Always inspired by the “unessay” projects I see profs proudly circulating on Twitter, I tried the assignment this semester in my Media and Popular Culture course. I couldn’t be more delighted with my students’ efforts and creations.
First a bit more about this class. It is both a foundations course in the Media Studies major and a part of the university’s general curriculum in the area of “Historical & Social Interpretation.” This semester it drew 31 students from every year of study and all across the university. The first half of the course emphasizes key theories and histories, culminating in a midterm. The second half provides opportunities for students to apply this theoretical knowledge to contemporary topics and issues.
Last semester, students crafted short research papers, which they then translated into Infographics. This semester, students and I read Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Each class period, in groups of three or four, students led chapter discussions. Together we compiled one giant Google slide deck of media texts—magazine covers, photographs, relevant quotes, video clips, etc.—to illustrate the book and guide our conversation.
Over the course of about six weeks, students gained a vocabulary for deconstructing celebrity and femininity, as well as the broader concept of unruliness, which shapes the bounds of not just “respectable womanhood,” but the myriad ways that we move through the world. Students appreciated the highly accessible ways Petersen’s text employed theoretical concepts like taste cultures, convergence and participatory culture, the mechanics of media production, and the potential agency afforded by media consumption.
About two-thirds of the way through our reading, we had the special treat to welcome Anne Helen Petersen into our classroom for a discussion of her work and career. Students also had the opportunity to attend her public talk—organized by myself with Media Studies colleagues Zenia Kish and Justin Rawlins—on the politics of popular culture in the digital age, including her new work on millennial burnout.
Teaching the Unessay
For our class, the unessay was integrated with our reading on unruly women and comprised 35% of the total course grade, broken down as follows:
Unessay Proposal and Literature Review (10%)
Students submitted a proposal and literature review (2-3 pages) in which they were asked to:
- Summarize the unruly characteristic (“Too X”) and female pop culture figure (actual or fictional) you plan to research. State why she interests you and what she can teach us about unruliness, women, and femininity in our present or in the past (if you’re interested to study a historical figure).
- Compose a literature review of at least 8 sources (3 of which must be peer reviewed) that will form the foundation of your writing or your unessay. For each source, identify it, briefly summarize its key point(s) in a sentence, and describe in 1-2 sentences how you’ll use/build upon this evidence in your project.
- Propose, explain, and defend your project format and share why it interests you. You may choose to write a brilliantly concise and beautifully written 1,500 word essay or its creative equivalent, such as a poem, a work of art, a song, a playlist, a music video (or parody), a game, a recipe, a fashion line…the options are endless, limited only by your own creativity and commitment.
- Also list any questions or concerns you have as you undertake this project.
Office Hour Proposal Feedback Appointment
Students were not required to attend a proposal feedback appointment, but 80% did. In these short 10-minute meetings, a number of students changed their proposed projects, as our discussions revealed new ideas and possibilities. These meetings also helped students to gain comfort with this creative format, inspiring several students to switch from the essay option to an unessay. In the end, only three students selected the essay option and one of those included designing the essay into a magazine-style layout.
Unessay + Interpretative Paper (20%)
Students creating unessays also submitted a paper (1-2 pages) that explained and interpreted the unessay. Given the many different formats unessays could take, the grading rubric, which I shared with students beforehand, covered both the unessays and their interpretive papers and included three guiding questions:
- Conceptual Adherence | Does the unessay clearly and compellingly analyze an unruly woman and her unruly characteristic, taking inspiration from the style and rigor of Anne Helen Petersen’s The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman?
- Depth of Theoretical/Argumentative Application | Does the unessay and its interpretive paper effectively build upon the knowledge learned in this class from our readings (unruly and otherwise), our discussions, and this project’s related research?
- Invested Effort | Does the project, whatever format it might take, represent the energy and performance expected for a final course project that culminates our learning and is worth 20% of the course grade?
I hope to employ unessays again, and while this rubric worked well to set expectations with students and guided my assessment, I’m not sure if a more structured rubric would be better. (I welcome others’ thoughts on this!) That said, the end of term grading process was a bit quicker (and a lot more fun) than the typical stack of research papers.
As an opportunity to practice oral presentation skills, but also for us to view and celebrate every student’s creation, our finals period featured 4-minute presentations of students’ unessays, some of which are pictured below, with student permission.
