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Promoting Student Agency in the Humanities with the Digital Unessay

Published onMar 19, 2024
Promoting Student Agency in the Humanities with the Digital Unessay

The following assignments are linked by the following definition of the Unessay: a non-traditional assessment that meets learning outcomes by maximizing student choice and agency. These assignments were inspired by strategies from the Unessay assessments provided by Dr. Saige Kelmelis (USD), Cara Ocobock (ND), and Marc Kissel (App State).

Similar assignments have also been conducted in a social sciences setting.

Author(s) & Project Role(s)

Chris Adamson, Director of Faculty Development, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

Isaiah Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of South Dakota


Chris Adamson was the instructor of record for UHON 390 (Honors Seminar—The Gesture of Smoking: Analyzing Culture through Depictions of Tobacco) at the University of South Dakota and ENG 2040 (Introduction to Digital Humanities) at Centenary University and designed both courses to promote public-facing assignments and research sharing by students. 

Isaiah Cohen, in his role as an education sociologist, partnered with the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of South Dakota on delivering course design training that incorporated public-facing and field research assignment sequences. Cohen identified the digital exhibit assignment as an unessay, inspiring the later development of the Twine Unessay as an approachable project for first-year students.

Assignment URLs and/or Files

Explore the digital unessay in different classes across multiple disciplines (sociology, criminal justice, literature, and digital humanities) in the tapestry below.

The network above maps out the humanities and sociology assignments included in this article and this paired article with nodes dedicated to course materials and resources.

Each of the assignments in the tapestry are linked through synthesizing theories about promoting student agency and control while emphasizing digital humanities values of equity and experimentation. The Twine Unessay and Digital Storytelling Exhibit were assigned at the beginning and end of the same introductory digital humanities course. A variant of the digital storytelling exhibit is also included below to illustrate how the project was adapted to a course that focused supporting honors students in digital research sharing in the context of an ungraded course. This version of the assignment also showcases how instructors can compress the same learning into a intensive summer course.

Access assignments, related course materials, and sample student work at

Learning Objectives

What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?

Twine Unessay (First Major Assignment)

  • Revise a past project as a nonlinear essay in a branch-logic format enriched by multimodal components. 

  • Reflect about the effects new tools have on composition decisions and audience awareness. 

  • Internalize the digital humanities values of play and experimentation for future projects in the program. 

Digital Storytelling Exhibit (Capstone Assignment)

  • Compose texts in multiple genres, using multiple modes with attention to audience needs. 

  • Propose, develop, and execute a research project on smoking literature that culminates in a conference paper and public-facing exhibit. 

  • Craft a public scholarship exhibit that presents salient research to a specific non-academic audience.

Technology-Dependent Learning Outcomes 

Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?

Twine Unessay

As an introduction to digital humanities, the course needed to train students in DH methods and tools, while supporting their understanding and internalization of Lisa Spiro’s values of DH (openness, collaboration,  experimentation, and diversity). This assignment introduced students to openness and experimentation in particular as they explored ways to use open access technology to play with their own thinking. As part of the tool-survey aspect of the course, this assignment introduced students to Twine as a tool that they could use for the digital storytelling exhibit that served as a capstone to the course.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

Technology enabled students to reach an outside audience. In Introduction the Digital Humanities, students practiced the digital humanities value of open social scholarship. In the honors course, students drafted and presenting conference papers for a simulated conference within the course before selecting a public-facing digital format to share their main insight in a multimodal presentation, such as a podcast; digital storytelling video; a timeline, mapping, or gallery visualization with COVE studio; a literate programming exhibit with a Spyral Notebook; a game with Scratch or Twine; or a creative work proposed by the student. 

Skill Level

What is the course title and level?

Twine Unessay

The Twine Unessay was assigned in ENG 2040: Introduction to Digital Humanities, the foundational class of a new undergraduate program in digital scholarship.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

The Digital Storytelling Exhibit was assigned in UHON 390: The Gesture of Smoking, an intensive summer honors seminar.

What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?

Twine Unessay

Situated early in an introductory course that welcomed first-year students, this assignment required no prior knowledge except cursory experience with traditional essay writing. Students were introduced to digital humanities in earlier modules as a discipline defined by shared values more than shared methods and focused on play/experimentation during the week that they drafted their Unessays. Before working with Twine, students explored the Digital Pedagogy Keywords in Humanities Commons, collaboratively contributed to a digital humanities timeline with TimelineJS, and drafted a values statement that would guide how they served a community they care about through their digital storytelling exhibit in the end.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

As the capstone of the both courses (Introduction to Digital Humanities and The Gestures of Smoking), this assignment relied on previous assignment sequences. In the introductory course, students began with foundational concepts of digital humanities, practiced textual analysis and data storytelling, and concluded with a unit on public humanities projects with this assignment as the capstone. In the honors class, students learned hermeneutic strategies while studying early modern, Victorian, and contemporary depictions of smoking through readings, annotations, and discussions.

Assignment Description

Twine Unessay

The branch-logic game platform, Twine, is often used in game-based learning coursework. This assignment instead follows Jon Heggestad’s work reimagining Twine as a database-creation and pedagogical tool. Students experimented with nonlinear composition by using Twine to visualize the organization of their own work by turning a past essay into a branch-logic game that they then revised with multimodal elements that enriched a player’s understanding of the argument. After mapping the previous essay out through passages in Twine and adding multimodal elements, students revised a passage and reflected on their decisions and the way the new medium impacted their original work.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

As the capstone to an introductory course inviting students to a new digital humanities major, and an honors seminar focused on gaining research skills, this assignment asked students to develop a multimodal digital exhibit for a non-academic audience. In the digital humanities course, students selected an earlier tool practice assignment to expand into a public humanities project. In a similar way, students in the honors course worked with the same research from a conference paper project to distill their research insights down to a public scholarship project using the medium of their choice such as a podcast, digital storytelling video, branch-logic game, textual analysis exhibit with Spyral Notebooks, a creative work, or something else they propose. The assignment emphasized student agency and freedom since they could choose any platform to share their insight, but moderated that freedom with the needs of the intended audience.

