Athens State Writing Blog

The “What do I know?” Essay Contest


The “What do I Know?” annual essay contest!

This blog’s first annual essay contest took place in the spring of 2013. Click here to read the top three submissions from 2012-13. The campus bookstore offered gift cards to the top three essays: $30, $20, and $10. The winners were chosen by a panel of readers who worked with the Writing Center Director to judge submissions. The next call for papers will be published in Fall 2013; submissions will be due in Spring 2014.


This is an essay contest, and in this case we have a particular style of essay-writing in mind. It hearkens back to a venerable tradition of critical inquiry in Western thought that began with the French writer Michel Montaigne. According to Dr. Bruce Ballenger, in The Curious Researcher, “The term essai was coined by Michel Montaigne [and] means ‘to attempt’ or ‘to try.’ For Montaigne and the essayists who follow his tradition, the essay is less an opportunity to prove something than an attempt to find out” (11).

The essay revolves around knowledge–your knowledge, our knowledge. It’s not an objective style of writing if, by objective, we mean that the word “I” is off-limits and your personal voice is cast out. It is an objective style of writing if, on the other hand, we mean that the writer is rigorously honest and deeply curious about the topic he or she writes on. Essays are critical for intellectual success: the process of learning throughout life and becoming the best version of yourself possible.

Academic writing is rigorously objective and sometimes this means that the writer’s voice needs to take the back-seat. Not so in this essay. The writer’s voice is the essay. And, in the end, other forms of academic writing follow the same process of inquiry that a writer goes through when writing a powerful essay. As Dr. Ballenger puts it, “the methods of thought, what I call the ’habits of mind’ behind academic inquiry, are fundamentally the same when writing the research essay or the more formal research paper” (13). He uses the term “research essay” here because his book is about how to write personal essays that draw heavily on academic research.


Please submit manuscripts electronically via an attachment or a link (for online texts) to on the specified topic. Topics change each year. Submissions should be 3-5 pages in length, double-spaced, in Times New Roman font.

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300 N Beaty St, Athens, AL 35611