Road to the Bullitzer

USF students in the First Year Composition course have an opportunity to compete for the top writing prize.

 

By Barbara Melendez

USF News

 

TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 21, 2012) – It may be the only course at the University of South Florida offering the opportunity to win a prize, but everyone taking the course can come out a winner.   

 

The course is First Year Composition (FYC) in USF’s Department of English. It offers the opportunity for poor writers and strong ones alike to improve. Going through FYC prepares either type for a chance to win – the Bullitzer Prize.

 

The Bullitzer is more than a cute play on words. This mash-up term for the top writing prize is all about recognizing the most outstanding student writing over the course of a semester. Everyone in FYC has the potential to be a contender.

 

The skills needed to express thoughts and ideas clearly with the written word are not necessarily taught with the same rigor from one high school to the next. FYC works to hone and polish every freshman’s writing abilities. Those involved are very good at it. USF won the 2011-2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Writing Program Certificate of Excellence “for its dedication to teaching and technological innovation.” 

 

The coordinator of the Bullitzer program, Katherine McGee, a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the Department of English, has read her share of papers. She happily witnesses first-hand the progress students make.

 

“FYC classes are important because they teach students to think and prepare them to write, both skills that are necessary to a college education,” she said.  “If they can compose every paper answering these questions in the affirmative – Is this work focused?  Is it organized? Am I using good evidence? Are my arguments strong? Is my style correct? Is the format correct? – then they will have very little to worry about going forward.”

 

Many students don’t enter their FYC courses thinking about winning any kind of prize. They just want to get through them. Two such students were surprised to find themselves singled out for recognition.

 

Bullitzer Prize winner Naomy Ambroise, a theater major and now a sophomore, loves to write but never expected writing to be a huge part of her future career. She credits Kristen Gay (FYC 1101) and Arthur Richmond (FYC 1102) “for their guidance,” and said, “I was definitely surprised to find out that I was being recommended to be in the running for the Bullitzer prize. I had worked really hard on that paper, but I had no idea that the Bullitzer existed or that my paper was worthy enough to be entered.”

 

As with the Oscars, just being nominated is an honor, but winning feels even better. Her Spring 2012 Project 3 "Underage Prostitution: Victims v. Criminals" brought her the spotlight.

 

“I was ecstatic to find out that I won the prize,” she said. “I felt really accomplished and a little more confident in my writing now that I had something to show for it. It was a great feeling.” 

 

Ambroise also found a new direction.

 

“Taking FYC did influence me in choosing to double major in English and American literature because I was on the fence about it and after taking FYC and receiving positive encouragement from my professors, I felt like it was the right choice to make.” 

 

For someone who looks forward to a career as a writer, the Bullitzer can be especially meaningful.

 

Bullitzer Prize Winner Danielle Haberer, now a sophomore majoring in mass communications, with a concentration in magazine journalism, started out ready to use her time well in FYC – a course she looked forward to taking when she arrived on campus.

 

I am passionate about writing and thought I would enjoy the class,” she said. “Looking back on it now, I recognize that it was a great opportunity for me to improve my writing and am appreciative for the valuable skills that I developed throughout.” 

 

Her Project 2 essay, “Whose Land is it Anyway?” won the ENC 1102, Fall 2011 category announced this past summer. Haberer can credit having learned the value of multiple drafts – taking home the message that, as E.B. White said, “The best writing is rewriting.”

 

She observed, “First Year Composition gave me many opportunities to work on revising my writing through doing peer reviews, having one-on-one conferences with my professor, and writing multiple drafts for each paper. This helped me to become a stronger writer.”

 

As a member of the Celebrate Student Success committee, McGee couldn’t be happier about this. “I always hope students get the point that writing is a process and thus rewriting is a given. No one should hand in a first draft. The first draft is just the beginning. The time and effort that go into the revisions and the polishing – which the instructors show in detail how to do well – are what make the essay something the students can be proud of, not just for the grade from the instructor, but for themselves.”

 

Such is the case for Haberer, as the benefits of FYC have carried through into the rest of her coursework.

 

“I am now able to approach a paper from a more objective standpoint and present an argument from a perspective I do not necessarily agree with,” she said.

 

In addition to honing her skills, her plans have come into sharper focus.

 

“At the beginning of freshman year, I was completely undecided about my major and future career. FYC was one factor that helped me realize that writing was a subject that I wanted to pursue, resulting in me declaring my major after my first semester.”

 

Haberer now has her sights set on law school. But rest assured, FYC isn’t only for liberal arts majors, future writers or lawyers.

 

“Engineers and mathematicians will find themselves writing grant proposals and having to be able to both write and read all sorts of documents,” McGee points out. “Blogging and corresponding require excellent writing skills as well, so no one who hopes to consider himself or herself educated should avoid doing their best.”

 

The best of the best in FYC have to get through more than one critical review.

 

“Instructors read a lot of essays over the course of a semester and there are always a few that just simply grab them,” McGee said.  

 

The standouts then have to impress the Bullitzer Committee.

 

“We have various readers, and we are all concerned with different things. The best submissions have to, of course, demonstrate excellent critical thinking, but the ones that really separate themselves are the ones with unique ideas and engaging prose.” 

 

Once the best writers are identified, then come the nominations and the outstanding students are instructed in how to submit their work to the Bullitzer website. Throughout each semester, the committee chooses a winner for each project as it comes along. It’s a blind review, in that they don’t know who the students are by name. They only see a number and have to be convinced by the writing alone.

 

There are six categories that cover each of three projects in ENC 1101and 1102. Essays written for any of the major writing projects in these courses or a series of blog or discussion board posts written for class qualify for submission. All of those entered know that their teachers saw something special in their work. The winners, then, have the satisfaction that others, in addition to their own instructors, saw something special about their writing.

 

“For those who do their best and win the prize, well, that’s just an added bonus,” McGee said.

 

Unlike the Pulitzer Prize’s cash awards of typically $10,000, USF’s prize winners can expect publication.

 

“The program values Bullitzer-winning essays for their ability to serve as sample student papers, specifically in the production of custom textbooks and on the FYC site,” said Dan Richards, a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition who serves as an instructor. “And that’s definitely something to text home about.

 

“As instructors, this is how we value their writing, in the most practical sense. Winning a Bullitzer is valuable because their work is recognized as standing out as exemplary during a process conducted by a group of very smart academics and proficient writers. We as teachers and as academics know that this is valuable. We publish articles because it cultivates as ethos in the field, not because we get paid for it. Winning encourages us to keep up the good work.

 

“By framing the Bullitzer Prize as an academic endeavor that can have positive import to their lives outside the classroom, we have the chance to challenge notions that the university is primarily a space for economic exchanges structured by business models.” 

 

Nonetheless, more dividends may come later.

 

“The Bullitzer Prize is an academic achievement that can have positive import to their lives outside the classroom,” McGee says. “I have added a section at the bottom of the Bullitzer Page that outlines how students can include this experience on their resume or CVs. Many students we teach have half-page resumes or none at all.”

 

She added, “Student success overall is built on the ability to write effectively. Every student who takes to heart all that we offer – and believe me First Year Composition employs very carefully designed methodologies to prepare them for college writing – each and every one can expect a much more rewarding college experience. The skills the students gain and master, hopefully, will serve them well throughout their time at USF, their careers and their lives.”

 

To view the latest Bullitzer submissions, examples of the best writing of this semester, click here or visit http://fyc.usf.edu/Bullitzer/Home.aspx where useful information, guidance, sample papers and helpful links can also be found.

 

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.