The Unessay

propagandism_synergy-05[A post for students in my ASHA321 course in Fall 2012.]

The unessay is your opportunity to make a compelling argument free of the formal strictures of a traditional essay. To quote Daniel Paul O’Donnell,

in an unessay you have complete freedom of form: you can use whatever style of writing, presentation, citation, “¦ even media you want. What is important is that the format and presentation you do use helps rather than hinders your explanation of the topic.

In other words, use any form or media that helps you make a compelling and effective argument that uses textual evidence.

I recommend you read O’Donnell’s assignment (which inspired mine), but I depart from it in two ways:

  1. First, I’m explicitly asking for an argument using evidence (quotations) either from Darwin or Byatt (or if you prefer, both), and from at least one of the shorter texts we read / media we consume (on Google+) in weeks 2-5 or 10-12.
  2. Second, I’m asking you to respond to one of the questions below. They are three approaches to the problems of evidence and interpretation, one of our big ideas in this course.

Here are the questions. They are phrased in terms (e.g. “history”) broad enough to apply either to natural or human history, i.e. to Darwin or Byatt. (“For me the natural scientist is a hero,” as Byatt once praised Darwin; see also this interview.)

  1. The survival and loss of past events, of evidence of those events, leave us only incomplete records. How do our theories about the past adapt to the discovery of new records?
  2. To what degree can your present intentions and/or desires (for any outcome) affect your future legacy? Should they? Specify at least one identity for “you.”
  3. To what degree is history an overconfident construct in the present? How do our retrospective constructions simplify the complexities and contingencies of historical things (events, records, traces, …)? Is there an alternative?

The due date is the one we agree to in your Writing Contract.

I will grade your unessay using three categories, each worth a third of your grade:

  • 10% of your grade is based on how compelling your argument is. I’ll use O’Donnell’s definition:
    • An unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:
      • it is as interesting as its topic and approach allows
      • it is as complete as its topic and approach allows (it doesn’t leave the audience thinking that important points are being skipped over or ignored)
      • it is truthful (any questions, evidence, conclusions, or arguments you raise are honestly and accurately presented)
  • 10% of your grade is based on how effective your presentation is. O’Donnell again:
    • an unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:
      • it is readable/watchable/listenable (i.e. the production values are appropriately high and the audience is not distracted by avoidable lapses in presentation)
      • it is appropriate (i.e. it uses a format and medium that suits its topic and approach)
      • it is attractive (i.e. it is presented in a way that leads the audience to trust the author and his or her arguments, examples, and conclusions).
  • The final 10% of your grade is based on how well you use textual evidence. When you build an argument, are you quoting sources both to substantiate it and to make it nuanced ? When you make an assertion, how does it move beyond opinion to specific interpretation? The answer to these questions lies in assiduous quotation, and in making it clear (when you quote) why it’s essential to consider your sources in their original forms.
    • (In other words, why quote when you could paraphrase? Because evidence is more than just compiled pieces cut-and-pasted from your source; rather, it interweaves assertions with interpretations of those pieces.)
    • How you cite sources is up to you, and may depend on the form you choose; just ensure that your use of someone else’s ideas is always transparent, and offers a way for me or others to access those ideas in their original forms.


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