Expanding recognition of diverse undergraduate writing through the SLC’s writing contest

November 29, 2021
Winners of the 2020 Undergraduate Writing Contest.

Responding to feedback from students and faculty, and seeking ways to continue to recognize the diversity of student writing, SFU Library’s Student Learning Commons (SLC) restructured the submission categories for their 2021 writing contest to be more inclusive.

Now in its fifth year, the Undergraduate Writing Contest celebrates excellence in undergraduate writing across disciplines at SFU. Students generally submit papers they’ve written for classes for the opportunity to win cash prizes and to be published in the open access contest journal.

Jonson Lee, a student in biological sciences and winner of first prize in the Upper Division category of last year’s contest, shared his reasons for entering the contest: “I had a very recent paper I wrote for a course that I did well on. There was nothing really to lose from entering.”

For many students, it can be gratifying to participate in the contest which enables them to share writing they’ve worked hard on as well as to help establish their identities as writers. “Writers are people who put a lot of time, energy, effort, and emotion into their writing and then send it out into the world (in various venues and formats) to be read, considered, and often judged and critiqued. Practicing and developing these skills is important for emerging writers,” shared Julia Lane, a writing services coordinator in the SLC and coordinator of the contest.

While the writing contest has always recognized diverse writing, this year brings two significant changes to the submission categories: the addition of a first year category and the establishment of the Plurilingual Prize.

Drawing on feedback from students and faculty, the prize categories expanded from just two (Lower and Upper Division) into three (First Year, Middle Years, and Fourth Year+), allowing students with fewer than 15 credits to submit.

“We heard from students and faculty in Engineering, for example, that one of the most writing intensive courses in the program happens in first year, first semester,” Lane explained. In past years, the contest’s eligibility requirement systematically excluded these students.

Meanwhile, the new plurilingual category, intended to recognize excellent engagement with plurilingualism in writing, focuses on the writer's plurilingual approach to writing and their incorporation of multiple languages and/or multiple forms of English into their writing. The prize focuses on the writing rather than the identity of the author; multilingual students are encouraged to enter any prize category for which they’re eligible.

As Lane points out, intentionally recognizing and celebrating plurilingual writing is one way to counter common narratives across the university that assume students writing in multiple languages and/or across language barriers are less proficient writers. “We in the SLC want to challenge this narrative by recognizing that it is often the strict confines of standardized academic English and standardized academic writing conventions that are limited and limiting,” said Lane.

Steve Marshall, professor of education, welcomed the news of this new award. His research focuses on plurilingualism, academic literacy, and pedagogy in higher education. "It is groundbreaking and exciting to recognize through an award the plurilingual nature of the writing process that many students go through as they use multiple languages in the learning process," he said.

Lane agreed: “When writers are encouraged to embrace their own multi- or plurilingual strategies and knowledges, the possibility for richer, more complex, more nuanced, and more equitable writing is opened up.”

The 5th annual SLC Undergraduate Writing Contest opens for submissions on November 29, 2021. There is a virtual info session for students interested in submitting to the Plurilingual Prize on December 1, 2021.

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