Final Projects

The Editors


Essays can be won­der­ful tools to give stu­dents space to express them­selves and engage intel­lec­tu­al­ly with the texts and top­ics cov­ered in a course, or to research beyond the scope of the syl­labus. Yet in many Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, the essay has become a cal­ci­fied and for­mu­la­ic text pro­duced by stu­dents who have received rules-based, assess­ment-based writ­ing instruction. 1 1 John Warn­er. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Para­graph Essay and Oth­er Neces­si­ties. (JHU Press, 2020). Stu­dents are con­di­tioned by grad­ing rubrics to pro­duce essays that fol­low a par­tic­u­lar mod­el and way of lay­ing out thought processes. 2 2 Susan Debra Blum. Ungrad­ing: Why Rat­ing Stu­dents Under­mines Learn­ing (and what to Do Instead). (West Vir­ginia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2020). To com­bat stale and repet­i­tive essays, and also to invite stu­dents to bring them­selves, their inter­ests and tal­ents, to bear on the course mate­r­i­al, many instruc­tors have been turn­ing to the un-essay” in recent years for their final assess­ments. Unes­says tend to be open-end­ed assign­ments in which stu­dents are encour­aged to pro­duce cre­ative work, pre­sent­ed in what­ev­er medi­um they like, and relate it to the course mate­r­i­al. Much has been writ­ten about unes­says, but our Yid­dish Stud­ies col­leagues might be par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in this dis­cus­sion of unes­says in a Bib­li­cal Stud­ies con­text pub­lished in Ancient Jew Review.

The specifics of unes­say projects vary. Some instruc­tors may offer scaf­fold­ing” such as mini-projects or self-assess­ment essays in which stu­dents present and describe their own learn­ing and growth process­es through­out the semes­ter lead­ing up to the final unes­say project which some­times results in stu­dent port­fo­lios rather than sin­gle projects. Oth­ers may require a pro­pos­al, lit­er­a­ture review, or anno­tat­ed bib­li­og­ra­phy in advance of the project so that they can direct stu­dents as they pur­sue their assign­ment, or may require stu­dents to dis­cuss their projects in office hours or dur­ing a class work­shop ses­sion to receive approval. Often, in addi­tion to the assign­ment itself, instruc­tors will require a writ­ten analy­sis that explains the cre­ative, crit­i­cal, and inter­pre­tive choic­es the stu­dent made in their project and what sources it drew upon. Assess­ments often rely upon the cre­ativ­i­ty and crit­i­cal think­ing dis­played through this analysis. 

    For the unini­ti­at­ed instruc­tor, it can be quite daunt­ing to begin assign­ing unes­says. The open-end­ed struc­ture requires a great deal of trust that stu­dents will be moti­vat­ed when giv­en free rein to com­mu­ni­cate their learn­ing in the medi­um of their choice. For the unini­ti­at­ed stu­dent, on the oth­er hand, the assign­ments can feel over­whelm­ing at first as well. They may strug­gle with know­ing where to begin. 

    We felt that a resource dis­play­ing some exam­ples of the unes­say might be use­ful to both instruc­tors and stu­dents who are engag­ing in this kind of task. We asked instruc­tors to share suc­cess­ful stu­dent work in order to show­case a range of unes­says. These projects demon­strate not only how clever and cre­ative stu­dents can be, but also the vari­ety of ways that stu­dents can express and dis­play their think­ing and learning.

    Vera Szabo (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research):

    Szabo shared with us a range of student work from the Yiddish language classroom. Such projects allow students to feel ownership over the language and to be creative within the language, which is essential for language learning.

    1) David Sasso, a student in an intermediate Yiddish course at YIVO, set to music one of Rivke Basman’s poems as well as his own Yiddish translation of Daffodils by William Wordsworth.

    Click here and here to download the musical scores.

    2) Judy Kaye, an advanced beginner student at YIVO, imagined and created her grandmother’s diary, Khane-Zeldes heft as she immigrated to the US based on stories she had heard from her grandmother and other family members.