Time Needed

How much time did you allot to this project?

Twine Unessay

The first four weeks of the course comprised a foundational  unit that introduced students to the methods and values of digital scholarship. During week four, students completed that unit by practicing the value of play/experimentation with their Twine unessays.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

In the introductory digital humanities course, students spend the final unit (five weeks) focusing on a public humanities project that began with a discussion reflecting on outreach, continued with a project proposal, and concluded with the digital storytelling exhibit.

Since the honors course was a 6-week summer course, the scaffolding had to be distributed across the entire course in the following way to promote student success:

  • Week 1: Practice annotations with COVE Editions so that students could use the platform in their final exhibit.

  • Week 2: Complete a short textual analysis project so that students could use Readux, Voyant, and Spyral Notebooks in a final exhibit.

  • Week 3: Draft a conference paper proposal with a research question.

  • Week 4: Submit paper title, abstract, and annotated bibliography.

  • Week 5: Submit recorded conference paper presentation.

  • Week 6: Redevelop the scholarly argument from the conference paper as a public-facing multimodal digital exhibit.

Support & Training

What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?

Twine Unessay

A tool walkthrough that explained how to use Twine to complete the assignment step-by-step was offered. The goal was to lower the cognitive load of learning a new tool as much as possible so students could also engage in the critical thinking required by digital humanities projects.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

Students prepared for the different digital tools they could use to create an exhibit through smaller assignments with COVE Editions, a textual analysis assignment sequence with Voyant and Spyral Notebooks, and a conference paper and recording assignment. Since this was a small class and the intensive summer format limited our time together, I offered tailored support and training after students chose a specific tool/platform for sharing their research insights.


Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.

Twine Unessay

A central value to this digital humanities program was to ensure that the tools in the course were open access and scholar-driven so that they were accessible to the students. Twine was specifically chosen as a free, browser-based tool that did not require any student data. For a larger project in a more advanced class, I may introduce students to documentation like  the Twine Cookbook, but that was not necessary for this introductory level class.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

The main pitfall of an intensive summer course is that it limits the amount of reading and research students can reasonably accomplish. To support students as they worked on their research, I added a module in the learning management system that included resources on writing a conference paper as well as supplementary readings from the scholarship and theory that informed the course. Depending on the choice of public-facing medium they chose, they could have used open-source platforms like Audacity for a podcast, Readux for an exhibit based on a digital archive, and Voyant and Spyral Notebooks for a textual analysis exhibit, or university-provided platforms like Panopto for a digital storytelling project. As part of funding from the honors program, each student had access to COVE Editions for reading and annotating texts and COVE Studio for creating multimodal exhibits.


How did you assess or grade this project?

Twine Unessay

As the first major assignment, the Twine Unessay was used as a chance to introduce students to rubrics in the class. The rubric emphasized the revision and reflection of the project and required students to successfully work with Twine, integrate outside research and external media, revise and add passages, and reflect on how the new medium affected the original essay.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

Since the task of researching and reaching an audience is a pass/fail experience wherein failure is an opportunity to learn, this honors class adopted an alternative form of assessment. Students evaluated their own work and reflected on their learning through an interactive rubric made with H5P, a platform for creating  interactive activities with HTML5 . The rubric criteria emphasized that the project should succeed in reaching a selected audience, clearly sharing the core insight of the research project with multimodal components and effective organization, and ensuring accessibility standards are met.

Challenges & Opportunities

If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?

Twine Unessay

The purpose of this assignment was to ease students into digital humanities through repurposing traditional projects (such as a five-paragraph essay composed in a high school language arts class), but that assumed that students would have access to recent or current essays. Even though starting with a familiar genre before moving to digital scholarship is intended to lower barriers of entry into the discipline, it can also cause anxiety for students who have not kept high school essays or taken first-year composition yet. In future iterations, I will  include alternative ways to meet the assignment for students who do not have access to previous work.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

This exhibit project was revised and assigned in the Introduction to Digital Humanities course with the Twine Unessay providing lower-stakes practice with the unessay format. This later iteration includes a formal project proposal in an H5P activity in which students select a digital humanities tool to conduct their research with and another tool to share their insight with an outside audience. Depending on the nature of the course and the level of the students, I may have students simulate a public-facing exhibit by sharing with the class rather than publishing online. It is important to ensure that students are ready to manage their own digital footprint before requiring them to engage in public scholarship.

Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.

Twine Unessay

Students may need to experience Twine as a branch-logic game before using it as a nonlinear essay platform. Otherwise, students may still think about it as a linear essay with multimodal components and add all content into one passage rather than organize passages by potential player choices.

Digital Storytelling Exhibit

Unless teaching an introductory digital humanities or educational technology class that has room for tool walkthroughs and practice, students may be daunted by the different project types and modalities. If possible, give opportunities for students to select a digital tool with low-stakes assessments early in the class, partner with the writing program to see what multimodal tools first-year students have experience with, or consult with your local academic technologists or centers for digital scholarship for external support.

Image Credit: Banner image for honors course on depictions of smoking and tobacco in literature featuring the public domain painting, Still Life with Pipe and an Issue of the Courier Journal, by Carolus Brenner.

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