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Outstanding undergraduate writing rewarded by humanities alum

July 3, 2012

Sidney Iwanter, an 1971 history alumnus of the College of Letters & Science, likes to say he was too busy dodging tear gas canisters to be much of a student during his tenure at UW–Madison. 

But that didn’t stop him from soaking up the intellectual energy of the campus, especially the narrative style of his favorite history professor, Harvey Goldberg. 

From Goldberg, Iwanter learned to appreciate the impact of a riveting narrative delivered within a specific time frame.

Photo: Jamie Stark


It’s a lesson he never forgot as he built a career in television in Los Angeles, and it’s one reason he created the annual Sidney Iwanter Prize, now in its 12th year and awarded in June to journalism and political science student Jamie Stark, with a runner-up award going to history student Susan Burns.

The Iwanter Prize provides an unrestricted $2,000 to a graduating senior who, through a senior thesis and general academic distinction, demonstrates outstanding writing skills and humanities-based scholarship of a broad and interdisciplinary nature.  The $500 runner-up award is new this year.

Administered through the Center for the Humanities, the award is selected by the Center director and two faculty members who serve on the advisory committee. 

“I wanted to set up an award that would be virtually impossible for me, on my best day, to win,” quips Iwanter, whose jokes are often a way of conveying his deep appreciation for depth of knowledge and good writing.  He calls both of the winning papers “exemplary.”

Not every UW humanities undergrad writes a senior thesis but those who do take on the challenge of developing and sustaining a fifty-to-seventy-five page argument.  Stark chose to explore the fallout from WikiLeaks’ “Cablegate” incident, in which 250,000 leaked U.S. State Department cables were published by a consortium of five global newspapers.  He titled his senior thesis, “The WikiLeaks Club.” 

“I chose the topic because there was historical data to research, but it was recent enough that it applied readily to what I’d been studying in journalism and poli sci,” says Stark. “I’d never written anything that long before—it was an adventure.” 

Lew Friedland, professor of Journalism and Mass Communication and one of Stark’s advisors, said “The WikiLeaks Club,” was the best senior thesis he had read in seven years, both for its systematic analysis of events and its thoughtful treatment of the ethical dilemmas involved. 

“Being recognized for the Iwanter Prize is marvelous. For someone like Jamie, it could be the impetus for him to pursue a scholarly career,” says Friedland.

In the fall, Stark will be teaching seventh grade English to Hmong students on the north side of Milwaukee through the Teach for America program, and plans to write a book about the experience.

“Winning the Iwanter inspired me to write further, and write better,” he says.

Burns wrote a senior thesis entitled “Reflecting Tragedy: A Comparison of Public Sites of Memory in Vietnam and the United States.”  She incorporated art history, anthropology, and urban design into her analysis of trends at public war memorials.  Burns’ advisor, history professor Alfred McCoy, described her topic as “difficult, even daunting.”

The Iwanter Prize falls along the high end of the dollar spectrum for writing and humanities scholarship awards.  Iwanter says it’s still ‘miniscule’ compared to other disciplines like the natural sciences and engineering, but hopes that it might help fill what he perceives as an unfortunate gap in rewarding the efforts of humanities students.  

“A well-rounded humanities education is the keystone to an informed electorate and a healthy society,” Iwanter says.  “Plus, it makes understanding big words, opera, and ballet easier.”

Undergraduate seniors in the humanities are encouraged to apply for the Sidney Iwanter Prize.  Visit here for guidelines.