HIST 1362: US History Since 1876
University of Colorado Denver
Fall 2023

Assignment Overview

An unessay consists of a project that takes any format besides a traditional written paper. This could mean a painting, recipe book, board game, meme collage, podcast episode, series of TikTok videos, poetry, historical fiction - whatever you want! Regardless of the format, your unessay needs to present a clear narrative, analysis, or interpretation that is compelling articulated (written, cooked, painted, sung, etc.) and is based on research and evidence. For this unessay, you will choose something in your immediate life that is important to you, your family, or your community - a local business or church, a favorite hobby or interest, the neighborhood you grew up in, etc. - and then examine how this local/personal/present-day subject has been shaped or impacted by larger trends in US history. Essentially: how does understanding history help you understand your life today?

Example Unessay Idea:

  • Subject: Your favorite neighborhood restaurant
  • Message, Story, or Narrative: How larger migration and demographic patterns have shaped the restaurant and your neighborhood: ex. a boom of Mexican immigration during the 1910s, the growth of the Chicano movement in the 1970s, and gentrification in the 2010s pushing older businesses out of your neighborhood.
  • Format: A board game in which the player needs to navigate from your apartment building to the family restaurant while acquiring as many historical “clues cards” while avoiding landing on the Whole Foods, kombucha bar, dog groomer, etc. spaces on the board.

Assignment Goals

Why an “unessay”? The goal of this assignment is to further develop the core skills of this class: interpretation, evidence, and empathy. Although you would use these skills in a traditional written essay, I have found that essays have several disadvantages. First, students to fixate on the “rules” of essay assignments (length, formatting, citations, etc.) rather than what matters. Second, essays tend to give an advantage to students who have more experience, practice, or received more instruction in that particular format of communication. By contrast, an unessay puts students on a more level playing field while allowing for greater freedom, creativity, and the option to bring other skills, talents, and interests to bear on the study of the past.

Assignment Submission

The final submission of your unessay will consist of three components:

1. The unessay itself. Regardless of the format, you will submit an electronic version of the unessay to Canvas. Note: if your unessay is a physical project (painting, board game, etc.) you need document it through photos or videos and then upload these to Canvas as multiple filesLinks to an external site.. If you are unsure how you should submit your unessay, please talk to me ahead of time.

2. Cover sheet that you upload to Canvas. Download this template and fill it out

  • Introduction: A 500-600 word introduction that provides background for your subject, its personal connection to you, and explicitly spells out your unessay’s historical message, story, or narrative.
  • Research and Process: A 200-300 word detailed description of the research and process behind your unessay. What research did you do and how did you complete it? Did you run into any unexpected challenges? Optional: if you have photographs documenting either of these steps, I recommend inserting them into the document here
  • Annotated bibliography: A list of at least three sources you used to research your unessay along with a 1-2 sentence explanation of how you used each source. This does not need to be formatted in any particular citation style (ex. Chicago Manual of Style) but should include as much information as possible: the author, title, year, and, if it is online, make sure to include a URL to the source.

3. In-class presentation of your Unessay. You will be sharing your work with a small group of classmates on the day it is due.

Use of Generative Artificial Intelligence

If you need help coming up with ideas for the topic, historical connections, and/or format of your unessay, you are allowed to use Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) during the brainstorming portion of the assignment only. You are not allowed to use Generative AI for any other part of the assignment, including using it to produce any written, visual, or other material for the unessay itself or the cover sheet. If you decide to use Generative AI for brainstorming, follow the instructions on the Canvas page: Instructions for Generative AI (Unessay). In your Cover Sheet, you will need to document how you used Generative AI in the Research and Process section with a short description of the process anda screenshot of at least one message exchange between you and the Generative AI chatbot.

Assignment Instructions

Step 1. Choose your subject.

Brainstorm a list of concrete things in your personal life, family, or local community that you care about - people, groups, issues, institutions, activities, businesses, etc.  Your goal is to then select a topic that you can explore in more depth through historical research in order to convey a coherent message about how that local/personal/present-day subject has been shaped or impacted by larger trends in US history. Please keep in mind: you will be sharing your unessay with some of your classmates, so please think about what kind of subject matter you are comfortable talking about publicly (contact me if you have any reservations about this).

Step 2. Complete historical research and develop your message/story.

You will need to complete research to understand the history behind your subject and build your message or story about it. Brainstorm some ideas for different aspects of your topic’s history you could investigate and then conduct historical research on those different aspects. Keep a list of the sources you’ve consulted! Don’t just focus on the narrow history of your subject itself (ex. the year when your local church was founded) but think about how your subject was shaped by larger historical forces (ex. 20th-century immigration patterns that helped create the surrounding community). Once again, the goal of this step is to gather evidence and raw material and then compile those pieces into a coherent message/story - in the process of doing research you might end up getting new ideas or realizing you have a different story to tell. Record the sources you used for your Annotated Bibliography as part of your cover sheet.

Step 3. Choose your format.

As you’re selecting your topic and conducting research, start to brainstorm ideas for the format or medium through which you want to communicate your message/story. How are you going to do so in a way that conveys a clear and compelling message? What kind of supplies or materials do you need? How long will it take you? When will you complete it? Will the story/message/narrative be clear to a viewer, listener, etc.? How are you going to submit it? If you’re having trouble thinking of ideas for a format, take a look through the following Twitter threads that show examples of unessays that other students have made for history classes at other universities:

  1. https://twitter.com/RachelCleves/status/1069737700633296901
  2. https://twitter.com/ccjones13/status/987404629401993216
  3. https://twitter.com/ccjones13/status/940329059073982464

Step 4. Document your process.

Take notes and/or photos of your project as you are working on it. This will allow you to “show your work” - so even if the final result doesn’t end up the way you want, I will still be able to evaluate the work and effort you put into it.

Step 5. Complete the Cover Sheet using this template.

Step 6. Submit the Unessay and Cover Sheet to Canvas (see Assignment Submission above)

Step 7. Present Unessay to classmates.

Assignment Evaluation

Your unessay will be evaluated on the quality of your interpretation, research & evidence, communication, and creativity/effort.

  • Unessays must present a clear story, message, or interpretation.
  • This interpretation needs to be backed up with substantive research and evidence.
  • It must be clearly and engagingly articulated (written, painted, sung, etc.).
  • The very best unessays will take a creative approach and/or required substantial effort