The Unessay

The Unessay Project was assigned to my Introduction to Anthropology (ANTH 101) class in Spring 2020. The Unessay was modified and adapted from Marc Kissel (also check out Marc Kissel’s updated webpage on the Unessay), Emily Clark, and Ryan Cordell. According to Emily Clark, the Unessay was developed in English and Digital Humanities.

After teaching ANTH 101 in Fall 2019, I was unsatisfied with assigning essays on different topics, which were general areas that I thought were important to anthropology. However, I knew that some students might not be interested in all of these topics. In the fall semester, an introductory class like ANTH 101 is heavily first-year, first-semester students. The dynamic is a little different in the spring, as students are more evenly spread across their years of study (e.g., freshmen and sophomore). After doing some research over winter break, I ran across the Unessay, which I believe started with one of the webpages mentioned above. There are also some good Twitter threads, such as by Heather Norton, and where Heather also answers questions about the assignment.

Inspired by the different iterations of the Unessay, I decided to use it in my ANTH 101 class for Spring 2020. In the spirit of the Unessay, I wanted students to be able to choose their own topics that focused on some aspect of anthropology (e.g., physical/biological, cultural, linguistics, or archaeology), choose their own medium, and then I would evaluate their project based on what they presented (hopefully compelling that they had done in-depth research on a topic).

Given that we ended up in a pandemic halfway through the semester, most students shifted their topics, mediums, groups, etc. However, most students and groups really surpassed my expectations, especially given the circumstances. Most went a more digital route for their projects.

Below I provide some examples and highlight some of the cool projects that my students produced. All of the ones shown were approved to be shared by the students (and names are given when they wanted me to use their names). To think more about writing the assignment itself, I recommend looking at the above webpages. However, you can also see my ANTH 101 Unessay assignment document.

Assignment Rundown

Here I provide a brief overview of the different components that went into the assignment. For the full description, overview/reasoning, why, what, etc., please see my ANTH 101 Unessay assignment document.

First, they had to submit a proposal that was well-written and showed clear thought and a plan. The proposal consisted of answering the following questions: What is your topic, and why did you choose it?; How are you planning to present your topic and why?; What do you need to learn more about in order to complete this project? I decided that each step would be worth points to make sure that they made progress. They also let me know if they were working in a group (with a max of 5 people) or working as an individual. Sorting out topics did require some back and forth with the students in order to settle on appropriate anthropology topics. The main issue was that students did not pick a topic within anthropology or that applied to anthropology. I also had to be flexible with topic changes later in the semester due to COVID-19.

Second, they also had to do 2 evaluations for the project. The first one was due about a month and a half after they submitted their topics. This was to evaluate where they were with the project, which they did by answering the following questions: What progress have you made so far? What else do you need to do to complete the project? How is the project going overall? Are you having any difficulties? In addition, they also evaluated 3 areas for their group members and themselves, which were Quality of Work, Quantity of Work, and Being a Good Team Member. For the three areas, it was more important for evaluating group members. The plan was to weight individual grades within groups using Harris et al. 2008. The second evaluation was due when the final project turned in. The second evaluation did not have the progress questions, since these would be addressed in their reflective essays. They also got points for doing both evaluations.

The final things they had to do for the project consisted of Video Presentations, the final Unessay product, a 2-page reflective essay, and images of their process with the project. For the video presentations, they covered goals & constraints, challenges, demoed their projects, accomplishments or what they learned, and future work. For the Reflective Essay, they needed to explain what they did, why they did it, how they went about producing the Unessay, and what they learned in the process of making their projects. They also had to watch at least three other student video presentations, then contribute to a discussion board.

For grading, I relied mostly on the rubric laid out by Emily Clark.

What I Learned

I was super impressed at the creativity of my students, especially considering being in the middle of a pandemic and lifestyles being substantially altered. I, just as Mark Kissel mentioned, believe that over 90% of the projects were well done. It was really fun to see what students came up with. It definitely made grading more fun, as I got to see the different things that students produced and learned. I purposefully made the Unessay as flexible as possible. Some students decided to work in groups and others wanted to be solo. Students also had more flexibility with their essay/research papers, as I did not have a bunch of guidelines that they had to follow (like font size).

