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The Unessay

As a semester-long project, you will complete an Unessay that invites you to engage with our course’s material in whatever way most suits your interests and talents. This document will describe what the Unessay is (and isn’t), how it will interact with our course’s material specifically, what its components are, and how those components will be evaluated. The Unessay will be worth 35% of your semester grade, with components that will be described below.

This project has been lovingly and gratefully adapted from a version by Prof. Ryan Cordell at Northeastern University, itself lovingly and gratefully adapted from the original Unessay prompt by Prof. Daniel Paul O’Donnell of the University of Lethbridge.

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Essay versus Unessay

The essay is a wonderful and flexible tool for engaging with a topic intellectually. It is a very free format that can be turned to discuss any topic—works of literature, of course, but also autobiography, science, entertainment, history, and government, politics, and so on. There is often something provisional about the essay (its name comes from French essai, meaning a trial), and almost always something personal.

Unfortunately, however, as Wikipedia notes,

In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.

One result of this is that the essay form, which should be extremely free and flexible, is instead often presented as a static and rule-bound monster that students must master in order not to lose marks. Far from an opportunity to explore intellectual passions and interests in a personal style, the essay is transformed into a formulaic method for discussing set topics in five paragraphs: the compulsory figures of academia.

By contrast, the Unessay is 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.

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An Unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:

In terms of presentation, an Unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:

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Why the Unessay?

The Unessay may be quite different from what you are used to doing in a Classics course (or any humanities course, for that matter). If so, a reasonable question might be whether I am wasting your time by assigning it. If you can write whatever you want and present it any way you wish, is this not going to be a lot easier to do than an actual essay? And is it not leaving you unprepared for subsequent instructors who want you to write the real kind of essays?

The answer to both these questions is no. Unessays are not going to be easier than “real” essays. They have fewer rules to remember and worry about violating (in fact, they border on none). But Unessays are more challenging in that you need to make your own decisions about what you are going to discuss and how you are going to discuss it.

And you are not going to be left unprepared for instructors who assign “real” essays. Questions like how to format your page or prepare a works-cited list are actually quite trivial and easily learned. You can look them up when you need to know them, anyway. But even more importantly, the things you will be doing in an Unessay will help improve your “real” ones. Excellent “real” essays also match form to topic and are about things you are interested in. If you learn how to write a compelling and effective Unessay, you’ll find it a lot easier to do well in your “real” essays as well.

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Example Approaches

Here are some examples of Unessay formats that you might adapt!

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Stages, Deadlines, and Evaluation

Your Unessay project should be completed in the following stages, each of which will carry a certain amount of weight for the project’s total of 35% of your semester grade:

One-on-One Meeting (2.5%)

By 5pm on Thursday, February 25, you should have met with me either in student hours or by appointment to discuss what you’re thinking about for your Unessay one-on-one. At this meeting, you will not be expected to have a fully fleshed-out idea; I’d just like to chat with you about what direction you might want to take your Unessay in and how the remaining readings or topics in the course may help you with that project! A full 2.5% will be awarded for coming to the meeting prepared to chat about your potential project.

Formal Proposal (5%)

By 5pm on Thursday, March 4, you should submit via Canvas a formal proposal for your Unessay. Details of the formal proposal can be found at this link.

Check-In (2.5%)

Between Tuesday, March 23, and 5pm on Tuesday, March 30, you will be expected to meet with me in student hours or via appointment or shoot me a quick email to detail your progress on your Unessay. How much have you completed? How much further do you have to go? It’s totally fine if you don’t have much in the way of progress; just be honest about it. A full 2.5% will be awarded for meeting this deadline.

In-Class Presentation (5%)

Click here for the guidelines for this presentation.

On Tuesday, May 4, and Thursday, May 6, our last two days of class, you will present what you have of your Unessay to us in a 5-10 minute presentation. To be clear, your Unessay is not expected to be fully complete by the time of your presentation, but far enough along that you can explain to us what your Unessay is, what your process was in creating it, what sources you used, and how it relates to the material of our course. Your presentation should be accompanied by a submittable handout.

Unessay (15%) and Reflection Paper (5%)

By 5pm on Tuesday, May 11, you should submit via email your Unessay and a reflection paper of about 2-4 pp. double-spaced that answers the following questions: what was the process of creating your Unessay like? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not? Was it difficult? Easy? How did completing your Unessay compare to “traditional” semester-long activities like a research paper or a final exam? Do you feel that your Unessay invited you to engage more deeply with the themes of our course?

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