Open Your Mind: A Q&A exploring the LA&PS Writing Prize

The Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) is promoting its annual writing competition, the LA&PS Writing Prize. Any course director in LA&PS may nominate a student paper (one per course) in the appropriate category, and every course director in LA&PS is encouraged submit an entry to the 2017 competition. In this Open Your Mind profile, we talk to Jon Sufrin, a faculty member of the LA&PS Writing Department, about the contest, its origins and its offerings.

Q. What is the LA&PS Writing Prize?
A. The LA&PS Writing Prize is the newest iteration of the Faculty’s longstanding annual essay competition. In keeping with the diversity and interdisciplinary nature of LA&PS, the competition encourages papers from nearly every genre, and not just formal academic papers. We’ll take professional reports, reflective submissions, life writing, critiques, investigations, podcast transcripts and just about anything else in written prose form. The only genres not eligible are creative writing and poetry.

Q. What inspired this contest, and what are its origins?
A. The contest was created in May 1986 by Professor Tom Traves, then dean of the Faculty of Arts here at York. The University was undergoing one of its periodic growth spurts in the mid-1980s, and had recently embarked on successful fundraising campaign. The Faculty of Arts received an unexpected and welcomed donation of funds specifically earmarked for student awards, and an “anonymous donor” agreed to match the principal amount over five years.

This provided the Faculty with a substantial endowment for a student award, and Dean Traves asked that the interest be used to fund prizes at the 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000 course levels. In 1993, the contest added a fifth category, that of honours thesis. It awarded its first prizes in 1987, with a committee composed of faculty from the Faculty Administration, the Centre for Academic Writing (CAW) and the Economics Department. The Faculty also used to publish the winners’ papers in yearly volumes, hard copies of which are still stored in the Writing Department.

It’s worth noting that those early publications noted with pride that “all units in the Faculty of Arts except computer science, mathematics and physical education recommended essays to the jury.” In more recent years, we have moved away from this ecumenical approach, but it would be great to get more submissions from the professional studies side of the Faculty.

Q. Why isn’t creative writing included in this prize?
A. In part, because Dean Traves specified “essays,” by which it was taken to mean non-fiction, academic pieces of prose. So while we’ve blurred those boundaries a good deal by substituting “papers/submissions” for “essays,” it’s important the entries we get retain some element of scholarly inquiry and research. Of course, good research can inform poetry and prose fiction as well, but it is a component that isn’t as visible in those genres.

It’s also so we don’t compete with the President’s Prizes in Creative Writing competition. I think there is a role for distinct contests in this respect. It’s also one thing to compare a case study with an essay, but several orders of magnitude harder to compare an essay/case study with a piece of poetry or a short story.

Jon Sufrin

Q. How has the competition evolved, and what drove those changes?
A. At first, it was very much an interdepartmental collaboration – granted, more from what is now the liberal arts side of the ampersand – political science, history, humanities and the Centre for Academic Writing (CAW) all nominated judges, but so did economics and French studies, and for the first five years or so, the dean and/or associate deans were involved as well.

In 1998, the assessment of the papers shifted almost entirely into the Centre for Academic Writing. The logic to the move was that the CAW’s whole purpose (inherited by the Writing Department) was to teach good writing across disciplines and genres, and so the contest could avoid conflicts of interest.

Originally, Dean Traves noted that “every department in the Faculty will be eligible to nominate one essay from each level,” but in recent years this has generally lapsed. Some departments simply didn’t generate enough “essays” to warrant their own internal competitions, but there might still be an individual course director that had a particularly good submission, which is why we now accept submissions at the course level. Ideally, I’d like to return to Dean Traves’ original model – the LA&PS collects the papers after a departmental round to choose the strongest submissions. I think that would encourage student writing and stronger submissions all around.

The last year of the Faculty of Arts competition was in 2007. It did make a return with the founding of LA&PS in 2009, but appeared somewhat sporadically, and did not attract as many entries as it was capable of.

In 2015, at the behest of the Writing Department, LA&PS expanded the former “essay contest” into a “Writing Prize” in order to better reflect both sides of the ampersand in LA&PS.

Last year, the contest went online, both in its submission process and by publishing its winners in an online digital repository. Rather than hard copies, we assess Word and PDF files, and offer the winners the chance to put them in our digital repository. It’s really helped us streamline the entry procedure and make the great writing we generate here in LA&PS accessible to a wide audience.

