Jul 13, 2022
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.
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.
4) A drawing by Edith McCrea for a mini-course on Yosl Birshteyn at YIVO. Edith/Itke prepared a sketch of the story Floymen fun eygenem gortn. It was used in class to discuss whether the students agreed with how Itke “saw” the characters and the scene.
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.
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)
Niki Kuipers,original poetry inspired by readings of Bashevis Singer’s demon tales and “Blood”
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.”
“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.”
Yiddish Projects from the Mitndike (intermediate) class of the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, Yiddish Book Center, 2022
Rebecca (Rivke) Margolis
I had the great pleasure of teaching the Mitndike class of this year’s Steiner Program from May to July of this year, and am proud to share their outstanding final projects. The assignment was to create an interpretation or reinterpretation of a text we studied as part of the class, which included a wide variety of songs, poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing. The students prepared multimedia projects in which they were invested in on both scholarly and personal levels. I would like to thank my co-teacher, Moishele Alfonso, and all of the Yiddish Book Centre staff and guest lecturers that supported the students on their Yiddish journeys.
Dina Gorelik and Claire (Simkhe) Breger-Belsky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Yentl”
Both of us loved the story “Yentl der yeshive-bokher,” but we found ourselves disappointed by the way existing English-language adaptations flattened the queer and trans possibilities of the text. Because our intermediate class this summer had focused on the so-called “gender reveal” scene and its versions—the Yiddish, the English translation, the 1983 movie adaptation by Barbra Streisand, and the 1975 play by Leah Napolin—we decided to create a Yiddish-language theatrical version of that same scene, one which would stay close to the original Yiddish texts while also emphasizing a queer reading of Avigdor and a queer and trans reading of Anshel/Yentl. We adapted the original Yiddish dialogue only a little in order to make it easier to perform and to slightly emphasize our reading of the text.
We were also saddened to notice how both English-language adaptations changed the tone of the original scene by making Avigdor react with anger, rather than confusion, to what he was told. We hope that, despite our makeshift setting and costumes, our reading of this scene and its characters—Avigdor’s care for Anshel/Yentl and his possible queerness, Anshel/Yentl’s possible transness, and the depth of the relationship between them—shines through. We hope we have also done justice to the story itself.
A final note: we recognize that the trope of a “gender reveal” scene has and continues to cause harm to the transgender community, and to trans women in particular. We hope that our reading and performance of this scene—which may in fact not be a “gender reveal” at all, if the character is not definitely a woman—does not replicate these harmful tropes, and perhaps even works to help deconstruct them.
Tyler Kliem, Morris Rosenfeld, “Mayn Rue Plats”
For my final project, I translated Morris Rosenfeld’s popular labor poem “Mayn rue plats” into English. I then recorded a reading of both the original and my translation.
In translating, I took many experimental and creative liberties, such as altered rhythm and wording. More than anything, I wanted to cast my translation as something different yet ultimately the same as other known translations of Rosenfeld’s text that currently exist: central to the themes of heartbreak and wayfinding, yes, but—foremost—a creative work so fluid in language and mouthfeel. I took note to this particular mouthfeel, since I knew it would be important when it came to recite my translation later.
When it came time to recite, that mouthfeel was profound in my recording. I concentrated my intonation on certain words and phrases, especially the stark consonant sounds and alliterations that I created in my translation. In my translation, I emphasize the duality of the poem as a mechanism to entertain; where the musicality is lost, the lyricism is gained. And I do not believe that has to be a bad thing. Most importantly, I stayed true in my translation and recording to Rosenfeld’s original meaning, as I declaimed with the usual intensity of grief and pain that he once imbued in his poem.
I suppose my final project pays homage to Rosenfeld and the work of the Sweatshop Poets—work I have come to admire since the time I began learning Yiddish. But perhaps my project is also a testament to the freedom and expanse of Yiddish-to-English translation, how it is that translators engage with popular works time and time again, and how an exchange of ideas between a translator and an author’s text progresses beyond what is immediately conceivable.
Madison (Esther) Karcs, Original children’s poems
For my final project, I wrote three children’s poems. For these poems, I wanted to make them rhyme and be simple enough that a child could repeat them or memorize them. I liked the idea of creating children’s literature because it made me feel like I was aiding in Yiddish being passed down to children and used in a thriving Yiddish culture. I wrote about an owl, using the word “ayl” for owl and playing on the phrase “ayl zikh” which means to hurry up. I also wrote about a family dinner, using the diminutives for many words which felt natural for a children’s rhyme. Lastly, I wrote about a snail and nature.
Writing Yiddish for children made the language come alive for me, because I imagined it being spoken by children and being used in daily life. Thinking of Yiddish as a language spoken by children running around on a playground together, playing in, joking around in, allowed me to look at Yiddish in a completely different way from what I had experienced learning Yiddish in a classroom. In this way, Yiddish stopped being a language of the past and I participated in it being a language of the future.
Miriam Priven, with Naomi (Elisheva) Silverman, Tum Balalaika Crankie
Miriam: This found-materials crankie is made to draw in the curiosity of viewers, especially those new to Yiddish. Without subtitles, the images themselves are a form of translation for people to find meaning in the words they are hearing sung so beautifully by Elisheva. Using a perhaps-familiar song about something so human as falling in love, I wanted to give new learners the feeling that Yiddish language is not some far away, difficult thing to approach; it’s both familiar and has curious depths to be explored.
Elisheva: This is the first Yiddish song Elisheva has sung. Having Tum Balalaika stuck in her head gave her a feeling of belonging to the culture and the language.
Grace Sewell, Vera Pavlovna’s Fifth Dream: A Yiddish Story
In 1863, the Russian radical writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky published What Is to Be Done? This love story, which tracks the intellectual, sexual, and moral development of a young woman named Vera Pavlovna, became a blueprint for revolutionary political transformation. In What Is to Be Done? Vera Pavlovna’s development is mediated by four dreams, which make the circumstances of her life clear and prepare her to act in a manner that will facilitate individual growth and remake society. In her most famous fourth dream, she encounters a glorious “crystal palace” that represents the utopian future, realizing that the mysterious God-like woman who has been guiding her through her dreams is not a deity, but rather her own consciousness.
In my Yiddish short story, “Vera Pavlovna’s Fifth Dream,” I develop the themes from Chernyshevsky’s book within the context of Jewish agricultural colonization in Eastern Europe. My text centers on a young woman described as “the Jewish Vera Pavlovna,” who eagerly consumes the foundational texts of Russian political thought and shares Chernyshevsky’s vision of the relationship between art and political action. As she observes her fellow workers, she dreams of the future that they will build together – one that is secular and populated by strong farmers. Unlike Chernyshevsky’s heroine, this Vera Pavlovna’s vision centers on the Jewish protagonists she sees around her, culminating in her “creation” of a version of the “Dzhankoy” song that came out of the real Soviet Jewish farming colonies in Crimea. In the final part of the story, the narrative turns to Vera Pavlovna’s memories of her love for Beyle, whose character is taken from the real “Dzhankoy” song. This love frames Vera Pavlovna’s death and potential liberation from a prison of her own creation, bringing the possibilities of queer Yiddishkeit to the texts and histories that compose this project.
N.B. All work shared with students’ permission.