The SAGES University Seminar Essay Awards highlight the best student writing produced in SAGES University Seminars each year.  The essays recognized here were selected from those nominated by SAGES faculty for this award in academic year 2019-2020.  Student essayists receive a cash award and are recognized at the Spring Writing Program Awards.

The hallmark of the University Seminar is its long-form research project, which engages student writers in the processes of gathering, interpreting, analyzing, and making knowledge through the use of source materials within a disciplinary genre. These researched texts require practice with critical reading of sources as well as artful integration of the sources with each other in ways that reveal connections and produce insights. These four prize-winning essays showcase how students can use academic forms to engage with source material to critically explore historical, literary, scientific and political systems and how they shape the world as we experience it. 


Alphabet Soup: Why Making STEM into STREAM Will Not Fix the Imbalance in Education”

By Giuliana Conte

from USNA 289: The Mind’s Essential Tension (Seminar Leader: Anthony Jack)

In this essay, Conte makes a convincing case for the role of the arts and humanities by critiquing the current emphasis on STEM in American primary and secondary education. One of the strengths of this essay is Conte’s effort to show how current debates about STEM education—including the alleged shortage of STEM workers—are historically situated and closely tied to rhetoric surrounding national defense. This paper also illustrates how student writers can analyze terminology and definitions (e.g. what is a “STEM worker”?) to expose flawed logic undergirding policy decisions.


“Fact or Fable: The Inaccurate Representation of Female Victims and Perpetrators in Auschwitz in Out of the Ashes”

By Annabella DeBernardo

from USSY 290G: Women and Warfare: Reality vs. Representation (Seminar Leader: Margaret Richardson)

This research essay tackles difficult subject matter— women’s lives and survival tactics in Auschwitz, particularly as related to reproduction and obstetrics—through careful and sophisticated analysis of Dr. Gisela Perl’s memoir I was a doctor in Auschwitz and its subsequent film adaptation, Out of the Ashes. DeBernardo’s paper is an excellent example of close reading and film analysis, as well as the smooth integration of secondary research, which result in a persuasive and original argument concerning the reductive popular media portrayals of female Holocaust victims.


“Cleveland: Confronting Rail Transportation Issues in a Rust Belt City”

By James FitzGibbon

from USNA 287J: Transportation in American Life (Seminar Leader: Howard Maier)

This essay offers a thoughtful exploration of the history and economics of rail transportation in the Cleveland area. FitzGibbon’s thorough research involved not only textual sources, but also personal interviews with two experts in the field. He is adept in using these various sources to build his own argument. The project unfolds as a response to the question of whether Cleveland should expand its light rail system, and answers that question through several lenses–historic, economic, social–in order to make a well-reasoned and compelling claim about the future of Cleveland’s public transportation.


“The Image of Black Masculinity as Portrayed in ​Friday Black”

By Anika Krishna

from USSY 291B: Dystopian Science Fiction (Seminar Leader: Gabrielle Parkin)

This essay deftly navigates the complexities of black male identity within contemporary American society as portrayed in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s 2018 short story collection Friday Black. Krishna connects her close reading of two stories in the collection to secondary research on such topics as black masculinity, code-switching, and racial profiling to show how Adjei-Brenyah uses the tropes of dystopian fiction and “Hyperbole based on truth [to blur] the lines between fiction and reality” in a way that makes the experience of racism viscerally apparent to the reader. This essay is a strong example of literary analysis and sensitively dealing with emotionally- and politically-charged topics.   



USEM Essay Prizes (2018-2019)

“Religious Coffee Drinkers: Historical Reactions to Coffee by Organized Religions and Their Implications”

by Shmuel Berman

from USSO 288T: Coffee and Civilization (Seminar Leader: Annie Pecastaings)

This research essay’s strength is the clarity of its synthesis. The author selects case studies from different religions, times, and cultures. Far from being daunted by this corpus, Berman explains how all these materials speak to an underlying pattern that can teach the reader about the ways that religious groups come to terms with changing social norms. Examining these examples across time and civilizations, Berman describes, connects, and analyzes these historical events with clear prose to demonstrate a larger insight about modern-day attitudes and practices around the use of mood-altering substances.


“The Function of a Name”

by Rebecca Kizner

From USSY 293T: Spaces of the Dead (Seminar Leader: Thomas Mira y Lopez)

This essay exemplifies a short assignment in synthesis with Kizner putting three memorials, interpreted by three scholars, into conversation to reveal a new insight about the meaning and value of decedent’s names. The author considers the use of the names of decedents across three memorials to provide a thoughtful analysis of how names perform the work of memorialization through identifying, historicizing, and representing individuals’ places in society. To analyze the memorial use of names, she puts into conversation three very different memorials across time and modality: the book French Children of the Holocaust, the Humane Borders interactive Map of Migrant Mortality, and the website My Sandy Hook Family. Beautifully written, this essay is critical yet sensitive in its analysis of the ways in which decedents are represented in and by society even after they have passed on. 