    3) Another advanced beginner student at YIVO translated into Yiddish a children’s book, Big Dreams, Small Fish by Paula Cohen.

    Each of these projects require students to be creative within the language and allow for considerable personalization of language use, as students chose projects that speak to their interests and passions.

    Justin Cammy (Smith College):

    For the final assignment of my colloquium on Yiddish literature and culture in translation at Smith College this semester students were offered the opportunity to pursue three different options: a traditional essay, a readers guide to several works of Yiddish literature, or a creative project. Students had previously written several essays on aspects of classic Yiddish fiction and interwar Yiddish literature, and I wanted to encourage those interested in pursuing a different mode of disseminating knowledge to experiment. Of the 20 students in the class about a third chose each option. I received several wonderful short research papers on topics ranging from Der Nister’s symbolist tale “Beheaded” to “Yiddish Radio, Past and Present” to the relationship between the Netflix series Russian Doll and Yiddish literature. An equal number of students elected to submit guides inspired by those published on the Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books Teacher Resources. I received submissions ranging from kits on Peretz’s A Night in the Old Marketplace to those that were at the heart of the final weeks of the semester, such as the film Our Children and Sutzkever’s “Teacher Mire”.

    Those who elected to pursue a creative project were required to submit a proposal to me in advance, alongside a proposed rubric for grading. The creative projects also included a brief “artist’s statement” to explain their creative choices. I encouraged students to draw on their careful reading of course materials as inspiration for their work. Among such creative projects were two playlists of contemporary music inspired by post-war stories by Chava Rosenfarb and the transvernacular film Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, and a creative non-fiction piece about a real-life Yiddish family murder-mystery in Wyoming in 1937.

    1. Rachel Agosto-Ginsburg and Zoe Cloud, Pisherl and Shmuel-Aba Go to Hell (an original story inspired by Itsik Manger’s The Book of Paradise)

    2. Niki Kuipers,original poetry inspired by readings of Bashevis Singer’s demon tales and “Blood”

    3. Jay Frothingham and Zephyr Steiner, Yiddishland (a table-top role-playing game that students played on the last day of classes to great acclaim)

    Jessica Kirzane (University of Chicago):

    The following is small selection from among the many surprising, creative, and thought-provoking final projects that students produced in my Modern Jewish Civilizations courses at the University of Chicago. These are courses based around primary source materials that take students through a wide geographic and chronological range of modern Jewish life. I typically assign a more traditional argumentative essay for the midterm, and ask students to complete an open-ended unessay for their final project.

    The unessay is meant to reflect on the themes and ideas we have discussed and read about in class. Regardless of the format - which is left entirely to the students - the unessay is evaluated on the quality of its interpretation, use of evidence, communication, and creativity, and my assessment is heavily informed by student self-assessment responses that they complete alongside the assignment. Each unessay must include: A title for the project, a 500-word introduction that provides an overview and explanation of the project’s interpretation, and an annotated bibliography of sources, as well as a completed self-assessment.

    I have included here a sampling that demonstrates the range of assignments I receive and I have also excerpted from the students’ analyses to help frame the work included here.

    1. Hadleigh Schwartz, “Accross Space and Time”: a website relating family history to the course readings.

      “So many of the pieces we explored throughout the quarter felt relatable, despite their originating from disparate cultures, time periods, and authors. I found myself reading and rereading Marge Piercy’s description of courage and ancestry in “Maggid,” flashing back to an elementary school visit to the local Holocaust museum while discussing Etgar Keret’s Shoes, and running along the lake shore to A-WA’s empowering songs. These connections between pieces created in diverse continents as early as the 1500’s, then discussed over a Zoom call in 2021, and reminding me of a great grandfather who lived in 1800’s Russia, all blur space and time. As we progressed through Jewish history in this class, I progressed through my own family’s history across space and time. This process of hopping back and forth between continents and centuries - like my Great Grandpa Benjamin’s story and the Jewish history that we have spent the quarter exploring - ...contains uncanny parallels between past, present, and future. In this interactive timeline, I hope to capture this spirit.”