Q. How would you describe the significance of this competition?
A. There’s a few different things. First, there are a lot of really good students in LA&PS and the Writing Prize is a good way to visibly showcase the work our students do. It also underlines that good writing isn’t limited to essays, but is occurring in multiple forms across the Faculty, in all 21 departments/schools. There’s a preconception that only essays can win – but essays feature so often now because that’s mostly what is entered.

Second, because it’s again a direct way we can encourage our students’ love of writing and love of learning. In all the course-level, Faculty-level and university-level competitions I’ve been involved in, the nominated students have been genuinely grateful and excited to be recognized, let alone the winners (or their professors, who often come to the awards ceremonies).

Third, a Faculty-level competition is also a way to encourage a diversity of voices and perspectives – across genres, across disciplines, across experiences – and make sure the best writing gets a platform.

Fourth, because it is a way to support students in their graduate level careers. I dined out for years on my fourth-year Humanities Department nomination to the Faculty of Arts Prize – a 45-page research essay entitled “The Military Reputation of Later Julio-Claudians.” By nominating it, my professor – Jonathan Edmondson – helped get me into grad school and convinced me I could handle the increased expectations there.

Competition is fierce for graduate and professional programs, and a nomination or win for a large writing prize is a useful accomplishment. This is especially true for the winners, since they get a nice, publicly available paragraph written about their work by a full-time faculty member.

Finally, because LA&PS is a huge Faculty, and a little friendly competition between departments doesn’t hurt any. I mean, c’mon, economics – are you really going to let political science walk away with all the winners again?

Students and faculty at the 2016 Writing Prize reception

Q. How can course directors use this competition to highlight student writing in a different, unexpected or unusual way?
A. As coordinator, one of my benefits is that I get to read a lot of different kinds of assignments and a great many intelligent, mature and diverse perspectives in these essays. If you look at the 2016 winners, you see not only many different disciplines represented, but also many different agencies expressed.

It’s worth underlining again that this is a writing prize, not an essay prize. I know a lot of instructors in LA&PS are particularly concerned with teaching and modelling good writing in all its forms, regardless of discipline or department. It’s early days yet, but I expect our online repository will soon come to represent a broad spectrum in the way our students investigate and react to the world, and fully display the gamut of creative, interesting and original non-fiction prose writing being done in our Faculty. But that depends on the entries we get!

Q. Can you describe some of the interesting and unexpected submissions from past years?
A. My favourite from last year was a series of reflective papers submitted by a fourth-year student concerning their course readings. The students were instructed to relate the content of the reading to course concepts and their own experience, and the entries made me want to go and read all the source material.

Another good submission that stuck out for me was a case study recommending the University partner with a specific charity in support of the University’s plans to establish a medical school in 2020. The case made was extremely compelling, and I wrote in my comments that York should pay attention to the report. It turned out that the report was accepted (no thanks to me), and York did form the recommended partnership. I thought it was a great example how our students can and do make a difference in our community.

Q. Tell us about your involvement in the LA&PS Writing Prize.
A. In the early part of this decade, I was lucky enough to be able to run the William Westfall Award in Canadian Studies, and got some experience coordinating writing competitions. When I joined the Writing Department in Fall 2015, I was asked to help produce the LA&PS version.

Q. What criteria are used to judge the submissions, and who are the judges?
A. Most important are the assignment instructions themselves. We look to see what the assignment asked the student to accomplish and take specific requests into account as we assess the submission. For instance, a piece of reflective writing may or may not require citation, so it helps us to know what the course director required from the student, and what their goals were.

In a broader sense, readability, creativity, style, depth of analysis and professionalism were the formal criteria. The papers are expected to be syntactically excellent, and expert in their respective citation styles, as applicable.

In my experience, there is also a certain je ne sais quoi that features in the winners – some way in which they particularly resonated with the jurors. For me, this is as much about how they establish the significance/relevance of their central concepts as any technical excellence. The real common denominator amongst the winners is the way they help the reader to understand a new perspective, or if they leave their audience motivated to seek positive change on the local, national and/or global levels.

Currently, the judges are full-time members of the Writing Department.

Q. Can you describe the prize structure?
A. Each winner last year was awarded $300, while one runner-up at each year level (1000-4000) received $100. This year, we have expanded the prize structure to include two runners-up for three awards at each year level. The winners also get a transcript notation, the offer of inclusion in our YorkSpace Contest Repository and an invitation to a fall awards ceremony recognizing their accomplishments. The same pattern would hold for an honours thesis, but, sadly, we have not received any in the past two years.

Q. How can course directors make a submission and what is the deadline?
A. Course directors can visit the competition website at laps.yorku.ca/faculty-staff/laps-writing-prize to enter. The deadline is June 6.

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