I would really like to do this assignment again in the future, at least when we are not all working from home and classes are not online. It was extremely difficult to communicate clearly all the aspects of the project, what to turn in, etc. The video presentations were a great way for students to see the work done by other students in the class, since we did not get to present in class. I think the students really liked seeing some of the other projects (they also had to comment on 3 videos as part of their grade).

Of course, there were drawbacks. I think some students found it difficult that there were not strict rubrics and a lot of structure. So, students that are used to a lot of structure probably had the most questions about the assignment. This was even the case for those that chose to do traditional papers, since I did not have a strict page limit. However, I think that I would give a page limit next time for those that choose to do a traditional essay.

I wanted to give the freedom to explore new topics that they were interested in, and to do it in a way that was most interesting to them. I think this is particularly important for hands on learners (as I am). My hope is that they made new connections and gained a greater understanding of anthropology. I really enjoyed this assignment, and hope the students did as well.

If you have any questions at all, then please feel free to email me at I am also happy to share my evaluation forms that I used for evaluating individual participation and progress throughout the semester.

Student Unessay Projects

Below, I provide a sample of some of the projects that students produced (with student approval, except for some of the websites, since the websites are public).

Buzzfeed Quiz

What Type of Anthropologist are You?

Morgan Hammock, Samantha Mitchell-Brantner, Katharine Whitman, and Aleeta Pratt put together a Buzzfeed quiz that allows you to explore what kind of anthropologist you might be. You find out some of the different jobs that are available to you for your type of anthropology. I thought this was an interesting way to find out some of the different fields that anthropologists work in.

You can take the quiz yourself at Buzzfeed Quiz: What Type of Anthropologist are You?


Homo erectus and Their Extinction

Elise Unruh-Thomas and 1 other group member put together a newspaper with stories about Homo erectus and their extinction. You can read the full newspaper at The Extinction of The Homo Erectus.

Board Games

Primitive Survival

Mikaela Dean, Daryl Leischner, and Malik Roberson created a cooperation survival-based board game. It focuses on the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of Homo neanderthalensis. You can see the full Primitive Survival Rulebook, which includes the game pieces and playing cards.

Anthropologists to Apples

Taten Gorton developed a linguistic anthropology that is similar to apples to apples. However, you learn something about morphemes and phonemes and how words are created. You add a Greek or Latin word onto a root word, then have a judge that picks their favorite. You can see the Anthropologists to Apples Rulebook for creating your own cards.


Characteristics of Hominin Skulls

One student embroidered the skulls of Australopithecus, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and provided the key characteristics for each skull.

Experimental Archaeology

Eastern Mediterranean Fishing Methods

Sam Showalter and 2 other group members recreated different fishing tools that were used in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greek Spearfishing: The Iron Trident

On the left: Student replica of iron trident. On the right: Ancient iron trident from Greece.

Fishing in Neolithic Israel

On the left: Student replica of projectile. On the right: Illustration of Neolithic projectile for fishing.

Fishing Hooks in the Mediterranean

On the left (3): Ancient examples of fishing hooks. On the right (3): Student replicas of fishing hooks.

Multi-media Art Project

Development and Customs in High Church Christianity

Annie Gardner developed an art project to show the different aspects and characteristics in high church christianity, particularly for understanding different symbols that are used.


Early Stone Tools

Aidan Nelson created a funny but informative video about early stone tools.

Oldowan, Acheulean, and Mousterian Tools

Nick Woodard and 2 other group members made Tik Tok videos to cover the earliest tool traditions.


Marriage Rituals in Different Countries

Learn more about interesting wedding rituals, timeline of wedding history, and features of Vietnamese and American weddings at Marriage Rituals in Different Countries.

Human Evolution

Homo Species Tools and Technology

The student covered tools and technology of three Homo species. They wanted the website to look like an old school Wikipedia page, which is a template option on Google sites. You can view the page at Homo Tools and Technology.

Homo naledi

Prezi (Interactive Presentation)

First Neanderthal Bone Tool by Zach Tayler and 2 other group members

Diversity in Human Evolution

2 responses to “The Unessay

  1. Pingback: “A Mysterious Something”: Curatorial Thinking and the Discovery of Insulin | Defining Moments Canada·

  2. Pingback: Insulin and the Unessay | Defining Moments Canada·

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