“Paris by Artificial Light: How Lighting Systems Ultimately Influenced Parisian Sensibilities”

by Marika Meijer

from USSY 287X: Paris in the Arts (Seminar Leader: Annie Pecastaings)

In this research essay, Meijer draws on a variety of sources that allow her to analyze the literal and metaphorical importance of lighting innovations in 19th-century France. The essay hones in on specific examples that illuminate the prismatic complexities of a topic that may seem straightforward at first glance. Meijer’s work with various sources, however, reveals a rich and complex process through which Paris came to be. 


USEM Essay Prizes (2017-2018)

This year’s USEM essays demonstrate how academic inquiry can produce creative and socially-minded research essays across a variety of disciplines. Each of these writers situates their research within the discipline of their USEM course, but finds larger meaning in the work that is realized through contexts beyond the classroom. These essays serve as excellent models of writing that engages its audiences with reason, evidence, and persuasive language.

“Social Context and the Popular Reception of Poetry: The Examples of Dickinson and Longfellow”

James Kristell

Written for USSY 293I: High Art and Guilty Pleasures; Steve Pinkerton (Seminar Leader)

Assignment: Students were asked to write a thesis-driven essay based on research in some aspect of art, literature, and/or popular culture. They were urged, especially, to engage with the course’s main focus on distinctions between “high” and “low” art, culture, and entertainment: how these determinations are arrived at, how they change over time, who gets to decide, what voices get excluded, etc. N.B.: As part of their engagement with high and low culture, students were required to incorporate a diverse range of sources—including “high” (peer-reviewed), “middle” (e.g., journalistic), and “low” (reddit, Amazon reviews, etc.).

Nomination: I like this essay because, apart from being very nicely written, it also chooses an admirably focused topic—the contrasting historical popularities of Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—and uses that focus to draw broader conclusions about how social contexts shape the reception of literature. Dickinson and Longfellow were not assigned readings, but James’s essay has inspired me to assign a bit of both the next time I teach this course!


“Redefining Health: Peyote, Ritual Healing, and the Concept of the Soul”

Isabella Pua

Written for USNA 287H: Plants in Medicine; Erika Olbricht (Seminar Leader)

Assignment: Students are asked to research a medicinal plant of their choice and to make a claim about its historical, contemporary, and/or ethno-botanical use. The most successful papers then set that claim within the context of how we should understand the concept of health and herbal medicine.

Nomination: Isabella’s paper shows an exceptional understanding of the context in which peyote should be understood as a medicinal treatment by focusing on its role in Native American healing rituals. Isabella’s claim that such rituals must be understood as social and communal healing pushes the limits of what is understood as “medicine” in the western world—which is her point. This paper shows a rare and necessary understanding of how physical health could be better treated holistically, by taking into consideration spiritual and communal health.


“The Needle and the Damage Done: Needle Exchanges and the AIDS Epidemic”

Grace Schaller

Written for USSO 291X “We’re Dying in America”: The History of the U.S. AIDS Crisis; Andrea Milne (Seminar Leader)

Assignment: Having learned the basics of historical research and argumentation throughout the semester, the capstone asked students to use their understanding of the early AIDS epidemic to write about a contemporary issue. They could choose between the opioid epidemic or the debates around healthcare reform. The papers had to:

  1. Describe the current situation and how it impacts the present-day AIDS Crisis.
  2. Use primary and secondary source research to compare our current challenges to those faced in the 1980s and 1990s.
  3. Make at least one concrete policy proposal that will either help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, or improve the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS.

Nomination: Grace’s paper employs twenty-one sources and two figures; their quality and diversity—from academic journals and newspaper articles to the Neil Young song that she uses as her essay’s title—speak to both her mastery of the research process and the depth of her engagement with the course. The technical merits of Grace’s writing are also praise-worthy; her tone is academic without being inaccessible, and conveys the dramatic nature of the opioid crisis without resorting to purple prose.

USEM Essay Prizes (2016-2017)

The three essays selected for the award this year represent excellent research projects that formed the culminating assignment of the University Seminar experience. Though they all fit the generic bill of a “10-12 page research paper” they also showcase the rich variation in the way meaningful research is conducted and shared across disciplines and genres at CWRU. The writing in each demonstrates creative and critical inquiry—from a thoughtful exploration of current trends in the gender make up of computer science to an application of an old theoretical concept to illuminate new meaning in a current film to a revelation based in personal experience about the way in which doctors construct female patients’ pain. These essays inform, inspire, and transform the reader and writer through processes of meaning-making and sharing.

