About the Unessay
The “Unessay” is a constructivist approach to teaching the academic essay. Its main premise is that traditional approaches to teaching writing are not effective with contemporary students because they are focussed on getting students to internalise (relatively artificial) formal criteria rather than helping develop as researchers and communicators–or as Emma Dering argues in her blog postings below, because they teach “the theme” rather than “the essay.”

The “Unessay” addresses this problem by borrowing from the techniques of the Digital Humanities, particularly the “Unconference” and the “Hermeneutics of Screwing Around.” Instead of emphasing form over content, the unessay encourages students to experiment with free form writing in the form of exercises and blogs. Instructors then mark what is promising in the students’ writing rather than what they get formally wrong. The technique then gradually introduced more the formal aspects of the “undergraduate essay,” treating these, however, primarily as an element of genre rather than an essential feature of good writing. Students are encouraged to push at the boundaries of the form they are taught, producing work that is true both to their own interests and the demands of the writing situation.

The blogs collected under this rubric explore different aspects of the Unessay and its context in the contemporary undergraduate curriculum. They have been written by students Emma Dering and Matt Gall, and University of Lethbridge Professor Daniel Paul O’Donnell. Additional work referred to in these blogs has been done by University of Calgary professor Michael Ullyot. The project bibliography can be found here: https://www.zotero.org/groups/unessay.

The unessay: A contructivist approach to developing student writing (formalisation and dissemination)

This is the original application for the Unessay Grant.

Project Overview

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Unessay and Metacognition

In order to understand what the unessay attempts to do for writers one must understand the underlying philosophies that govern it. In my preliminary research for this project I attempted to dissect the unessay, revealing its structures, and then relating those structures to the larger theories of teaching writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Introduction to Unessay Research

There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction. Read the rest of this entry »


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