An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl join us to discuss how they have employed unessay assignments in their courses.
Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego.
- Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A guide for intellectuals, introverts, and nerds who want to be effective teachers. Morgantown, WV, USA: West Virginia University Press.
- Neuhaus, J. (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Neuhaus, J. (editor) (2022). Using the Unessay to Teach History. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Vol. 47. No. 1.
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
- Jessamyn’s American Promise Unessay Assignment
- Pittman, Chavella (2022). “Strategizing for Success: Women Faculty of Color Navigating Teaching Inequities in Higher Ed” in Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Ed. by Jessamyn Neuhaus. West Virginia University Press.
- Pittman, Chavella (2023). Navigating Teaching Inequities. Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 291. May 31.
- POD Network Conference
- Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education Series. University of Oklahoma Press.
- American Historical Association Annual Meetings
John: An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, we explore ways in which different faculty have employed unessay assignments in their courses
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl. Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome back, Jessamyn and Maggie.
Jessamyn: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Maggie: Good to be here.
John: Our teas today are:… Jessamyn, are you drinking any tea?
Jessamyn: I am. In preparation for this very question, I’m drinking a wild sweet orange.
Rebecca: Sounds nice.
Maggie: That sounds very fall. I am drinking a bread pudding tea. It’s a black tea from a little tea shop in Sacketts Harbor.
Rebecca: That’s a first on our podcast for sure.
Maggie: I think it’s called Tea Thyme, the little shop. It’s quite lovely.
Rebecca: Nice. I have Irish breakfast this morning. So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss unessay assignments. Could you tell us a bit about what an essay is?
Maggie: I guess I’ll say an unessay is anything but an essay. Jessamyn probably has some more nuance? [LAUGHTER]
Jessamyn: Not really, that is the basic premise. In classes where you might traditionally ask students to show their learning via a standard essay, either like the five-paragraph essay or a research paper, an unessay project asks students to demonstrate their learning, increased understanding, via any other kind of format.
Rebecca: Jessamyn, can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to use unessays in your class?
Jessamyn: Sure. And this also relates to… I know, we were maybe going to talk about what was appealing for historians, in particular, about the unessay. And some points for history professors generally and me, what attracted us to considering using the unessay. A couple of things about our discipline: first, that the unessay, it’s a good way for students to explore some key historical thinking skills in different new ways for them, so things like citation, research, and historiography. So trying to understand what other historians have written and argued about the past. There’s also been a pretty significant sort of public history turn in the world at large, like trying to better understand different audiences for historical research. Some other more general reasons were issues of equity and inclusion, especially around Universal Design for Learning, trying to offer students some options as a way to increase their learning, increase engagement. And the final thing I’ll say, just for me personally, is that I wanted to make assessment and grading a more joyful and happy part of my teaching life. It had really started to drag me down. And I didn’t want to approach assessing student learning as a soul sucking slog, not just for personal reasons, but also that it was interfering with my ability to accurately assess. If I was absolutely dreading reading a stack of essays, then something was amiss, and I wasn’t going to be able to, in my view, really accurately assess what has this student achieved.
Rebecca: About you, Maggie?
Maggie: I think really a lot of what Jessamyn said echoes in the reasons I decided to incorporate the unessay in my classroom. I was actually inspired by a talk that Jessamyn gave to our faculty, I guess it was over a year ago now, about the unessay and I immediately thought of my senior seminar class. So in criminal justice, in our department particularly, it was common for students to write a 20- or 30-page long research paper, and they dreaded it. It was a source of anxiety for students. It was something in the end that I’m not entirely certain they felt proud of. They just were trying really hard to get the A in the class, to make it perfect, to spend lots of late nights trying to perfect this project and I don’t think it brought about the kind of learning gains that I was hoping to see with my students, it seemed like there was a lot of going through the motions. And the unessay just gave us an opportunity to really turn that on its head and give some of that autonomy back to students and some of that creativity back to learning.
