the course material but it is unsustained uncreative, and inconsequential. It fails to developed a critical and reflective perspective. The chosen medium doesn’t work with the unessay’s presentation. The unessay identifies a vague connection between the selected choices and thus fails to offer a clear thesis statement. Both it and the explanation will appear to be thrown together at the last minute.

A D or F unessay: This unessay lacks any serious effort to accomplish the assigned task. The unessay idea and execution are ill-defined, lack focus and clarity, and contains no main argument. Any unessay not discussed with me before the deadline will automatically receive no higher than an D. Check your assignment guidelines for that deadline.

[Fellow teachers, if you copy and paste from this, please link to it! Let’s teach our students good practice in citing sources.]