Publication Date

September 20, 2023

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Undergraduate Education


Teaching Methods

From sewing projects to art installations, original songs to experimental dance, unessays have become a staple of the historian’s teaching toolbox. If you have spent any time on Twitter in the last five or six years, you likely have encountered the unessay, a creative project students complete in place of writing a paper. Emily Suzanne Clark and Christopher Jones were some of the first to popularize the unessay for historians, and ever since, each semester, teachers post their students’ projects online for all to see. Jessamyn Neuhaus even organized an entire open-access issue of Teaching History: A Journal of Methods on the assignment in 2022. But I see the unessay as more than an assignment type. It is a call to arms.

black and white illustrated comic showing two panels of pirates talking on a ship

For a world history survey, Sean Hall created a comic that explored mutinies, democracy at sea, and the expansion of mercantile capitalism around the Atlantic Ocean. Sean Hall

The unessay should ask students to think about the audience in ways that we historians should be doing too. In 2019, an AHA national survey asked where the American public learns about history. More than 50 percent of respondents pointed to documentary film and television, fictional film and TV, TV news, online sources, and journalism as their sources for learning about the past. College courses came in dead last, and academic journal articles did not even make the list. Nonfiction history books, the gold standard for tenure purposes, are in the middle of the pack. If we know how the public prefers to learn about history, then why not teach students to meet these audiences where they are? If the majority of Americans do not consume history by reading, then why do so many history educators still assign a “final essay”? Whether an individual research project or a synthesis of what was learned in the course, essays require students to make an argument using evidence in writing. An unessay has equal potential to lay out an argument and mobilize evidence but allows students to explore other mediums and genres, ones that the American public, at least, may find more appealing.

This assignment intends to undo what some students perceive as the stale essay format, which is still the assessment mode of choice for most history educators. Critics of the way historians teach and interact with the public have boomed in the past decade, in large part because history majors in colleges and universities have been on the decline for some time. This downward trajectory has forced historians to rethink how they present their work, what kinds of audiences they reach, and ultimately how they train the next generation of historians. The unessay is just one step in rethinking what a history education means, and it’s a powerful tool to get students to think through the future of the discipline with us.

A naysayer might focus on the perceived lack of “rigor” of unessays. This assumption is fallacious. If done right, the unessay can motivate students to surpass the level of work, critical thinking, and creativity to which a traditional research essay may lead. If one goal of a history course is to foster an interest in history, then tapping into their passions seems obvious. With an unessay assignment, the film major can write a script for a historical nonfiction television episode, paired with a short analysis of the choices they made. If the art major wants to become an animator or illustrator, then why not have them design their own comic book (like Sean Hall created in my World History since 1500 survey). These projects challenge them to think through the purpose of their research in creative ways without sacrificing rigor. If anything, figuring out how to employ a new medium to make a research-based argument means students have to exercise more critical thinking than when writing a paper.

I wanted students to see that different sorts of publications were each rendered in a specific format that revealed much to the informed.

Just as the mode is malleable to the students’ interests, so too can the unessay be pliable to the teacher’s learning objectives. In intro courses, the goal is to reach students with wide-ranging disciplinary interests, and the unessay has the advantage of leveling the performance playing field for students unfamiliar with the traditional college essay. In a class for history majors, you might limit the types of assignments to a select few. Increasingly, I have focused on the two main career trajectories our majors take—either into the classroom or public history. Students interested in teaching create lesson plans, classroom activities, or playground games to get them thinking about how to prepare and put into practice their content knowledge when they become educators. Those more interested in public history design museum exhibits, memorials, or informative websites; edit Wikipedia pages; or produce podcasts or YouTube video content. In a recent section of my online World History since 1500 course, I asked students to translate their research for a public audience. In a YouTube video, Jiane Louella Rabara examined one of the most infamous cases of cannibalism and what it tells us about the legal cartographies of imperialism. Her project is a case study of a successful and engaging unessay project.