Rebecca: I’m loving these themes of joy, creativity…
John: …which are not terms we often associate with either writing papers as students or with grading them as faculty, and Jessamyn, you were the editor of a fall 2022 issue of Teaching History that focused on unessays. Could you tell us a little bit about ways in which you and other historians have been using them in your classes… some examples of ways in which students have demonstrated their knowledge?
Jessamyn: Sure, and I’ll just give a little promo here, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods is an open access journal. So you can just Google Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, and it’ll take you to the open access platform. It’s hosted by Ball State University. And so that issue is still totally available for anyone interested in reading it. I would say, like some specific projects that were explored in that issue, there was an article about using maps as historical documents, there were a number of projects that were exploring how to present history and historical thinking in a public history setting. So along the lines of museum exhibits, and especially in a digital format, the upsurge in digital humanities is something several of the authors were looking at. And then there’s a whole range of examples that were discussed in the two interviews I did for everything from board games, to graphic novels, to quilt, to the annotated recipes. All those were discussed in that issue.
Rebecca: What are some specific projects, Jessamyn, that you’ve done in your classes,
Jessamyn: A couple that have come up that I used… it’s interesting… Maggie used the unessay with her senior students. And I have helped students in the history department here, they also have to do a major research project. And I’ve been the advisor on a number of non-traditional projects is what I called them at the time, and now would say unessay. So at the senior levels, students did major research projects, like a fictional interview with a historical figure, historical fiction would be another example. I’ve had a couple of students do online exhibits and one person do an in-person exhibit. But I also use the unessay assignment in my intro level class, which is a basic history survey class. And those projects ranged from again, the board game, I had a number of posters, I had one student who was a trained professional baker do a set of cookies with icing, comparing different protest movements, the Bonus Army March in the 1930s with the more recent climate change activism. And one of my very favorites was a video recording that a student did, showing step by step how she made a family recipe. And since the theme of the class was the American Promise, and the way that throughout our history, as a nation, we’ve struggled to achieve the ideals of equality and liberty for all. And we get closer and we fall short. And her recipe was from her family’s background from India. And she took us step by step through it. She had music playing and was describing the importance of this particular dish in her own family history. The unessay was encouraging them to see their location in the American Promise. And it really struck me, in my previous life as a historian of food and food waste. So that was interesting. But most striking to me was, this was a student who had been very, very quiet in class. I felt like I didn’t know her very well. She was doing great work, but she was sort of on the edge of things it seemed like, and with this unessay, it completely changed my perception of her. I felt like I got to know her so much better and so did the other students as well. Having students share their unessays is an important part of the work and It really changed just the whole classroom dynamic in that way. So that was really notable.
John: Maggie, what are some of the projects that your students have done as unessay assignments?
Maggie: Yeah, so I mentioned before that I assigned the unessay for my senior seminar class. So it’s a sort of capstone project. And there were some really awesome projects that came out of this and I probably don’t have time to talk about all of them. So cut me off at some point when I’ve been going on for too long. But I had a student who wanted to be a elementary school teacher, and had gone through our program and decided that being a practitioner in the field of criminal justice was not exactly where they wanted to be. And so his project was to create lesson plans for second graders to communicate some of the harms of incarceration and how it affects youth when their parents or caregivers are incarcerated. And so it was a really wonderful project, all the students had worksheets, kind of like you can think about having when you were in second grade, and little matching puzzles and games, and it was a really cool experience. And for him getting interested in a master’s of education program, it was a way that he could then take that project and show to his grad school applications and advisors, like, “Hey, this is something that I’m really passionate about. I’ve been working towards this. And yeah, it was a lot of fun.” We had a good time, even some spelling words thrown in there. [LAUGHTER] It was great. Another student project was a choose your own adventure story. There’s various examples of this. But in my youth, it was the Goosebumps choose your own adventure where you read to a certain part in the story, and then it gives you the option of what you want your protagonist to choose. And then you have to flip to a different area of the book and see the fate of that character. And so the students started a really great project, unfortunately, didn’t get to finish it for various reasons, but started a really great project about reentry. And so the main character was someone who was being released from prison and had to navigate all of the barriers and circumstances around reentry that made it difficult for him to assimilate back into society. So that was a big fan favorite amongst the class. They really enjoyed that. Of course, we also had some board games, one in particular, was a monopoly game that examines varying socioeconomic status, and how that influences someone’s path through the criminal justice system. So the players started off with different amounts of money. And as they would pull community cards and have to purchase property and such, they would be challenged to need to pay a particular court fine, and how that would set them back from being able to find a job. It was a very well thought out game of Monopoly. But the goal to show and highlight the inequalities related to income and how that affects criminal justice processing. I could probably keep going, but it really gave a lot of opportunities for students to combine what they were interested in. There was a student who had run their own podcast for a period of time. So she conducted a podcast series on Amber Alerts and their effectiveness. And it was something that when she had been traveling down to Texas, and had received a number of Amber Alerts in the short time that she was there, she was like, “Are these things really working? And how can I explore that through a medium that she was already quite drawn to?”
