Over the past few years, I have tried various new assignments in an attempt to move away, somewhat, from the traditional research essay. In my course “The City in American Literature: New Orleans, Chicago, and New York,” I had students create a collaborative Wiki that consisted of the following: a title page, notes, allusions or references, interactive map, questions about the text, a review of the text, and a creative page. This was a project well suited for the course management system I used at the time; however, the move to another CMS caused me to put this assignment on hold. As well, I have had students create mixtapes as an assignment and even graphic memoirs as a final project. Each of these projects fall under the umbrella of the unessay. The only difference, essentially, is that students do not choose the final product.
Daniel Paul O’Donnell discusses the unessay in relation to the traditional essay form, the one where students, rather than feeling free and flexible often get locked in “a static and rule-bound monster that students must master in order not to lose marks.” When I started teaching, I was one of the instructors who shoehorned students into these rules, nicking them here and there for not adhering to every grammatical standard or following MLA format. However, as I grew as a teacher, these rules started to matter less. I began to do what I should have done from the start, focused not on having students fit every rule but rather having students convey their argument and ideas to me in a coherent manner that highlighted their own flexibility and creativity. This shift in my thinking led me to consider doing more assignments such as the unessay.
O’Donnell describes the unessay as “an assignment that attempts to undo the damage done by this approach to teaching writing. It works by throwing out all the rules you have learned about essay writing in the course of your primary, secondary, and post secondary education and asks you to focus instead solely on your intellectual interests and passions. In an unessay you choose your own topic, present it any way you please, and are evaluated on how compelling and effective you are.”
This approach, on the surface, seems to lack rigor, right? However, that assumption is not correct. Rather, I would argue that having students create unessay projects is more rigorous and ultimately more satisfying to them than having them write traditional essays. I say this because students have to rethink the ways they approach constructing and communicating knowledge to others. They have to take into account not just the material but also the means of dissemination. This is not as easy as it sounds, and it shows when students begin to think about what they want to do for their unessay projects.
In my classes, the unessay projects have three distinct aspects. The first assignment that students turn in is a traditional annotated bibliography. Here, they find five to six sources on their chosen topic and provide annotations. This assignment is, of course, a typical assignment for research papers. It serves to help students research and organize their research in a manner that will help them with their project. For each annotation, they must summarize the source, discuss its strengths and weaknesses, and discuss how they will use it for their project. At this stage, most students do not know what kind of final product they will produce, so the last part of each annotation usually causes them some problems.
At the end of the semester, students know what project they will create, and they have two assignments due at this point. The first is an unessay paper, similar to a traditional essay, where they talk about their topic and its importance before moving on to discuss the ways that the information they researched influenced their final project. Students still struggle here, and it is one aspect of this type of project that I need to work on with them. They still tend to treat this paper as a purely traditional essay or as an extension of the annotated bibliography.
The final product is the unessay project itself. Throughout the semester, students have worked to research the topic that they chose and have thought about ways to present the information to the public. Here, they bring everything together into a final product, and that product can be whatever they want it to be. They can make a video, a podcast, a graphic memoir, a quilt, a map, anything. The key stipulation though is that is must draw upon the research they conducted and have an argument. As an example, I point students to shows like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight because the stories on shows like this are, essentially, essays. They make an argument and provide sources. It’s just that the essay is delivered in a nontraditional manner.
When we start to talk about their projects, students typically struggle, mightily, to figure out what they want to do. They have a hard time envisioning a way to translate the information they learn into a format that is different from the one they have used throughout most of, if not their entire, academic career to this point. This tension serves as an obstacle for some students, and many fall back on formats they are familiar with such as PowerPoint presentations. I try to steer students away from using things like PowerPoint because what inevitably happens is they just copy/paste the essay into the slides and it becomes a presentation and reading of their essay.
To help students maneuver the obstacle obstructing their path, we talk about what interests them about the readings. This semester, a few students were interested in the ways that food worked with the texts we read. So, as a result of this interest, we talked about them choosing dishes that appeared in the texts and cooking them. They would record themselves cooking the dishes, like a cooking show, while they discuss the text and the research they did either on that dish or the ways that food works within texts. One of the students chose this because he said he didn’t know how to cook and thought that this would be a good way to learn some things about cooking while also learning about another culture. Another student became interested in Chinese migration to Cuba, so we talked about doing an interactive map using Google Maps. Another student, who I have had before, is a theater major, so we talked about creating a stage adaptation of one of the short stories we read. This caused her to research scriptwriting and set design, two things pertinent to her major.
There are still aspects of the unessay project that I tweak each time I use it because I am still learning as I go along. However, I have found that this type of assignment allows students to expand beyond the traditional requirements of composing essays to think deeply about how to convey information to others. This is the key. This is what we want students to know, right? We want them to know and understand different methods of conveying information to others and different ways to make an argument. The unessay does just that.
I do not want my students to enter the classroom expecting to just passively receive information then regurgitate it back to me in order to merely receive a grade. Rather, I want, as Kevin Gannon puts it, to see my “students as active partners in teaching and learning, as cocreators of knowledge and coparticipants in the scholarly conversation.” This, ultimately, is what the unessay project does because I end up learning new recipes. I end up learning about ways to construct scripts. I end up learning about programs to design infographics. I end up learning things I never thought I’d learn. We become “coparticipants” in scholarly discourse, and that is what we should strive for in the classroom.
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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