A screenshot of a youtube video that says 'Sacrifice and Survival' above an illustration of a skull and a heart

Jiane Louella Rabara’s entertaining and educational YouTube video, “R v Dudley and Stephens, Cannibalism, and the British Empire,” is an exemplar of a project that addresses a public audience. Jiane Louella Rabara

Unessays offer a real opportunity to think about your learning objectives. The history discipline is overwhelmingly concerned with originality and method. The “so what” question, as we often call it, drives students toward innovation, but this often comes in the form of overspecialization or parochialism. The search for lacunas limits the audience in the name of novelty. Unessays give us a chance to leave the lacunas be for a moment precisely because the unessay inverts the relationship between the “so what” and “for whom.” It is not that students should cease being original thinkers, but rather they need to consider where the audience for history content is. The most successful unessays find ways of using the chosen form to enhance the function of the unessay itself. Instead of writing a paper on African American culture after the Civil War, a student might make a quilt, illustrating their understanding of cultural history using a medium meaningful to their subjects. For my colleague Caroline Newhall’s Civil War history class, Janetta Crawford showed how quilting allowed African Americans to tell their family and community’s story, making it an ideal medium to unpack the complexities of existing in the Reconstruction era and after. While designing their projects, the students should be asking themselves what the audience will expect to see and learn from such a medium—a question that they usually ignore when writing a traditional paper for their professors.

A slide that has the title 'Quilting in the Underground Railroad' and the sentence 'different types of quilt squares were used to represent different messages' and four quilt pattern squares

Janetta Crawford’s unessay described how quilts could be used to convey messages secretly on the Underground Railroad. Courtesy Caroline Newhall (Oberlin Coll.)

Historians talk about how history education provides transferable skills, so let us give students the chance to transfer their skills with guidance. Structure is key with unessays, just as it is with essays. Just as students often need to have the rules of a primary-source-driven persuasive essay mapped out for them, so too do they need scaffolding to ensure that their unessays meet the instructor’s expectations. Some might fear that this means the unessay might prove more laborious for the instructor—but teaching writing requires deliberate introductions and guidance through the assignment as well. In designing an unessay assignment, I suggest the following:

  • Make prompts open-ended. The tendency is to start an assignment by describing as the instructor what you would like to see. This limits the creativity of the student.
  • Have them write a proposal. What students produce or how they deliver it will differ with each student. A written proposal may be sufficient, whereas an oral proposal may be more useful if the student is, for example, preparing a monologue. This step gives you a chance to emphasize early in the process what you see as integral to the success of that unessay and what students think the audience will expect to see.
  • Provide feedback on “drafts.” This step is essential for survey students but still important for history majors. Regular and substantive feedback is key for helping students provide an interpretative unessay that makes an argument and shows their research.
  • Have students “present” their unessays to the class or outside groups. Not only does this give students more extrinsic motivation to work on their projects, but it also gives them a chance to reflect on just how well they captured their subjects and made their cases in different mediums. For students who suffer from anxiety, instructors should encourage them to develop an unessay that can be “presented” without putting them in an unnecessarily stressful situation.
  • Reflection is key. If you want students to realize what they did was important for their growth beyond the classroom, they need time to reflect on their work afterward in a guided way. In taking this last step, students will likely connect what they’ve produced to their greater ambitions. It is a chance to internalize the value of history.

In many ways, assessment is the sticking point for historians teaching with unessays. Most of us were not trained to assess monologues, urban-planning maps, or poetry. Assessment models differ. You might create a general rubric and have the students tell you how they fulfill each requirement. You can do this with a more traditional paper, or you might have students give oral presentations and share their creativity with the class to foster even more reflection. Instead of looking for a thesis statement, identify an argument. Look for the ways that students incorporated their evidence into their unessay. Since attention to detail is just as important in an unessay as grammar is in an essay, ask students to explain how they “edited” their project. If this seems like a stretch beyond your training to the point of discomfort, remember it is okay to decenter yourself in the learning process and rely on the student or students in the class at least during the time spent working on or presenting unessays.

While designing their projects, the students should be asking what the audience will expect to see and learn from such a medium.

For an example assignment sheet, please visit the AHA’s Classroom Materials webpage.

Bryan A. Banks is history department chair and associate professor at Columbus State University. He served as an assistant director of experiential learning (2019–22) and acting director of the Faculty Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (2022–23). Find him on Twitter @BryanBanksPhD.

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