Rebecca: Unessays always sound like so much fun?
Maggie: Yeah. And they’re fun for us. I know Jessamyn touched on that, too. It’s a whole different experience as someone assessing the work that they’re doing when you know that they’re passionate about it. And it gets me excited about assessment, which I don’t think is something we can typically say.
Rebecca: There’s not a big line of faculty raising flags saying assessment is fun.
Maggie: Right. [LAUGHTER]
Jessamyn: I also wanted to follow up on a point Maggie’s touched on a couple times about student autonomy and agency. I think for both our student populations, this is a really key academic, professional, and personal skill that many of our students need to build, that they arrive to college with a sense of themselves as very passive recipients of education and have not had the opportunity to really see themselves as producers of knowledge. as having agency in academic settings. So for me, one of the great glories of the unessay, is that it’s starting point really is, what do you want to do? What do you want to do to demonstrate that you understand this topic, and for a lot of students, it’s scary at first. A few might think that you’re trying to trick them. And I know this was something we did want to talk about. It does require, on our part, a fair amount of structuring and transparency and communication with students, maybe even especially the highest achieving students. One of my favorite students of all time went on to become a high school social studies teacher. And she did a fantastic job in the intro class with the unessay and then told me like a year later, “You know, I hated that assignment when I did it.” And it was because she was very, very nervous. She was a straight A student who was really nervous about doing something different. But she said, “Now, it’s my favorite, looking back.” So providing that structure and support and transparency, a lot of careful thought on the front end.
John: And one of the things we’ve been talking about in one of our reading groups, Mind over Monsters this semester, at both of our institutions, is the importance of autonomy, in terms of increasing student motivation and giving them more sense of control. It sounds like it’s really helpful in motivating students.
Jessamyn: Yeah, I think so. In both of our disciplines, criminal justice and history, there is a major learning curve to helping students see themselves as having agency in this particular discipline, especially the way they may have interacted with it before. And for me, coming from a lot of their previous experiences with history has been learning what happened and not actually doing history or thinking about those processes and the unessay could really help them move towards that particular desirable learning outcome.
Rebecca: I think one of the challenges that faculty who have been engaged in unessays before see before they enter in is the complexity of having students doing many different kinds of things at one time and managing those projects and also assessing those projects. Can you talk a little bit about how you help provide that structure for yourselves and for students?
Maggie: Yeah, so for my criminal justice class, I spent a lot of time the summer before I implemented this project, creating very detailed instructions and expectations. Jessamyn, I went to your website, and I use some of the self assessment tools, and I adapted them for my class as well. It was a very mindful process to think about how to give students the structure they need to feel confident in their ability to carry out this project, but also give them enough flexibility and creativity to take this project where they want it to be. I also spend a lot of time reading about different alternative grading practices to also incorporate in this, so I use kind of a combination of ungrading and specifications grading as well to help students assess their work. And I met with students quite often throughout the semester, particularly we had a midterm and a final exam meeting where we talked about the strengths of their projects, where they needed to go and what areas they needed to work on, whether it was engaging more deeply in the research and how to communicate that effectively in their projects. It was a lot of work for the faculty, but it was worth it in my opinion. It wasn’t so onerous and it wasn’t boring. It was exciting to meet with students, even if it meant spending my entire midterm week in the office with the students. It was almost every minute of my day for an entire week doing this, but it was, I think, a unique opportunity for making those connections with my students.
