Essay Contests

This spring, in addition to our Night Owls evening events, we will be sponsoring a series of essay contests! We look forward to your submissions!

Current Essay Contest:

What Do Movies Do For Us?

Movies are arguably the preeminent art form of our time, combining music, visual art, acting and storytelling into one all-encompassing experience. They pull tens of billions of dollars every year in profits, something that can be said of no other art form at any point in history.

Everyone has movies that are dear to their heart; a childhood memory, a movie that represents a relationship, an artistic inspiration. We at Night Owls would like to ask: what makes these movies special, and what makes the art form in general special? What makes a good movie, and how does this differ from what makes a good book or good play? What place do movies hold in your own life? Possible topics of reflection include:


  • The place of movies in modern life
  • The unique features of movies over other art forms
  • Movies that hold personal significance to you
  • Qualities that make a good movie
  • The future of movies

Please submit your reflections by Wednesday, June 3, at 3pm CST to

Essay Contest #1:

Night Owls: Moving Life Online

We would like to invite you to participate in the inaugural Night Owls essay contest on the topic of online communities. We want to hear your thoughts on the character and significance of our increasingly rapid movement towards living online. Please submit your essays of approx. 800 words in response to the following prompt:

In the last few weeks, in response to COVID-19, many of our everyday activities have moved online—including Night Owls! What does it mean for our communities, philosophical and otherwise, to become online communities (or: dot-communities?)? How much, and in what ways, does it change the character of our interactions and relationships, which already have relied so much, perhaps too heavily, on virtual modes of communication? Are we lonelier in this new reality, or more connected than before? Is the internet serving us better than it ever has, or are we settling once and for all for a life together that is not just mediated, but exhausted by the platforms we use to connect?  We particularly encourage essays that reflect philosophically on these questions, as well as other related themes and issues that you might think of. Possible angles include:

  • Philosophy without a body
  • Internet space and time
  • “Real” and “Fake” news/people/opinions
  • Social media “bubbles” and the public sphere
  • Longing in long distance relationships
  • Life affirmation/negation?
  • Being all alone

This essay contest is open to all interested philosophers and future philosophers. Please email your submissions to The essays will be judged by a team of University of Chicago philosophy graduate students, and winners will be announced at the first Night Owls event. Prizes include: a Night Owls t-shirt, gift card to the Seminary Co-op bookstore, publication on the Night Owls website. The best essay will be considered for publication in The Point magazine.

Essays for this week’s contest will be due by next Wednesday, April 8 at 3pm. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Essay Contest #2:

An Essay at the End of the World

Thank you for so many wonderful essay submissions for our inaugural Night Owls essay contest! This week, we’d like to hear your thoughts and philosophical reflections on the end of the world. To enter, please submit an 800-word essay, a poem, or a story to You may use the following prompt to help guide your thoughts:

When catastrophe strikes, apocalyptic themes tend to crop up all over the place – in literature, popular media, and even in casual conversation. But the idea of the end of the world is far from new. For centuries, human beings have anticipated and reflected on the “end” in myth, art, and religion. Why are we so interested in the end of the world, and what does it say about us as a species? What is the significance of different ways of representing the end of the world? What does it even mean for the world to end? Some possible themes you might use to guide your reflection are as follows:

  • Climate change
  • Pandemics and war
  • Religious and mythic representation of the end of the world
  • Apocalyptic literature
  • (Human) finitude

Essay Contest #3:

What are Universities for?

With classes going online at the University of Chicago and across the world, it seems like a good time to reflect on what universities are for. Historically, universities have offered people the chance to gather in one place and talk through difficult ideas. Now, with classes taking place over Zoom, many students and teachers have found themselves struggling to replicate what felt so singular about the experience of being in the classroom. In light of this, Night Owls would like to invite you to reflect on what is so special about universities. What can universities do that other institutions can’t? What aspects of universities now seem important than ever? What aspects seem less important? What purpose do universities serve now—and what purposes could they come to serve? Possible points of reflection include:

  • Your university experience
  • What universities can (and can’t) do
  • Universities and community
  • A world without universities
  • Universities in the age of COVID-19
  • What universities are vs. what they could be

Send your essays, letters, cartoons, fiction, poetry, memoirs, policy memos, screenplays of 800 words or fewer to by next Wednesday, April 22, at 3 pm CST. 

Essay Contest #4:

All you need is love…?

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This remark becomes more confusing the more that you think about it. For one thing, it takes the form of an imperative: it is a command to love. And yet it seems that at least part of what makes love valuable is that it is free from precisely the sort of burden than obligations tend to provoke. We can easily imagine a romantic being disappointed to hear that their lover’s passion is mere duty. Further, if love is an emotion (or at least has an emotional component), it is unclear how an emotion could ever be commanded. After all, our emotions seem largely outside of our control, and thus not the sort of things we could be obligated to change. We cannot just decide to feel some way or another. Given these considerations, we at Night Owls would like to ask you: can you be obligated to love someone? What does love have to do with morality, if anything? Can love be both free and obligatory? Possible topics of reflection include:

  • The various types of love and their relationship to obligation
  • Whether or in what ways love can be explained
  • Love and Freedom
  • Whether love is an emotion
  • How you might learn to love someone

Please send your essay, story, poem, etc. of up to 800 words to by 3pm CST on Wednesday, April 29. We look forward to reading your submissions!


Essay Contest #5:

Am I a number?

So many academic disciplines use mathematical and statistical approaches to understand human behavior. Often, these are the regions of the academy called upon to influence public policy, and to help people more generally to make sense of their lives. What do we gain from looking at the human being in this way, and what is lost? Why are we tempted to think of ourselves and each other as numbers in the first place? Have we simply placed our fate in the hands of those who see us as numbers, or does it offer a perspective that we can take on ourselves that counterbalances the limitations of our own idiosyncratic perspectives? Where is probabilistic and statistical thinking apt, and where does it distort? We await your 800 word reflections on these questions and similar issues, such as:

  • The quantifiable value of human life
  • The role of accountability through measurement in how we live together
  • Growing up a number
  • Desire satisfaction and its limits
  • Fairness, justice, and quantifiable value

Send your essays, letters, cartoons, fiction, poetry, memoirs, policy memos, screenplays of 800 words or fewer to by next Wednesday, May 6, at 3 pm CST. 

Essay Contest #6:

Call for (plagiarized) essays!

This week, we are asking you to plagiarize. Your essay can be on any topic, just so long as the ideas are not your own. To participate in our plagiarism contest, send a plagiarized essay–subtle or flagrant–of 800 words or fewer, as well as a pdf of or a link to the essay you are plagiarizing, to by next Wednesday, May 13, at 3 pm CST. 

As a point of reference, consider the following series of plagiarism-friendly essays, beginning with Brian Frye’s effort to raise questions about the validity of plagiarism norms in academia, “Plagiarize this paper.” Agnes Callard accepted the invitation in “Is Plagiarism Wrong?” and Scott Mclemmee did a writeup of both at Inside Higher Ed, “Plagiarize This!” In the most recent installment, “Essay on Plagiarism,” William Derringer plagiarizes all three.


Essay Contest #7:

You were a kid!

We were all kids, once, however surprising it may be–and perhaps even more surprisingly, we were each the very same person, at least in some ways, then, as we are now. This week, in 800 words or fewer, tell us a story from your childhood that captures who you are. Feel free to reflect on continuity, change, and the passage of time in your essay, but no need. It could also just be a great story. We are looking forward to reading your short, revelatory memoirs!

Essays are due Wednesday, May 20 at 3 pm CST, to