The UnEssay

This week marks the end of my first year of teaching at Appalachian State University. It has been great getting to know my colleagues in the anthro department and learning to live in the mountains (before coming here we lived in South Bend, IN, which is a lot flatter than Boone, NC…In South Bend you can watch your dog run away for 2 days). I’ve been teaching two of the General Education courses in the department (Our Primate Heritage and Gender, Race, & Class). It has been a lot of fun thinking about how to work with students who are, for the most part, not anthropology majors.

There is something special about talking with students who will most likely never take another anthropology class. As our job is to produce the next generation of teacher-scholars, having the opportunity to talk about anthropology to a wider audience of college students is a great privilege. I’ve been humbled and overwhelmed by some of the comments students have made about how much they’ve learned.

Of course, there are drawbacks to large lecture courses. One is how to assess grades. I don’t really like the idea of grades at all and would love the idea to have an ungraded class, something I may try in the future. But this semester I was stuck with figuring out a way to grade ~100 students in each of my classes. I spent awhile reading about the best way to write multiple choice questions and how many possible answers each question should have (as an aside, the history of MC tests is amazing and a bit suprising.

But I wanted to incorporate something else.

I didn’t think asking for a research paper would work and even a personal essay seemed a bit much. Awhile back I stumbled upon the idea of an UnEssay. I don’t remember where I first saw it mentioned (maybe on Twitter…) but I found a number of useful online resources ( 1, 2, 3).

Sadly, creativity has been “educated out” of us. An UnEssay project gives students a way to creatively interact with the class themes. In this project, students pick a topic that interests them and then they think of a way to produce something that touches on the theme. It can be a standard writing assignment or something totally different. The idea of having students choose not just the topic but the medium in which they can best present their ideas seemed to jell with the themes of my classes and would give non-majors a chance to explore the topic in a way that is meaningful to them. After reading a few examples I put this assignment together (see end of post for prompt I gave students. I tried to note where the ideas came from but please let me know if I missed something).

I was thrilled and amazed by the results!

Just to give you some ideas of the project students submitted:

  • a cross-stich of a human skull

  • a number of ‘Buzzfeed style’ lists about evolution, gender, feminist movies, and other interesting topics presented with the mix of facts and humor.

  • a Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing game about evolution.

  • attempts to make stone tools.

  • A website where you can design your own baby that looks at the ethics of gene editing/

  • A magazine-style story on Homo floresiensis.

  • A water color about breastfeeding.

  • Comic strips about primates, the island rule, and pronoun use.

  • Clay sculptures of hominin skulls.

  • A video about HB2 law in North Carolina.

  • A YouTube video on intersex, set to “Born This Way”"

  • A play about life as Fa’afafine

  • A canvas about gender roles and fluidity

  • a ‘zine’ on socioeconomic class

  • a lesson plan on primates designed for 8th graders

  • Amazing and creative essays on diverse topics such as transgender rights, Black Lives Matter, personal reflection on course topics, and in-depth discussions of human evolution

What I learned

My students are amazingly creative! This was the first time I didn’t feel I was in “Grading Jail.” Over 90% of the projects were well done and fun to see and I looked forward to each submission. The students who choose to write essays/research papers were able to write without worrying about the specific format or if I’d take off for the wrong font size (something which can be important for other projects, but not this one).

I hope to do this in the future. One thing I would change is to have the option to let students share their projects with the class. I didn’t think about that ahead of time. Some of them were deeply personal but others were almost too good not to share.

Of course, there are drawbacks. It involves rethinking grading and perhaps the goal of a class. And students who want to continue in anthropology may need the practice of writing. But they can get that in other classes. Students at App take a mandatory writing class so it is not like they need the practice writing (one student commented that this project was the first time she didn’t have to write for a class and it made her excited to explore other media). I imagine there are many classes where this kind of project won’t work

As Susan Blum notes, most of us who become professors do so because we excelled at learning in a school setting. But that doesn’t hold for all of our students, most of whom are not like us and learn best outside of the classroom. Finding ways to reach students who don’t learn the way we did is difficult (…and teaching itself is damn hard…) but can be very rewarding.

Class project “unessay”

Overview and reasoning :

Due to the class size and the need to get tests graded quickly, I’m forced to use multiple choice exams. However, not all students test well in these conditions. I have been trying to find a way to let you engage with the material in a way that allows you to use one of the most important aspects of being human: Imagination. In that vein, the main project for this class will be an unessay, a project which allows you to engage with the material in any way you see fit.


Creativity is at the heart of what makes us human (See The Human Spark by Agustin Fuentes). Imagination and creativity allow us find answers to problems in unique ways. Even if 1,000 people looked at the same issue, you bring a unique and distinctive view to the question based on your personal lived experiences. However, and quite sadly, creativity has been mostly “educated out” of us (see Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Ken Robinson for more on this). This is an experiment in a different way of letting you explore the class materials and topics in a way that is salient to your own goals in college (which are most likely different than mine!).


You can choose your own topic! You can present it how you please (written word, illustrations, music, video, etc.)! You can work in groups or on your own!


Over the first few weeks of class think about a topic of relevance to the course that you think is interesting, important, and relevant to you. In other words, you can choose your own topic as long as it can be associated with the course material. Then you figure out how you want to present it. It can be a standard research paper if you wish (in fact, if I were taking this class I might go that route…) or something very different. Some possible examples:

  • Make a music video about human evolution, primate behavior, etc. (look on YouTube for examples…).

  • Recreate an ancient technology like stone tools, wooden spears, etc.

  • Make a series of songs (like a musical or opera).

  • Write a play.

  • Create a series of cartoons or a comic book that illustrates something associated with this class

  • Watercolor/painting/charcoal artwork

  • Write a longform essay on a subject (designer babies, ape personhood, eugenics) that you post to a sharing site

  • Create a website/Wik about the topic

  • Collect specific data and analyses/present it in a unique way

  • Make a series of Buzzfeed style listicles (with a clickbaity headline!)

  • Embroidery, knitting project

  • Do a book review of a nonfiction or fiction book related to the class (i.e Dan Brown’s Origin)

  • An interview and discussion with someone.

  • Regular essay/research paper

Final project submission

When you submit your project include a short explanatory essay (‘The Statement’) that explains what you did, why you did it, and how you went about producing the unessay. If you chose to do a standard essay/paper this can be your place to be more open about the process you used to create the piece. This statement should be 1-2 pages long. If working in a group, everyone should submit their own Statement that reflects their personal views on the project.

Grading the unessay

The success and assessment of this project is based on how effective and compelling you are (see this post by Ryan Cordell for more . Effectiveness is seen in having the unessay be readable/watchable/viewable/listenable in an easy and attractive way. Compelling means that the topic is complete, interesting, and honest. Meeting these criteria is a lot easier if you pick a subject of interest to you.

It will be graded on various criteria (see the grading rubric online for more info)

  1. All three deadlines met (total of 5 points)
  2. The full synopsis is well-written and shows clear thought and a plan (5 points)
  3. The content and presentation of the unessay:

See this great example by Emily Suzanne Clark more on this rubric and the online rubric for more.