While these essays each have a unique perspective, they share several hallmarks of successful academic writing: they make claims about relevant and debatable issues, support those claims with evidence from sources as well as their own experiences, and develop clear and compelling arguments based in reasoning and logic. Readers looking for effective models of persuasive writing and close readings will profit from these pieces.We encourage instructors to read and share these essays with student writers as models for effective writing in SAGES University Seminars.


“Investigating Women in Computer Science”

Dina Benayad-Cherif

Written for USNA 287P: Women and Science; Barbara Burgess-Van Aken (Seminar Leader)

This persuasive essay reveals the current experiences of women in computer science. Her argument that culture and sexism are driving women out of the computer science field is thoroughly supported by various sources.


“Post Early Modernism: A Humoral View of Barton Fink”

Michael Neuhoff

USSY 292U: Problems of Genre in Shakespeare and Film; James Newlin (Seminar Leader)

Michael’s close reading applies an old Greek theory to reveal new meanings in the modern film, “Barton Fink.” He uses quotations and examples from the movie to demonstrate his insightful interpretations.


“Adding Insult to Injury: How Physicians Fail Women in Pain”

Halle Rose

Written for USSO 234: Questions of Identity; Gail Arnoff (Seminar Leader)

In this essay, Halle uses her own personal experiences to describe the ways in which women’s complaints have been dismissed by healthcare professionals. Her use of her personal experience throughout the essay, as well as her use of outside evidence, makes this a captivating read.

USEM Essay Prizes (2015-2016)

Whether it’s a social commentary, a persuasive essay, or close reading, these four prize-winning student essays are useful examples of how to effectively use research and evidence to develop a claim in a variety of disciplines. Readers will find that these essays contribute to larger conversations about our culture and how our social constructs have an impact on diverse groups of people living within our society.

Erin Camia’s persuasive essay, a commentary on the social implications of “RBF,” explores the use of the controversial term “resting bitch face” to make several eye-opening statements about how women’s anger is perceived by society and the stereotypes that complicate women’s lives as a result.

Jessica Nash wrote an informative essay on the lack of women in the computer programming field, titled “Re-fashioning the Field: On Gender and Computer Science.” Using a variety of sources, she argues that the social construct of what a computer scientist looks like has impacted the number of women involved in the computer programming field.

Ondrej Maxian wrote a persuasive essay titled “Conserving Culture: CBPR as a Framework for Group Research” on how researchers should go about completing experiments on different cultural groups. He argues for his proposed solution by providing evidence on how it can succeed and also addresses possible opposing viewpoints.

Lastly, Katherine Steinberg’s “Translation in Paradise” is a close reading of the novel “Paradise” and the use of translation within the text. By providing background on the role of translations and what it reveals within the novel, she concludes that translations have a greater purpose than what is visible to the eye.


“RBF and the Reluctance to Accept Women’s Anger”  by Erin Camia

Written for USSY 289J: Beauty Myths Today; Megan Jewell (Seminar Leader)

Assignment Description: 10-12 page argumentative researched essay on a topic that addresses the cultural politics of beauty.

“Re-fashioning the Field: On Gender and Computer Science” by Jessica Nash

Written for USNA 287P: Women and Science; Barbara Burgess-Van Aken (Seminar Leader)

Assignment Description: 10-12 page research paper in which students identified and explored a question related to assumptions about gender in a selected scientific paradigm. Examples of such questions included: How have prevailing scientific beliefs about male and female anatomy affected the struggles of a specific female scientist? What were/are the cultural, political, and scientific factors that facilitated (or are currently facilitating) the shift from one scientific paradigm of gender beliefs to another? What are some current competing perspectives regarding the science of gender?


“Conserving Culture: CBPR as a Framework for Group Research”

 by Ondrej Maxian 

Written for USNA 287K: Human Research Ethics; Michael Householder (Seminar Leader)

Assignment Description: Students read a collection of instructor-selected journal articles that address the controversy that resulted from a study of blood specimens taken from members of the Havasupai American Indian tribe. Based on their understanding of the debate (and adding at least one source they found), students articulated what they thought should be done to ensure that human subjects research is done ethically, especially when scientific values conflict with the cultural values of the research subjects.

“Translation in Paradise” : The Intersection of Languages and their Impact in Gurnah’s East Africa” by Katherine Steinberg

Written for USSY 285V: Castaways and Cannibals: Stories of Empire; Kristine Kelly (Seminar Leader)

Assignment Description: 10-12 page, researched analysis on an issue raised in one of the novels assigned in class (Defoe, Conrad, Coetzee, or Gurnah)

In previous years, SAGES and the Writing Program published the prize-winning essays in booklets. You can find previous SAGES University Seminar Essay Award recipients here in these archives.