The Unessay

The Unessay

I did not come up with the concept of The Unessay – I first saw the concept on Christopher Jones’ twitter back in April of 2017 and was wowed by the work his students were producing.  Since then, I’ve had at least one class per term that have done unessays instead of final papers or exams, and I could not be more in love with the practice.  Yet the unessay can seem daunting to some at the outset, and I often hear people ask how it’s possible to grade such diverse projects fairly.  So here are some general pointers from the way that I lead up to unessay projects.

A red couch covered in artwork, quilts, samplers, zines, and paintings
A sample of the projects I receive

Come to a consensus on grading

Early in the term in each of my classes, the students and I have a conversation about how we’ll assign grades in the course.  I say ‘we’ purposefully – I think of grading as a collaborative practice, and owe a great deal to Jesse Stommel’s Why I Don’t Grade on that front.  Step one of collaborative grading is, for me, to share a list of potential grading standards with my students.  From there we have a class discussion about what seems fair and unfair, what needs editing and why, and what needs taking away or adding to our list.  Once we’ve reached consensus and everyone is happy with the grading standards, I upload the edited document to our LMS so that everyone has access to it all term.  The grading standards I start with are below.

Write a open-ended assignment

When writing my unessay assignment sheets, I make sure that I offer the unessay as the first option, and a regular paper as the second.  This helps my students get over the hump of the familiar.  Instead of gravitating to the paper because it’s something they feel comfortable with, they’re presented first with the idea of something new.  I think this helps people think through their choices more thoroughly.

Every student must make a proposal for their unessay or their paper, and upload a revised set of grading standards for their project.  This circles back to the work done earlier in the term about collaborative grading – students take that document and amend it to speak directly to what they plan to do.  I then look at each student’s proposal and the grading standards and give a thumbs up or down.  99% of the time I give a thumbs up; I’ve only had to push back on unrealistic grading standards that did not do justice to a project once.

The modified grading standards mean that I have a means of assessing each project on its own merits, in a collaborative process that involves both the students and myself.  Students get to set their own bar.

Make room for reflection

If a student turns in an unessay for their final, they also have to turn in a three-page reflection on what they learned from completing the unessay, and a bibliography of sources consulted.  This keeps the projects rooted in the readings we’ve been doing for class (or extra reading the student has taken on), and makes sure someone cannot simply cook a meal or paint a picture without really thinking through why that better expresses their learning than a paper could.  The reflections have overwhelmingly been heartfelt and insightful.

Here are just some of the things my students have produced for their unessay projects:

A page of blackout poetry
Blackout Poetry
a monopoly board that has been altered to make the goal gaining tribal recognition
A monopoly game where the goal is to gain tribal recognition
an embroidered picture of four women from the 19th century
A sampler of same-sex-loving women from the 19th century
a green, purple, and yellow star quilt
A star quilt
A timeline of Native history since 1870
Timeline of Native history since 1870

Have fun!

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