The Unessay

An unessay is ideally everything an essay is not. It’s engaging, both for you to make and for others to read. And whereas an essay is supposed to demonstrate what you know, an unessay demonstrates what you do with what you know.

This unessay project is inspired by Daniel Paul O’Donnell’s original version of the idea and Ryan Cordell’s implementation of it at Northeastern University. I’ve tweaked here and there, but much of the wording below comes from their unessay assignments.

Unessay Guidelines

As O’Donnell explains it, there are only a few guidelines for an unessay:

  1. You choose your own topic. As long as it’s related to the intersection of gender and technology, it’s fair game. What sources and resources you use is up to you. The only stipulation is that your treatment of the topic must be compelling. What does that mean? It means that you’ve somehow surprised your audience and left them with insights that will linger on.
  2. The work takes any form you please. There are no formal requirements. You can write five pages, but why would you? Short videos, podcasts, listicles, and other digital experiments are welcome. Or, go completely analog. Like a walking tour, a pamphlet, a costume, a manifesto, a song. Choose your own tone, your own style. The only stipulation is that the format enhances your argument, not hinders it.
  3. Oh, yes, you do need to make an argument. This means you take a stance. A compelling unessay doesn’t merely describe or show, it analyzes and synthesizes. And we have over a dozen weeks of material to synthesize, not to mention your own life experiences.
  4. Your unessay must be compelling and effective. The degree to which your work is compelling and effective determines your grade.

What does compelling and effective mean?

Borrowing from Cordell’s assignment, we can think about compelling and effective in the following terms.

An unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:

  • It dwells in the realm of the unexpected.
  • It tells a satisfying story, not leaving the audience thinking that important points are being skipped over.
  • It is truthful, so that any questions, evidence, conclusions, or arguments you raise are honestly and accurately presented.
  • It makes an argument, taking a particular point of view on the topic, and that argument is something a casual observer of the topic might have missed.

In terms of form, an unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:

  • It is readable, watchable, or listenable, and the audience isn’t distracted by avoidable lapses in presentation.
  • It is well-crafted, with a sense of intentionality and deliberateness. The assignment’s invitation to write in different modes does not mean the unessay isn’t revised and edited. Deliberate stylistic choices can help convey your message, while needless errors will distract from your message.
  • It is appropriate, using a format and medium that suits its topic and approach.
  • It is appealing, presented in a way that leads the audience to trust the author and their arguments, examples, and conclusions.


The unessays are due in class on Monday, May 7. They are worth 20% of your final grade.