Fall 2023 Taylor Excellence in Writing Award Winners Announced

January 31, 2024

Fall 2023 Taylor Excellence in Writing Award Winners Announced

Every semester, Ashbrook Scholars have the opportunity to participate in the Taylor Excellence in Writing competition. Students are able to choose any topic of public interest they’d like, and can write and submit as many essays as they want to. After submitting their writing, Scholars attend a writing seminar where they receive feedback which they can use to revise their piece for final submission.

The winners are compensated and featured in Ashbrook’s yearly publication Res Publica. Click the links below to read the essays of this semester’s winners:

Claire Houchin: “Panic from My Eyes”
Anne Casey: “On Keeping a Sketchbook, Or Unfinished Limbs”
Isabelle Osterland: “Are ‘Swifties’ and the ‘Beyhive’ More of a Colony than a Fandom?”


You wake up, go to class, see friends, and work on homework. Nothing is out of the ordinary. It’s a normal day. However, you feel anxious. You can’t explain why. All day you are on edge. You try your usual calming techniques of breathing, journaling, and walking. They don’t seem to be helping, but you must keep going. You can’t let it overtake your life. As the day ends, you reflect on all the anxiety filling the day. You are frustrated because you can’t find the source of your anxiety. Your mind begins to spiral. The voice in your head begins to talk to you as if it’s your enemy, a high school bully, the devil on your shoulder without the angel on the other side. “Why do I feel this way?” “I should be able to control these feelings.” “I feel like a failure.” “I can’t be productive when I feel this way.” “I wish I was normal.” “Why can’t I handle this when other people can?” “What is wrong with me?” 

These thoughts exacerbate the feelings of anxiety from earlier in the day. Your body begins to react. Thoughts continue to flood your mind. Your hands and legs begin to shake. You lose your hearing. Your vision goes in and out. You feel like a shell of a human. Hours could go by, but you have no concept of time. The shaking gets worse as time progresses. Your whole body is shaking now. You notice a headache as the other symptoms begin to slow down. You feel like you are going to throw up. You eventually come back to reality, slowly. Your hearing returns and your vision stays. The tremors slow down. Your body feels like it has been hit by a truck. The last time you looked at the clock it was 11:55 pm, but now it is almost 3 in the morning. You have to get up at 8 am for class tomorrow. You have lost out on valuable sleep. Not only will you feel the exhaustion from what you just went through, but now you are not going to get much sleep. “Tomorrow is going to be rough.” Then the cycle begins again the next day, but worse this time.

I just described what a panic attack feels like for me. Words cannot fully express how it feels to experience a panic attack. I have had panic attacks since third grade. I had a teacher that screamed at us, threatened us, dumped desks, and forced students to clean them up in front of the class, read our grades aloud. She terrified me. All week I would bottle up my anxiety, and on Friday night every week around 9 p.m. I would have an abdominal migraine. An abdominal migraine is a migraine with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and headaches. I vomited every Friday night for a year. That is how my body learned to deal with stress.

As I got older the panic began to manifest itself in different ways. In sixth grade I started having vivid nightmares regularly. Dreams about my family dying, me getting kidnapped, fires, intruders, very dark things for a sixth grader to experience regularly. They would wake me up in the middle of the night and I would be terrified to go back to sleep. I made a habit of keeping my phone and headphones near me at night, so when the nightmare inevitably came, I could watch tv or YouTube videos to distract my mind from the dream. I needed to give myself something else to think about otherwise I would fall back asleep and continue the dream right where it left off. These nightmares caused insomnia for me in high school, and it was not until I got to college that they started to become less frequent.

The panic attack I described at the beginning is how I experience panic now. After going to therapy, I have worked out the triggers of my panic. Academic stress, guilt, boredom, and lack of sleep cause panic attacks for me. I have developed calming techniques, and I have medication if necessary. I know that when my body feels anxious I can journal, walk, stretch, or talk to someone, but I have to remind myself that these are not cures. The more tools I use to cope with panic the better off I will be.

