The Un-Essay: A Creative Approach to Literary Analysis

For the second year in a row, VIth formers wrapped up their fall semester English electives with un-essays. Literature of Incarceration, Literature of Beauty, and Literature of the Ocean classes were urged to be mindful of the un-essay as they tackled their course material. As a culminating activity, the un-essay inspired and encouraged divergent thinking and an overall broader approach to literary analysis.
Emphasis on analytical writing has often prevailed over fresh ways of exploring literature and literary themes. According to English Department Chair Samantha Goodwin, the un-essay requires students to “stretch a different muscle” by identifying important themes in a work of literature and then creating a personal response in a form other than a written analytical essay. Un-essays must be grounded in the texts of the curriculum but conform to few other parameters. This year, the three electives were designed with the un-essay in mind and to streamline the process.
Early attempts at the un-essay have sometimes caused seniors to feel nearly paralyzed by the breadth of possibilities for their projects. To address this, prep for the un-essay now begins earlier and takes place throughout the semester. As the success of the project has taken hold, lower form classes have begun to introduce students to the idea. “Seniors are ready for this kind of creative freedom,” said Ms. Goodwin. “The scope will be limited only when a student proposes something we have to say no to, and that hasn’t happened yet,” she continued.
In shaping their un-essays, some students chose to embrace their existing personal strengths and interests while others pursued new skills or crafted novel performances to bring the themes to life. Ms. Goodwin recalled a Literature of Incarceration un-essay for which a student carried a 20-pound weight around campus for a day to represent the experience of incarceration. There have been interpretive dances, computer coding projects, and social activism in the form of a book drive to benefit a prison library. The inherent freedom of the un-essay project has allowed students to address themes on their own terms and in their own terms. Ms. Goodwin recalled a gifted student painter, who, with the un-essay in mind, was most eloquently able to discuss literary themes in artistic terms of light and dark, color, form, and composition. The artist subsequently painted two abstract pieces that reacted to themes of freedom and incarceration.
So far, un-essays are presented to classmates and within the three electives. As the un-essay gains traction as a feature of English department electives, plans are taking shape to present the work to the Millbrook community at large. Ms. Goodman enthusiastically described many surprisingly standout un-essays: “I have been amazed by students who don’t necessarily believe that they are capable of this kind of work,” she said, “then they come up with un-essays that blow me away! That’s why we do this project.”
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