Jessamyn: I have been lucky. I have a relatively light teaching load and small classes. So that did make a difference in how I thought about structuring and implementing the unessay. There would be challenges on a larger scale. I would also say that there’s components of the unessay, that it’s not just do anything you want, and then nothing, and then in the end they turn in something. No, there’s stages and components like usually a proposal process and I also was able to meet with students. You could meet with students in small groups as well, if it’s a larger size class to go over the proposals, and many unessay assignments also do have a written component like a bibliography, an intro. At the midterm and end there could be a reflective assignment or sort of summary of work achieved. I did co-create with students the assessment guidelines for their projects. So taking the autonomy and agency a step further, I didn’t leave it totally up to them, we worked together on it, but asked them, “So this is your idea, this is the project you have in mind. How will it show these important skills? How will it show that you’ve met these course learning objectives?” And we work together on it. And that part is always great for me, I just really enjoy trying to de-center myself a little bit as the instructor which again, is something I can do from a place of certain privileges. I have tenure, I’m white, I’m cisgendered. But trying to enlist students as partners more, decentering myself a little bit, and asking them to reflect on what would show that you have achieved this learning outcome with this unessay assignment. A nice bonus is always students, at least one student, will say this is so hard, teaching must be really, really hard. [LAUGHTER] So bringing them in on that assessment process can help them even reflect on what does grading and assessment mean? What would show me that you’ve successfully achieved this learning, this desirable outcome?
John: Do either of you use rubrics for the unessay assignments?
Jessamyn: Well, when I co-created assessment guidelines with students, some of them used a rubric form. A lot of my students found rubrics helpful for things like deadlines. And I did set deadlines for certain benchmarks. And that was something that was easy to map out and help them structure their work time and stay on track as well.
Maggie: Yeah, I created a checklist with that self assessment that was on Jessamyn’s website, geekypedagogy.com. I did have students go through that and rate themselves, and then we got together in a meeting to discuss where we felt the accuracy of each of those points. But I think it gave them some comfort in saying, “Okay, I know I did multiple revisions of this, and I incorporated all of the feedback I was given. And here’s the changes I’ve made, or here’s the areas that I think I probably could have done better, or I could have focused my time a little bit better in this way.” And it just gave them, I think, a nice guideline to be able to talk about the strengths and areas of improvement for their project.
Jessamyn: I’ve used rubrics before, when I was co-creating the assessments. That’s fine with me, if that’s what they want to use. I will say that this part of it, while being very cognizant, like I said, of my own privileges and positionality and aware of that, your teaching context can really shape what kinds of assessments you can implement, for sure. But I also think that it’s at least worth considering the idea of our academic egos and our investment in our discipline and expertise. And what the unessay may challenge us to do is let go of the thing we know how to do absolutely better than anything in the world. So as a historian, a trained historian, I know how to assess student writing better than any other task I do as a teacher. I know so much about it. And it’s easy for me to do, not joyful, [LAUGHTER] but not difficult. It doesn’t push me to think about anything outside my comfort zone. And when I assign an unessay, I have to let go of that and think about things differently. And again, keeping in mind that I know bandwidth is limited, the incredible pressure on a lot of people in the pandemic pivot and for all various reasons, our limited energy, it might be too big an ask, too big a lift. But I would encourage listeners, if it’s possible, to consider maybe it’s not about me. [LAUGHTER] It’s not about us, and what makes us most comfortable as the person with the PhD in the room. That being a little uncertain. how can I assess did students meet this learning outcome with a quilt, with a board game, with a podcast, that it’s okay for us to feel a little bit discomforted. That’s about maybe getting out of the students way a little bit.
