Thanks to Twitter, the Unessay has been on my radar for a minute — but I only finally tried it out in my Short Story lit class this summer. My students really enjoyed having a creative option in lieu of a traditional research paper, and examples of their work are shared with their permission below (along with the full prompt, and the course syllabus).
But before I get to their work: let me give some clarification on what an Unessay is, exactly. My prompt and grading criteria were adapted and cobbled together from Professor Emily Contois’ “Teaching the Unruly Unessay,” Professor Emily Suzanne Clark’s Unessay post on her personal site, and Professor Ryan Cordell’s Unessay assignment on the Technologies of Text class site. This was the explanation I provided in the prompt for my students (linked here and embedded below):
The Unessay asks you to think outside the box and respond to a work or multiple works of literature we have read together this semester, bringing your own interests and skills to the project. So what does this mean, exactly?
You choose your own topic. The Unessay allows you to write about anything you want provided you are able to associate your topic with the literature we encountered. You can take any approach; you still need to use secondary sources, but you don’t need to write a “traditional” research essay (though you can certainly do so, if you wish). The only requirements are that your treatment of the topic be compelling: that is to say presented in a way that leaves the reader thinking that you are being accurate, interesting, and complete in your thinking.
You choose the format. You may choose to write a brilliantly concise and beautifully written 1,000 word essay or its creative equivalent, such as a poem, a work of art, a song, a playlist, a creative retelling, fan fiction, a graphic narrative/comic, a music video (or parody), a game, a podcast, interviews, a documentary: the options are endless, limited only by your own creativity and commitment.
I had students submit a proposal and a creator’s statement. They presented their Unessays to each other in our last class session, and reflected on each other’s work in their final response paper. Turning in the proposal (which included an annotated bibliography) was a large part of their grade, so that I could check in on the development of the project and make sure folks were on track (or that they weren’t taking on too much). The overall Unessay was worth 20% of their course grade, and their project needed to reflect that level of energy and effort (you can see the full grading criteria in the prompt linked above and embedded/linked below). Many students met the challenge eagerly; several students chose to go with the research paper option, and they also presented an overview of their findings in the same final class session.
So what did students come up with?
One student did a collage (the featured image here), using Ken Liu’s “Paper Menagerie” as her inspiration. Nigina wrote in her creator’s statement that she believed that “the baseline of the story is about the contradiction between the colonial mindset, white supremacy, and identities of immigrants in the United States.” She went on to argue that “Even though the story is set in the somewhat recent past, I am linking it to ongoing ideas around immigration. The piece is inspired by the political events that are happening under the Trump administration, such as death and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, the rise of racism, white supremacy, the use of racial slurs against immigrants, deportation, etc.”
Andrea Amoroso (who asked that her full name be attributed to her work) made very clever digital collages (drawing on niche memes) around Margot and Robert in Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person.” In her really perceptive Creator’s Statement, Andrea explained why she chose this medium:
“I found a strictly visual representation fitting as the character interactions between Margot and Robert exist on an almost exclusively superficial level.
The pair end up making assumptions of each other throughout the story based on what little trivial information they have about one another : for example, like how Robert thinks Margot must be a film snob because of her workplace, and assumes she is a virgin because of her age. Margot assumes Robert is a mature and sensible guy because he’s older and at the end of the story it’s revealed he’s neither.”
These were not the only artistic renderings; Luz drew a graphic narrative on Carmen Marcia Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” and wrote a poem to accompany it focusing on how the women are made into sexual objects in the story. Luz said “I’ve written a poem on her sexual desires, but also on how much pain and torture she went through with her husband, all the way until the end when he greedily pulls the green bow.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, creative writing responses were very popular among the students in a literature class. Michael, for instance, wrote some fantastic poems from the point-of-view of each major character (the child, mother, and father) in Ken Liu’s “Paper Menagerie” (the mother’s poem is pictured here). Michael began his creator’s statement by explaining that “each poem draws on themes of disappointment and familial strains, including those based in cultural history and the plight of some ways immigrant families struggle to mesh with American society.” I also asked students, if possible, to connect their Unessays with their own interests and skills, which Michael did neatly: “I decided to write a series of poems because, first and foremost, I am a writer, and poetry has been my focus since I have been back in school. I think poetry is an excellent way to lay bare emotions, and I think it offers a cerebral twist on the story on which these particular poems are based. Because this story is so personal and emotional anyway, I thought poetry fit nicely.”
And others also found poetry to be an apt medium for their Unessays. In response to Edwige Danticat’s “Children of the Sea,” Carmen wrote a heart-wrenching reflection and poem from the point of view of Celíanne to her child. Tatiana’s poem in response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “American Embassy” was also powerful. She wrote that she “chose this story because of the way it conveyed the disquieting reality that happens when someone tries to seek asylum in America.” At the close of her statement, Tatiana also tied this into her own experiences: “Being a black woman in a country that doesn’t accept me for who I am, and living in a time where America is going down a path of repeating its already blood tainted history… I feel that it’s important to address these issues.”
Another student decided to tinker with an adaptation, after our class devoted to fairy tales, myths, and legends — adapting Aladdin to modern-day New York. Niko shared his process in his statement: “During that class, we analyzed a story called ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’ by Intan Paramaditha which is an adaptation of Cinderella: but, the idea was also inspired by the Movie Plot activity wherein we were told to come up with a proposal for a movie. During that activity, the characters started to enter my mind and I knew I had to get them down on paper (so to speak).” He also explained that he did some outside research on fairy tales, finding that they are “used as ways for people to discuss not only corrupt governments but also other issues that plagued their society.” Applying this, he argued that “‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’ is, however, more than just a story. It is also a commentary on the double standards that women in society face and also on how colorism can impact lives.” Niko then revisited his original movie idea, “to see how I could attempt to apply the same sort of social commentary. I came up with trying to incorporate how the uber-wealthy one-percenters do nothing to help society or the planet as a whole. Even though the world desperately needs help and they are in a position to help, they…use their influence to escape taxes and continue to poison the earth.” You can see Niko’s prose fiction piece here.
One student tapped into his own experiences being bullied to respond to Margarita García Robayo’s “Worse Things.” Jabril wrote that “Robayo makes a clear correlation between obesity, bullying and identity…It took me years to realize that my weight was not a part of my identity and when I made this realization I then knew that my identity is defined by me, not my weight.” He composed a playlist meant to be encouragement for the main character Titi, who is horribly bullied in the course of the story.
A couple of students also created PowerPoints exploring a particular issue in connection to our stories. Robert, for instance, made an informative presentation on the Central Park 5 (which, by a show of hands at the start of his presentation, he discovered — as he anticipated –few of his colleagues had heard of). He tied the ideas in the case around race to the same assumptions made by the white man who murders children in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenya’s “The Finkelstein 5.”
Students, overall, made creative and thoughtful Unessays in response to the stories we read. They posed provocative questions and genuine feedback to each other during the presentations, commenting on the new insights they gave each other by sharing their projects. The projects demonstrated close reading of literary texts, interpretive claims and analysis, and the use of secondary sources to make connections and expand on their understanding of the stories. I’ll definitely use Unessays again in this class, and others. Thanks so much to the students who allowed me to share their work.
The Unessay prompt is below, followed by the full syllabus for the class (you can also click on the headings to open in Docs). Professor types: hmu with any questions, thoughts, concerns, etc.