The Anthropology “UnEssay”

The Anthropology “UnEssay”

Katie Nelson, Ph.D., Inver Hills Community College

Marc Kissel, Ph.D., (Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Appalachian State University) regularly teaches two general education courses; Our Primate Heritage and Gender, Race, & Class. Tiring of the limited range of assessment options commonly used in higher education (such as multiple choice exams and formal essays), he has chosen to assign a different type of learning activity: the “unessay”. 

For this project, his students pick a topic that interests them and then they think of a way to produce something that addresses that theme. He lets students choose the topic, the format and final product. “The idea of having students choose not just the topic but the medium in which they can best present their ideas seemed to jell with the themes of my classes and would give non-majors a chance to explore the topic in a way that is meaningful to them” (Kissel). 



An unessay is a type of assignment in which students select a topic that interests them (related to the course content), conduct research and then demonstrate their understanding of the topic in any manner that is meaningful to them. The final form of the projects can vary greatly. Here is a sampling of some of the types of projects Mark Kissel’s students have submitted:

  • A Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing game about evolution
  • A magazine-style story on Homo floresiensis
  • A watercolor about breastfeeding
  • Comic strips about primates, the island rule, and pronoun use
  • Clay sculptures of hominin skulls
  • A play about life as Fa’afafine
  • A canvas about gender roles and fluidity
  • a lesson plan on primates designed for 8th graders

This sort of assignment aligns with anthropology learning because, as Mark Kisse states, imagination and creativity are inherently human qualities. Sadly, creativity has been ‘educated out’ of us. An UnEssay project gives students a way to creatively interact with the class themes (Kissel)”. The unessay allows students to use their creative abilities while also reflecting on how humans continually use creativity to solve problems in unique ways.

Unessays also allow for students to apply an anthropological lens to view their research projects from different perspectives. This may also allow students to engage with their arguments in deeper (and potentially more meaningful) ways as they have to present their ideas in a different format than an essay.  



This type of assignment is often new to students, so to introduce it, many faculty first provide an explanation for why they assign it and what students can expect to learn. Many also provide a range of examples of topics and final products to give their students initial ideas. Most require that students present their topic and project ideas for instructor approval prior to completing it.

Emily Suzanne Clark, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University), offers her students the choice of writing a traditional essay or an unessay. She then provides a prompt and a clear rubric for how she will grade the final projects. “…students choose their own topics, they present it in any way they choose, and we evaluate [it] based on how compelling it is. The idea is to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment” (Clark).   

In addition to the final unessay product, Holly Norton, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Cincinnati), also asks her students to prepare a two-page reflective paper that details what they learned in the process of making their projects. “This lets me learn more about what excited them, what they understood, and what I need to do a better job of teaching next time around” (Norton).

» Link to Dr. Clark’s grading rubric:
» Link to Dr. Kissel’s assignment guidelines (at the end of the post):


Unessays can be hard to grade and faculty that assign them often state that it involves rethinking the grading scheme. Without clear and measurable grading guidelines, grading can be challenging and frustrating for both students and instructors. Additionally, this type of assignment may not work as well for certain upper-level courses or especially large courses (ie: 100 or more students). Some students can struggle with coming up with ideas while others will thrive with this sort of freedom. For this reason, providing examples and assigning the project in steps can help all students complete the assignment successfully. 


Tips to Make it Work

  • Provide clear and measurable grading criteria
  • Explain the reason(s) you are assigning the unessay
  • Provide examples to students of high quality unessay projects
  • Ask students to reflect on what they learned
  • Work on the project in steps throughout the course
  • Allow students the choice of writing a traditional essay or an unessay
  • Consider having students present their final unessay projects to one another in a conference-style setting
  • Consider allowing students to work in groups




I would like to thank Mark Kissel, Emily Suzanne Clark and Holly Norton for generously sharing their experiences with unessay assignments. I would also like to thank Nina Brown (Community College of Baltimore County) for suggesting the topic for this piece.


Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Seriously, you can teach with these data (even if you’re not an archaeologist)!

Seriously, you can teach with these data (even if you’re not an archaeologist)!