Rebecca: When I hear folks talk about unessays, both of you as well as others that I’ve heard talk about unessays, I see a big emphasis on process and the behaviors of a discipline, rather than necessarily the outcomes of something. So often in a research paper, we might assess on some of the polish of something like that, rather than really seeing always the process that goes into the thinking. But I feel like a lot of times with these projects, you end up knowing a lot more about a student’s thinking, because you’re talking with them about their projects in an ongoing way. Can you talk a little bit about that process piece with unessays?
Jessamyn: Well, one thing that jumped into my mind, Rebecca, when you were asking your question is writing a thesis statement for a research paper. Now, this happens to be something I’m incredibly good at helping students do, crafting their thesis statement. But, just like you described, it’s often so much about the academic writing skill that I’m helping them with, and when they have to write a thesis statement for the research paper they’re working on, that’s a great skill to have, if you’re going to be an academic. If you are engaging in scholarly writing, you have to know how to do that. And for a few students, that’s important. And that’s not like written communication skill. I’m talking about the highly academic scholarly skill of summarizing the argument you’re about to make in a paper. So for students who want to go on to be graduate students, I’m all in. We’re going to sit and we’re gonna go through this word by ever loving word to figure out the best way to state your argument. For a lot of my students, though, is that the best investment of their time, and the best way I can help them? There might be other ways to, just like you said, have them articulate and demonstrate their thinking, which, and I’ll just throw it out here in the age of generative AI and ChatGPT, this is at the heart of how we help students navigate is their original ideas really matter, their ideas, and their thinking matters. So if I can support a student being able to demonstrate their thinking and ideas in a way that matters to them, that they feel articulate doing, then, mission accomplished. That’s what I want. That’s what I want for students.
Maggie: Yeah, and I would say that, in my class, the 20- to 30-page research paper does serve students who are going to go on to graduate school. But like said, I don’t know if that is the best way to help them make the connection between what we’re doing in the classroom to what they are going to be doing on a regular basis in their various careers that they find themselves in. I wanted to make this project less about a means to an end for them, I wanted them to really think about how they start with an idea and how if they spend enough time thinking about that idea, and really focusing on how to communicate that expertise that they gained throughout the research on this idea, that they can create something that they’re proud of and they are hopefully less focused on the grade at the end of the semester and more focused on “Okay, I was actually able to start in one place, develop that project, develop this in a way that I can now go to my future employer or in an interview and say that I’ve developed these skills along the way that are mine and mine alone. They’re not ones that have been imposed on me by an instructor.”
John: We have increasingly diverse student bodies in terms of their prior preparation. Some have come through and had lots of practice writing throughout their high school careers and have developed those skills, others haven’t had as much preparation in writing. And we have lots of courses, though, that give them that but writing skills are not always one of the most important learning objectives for many of our classes. And it seems to me that perhaps using unessays can help provide a more equal playing field for students who may not have as strong of writing skills, but might be fairly comfortable creating videos or might be able to engage in some other creative activity that can demonstrate what they learned much more effectively than if they were constrained to having to do it in a written format.
Maggie: Well, I would say that was my experience for sure. I had a group of students make a series of TikTok videos and so they were quite excited about their ability to use something that they are on almost every day, if not every hour of their day, to use that as a platform to communicate the time topics that they were most interested in. And so it did mean that I had to learn a little bit about TikTok, I had to create a profile so I could follow my students and be able to see the videos that they had created. There’s an up voting system, too, I had to navigate [LAUGHTER] but yeah, in terms of equity, it does give students the ability to make decisions about how to present information in ways that they’re comfortable, but still challenging. I think that no matter what mediums students picked, it was challenging regardless. So it didn’t feel like students were just picking something that “Oh, well, I do this all the time.” It really was a strong motivator. And I think in a lot of the conversations we’ve been having in our reading groups about how to channel anxiety about something into a more direct way to accomplish a challenging task. I think it gave even students who are perhaps underprepared for academic writing, or find a lot of anxiety around that to shift their focus away from what they envision that they struggle with to then start in a place of, “Oh, I know I can do this, and I can communicate it in this way.” So I think it gave them some of that confidence back, that perhaps they find disappears when we impose a pretty lengthy paper or academic medium on them.
