The unessay: A contructivist approach to developing student writing (formalisation and dissemination)Posted: May 17, 2013
This is the original application for the Unessay Grant.
The goal of this project is to formalise and further develop work that Michael Ullyot of the University of Calgary, graduate student Heather Hobma, writing centre tutor Virgil Grandfield, and I have been carrying out on an innovative approach to teaching undergraduate writing: the Unessay.
The unessay is based on the premise that students do not understand formal essays the same way their teachers do: as a powerful and flexible means of exploring intellectual problems. Instead they see them in much the same light figure skaters see “compulsory figures”: as an artificial set piece designed primarily to test their ability to meet arbitrary rules.
The unessay addresses this problem by asking students initially to ignore form and concentrate on developing their own voice and ideas. Through a carefully controlled sequence of exercises and grading, students are gradually taught to see how they can use the essay form to produce powerful, intellectually exciting work that remains true to their own interests and voice.
NOTE: All requested funds are to support researchers at the University of Lethbridge; external researchers will be seeking funds from other sources.
This project has two major objectives:
1) Anchor the experimental work of the last year (see below) in secondary literature on writing instruction and activist learning
2) Develop generalisable protocols for the assignment, and especially its grading, that can be adopted by other faculty.
We anticipate that this funding period will result directly in a series of formal and informal outputs: blog posts on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker, lectures at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences and departmental seminars, and a scholarly article.
Dr. Ullyot at the University of Calgary and I developed and experimented with the Unessay model this past semester: see http://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/Teaching/the-unessay and http://ullyot.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/10/04/the-unessay/ We introduced slightly different models in our classes and are now in the process of comparing notes.
Our preliminary conclusion is that, taken together, our approaches to the exercise were in the end complementary: the complete freedom offered in my version of the exercise served as an excellent first exercise, allowing students to discover and gain confidence in their personal voice; Professor Ullyot’s slightly more structured format served as a good way of developing student’s initial critical ability. Taken together, the two exercises we believe represent an excellent, gradual leadup to the final exercise in each class: a formal essay in which students are encouraged to employ the personal voice and analytic ability they developed in the first two exercises in the context of a standard university essay.
The principal goals of this request for funding are to improve our secondary research on this approach to writing and to develop a generalisable programme of instructions and marking protocols that can be used by other instructors. The unessay is rooted in a constructivist approach to teaching and is similar to techniques such as brainstorming, free writing, and journaling. But we have not found anything quite like this approach in the secondary literature in our relatively informal searching. If this model is to succeed, we need to ground the method more firmly in the secondary literature and do a better job of justifying its model. Virgil Grandfield in the Writing Centre is currently working with this aspect of the project.
The second goal is to develop a generalisable programme of instructions and marking protocols for other instructors. Marking the unessay is actually quite difficult: one of the things Graduate Student Heather Hobma and I discovered in marking them last term is that we needed to develop a completely different protocol. In marking formal essays, we discovered, a surprisingly substantial part of the marking process involves grading deviation from the norm: the extent to which the essay agrees with or deviates from the generic standards.
Because there are no formal generic standards for the unessay, we needed to develop protocols that took the student’s work on its own terms, without ignoring the fact that the ultimate goal of the project was producing a formal paper. We could not criticise students for not meeting criteria we had not assigned; but we also needed to highlight areas where their approach would (or would not) transfer well to a formal writing situation.
Generalising this experiment requires us to procude a clear explanation and clear protocols for instructors who wish to implement the exercise. In a non-experimental setting, instructors should not be required to discover how to mark these very different exercises on their own.
Developing the literature is one of the two main goals of this project. Our initial bibliography involves the description of the exercise used in our classes:
How does this project contribute to the enhancement of teaching and learning effectiveness?
How is this project innovative/creative relative to the problem addressed by the project?
Describe the potential for enduring benefits to the improvement of teaching, learning, and/or evaluation practices within your teaching and also any benefits to the university teaching community.
Measures of Performance
This project will have succeeded if it produces outputs similar to those discussed above: a relevant bibliography, a set of generalisable protocols, and articles, lectures, and blog postings explaining how the exercise can be introduced into the classroom.