Insulin in Isolation: Socially Distant Medical History and Pedagogy

Published on June 29, 2021

Madeleine Mant

An expanded version of this piece, entitled “Insulin and the Unessay” originally appeared on the Defining Moments Canada website on February 4, 2021:

My greatest insecurity as I prepared to teach during Fall 2020 was how to create a sense of community in the virtual classroom for a course that had never before been delivered online. In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 caused a sudden pivot to online classes, camaraderie had already been built – my students and I had spent months establishing trust, laughing together, and breathing the same air. From my hastily created home office, I assured students via online announcements that we were all in this together, as we collectively refreshed our news apps again and again. We stumbled across the finish line, bemused and relieved.

While I knew that I was not going to become an expert in online pedagogy over the summer, I nevertheless devoured articles concerning MOOCs, course design, technology integration, and applying Universal Design for Learning principles to assignment building as I reimagined Anthropology of Health as an online offering. I selected the unessay as a final assignment for the course. This term was first introduced by Dr. Daniel O’Donnell1, who asked students to use their own framework or focus to approach a topic, to toss out the rules of essay writing, and to approach the prompt in a medium of their choosing. Speculative projects like the unessay harness students’ creativity, encouraging students to find their personal way in to an assignment. Other academics2 have written about the challenges and successes of the unessay in their classrooms, expressing their delight at the results. This semester felt like the right one to take such a risk.

Anthropology of Health is a foundational course in the innovative Anthropology of Health Stream at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This class is a prerequisite to further health-focused courses and generally attracts second-year social science students, many of whom are anthropology majors, though students with double-majors in psychology, biology, and sociology are frequent attendees. The enrollment leapt this in Fall 2020 to 102 (in Fall 2019 it had been 61); this population expansion, coupled with the new online delivery fuelled my desire to build flexibility into the course.

Students were presented with the following prompt, about which they could craft an unessay or tackle an academic paper:

Consider the discovery of insulin, the individuals involved, and the history of diabetes prior to and after the discovery. Select three key events, people, objects, etc. that you think best illustrate/celebrate/explain the discovery of insulin. What led to this discovery? How did this discovery change the world?

In addition, students were asked to write a one-page reflection about their projects, briefly highlighting their intentions, their rationale for which medium they selected, and their overall experience crafting the unessay. It was encouraging to see that approximately 1/3 of the class took on the creative option. Their enthusiastic response emphasized the critical importance of Universal Design principles, integrating choice, engagement, and expression into the foundations of assignments.

While I had anticipated exciting results, I had not predicted that the unessay itself would be foundational to the building of community in the new virtual space. My student hours via Zoom were crowded, with folks dropping by regularly, some weekly, to show me works in progress. Once students began to dig into the history of the discovery of insulin, it became clear that their main difficulty would be narrowing down their selection of important events/people/moments to just three!

The final projects were, for the most part, outstanding (examples are featured in a previously published version of this piece). Students produced comic strips, rap songs, infographics, stop-motion animations, paintings, children’s books, puzzles, podcasts, poetry, curated displays, and even a horror story! Drawing upon their critical thinking skills and the tools they had at home, students produced work according to their own chosen pathways and media.

Discussions throughout the semester about assessment, fear, creativity, and challenge gave me a direct view into students’ learning processes. Some were in their final year of studies and expressed thanks for the opportunity to try a new format to express their learning. Others said that they were only taking the unessay option because they could not imagine writing another paper. Several confessed that they were nervous of the unessay option and selected the essay as the ‘safer’ means of completing the assignment. Clearly this was not a magic bullet of assignment perfection. I was asked repeatedly “how will the unessay be marked?” It was clear that most students had perused the marking guide, which highlighted content and clarity of meaning; they were concerned with a more directly epistemological question: would I be marking these assignments ‘harder’ than if they chose to craft an academic paper? Or would it in fact be an ‘easier’ option? In creating the marking guide, I had drawn upon Ryan Cordell’s emphasis that the unessay must be “compelling and effective.”3 Was it clear (without first referring to the student’s written reflection) which three key events/people/objects the student had chosen? Could I, as a viewer, sense the students’ understanding of the topic? Were the students showing, rather than telling? By encouraging students to experiment I was giving them permission to fail. The inclusion of the reflection gave them space to express their intentions, providing a platform to display both their final product and their creative and research process.

Incorporating assignments such as the unessay empowers students to choose their best lens for approaching their learning. I naturally closed out many student Zoom calls this semester with: “I’m excited to see it! I trust you.” Though we have yet to meet in person, the bonds built this past semester, those of encouragement contextualized with our own pandemic place and time, are as meaningful as those I have experienced in the in-person classroom.

Commemorative activities relate naturally to discussions of place and time. The coming year will witness the centenary of truly colossal moments in medical history as we trace the research of Banting and Best over the summer of 1921. In 2021 we will also experience the largest mass vaccination program in Canadian history. The intersection of these two major health events provides an unmissable opportunity to engage students at all levels in contextualized discussions of individual health, access to healthcare, and health histories, topics which transcend both time and (virtual) space. The discovery of insulin is a topic that lends itself naturally to a speculative assignment such as the unessay. Much as Banting, Best, Collip, and Macleod harnessed trial and error in their quest towards a treatment for diabetes, many students in Anthropology of Health ventured something new in their learning. While an unessay may not be a productive fit for all topics, the themes of risk-taking and experimentation provide ample ways in for creative and critical thinkers.


1 – O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. “The unessay.” Daniel Paul O’Donnell. September 4, 2012. Last modified September 28, 2018,
2 – Kissel, Marc. “The UnEssay.” Marc Kissel’s Website. May 7, 2018,; Gillreath-Brown, Andrew. “The unessay.” Gillreath-Brown – Archaeology. May 15, 2020,; Sullivan, Patrick. “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, 67, no. 1 (2015): 6-34.
3 – Cordell, Ryan. “The Unessay.” Technologies of Text. Accessed June 20, 2021,


Dr. Madeleine Mant is an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research integrates bioarchaeology and medical anthropology to investigate the health experiences of people through time, with a focus upon trauma and infectious disease. You can find her on Twitter @maddymant.

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