Angel painted Marilyn Monroe as “too glamorous,” caught between the black and white of her time and the color of how her pop culture image now circulates. On the screen, see Veronique’s football playbook, dedicated to how Toni Harris tackles gender bias on and off the field. Celyn researched Dolly Parton as “too independent.” He composed and performed a country-inspired song, but with lyrics that removed the genre’s all-too-often-misogynistic tone. Christina played her ukulele and performed a song she wrote about how critics frame Emma Watson as “too aggressive” for her feminist views.
Dustie painted Daenerys Targaryen, reflecting on how she perseveres within a patriarchal culture, despite how others see her as a small woman against the largeness of the throne. Iris painted the duality of Reese Witherspoon’s feminism and her new domesticity, alongside reflections of her own unruliness. On the screen, you can see Taylen’s poster dedicated to Kesha and the unruliness of “too sleazy,” and her efforts to theorize a female gaze. Kimberly created and populated an Instagram account dedicated to Lady Gaga and critiques that she’s “too vocal” with protest signs bearing inspirational quotes from the Warrior Queen herself.
Luisa created a decoupaged wrecking ball to explore how audiences responded to Miley Cyrus as she transformed in the public eye from Disney child star to “too wild.” Annie performed her own stand up set, inspired by the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, women comedians, and the notion that women aren’t or can’t be funny.
And these are just the ones I took photos of! One student wrote a poem. Students shot a short documentary, music videos, and a “person on the street” comedy video. They created magazine and album covers, a collage, a fashion line, and a food blog.
29 of 31 students (94%) completed an end of term feedback survey, including thoughts on the unessay. 86% of those students found the unessay assignment “very effective” or “effective.” Four students found it only “somewhat effective,” but zero students rated it as “ineffective” or “very ineffective.”
The assignment didn’t engage every student, as one student responded, “I personally didn’t find the kind of assignment very interesting, but it’s educational potential is high for those interested.” I also had a couple of students who struggled with the unessay’s less structured approach, as they reflected, “The project was pretty effective I just find the open endedness to be a little confusing” and “It gave me a lot of freedom but almost too much and made it hard to focus on it.” This feedback makes me think I ought to require the office hour consultation, so I can make sure all students have clarity and support. I could also emphasize more pointedly at key intervals during the project development stages that students feeling confused about the project are very welcome to come meet with me.
Overall, however, students enjoyed the unessay format for how it encouraged creativity. In this vein, students responded that the unessay: “forced me to get out of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to use creativity,” “It helps us learn and allows creative freedom,” and “It was a creative way to learn, which isn’t utilized very often in school.”
Students also reflected that the unessay format promoted their learning, as one student wrote, ” I think the fact that I was able to use my creativity allowed me to learn the material better than if I had written a paper.” Another responded, “I loved this assignment. For me, it was a practical way I could apply the theory I researched, which helps me understand it more in the long run.”
As I had hoped, the unessay format in some cases fostered greater student engagement and excitement for research. One student wrote, “Because it was a format that I chose, it was something I was most interested and invested in,” while another reflected, “I was able to make my learning and research plan more personal.”
One student found the assignment practical and applicable to life after graduation, writing, “It was such a refreshing break to be able to do this research but not just write a paper on it. Also, outside of academia, we will be doing more creative projects, so it was a good help to implement this type of project.”
As these responses and the unessays themselves show, most students embraced the unessay assignment, creating dozens of wholly unique projects that applied their knowledge and communicated their learning. I plan to use this assignment in future classes and hope it will inspire similar results.
If you have experience with unessays or questions, please share in the comments!
Additional Unessay Reading and Resources
- Daniel Paul O’Donnell, “The Unessay,” Daniel Paul O’Donnell, September 4, 2012.
- Emily Suzanne Clark, “The Unessay,” Emily Suzanne Clark, August 1, 2016.
- Hayley Brazier and Heidi Kaufman, “Defining the Unessay,” Digital Humanities at the University of Oregon, April 2, 2018.
- Marc Kissel, “The UnEssay,” Marc Kissel’s Website, May 7, 2018.
- Christopher Jones, “Assigning the Unessay in the U.S. Survey,” The Junto, June 26, 2018.
Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2019