Herein lies a description of one of my favorite assignments: 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. Previous students have turned in ceramics projects, paintings, 3-D and 2-D collages, drawings, original song lyrics presented as an album, a play, even a fitness routine. 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.
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. My assessment of your assignment will focus on those two parts, whether you chose to do an essay or an unessay. Here is 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. Many students who complete an unessay turn in a description or explanation of their 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.
This 1200-word essay or unessay is due to the Turnitin link on blackboard before your final exam time.
Pick three persons, communities, or events that we have covered in class that you think are the most significant to the story of American Christianities or African American Religions (depending on your course). Your essay should explain why the three you picked are the most significant, not summarizing them. Summary will only tell me the “what” on your three choices; I want to know the “why.” Why are these the most significant? Your three selections will also be the basis of your thesis statement. Your essay’s argument should make a claim about the story of Christianity/Christianities in America or African American Religions. This could be a definition of American Christianities/African American Religions. This could be a claim about what’s most important to our understanding of it.
An A paper: This paper constitutes a critical and active engagement with the material that shows insight and creativity. Rather than summarize the person/communities/events, it explains why they are the most significant to the entire story of Christianity/Christianities in America or African American religions (depending on your course). It includes a clear and insightful connection between your three choices. It is stylistically well written and grammatically correct.
A B paper: This paper goes beyond a summary of the material and shows an effort to evaluate the information with some degree of clarity. While this essay may fall into summarizing from time to time, the majority of the body paragraphs show the significance of the selected persons/communities/events. It includes a clear connection between your three choices. Essays exhibit few errors in grammar and style.
A C paper: This paper shows little engagement with the material. It is primarily summary, rather than an effort to develop a critical and reflective perspective. The essay identifies a vague connection between the selected choices and thus fails to offer a thesis statement. It also shows a lack of proof reading and inattention to grammar and style.
A D or F paper: this paper lacks any serious effort to accomplish the assigned task. Essays are ill-defined, lack focus and clarity, and contain many grammar and style errors.
[Note: Some of the above I stole from myself from an old blog post on Religion in American History.]