By: Dr. Ian Straughn

Perhaps you are a cultural anthropologist who has been toying with the idea of how that other, grubby subfield – archaeology – could make a cameo appearance in your introductory course or even an upper level seminar on race, colonialism, or the body. Or, take another scenario in which you find yourself assigned to teach or TA an archaeology course when your colleague is on leave (curse you and your last-minute sabbatical), and want to shame them by adding something awesome and new to the syllabus. In both instances, and many others we might concoct that are not motivated by vengeance,I will demonstrate here the potential for utilizing the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS — as tool for teaching an array of topics and concepts to undergraduates through actual data sets. DAACS is a resource which bills itself as a “Web-based initiative designed to foster inter-site, comparative archaeological research on slavery…”with the intention of assisting students and scholars from “different disciplines use archaeological evidence to advance our historical understanding of the slave-based society that evolved in the Atlantic World during the colonial and ante-bellum periods.” Without getting into extensive detail about the history of this database and its structure, much of which is amply and carefully documented on the site, it accommodates educators’ varying comfort levels with archaeological data by offering a range of pathways for navigating and querying the materials from the more than 50 sites it covers. In what follows, I offer a few suggestions for how to incorporate this tool in teaching students to explore archaeological assemblages and incorporate material culture into their anthropological thinking.

The first exercise I want to share allows students to get a feeling for the database and its potential for doing comparative analysis. It has them establish a query of a particular artifact category across a set of sites, the parameters of which are theirs to determine. In this example they would open the query database tab, choose the option for “object query,” and navigate to Object Query 3: Select Artifact Attributes by Type. In the first step of their query they have a variety of options of subsets and for this example I will suggest using “object form” as it can allow for a more precise choice of the artifact type. Students should consider and document what they see as significant about the particular artifact type they are tracking across the various sites in the database. In the second step students limit what set of sites to include in their query. Here, as well, they should discuss why they choose their specific parameters (or defaulted to selecting all) and what it might demonstrate. Perhaps the student is interested in evidence for whether enslaved populations had access to stimulants as part of their diet, and did this vary across the coverage area of the database. From this point they can retrieve their results which might look something like the following search for “Ceramic: Coffee Pot” across all sites:

The student’s analysis might document how such vessels were found at multiple sites all of which were in Virginia and not elsewhere. The expectation is not that students will make conclusive arguments, rather that they will begin the process of using material culture to ask interesting questions about patterns of social practice such as sociality and consumption. It is also important to note that students can download data results to an Excel file by clicking on the query options button. In order to further contextualize their preliminary findings they should also examine the wealth of information about the sites connected with their results by using the “Archaeological Sites” tab.

It is also productive for students to approach these data from the specific site as the starting point rather than a category of objects. As another exercise I will assign each student or group of students a particular site to explore in order to identify a specific “feature” within that site to investigate through the assemblage of artifacts associated with it. Not all sites are equally suited to this exercise, so it is necessary to limit students to those that strike a balance between sufficient quantity of materials that may demonstrate patterning or facilitate useful comparisons and those where assemblages are either overwhelming or thin. Some sites that work well include Monticello buildings l, o, r, s, and t, Palace Lands, and Mount Vernon’s House for Families, though you should feel free to experiment with others. After students carefully read the “background” and “before you begin” sections of their assigned site, they should run an Artifact Query 1: Basic Inventory in which they click the radio button for site in Step 1 and chose their specific site in Step 2. This will return a finds list for the entire site organized by artifact type and category. After downloading the data into an Excel sheet they can produce basic histograms and charts of the counts and discuss those findings.

Next students can drill down into a specific artifact type or category that is well-represented in the data through a second query that explores its attributes. For instance, using an Artifact Query 3: Select Artifact Attributes by Type, they could choose button as the artifact category in step 1 along with several attributes (e.g. material, manufacture, shape), no selection in step 2, and Building S at Monticello in step 3. Such a query might be designed in accordance with either a formal hypothesis about sartorial habits or as part of a broader inquiry about access to prestige items or other aspects of the domestic life of slavery. Once the results are downloaded into an Excel table, students can visualize the data in appropriate charts and analyze their findings. These examples only scratch the surface of what is possible with DAACS. The many scholars involved in making these data available also provide valuable guidance and suggestions under the site’s research tab. Such data do not need to be intimidating even for the introductory classroom. This is particularly the case in providing students with skills in comparative analysis and how to approach material culture in formal assemblages. Even within the context of a socio-cultural course such exercises encourage students toc onsider material culture as a lens into anthropological concerns over bodily practices, social class, consumption and more.

Resource Contributed by: Dr. Ian Straughn, University of California, Irvine

Dr. Straughn is an archaeologist whose research focuses on the spatial and material formation of the emerging Islamic tradition in the Levant. Additionally, he published on issues of Islamic heritage in the Middle East. He is currently co-editing a volume on the Islamic textual tradition of West Africa and developing new pedagogical tools for teaching archaeology and material culture.