The Dean James E. McLeod Freshman Writing Prize was created to award students in the College of Arts & Sciences who engage in research that explores some aspect of race, gender, and/or identity. This year’s winners were recognized in a ceremony held this past Monday, Sept. 18. Both winners, Gabriella Ruskay-Kidd and Ella-Marie West, were recognized for their work in Sowande Mustakeem's course, "African American Women's History: Sexuality, Violence, & the Love of Hip Hop." Luka Cai Minglu, an international student from Singapore, won an honorable mention for her work in Wolfram Schmidgen's course, "What is Justice?" The award celebrates students who view scholarship as a creative form of expression that can reach others in real and meaningful ways, and this year’s winners are certainly no exception.
Gabriella Ruskay-Kidd, a current sophomore studying psychology, was awarded for her paper on the 1944 case of Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by seven white men, and subsequent trial. “Taylor received no justice. Her case, however, spurred national action and took on significance domestically and abroad in the form of committees, specifically The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, which served to draw public attention to her case,” said Ruskay-Kidd. “I found this case to be particularly important because it lends itself to a closer look at systems of power and oppression. Taylor’s name is rarely mentioned in history books and the stories of black women have been largely left out of the Civil Rights narrative, so it felt important to explore her story.” You can read her full essay here.
The second recipient of the award, Ella-Marie West, a sophomore and international and area studies major, chose to write about interracial marriage before the Loving v. Virginia case. “Interracial marriage between blacks and whites in the 1950s was almost unheard of. Yet, across the racial divide, two trends existed in 1950s interracial marriage politics: first, men and women were treated differently when it came to interracial marriage; secondly, there was stronger top-down suppression, contributing to the counterculture and resistance of earlier generations that erupted in the 60s,” explained West. “I was especially drawn to this subject because I am biracial, and I have been in biracial relationships,” she added, offering a more personal contextualization for her interest in writing this piece. You can read her full essay here.
Luka Cai Minglu, who recieved an honorable mention, chose to write about gender roles in Antigone. She writes, “The starkly separate realms into which Antigone relegates men and women prompt a reading of the play through the lens of gender essentialism. In gender studies, gender essentialism entails the belief that those characteristics defined as women's essence are fixed and shared by all women at all times. This paper argues that while characters in Antigone appear to reinforce the gender essentialism pervasive in ancient Greece at the time, their most aggressive attempts to regulate essentialist gender norms actually reveal the contingency and fragility of these norms.” You can read her full essay here.
Both Ruskay-Kidd and West commented on the exciting, and, at times, challenging nature of doing such substantial academic research. “It’s investigative,” said West. “It was like looking at a little slice of history.”
Ruskay-Kidd expanded on this same notion, saying, “Writing this piece really tested and strengthened my research skills. In the context of research, I think there is real value in the ability to browse the shelves and microfilm collections without knowing specifically what to search on an online database, which tends to facilitate speed reading and impulsive searches.” She continued, “The research was often hard to find because, unsurprisingly, this story has been largely neglected, but it was exciting for me to develop patience in the research process.”
Dean McLeod, the namesake for this award, was a great supporter of intellectual engagement and the transformation that can occur when students immerse themselves in the study of subjects they passionately care about. Both winners seem to exemplify such a transformation. The long-term goal of this prize is to encourage students to seek further opportunities to cultivate their intellectual interests, though Jennifer Smith, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, offered an expansion on the function of the prize: “This prize recognizes the importance of both scholarship and communication around issues of identity. Society is facing significant challenges not only in understanding these issues but also in finding a common language to engage in conversations across our differences.”
This prize, then, while a celebration of writing and research ability, is also a celebration of an achievement in locating this common language — and this is worth awarding indeed.