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Defining the “Unessay”

Posted in Uncategorized

By: Hayley Brazier and Heidi Kaufman

Welcome back to the blog! Before we begin, we’d like to make a few quick announcements. 

First, Colin Koopman, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the New Media and Culture Certificate, has just published an important article in the New York Times that examines issues central to DH concerning the ethical use of data. Be sure to check it out here: “How Democracy Can Survive Big Data.”

Second, the Digital Scholarship Center in the Library is offering a Faculty Grant Program for those who wish to develop a DH project.  The deadline is April 30. You can find information, including the application form, here: Email questions directly to the DSC:

Third, UO Libraries is running an Art-Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon on April 13 from 3-6 in Knight Library, Room 144 (Edmiston Classroom). Snacks will be provided. Please RSVP here.

Finally, we are finalizing plans for the Spring Term workshop series. Very soon we’ll post details about DH events on the DH@UO Events Calendar or you can sign up for weekly blog posts (where we announce forthcoming events) on the DH@UO websiteThe Library will continue to offer a wide range of workshops, many of which will interest DH enthusiasts. Be sure to consult their online schedule 

We are excited to start the spring quarter with a fresh series of DH blog posts. Today, we are discussing a new type of assignment that is taking DH pedagogy by storm: the “Unessay.”

Daniel Paul O’Donnell, Professor of English at the University of Lethbridge and pioneer of the Unessay, designed this new assignment for the purpose of reinventing the traditional essay, which he felt could be inflexible and emphasize rule-following over creativity, design, and argument. Since O’Donnell proposed the Unessay assignment on his website in 2012, it has quickly gained popularity in a number of humanities fields. Scholars like Ryan Cordell, Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University, Emily Suzanne Clark, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University, as well as our own Dr. Emily Simnitt, Career Instructor and Multilingual Writing Specialist in the English department at the University of Oregon, have all implemented the Unessay as a writing/research assignment in their courses. 

The key feature of the Unessay is its possibility to open up various kinds of rhetorical modes. Students can choose any topic they want as long as it relates to the course’s content. Instead of writing a typical response to an essay prompt or question, students writing Unessays must develop the prompt themselves by raising a question, articulating a problem, or identifying a misunderstood way of viewing an issue. In this way, students swap roles with the teacher by becoming the  the inventor of an assignment topic.  Instructors have to approve that prompt and will grade the final result. But unlike assignments that ask students to engage with a set topic defined by the instructor, the Unessay invites students to engage with questions that grab their attention. Moreover, Unessays are not defined by a page or word limit. Rather, students are asked to generate a topic, to draw from existing digital objects or to create objects of their own, and to build a case or argument for addressing their chosen topic. One student in Professor Ryan Cordell’s class created the following Tumblr project for her Unessay assignment:


Screenshot from the webpage titled "Ada on Ada: A programmer's Menifesto" with green letter and a black background.The homepage of a Tumblr site built by one of Ryan Cordell’s students for their unessay assignment. (Image source:

This student has created an imaginary memoir of Ada Lovelace, the first person to develop a computer coding language.  Yet, like many other women inventors, Lovelace’s story is often written out of the historical narrative of computing.  To complicate matters, Ada Lovelace left behind very few records of her life. Some of her letters exist and have been saved.  Her notes to a lecture are extant.  But beyond that, we know very little about her life and thoughts. Honing in on the problem of how we study women’s contributions to history and computer science when their papers were never saved, Cordell’s student invented a lost memoir written by Ada Lovelace. Indeed, Cordell’s student didn’t just invent the lost book but created the marketing campaign that would celebrate its arrival into print by creating a (fictional) Amazon page.

The Unessay draws from student imaginative power, asking students to think inventively and creatively about a social, historical, political, intellectual, or aesthetic problem raised in the course. While the Unessay is not limited to Digital Humanities courses, it often works well in a DH classroom because it encourages students to create multi-media projects and/or to invent digital objects that help them address the question or problem at the center of their essay. Students might build a digital map charting a character’s imagined movement through a city; create a timeline to chart an historic figure’s unknown thinking process that leads to action; create a series of video interviews to gather responses to a problem or question; conduct a podcast interview with a faculty member or two with expertise in related subject areas; or build a website that helps the public understand subtle features of a problem or issue. The possibilities are vast, but the point of the Unessay is for intellectual work to build from discovery, invention, and creativity, and to integrate awareness of multiple audiences and publishing forms for building arguments. 

Students can also build something with their hands if that better suits their skills and more appropriately conveys their topic. As O’Donnell notes, it’s up to the student to choose the physical form that best matches their Unessay topic. At the Price Science Lab we now have access to a maker-space lab. Students might want to create a 3-dimentional object that helps them think through a problem. Their final project will use writing to analyze their creative path and the final product they’ve invented.   

Instructors who assign the Unessay claim that it may be more work than a traditional essay. The Unessay asks students to shoulder the responsibility of choosing the topic and design. From there, students have to find an appropriate form of implementation for their project. Importantly, Unessays do not reject writing or traditional essay assignments. On the contrary, Unessays ask students to create an argument in ways that draw from their experiences as writers, readers, creators, and users of computer tools and technologies. 

Three individual images show three projects that students have built. First, wooden bookwheel; second, a map, and third, a big book with object project out of the pages.Students in Ryan Cordell’s courses have built both digital tools and hand-crafted projects for their unessay assignment (image source:


Unessays encourage teachers to grade students on what is promising in their work rather than grading against students for not following a prescribed rubric. Teachers who are skeptical about grading the Unessay could implement various checks and balances during the course to determine if students are developing their Unessay adequately. For example, UO’s Emily Simnitt recently assigned the Unessay in the flagship Digital Humanities Minor course, English 250: Literature and Digital Culture. Simnitt asked students to first submit a proposal for their Unessay before embarking on the final product, which provided Simnitt and her students an opportunity to gauge their Unessay’s appropriateness for their chosen topic and available time frame. 

Those who assign the unessay are quick to defend the qualities of the traditional essay. Daniel Paul O’Donnell writes, “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.” The Unessay therefore makes a great follow-up assignment, giving students opportunities to build or invent based on the kernal of an idea they’ve developed in an essay.   

We’d love to hear about your experiences implementing Unessays in your classes.  Please feel free to send us student Unessays that we can showcase on our blog!


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