      2. Laura Ribiero, “Words Left Behind”: poetry inspired by Bernarda Manuel, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition (as discussed by Lisa Vollendorf), Glikl’s memoirs, and Clarice Lispector’s short story “Forgiving God.”

        “I structured my poem about Bernarda Manuel as a question and answer, in which instead of being questioned by the Inquisition, Manuel questions herself and the reader.... I chose to write my poem inspired by Glikl as a list of things that might be passed on as a legacy.... In my third poem, I incorporated details from Lispector’s biography as well as elements from the short story we read in class, “Forgiving God.” Although the narrator of the story is not necessarily Lispector herself, I wanted to engage with the last sentence of the story, “As long as I invent God, He doesn’t exist,” to link the narrator’s invention of God with the creative process of being a writer.”

        3. Susan Vaughey, “Higher Doorsteps”: a graphic novel version of Shira Gorshman’s High Doorsteps (trans. Faith Jones)

        For my final un-essay, I chose to do a mixed media, zine inspired version of “High Doorsteps” by Shira Gorshman. [The story is] about how society expects far too much from woman which often leads to them being gravely overworked. But, in return all the extra work they do is then drastically undervalued. This combination leads women themselves to undervalue not only their work and time, but also by proxy this leads them to undervalue themselves as a whole... I purposefully used very bright colors for Golda’s creations, but Golda herself was always a muted color palette to represent how constantly working so much and throwing her entire self into her work as she does is draining to Golda and real life women.”

        4. Henry Davis, “Living my Life as a Radical Jewish Woman”: epistolary map

        This is a series of fictional letter exchanges [created for a course on “Mothers and Motherhood in Modern Jewish Cultures”] that “imagines a fifteen-year-old Puah Rakovsky (1865 – 1955), coming across an eleven-year-old Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940), on her trip to Konigsberg with her father to procure her trousseau, and leaving Emma, whose family lived there at that time – 1880 or 1881 – her address. The lifelong correspondence that follows, having been recently recovered bizarrely in the soil near Rosa Luxemburg’s (1871 - 1919) grave, who seems to have also written to Rakovsky, proceeds from this hither-to forgotten but momentous event. Interestingly, the correspondence contains passages that cropped up in later writings of the authors, suggesting they had kept the letters and used them for later philosophizing and writing.”

        5. Charlie Keys McKay, “Sing Ladino”: picture book version of Yankev Glatshteyn’s poem (trans. Asya Schulman)

        “The premise of this illustrated, Dr. Seuss-style children’s book draws upon Yankev Glatshteyn’s poem “Sing Ladino” and I.L Peretz’s address at The First Yiddish Language Conference.... The image that inspired me to symbolize song/language in a band of color bursting out of a young boy’s mouth and streaming out of the window was this one from the aforementioned work of Peretz: “We stroll in the evening in the streets and from various windows stream out the sounds of different languages, all kinds of folk-music. We want our own windows! Our own distinct motif in the folk-symphony.” The window in this passage, within the metaphor of culture, serves a key role: It symbolizes the point of interface between the personal realm and the public, where one’s one culture is displayed for the benefit of all. Thus, opening on a young boy in the window let me start from a point of the self, one’s own personal contribution to culture. Throughout the next two pages, I trace the stream of the boy’s own song further out from the window, symbolizing an exchange with a wider Jewish (and gentile) world. As the field of view of the illustrations broadens, it begins to reveal a multiplicity that Glatshteyn gets at throughout his poem. We see this theme represented throughout the book through the diversity of mingling colors.”

        N.B. All work shared with students’ permission.

        MLA STYLE
        Editors, The. “Final Projects.” In geveb, July 2022:
        Editors, The. “Final Projects.” In geveb (July 2022): Accessed Aug 17, 2022.


        The Editors