Panic is overwhelming. Panic is suffocating. Panic is life-altering. Panic is common. Panic is treatable. Panic is not uniquely mine; it is just another part of who I am. People of all ages and backgrounds live with panic every day. There is not one proven solution. If panic and or anxiety is not something you have to live with, it is still important to understand it and how it affects people. When you encounter someone in a state of panic it is important to go off their cues. Are they conscious enough to answer questions? Maybe stick to yes or no questions. It is likely that they just want to feel a little less lonely. Sit there with them, reassure them that you are there for them. Provide support in the way they need it and the way they ask for it. Do not assume what they need from you. Sometimes your presence is all they need. 

On Keeping a Sketchbook, Or Unfinished Limbs

In the Fall of 2019, a collection of preparatory drawings were placed on exhibition in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and many people, myself included, flocked to the museum to see them. Michelangelo, the great painter of the Sistine chapel ceiling, is known for his perfected ability to paint idealized human figures, and on display were sketches of various torsos and limbs that helped the artist attain this level of perfection. Not only were these preliminary sketches vital to the creation of the frescoes; they helped create the artist himself. In these humble beginnings, the artist could quietly perfect his work, leaving any imperfections confined to these preliminary pages, working for his own betterment while promising something greater to come.

I’ve remembered these sketchbooks not only for their lack of submility, which makes them personal and relatable. I’ve also remebered them because I think they might reflect something important about human creativity.

In my own experiences as one who enjoys thinking about and sometimes making art, the sketchbook’s lack of expectation offers greater artistic freedom than any other form of art. Sketchbooks allow me to do whatever I want: leave drawings forever unfinished, rip pages out, throw them away, glue something over a mistake… it never matters. There’s never a feeling of disappointment or inability to meet an expectation because it is only a tiny book that no one knows or cares about. I think this freedom from the eyes of others gives way to genuine creativity. Yet it usually goes unnoticed by the majority of people, even artists, because many are so end-focused that they forget to care about the process of creating. Michelangelo’s unfinished sketches are an expression of this freedom, even if that freedom only existed momentarily and in preparation for creating the final masterpiece.

The sketchbook gives access to an interiority that I personally don’t find as much in other forms of art. I recently flipped through my sketchbook from high school and found that I was a drastically different person. The things I used art to criticize and mock when I was younger are now the things I love, and the ideas I then found beautiful and deeply meaningful are now empty to me. But I also see some sense of continuity as I’ve learned about these same ideas and changed my attitudes towards them. These earlier sketches were done by an earlier me, and as I’ve learned more about the world and changed (and hopefully improved) my beliefs, my more recent sketches have changed with me. In some sense, the pages preserve my younger soul, left as reminders of who I once was. It is almost as if my older sketchbooks are earlier sketches of me.

Keeping a sketchbook didn’t just reflect my thought processes, though; it shaped them in a mutual process between myself and the sketchbook. As I’ve gotten more serious about philosophy, collaging in particular seems to have shaped my thought processes. In the same way I would collect images and words from multiple sources that connected to one idea or theme, I like to draw connections in different questions and writers, to follow one idea among many different sources and try to understand multiple viewpoints. Keeping a sketchbook taught me to look at things from many several standpoints and see continuity among things that on the surface seem disunited. While the person I once was has remained on the pages of my old sketchbook, the artist I was at one time left the pages and extended to other areas of my life.

I realize own experiences with keeping a sketchbook are limited to my own mind, and turning back to where we started before I fell into a sort of sketchbook-like wandering, I admit that I cannot and should not attempt to explain the processes of Michelangelo’s personal sketchbook keeping. I can determine my own work to be drastically different from his simply because I do not intend to create something so great with the contents of my sketchbook. But we might assume Michelangelo shared in that freedom from external pressure in his sketches, even if only for a time. I suppose these pages might demystify the artist—how human it is to create in many small and imperfect steps, as the pages present to us the failings. We are left with page after page of preparation for a final attempt at perfection, showing that even a work of art some consider to be almost divine was not made in one, single step.