Jessamyn: There’s two aspects of the unessay and equity minded teaching I’ve been thinking of. One is the universal design for learning concept of providing some choice. It doesn’t have to be unlimited, it doesn’t have to be infinite choice. But providing some choice does increase accessibility. The second kind of key equity minded principle I have in mind with the unessay is that we should not be grading and assessing people’s life circumstances, we are grading and assessing their learning and their ability to show that they have reached certain benchmarks and outcomes. Just to put it in here as a caveat, I do think all kinds of writing is very, very important. Writing skills are very, very important. And a lot of the unessay assignment as I use it does include some clear written communication, because that is a skill we need in this world of ours. So the equity piece comes in though, that if I’m going to be assigning a grade assessing student writing, then it’s on me as the instructor to teach that and create the conditions in the classroom, the practice and the feedback, and more practice and making mistakes, and more feedback to do that writing piece. And if I’m taking into account the wide variety of academic backgrounds, what needs to happen in the course, for students to be able to demonstrate their learning accurately via a written essay, that’s a lot of writing work that I’m going to be doing to provide that equitable classroom. So the unessay as an option, that’s something a lot of people do offer the unessay as an option alongside a traditional essay option, the unessay as an option could increase equity in that way. I think it does convey the idea that our diversity is an academic asset. That all said, it’s interesting that the unessay could also exacerbate inequities without structure, without support. Students who have had very rich and varied past educational experiences may leap at the opportunity and see it just solely in terms of its benefits. Other students with less of that in their background might be extremely nervous about it as a whole new frontier for them. So without some structure, transparency, without all that prep work, Maggie, that you were describing, it could actually exacerbate some of those inequities.
John: And I think the scaffolding that you both described is really important in relieving some of that uncertainty, because I know some students when I’ve given similar types of assignments are really anxious about it and letting them do it a little step at a time and master that step seems to help relieve the pressure on them by just reducing the uncertainty.
Maggie: I know one of the things I incorporated in the project, and I think Jessamyn did this as well, that I gave students unlimited rewrites on any of the written work. So I did have a bibliography and I did have a proposal and a sort of artist’s statement reflection at the end of it. I think, again, I took that from geerkypedagogy[.com] and I gave students the opportunity to just keep rewriting and rewriting. And yes, it was a bit more work on my end. But it was so refreshing that students were actually taking my feedback into their work and they were making improvements. I think that whenever I’ve done drafts in the past, they might go through and make just the easy corrections and leave some of the harder things aside. But in this project, because we started a lot of those elements very early in the semester, we spend weeks and weeks just revising. And it really did give students, I think, a opportunity to make sure they fully were understanding and achieving those outcomes.
Jessamyn: Yeah, that point Maggie about your feedback actually being read and applied is so important for students and for faculty. It’s discouraging and disheartening to provide students a ton of feedback and then feel like it hasn’t been read. It’s up to us, though, to provide the opportunity for students to apply the feedback. If it can’t be applied, it’s very difficult to take it seriously [LAUGHTER] and to see it as meaningful and relevant. And I think another aspect of what you are describing that listeners might be interested in… if we haven’t totally convinced you yet [LAUGHTER] to use the unessay… is that it does get students’ attention, it cuts through the static. We get into a routine we’re just trying to get through, check that box for students who are overworked, overloaded, for whatever reason. I really feel like it kind of cuts through a fog that many of us, students and faculty, are in just by asking us to do something a little bit different.
Rebecca: Sometimes in those cases, and you guys have alluded to this before, that doing something different if they’ve not done it before, is risky and scary. And so all that scaffolding that you’ve built described as so important for students to be able to take that first risk and maybe take other academic risks in the future.
