We are pleased to announce the winning and commended entries for the 2020 Robinson College Essay Prize. We received a record number of entries this year, with almost 300 students submitting essays. The standard of work was universally high, and the judges commented on how impressed they were with the submissions. Students had the opportunity to tackle a range of questions in relation to an academic subject of their choice, which allowed an outstanding breadth of topics to be covered. Robinson would like to thank all those who entered and took the time to complete work outside of their school curriculum and congratulate the winning and commended essays.

Overall Winner

James Preedy

This essay very clearly sets out what the author hopes to achieve at the beginning. James successfully sets the quotation from Franklin in its historical context, noting that Franklin was not necessarily using a concept of ‘liberty’ that is now frequently understood. The essay then contrasts the pre-eminence of a notion of ‘individual liberty’ with the preference for ‘collective security’ evident in the work of Thomas Hobbes, deftly applying these viewpoints to highly contemporary circumstances and arguing that both liberty and security are important but highly context-dependent values. 


Question Winners

Ben Blunt

This is a very rich response to the question that moves nimbly between moral philosophy, theory and the history of science. The author is imaginative, fluent and in certain sections compelling. Overall, this was a very impressive essay that demonstrated clear intellectual potential. It was a pleasure to read this work. 

Fiona Steer

This is a sharp, insightful essay that moves confidently between theory (what are novels for?) and close reading. The pairing of Wide Sargasso Sea and Tess of the D’Urbervilles is mutually elucidative and energetic. This essay is alert to the complexity of the novel, as well as the politic implications discussed by Adiche. The essay concludes with some fascinating observations on the interrelations between novels, “authors, readers and societies”. There isn’t space to do these ideas justice, but they are questions well worth pursuing. It was a pleasure to read this work. 

Marc Lindgren

Britten’s status as a conscientious objector makes his War Requiem an extremely interesting subject for Marc Lindgren’s essay. The illuminating discussion depends upon skilful quotation of both musical and literary texts, and unites specialist understanding of music theory with a pleasingly personal appreciation of the effects of Britten’s creative decisions - I enjoyed the enthusiastic and individual voice which comes through in this writing. Marc’s appreciation of Britten’s achievement is enhanced by his analytical engagement with the craft of Wilfred Owen’s poems (which form the text for part of Britten’s War Requiem). The essay engages fully with the quotation provided in the prompt question. As with other strong responses, Marc ultimately refuses the binary which a question of this kind apparently offers, and instead posits a nuanced, complex conclusion. In particular, I was impressed by his appreciation of the way in which Britten’s faith and personal convictions may offer an alternative to the stark absolutes of O’Brien’s claim. 

Nick Pothikamjorn 

Nick’s essay was a thorough and methodical probing of the question of untranslatability. Notable for its methodical structure, rigourous definitions and detailed arguments, the essay deftly compared the findings of a variety of philosophers and linguists and was at ease with the methodologies and vocabularies of these fields. While very focused in argument – using examples from the Pirahã language to argue that untranslatability does exist in certain circumstances – Nick’s essay was impressive in its awareness of the cultural and academic stakes of what it was discussing, drawing attention to a cultural bias towards majority, written languages which may unduly influence the way we approach ideas such as untranslatability.


Highly Commended

Honor Place

Honor presented a very clearly written, methodical essay, with a sharp focus which took in the bigger picture, considering the implications of the concept of untranslatability in a globalised and post-colonial world. Her essay was fluently and for the most part very persuasively written, incorporating a number of challenging philosophical ideas about translation from Barbara Cassin, Walter Benjamin and Abdelfattah Kilito among others. Arguing that all translation involves loss, it boldly questioned the merit of categorising words, concepts and works as ‘translatable’ or ‘untranslatable’ at all. Given the often-convincing focus on the negative aspects of a culture of ‘world literature’ in the body of the essay, a slightly more expansive conclusion to justify her final position might have been more persuasive. 

Isaac Kadas

Isaac Kadas has produced a well-structured and largely clear essay that deconstructs the quotation from Franklin. Isaac uses a considerable number of examples to argue that it is overly simplistic to treat liberty and security as mutually exclusive values that can be traded off against each other.

Jamie Benson

This essay is clear, logical and carefully argued. It balances close attention to scientific detail, with an impressive fluency and persuasiveness. The author progresses to a nuanced, complex discussion of the moral and ethical implications of evolution, though the argument might have been slightly strengthened by an awareness of the differences between these two terms. This point notwithstanding, and given the space available, this was a commendable piece of work. 

Laurie Goggin

This essay was particularly sensitive to the handling of the moral questions posed by novels. The analysis of Lincoln in the Bardo involved some very impressive close reading, which in turn allowed for an appreciation of the complexity of novels and the significance of form. The idea that novels “promote a considerate attitude” is fascinating and well worth developing, particularly when tested against texts such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This is an excellent piece of work and was only narrowly pushed into second place in its category.

Nathaniel Kemp

Nathaniel Kemp’s essay about Edward Thomas is characterised by an elegant writing style, a deft use of biographical and historical material, and a thoughtful engagement with issues raised by the question. The case for considering Thomas a war poet is persuasively made, and the terms of the question are kept carefully in view as Nathaniel explores two well-chosen poems. Sustaining an intimate focus, Nathaniel gives himself space for detailed and insightful analysis. I particularly commend the way that the discussion communicates personal engagement and appreciation as the argument unfolds; this is no coolly “objective“ analysis. I also commend the deft movement between and across Thomas’s poems, and the glances to other relevant texts, which give a clear sense of Nathaniel‘s engagement with a broader literary context without disrupting the argument. Nathaniel describes Thomas’s poetic approach to his subject as “thoughtful and unpretentious“, a phrase which aptly describes Nathaniel’s own academic style. The conclusion is subtle, resisting the absolutes of the title quotation.