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Evaluating the Unessays

When I met Barbara in Venice for the first time, she told me about the "unessay" and the collection of papers on the topic that she is editing with Dan, I became increasingly curious to know more about this strange and yet fascinating object. Later, being exposed to both hers and Dan's teaching style, I started watching, seeing, touching and listening to their students' unessay assignments, until when, this year, I had to actually assign them a formative grade as part of my teaching duties. Simply put the "unessay" is the negation of a traditional essay and its rules (hence the prefix un-). It challenges the conventional format of academic writing by encouraging students to explore more creative and unconventional ways of presenting their ideas in a "compelling" and "effective" way:

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

  • it is as interesting as its topic and approach allows

  • it is as complete as its topic and approach allows (it doesn’t leave the audience thinking that important points are being skipped over or ignored)

  • it is truthful (any questions, evidence, conclusions, or arguments you raise are honestly and accurately presented)

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

  • it is readable/watchable/listenable (i.e. the production values are appropriately high and the audience is not distracted by avoidable lapses in presentation)

  • it is appropriate (i.e. it uses a format and medium that suits its topic and approach)

  • it is attractive (i.e. it is presented in a way that leads the audience to trust the author and his or her arguments, examples, and conclusions)."

(O'Donnell 2018, n.p.)

In an unessay, then, the student is given more freedom to choose their format and style of presentation, which can include but are not restricted to: performances (dancing or playing a musical instrument), multimedia elements (videos, podcasts, websites), material objects (drawings, paintings, photographies) and so on and so forth. The overarching goal is to allow individuals to communicate their ideas in an original way that best suits the course contents and the message they want to convey, transcending the rules of academic writing.

Some of the projects I got from the students were impressive: from blackout poems to musical performances as well as essays that at some point turned out to be fake. Now, the reason why I am writing about that is that the idiom for which "the rule is that there is no rule" falls short in some cases. As I was told by someone, we should imagine the unessay as a box labelled "whatever the hell you want," for which, if something fits inside that box, then it is fine, if something does not, then should be revised. This made me think about something I have never realised before, mostly because of my first experience with this sort of format, which is that unessays are per se really advantageous to students in terms of evaluation. Even though, I am aware that no one should evaluate someone based on their mastery. Given that originality and creativity are the prerequisites for the unessay, if a student is not as attractive as another one this should not automatically result in a fail. So what is the game changer in this discourse? It is of course a good faith effort, this is, showing that you tried to do your best to realise your project to the best of your capabilities. And this is, to me, the only rule of the unessay assignments. The only rule that can justify a fail in a fail-or-pass component like this.

Reference list

O'Donnell, Daniel Paul. 2012. "The Unessay." Blog post. September 4. URL:

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