Jessamyn: Yeah, we can’t underestimate the impact of our traditional grading systems and traditional school systems where the stakes are sky high. You can’t overestimate them, financial aid, everything, is so tied to a student’s GPA, their families support, staying in school is often tied to GPA, their own sense of their selves as students, who they are, is defined by the grade they get. So asking them to, Rebecca, like you said, consider the process, not the end point. It is a big ask. So we can’t expect instant student buy-in, that they will immediately jump on board and with ease and joy, even if we are feeling that way about it.
John: So it sounds like it’s been a lot more fun, even though it may sometimes take more work for both of you. How have students responded? You’ve mentioned a little bit about student responses. But how do students generally respond at the end of the semester? Is it something that they find to be equally joyful?
Maggie: Jessamyn touched on this, but there was a bit of student buy-in that I had to get. And there were a couple of students who still wanted to write a traditional research paper. But in the end, they did a podcast element as well with it. So it was the sort of combination of the two, but it was the first time I had ever implemented an unessay in my classes. So I didn’t have a lot of student examples to show them. But I did spend a lot of time creating my own examples of what an unessay would look like. And I think for each of those scaffolded assignments I created a bibliography and a presentation and I tried to create an unessay myself so that they could see what it would look like. I think that gave them a little more confidence in knowing what was expected of them. But really, it took a lot of conversations with students on why I was doing this, what I thought the importance of shifting away from a traditional research paper, what gains they were going to have from that, and every student, at least to my knowledge, really enjoyed the process and much preferred the unessay over their 20- to 30-page research papers.
Jessamyn: The student resistance you just mentioned, Maggie, reminds me that I mentioned teaching context before, but it is important to underscore that any non-traditional teaching and learning practice and assessment, you can expect greater student resistance or reluctance when you quote unquote don’t look like a professor. So when you don’t fulfill the stereotype of what a professor looks like, if you’re navigating any kinds of intersectional biases, you may have to take into account the student resistance component and student biases. It’s a point that Chavella Pittman has emphasized for like an ungraded practice, that it’s very important to take those considerations into account. I will add that the biggest benefit besides my own grading joy is what I see… it’s extremely hard to measure… I couldn’t put it on my end-of-the-year file assessments of my own teaching, but students gain confidence, students gain some agency, some autonomy. I can see it in how they talk about it. If you can have a showcase or a gallery walk, you can see that they are proud of what they have achieved. When we’re doing senior presentations, that’s always very clear, like students’ sense of accomplishment is very notable. And it’s not that that doesn’t happen with the research papers. Well, it can, but the range of students who express and demonstrate to me that they’ve gained some confidence in themselves as students, as thinkers, as knowledge generators, as producers, it’s really heartening.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? Jessamyn, you want to go first?
Jessamyn: I’m headed to the POD Network Conference. I’m gonna do a session, with Chavella Pittman and Thomas Tobin, on faculty development that acknowledges teaching inequities. And I am working on a book on teaching and learning when things go wrong in the college classroom, and I just recently signed a contract for that book with the new series at University of Oklahoma press called Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education.
John: Maggie and I will both be at POD and will try to get to your session. And we’re looking forward to that book.
Maggie: I suppose what’s next for me feels like such a loaded question right now because I’m anticipating applying for a sabbatical. And so I’ve been really ruminating on this question of what is next for me. I’m entering into a mid-career stage, and so I feel like my answer is “I’m not quite sure yet.” But as far as the unessay goes, I do plan on bringing the unessay to my courses next semester. I’m teaching two elective courses on death penalty, and women and crime. And I think really any course, but particularly these courses, would be well suited for an unessay project.
Jessamyn: That reminds me, I am lucky enough, I’m going to be going to the American Historical Association Conference this spring and doing a workshop on the unessay, so any historians listening, I hope I see you there.
John: And we will include links to Teaching History, to that specific volume, as well as to the other resources that have been mentioned here. So check the show notes to find more of those resources. And thank you both for joining us again.
Maggie: Thank you so much.
Jessamyn: Thank you.
Rebecca: It’s always wonderful to talk to both of you
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.