But as much as we wonder about these pages, none of us will never know what these preparatory sketches were for Michelangelo, how they helped shaped the “The Mind of the Master,” as the exhibition was titled. These preparatory sketches indicate a subjective experience with his work that only the artist knew and understood, an experience that changed the artist in ways we may recognize only by its effects–that is, the completed piece–but never in itself. Never will anyone but the artist know how he interacted with his own creation from start to finish. Other than the final, most perfected work, the most we will ever see are some disconnected torsos and unfinished limbs.

Are “Swifties” and the “Beyhive” More of a Colony than a Fandom?

Taylor Swift. Time Magazine’s 2023 person of the year. By now, the whole world has heard her name. With her earth rattling, Eras Tour, and her endless pop hits. There is almost no chance that anyone could be unfamiliar with the towering blonde pop star. Her endless and, some may say, relentless support from fans, is inspiring to some and exhausting to others. Her self-named “Swifties” are reminiscent of another popular singer’s fandom. That fandom is, Beyonce and her “BeyHive.” These fandoms thrive on dedicating much of their time online to sharing their favorite singers’ posts and songs. The fans are also known to relentlessly clap back at any “haters” that come after their favorite singer. These fandoms are more intense than one would assume. Taylor Swift’s fans quite literally send death threats to some of Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriends. While Beyonce’s hive swarms anyone who discredits her work as an iconic black woman in the music industry. Some would say that these fandoms worship their favorite artists, to the point where they have difficulty differentiating music from religion.

Can Taylor Swift and Beyonce be blamed for their charisma? Did they intentionally orchestrate such tight-knit fandoms that even new fans have to go through a period of online hazing to be a part of it? No one can say. But you can’t help but notice that these singers encourage engagement with their fans. In 2023 both singers released theatre crowding films of their tours. Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour film led to fans jumping out of their seats to sing and dance. Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour film debut inspired weeks of red-carpet photo sharing of an iconic photo of Beyonce and Taylor Swift dripping in silver and black jewels and blonde waves. Fans are also eager to collect merchandise from both singers’ websites. Items that are discontinued are being resold for five times the original price.

With such passionate fandoms, there are bound to be just as passionate haters of the two singers. Many listeners are so desperate to be excluded from the “Swifties” and the “BeyHive” fandoms that they refuse to let themselves enjoy even 30 seconds of their music. This trend is so popular that even Saturday Night Live commented on it. Saturday Night Live released their “Swiftamine” skit and stated in the video description, that the clip depicts a group of people suffering from vertigo brought on by Taylor Swift’s music promotion. The skit then calls for Swiftamine, the new pink and bubbly drug used to treat adults who realize they freaking love Taylor Swift. The skit highlights the trend surrounding the singer’s music. How people intentionally try to not like Swift. It does so by demonstrating the shock that some people seem to feel when they realize that they actually like a song that Swift has crafted. It also mocks this anti-Swift ideology and pushes viewers to see past their insecurities and just enjoy her work.

The same can be shown with Beyonce’s haters, as those who don’t like her songs are not shy to share their opinions about them. Twitter threads explaining that Beyonce is “overhyped” and “overplayed” flood the screens of those who critique Queen Bey and her music. But just as fast as the critiques come in, her fans are there to support her. Fans are quick to point out her 32 and counting Grammys, which make her the most-awarded female artist in Grammy history. With any critique thrown Beyonce’s way, it seems that she proves them wrong through her success every time.

As a fan of Taylor Swift and a supporter of Beyonce, it is hard to critique the fandoms of these two stars. But it is clear to see that most fans take their support for these singers too seriously. Putting down others who have made constructive comments about Taylor Swift or Beyonce, or even taking their support to extreme levels by showing up at the singers’ houses to take a picture outside. These fans have no limit when they are showing their love. Encouraging engagement with fans is good for creating a strong supportive base, but boundaries are just as important. I think Taylor Swift and Beyonce would benefit from embracing some distance between themselves and their fans; as the safety of the singers and those involved with them has shown to be a major issue. The metaphorical hive that is the “Swiftie” and the “BeyHive” fandoms have shown to be loyal to no end. Proving just how passionate a musical fandom can be.