How to be an awesome A&S judge

A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials, with my device banner on the end

A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials, with my device banner on the end

As you might know, I’m hosting a few SCA A&S (Arts & Science competitions) this year, and I’ve found in the past that finding judges can be very challenging. Judges play a huge role in the success of a competition though, and we need them! In this post I’ll try to address how to be an awesome judge – even if you don’t always feel like you’re qualified to judge other people’s work.

I’m in NO way an expert on this… I’m still pretty new to the SCA, and haven’t travelled outside of Avacal to see how things are done elsewhere. Still, I’ve been to, judged, and competed in a few competitions, and have some suggestions and things to think about…and this is my soapbox! 😉

Are you qualified?

For some levels of competition, expert judges ARE very valuable. However, even at the highest level of competition, one competitor doesn’t need a whole panel of expert judges in their subject matter. They need judges who can assess their project, their research, their documentation, and their presentation – you don’t need to be a textile expert to assess if someone’s textile presentation is compelling and informative!

Generally an organizer will look for a judge who can offer special insight into the type of project they’ve done, another who will offer insight into the culture they’re examining, and a third who might be valuable in assessing documentation, research, or presentation/display skills.

At other competitions, experts are still valuable – as they can offer additional resources, guidance, suggestions, and advice to competitors, but they’re not necessary. One of the competition styles I’ve been using is a ’round table’ discussion format – where ALL competitors and judges sit together, and ask questions, offer advice, etc – so you don’t need to be a subject-matter expert at all to assist.

The other tricky point is obscure topics… the chances of finding a subject matter expert locally is going to be unlikely – so you won’t be the only person who isn’t an expert.

Can you help?

A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials

A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials

Participants need a lot of different things from their judges.

  • Some need support and encouragement to continue their craft, continue showing their work, continue (or start) teaching their skills to others, and/or continue entering competitions.
  • Some need constructive advice and suggestions – where to find resources, where to look for supplies, who to talk to to take their art to the next level, what to look at that might be related.
  • Some need less help with their art, and more help with other aspects: their display, presentation, research, or documentation.
    • Consider leaving your name and contact information – some of your suggestions might go over the contestant’s head in their nervousness during the contest; having a way to follow up is really helpful!
    • You can use the back of the judging sheet to leave supplier names, website URLS, book suggestions, etc too.

Ideally, be constructive, specific, and compassionate.

  • Remember the leap of faith that the contestant is making showing off their “baby” – something they might have been working on for weeks, months, or years.
    • You might be holding their dreams in your hands – and YOU might be the reason they continue to compete at the same level or higher levels of competition – thus encouraging OTHER artisans to do the same.
  • A comment like “I like it” is much less useful and specific than “I appreciate that you researched period-appropriate weaves, even if you weren’t able to find 2/3 twill to complete your project.”
  • Likewise, a comment like “this is sloppy” is much less constructive than “the stitching is uneven, consider using a stitch guide for a more consistent result”.

We’re all passionate about our craft – however showing that passion means being vulnerable – be aware that your harsh criticism, before, during, or after a competition can make artisans even less willing to be vulnerable. A lack of artisans willing to show their passion makes our community weaker.

Don’t make assumptions.

A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials - focus on my naalbinding

A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials – focus on my naalbinding

If there is a local subject-matter expert who studies your contestant’s culture, don’t assume that the contestant didn’t try to reach out to that expert for suggestions, advice, or guidance.  Likewise, if you think that a particular rare, out-of-print book would have been exceptionally valuable to your contestant, don’t assume that they didn’t try to get a copy.


“Laurel X is really interested in this culture, did you have a chance to speak with him? If you haven’t yet, I can make an introduction.” or “Author X’s book on this subject is excellent, did you have the chance to read it? I got a copy through the University inter-library loan, I can help you do the same if you’d like to read it.”
If you feel that you are making an assumption, feel free to call your contestant back to clarify a point you’re confused or conflicted about.

Once in a contest, I said “from the left” in my presentation, but my documentation said “from the right”. My judge asked which it was, to which I admitted in my nervousness I’d remembered the wrong thing: my documentation was accurate, and my presentation was in error. The judge asking about my error gave me the opportunity to correct myself.

Help in advance

If you’re a judge who has become frustrated with unprepared contestants – consider how you can help in advance, before they reach the competition stage

  • Be visible- show off at displays, competitions, and online what you’re passionate about and knowledgeable about so other artisans know what you’re interested in.
  • Be accessible – be someone that other artisans can approach to ask questions and get feedback
  • Teach – teach your skills or in other ways share them with others. Let students know about your resources, how to research, how to analyze resources, how to present findings, etc.
  • Participate – come to workshops and classes to give your own insights without taking over from the teacher or making your goals more important than the class participants’.

Are you informed?

Before walking into the judging session, ensure that you’ve read the contest rules. They might not be the same as other competitions you’ve participated in. Likewise, read the rubric, and look over the judging sheet before the contest starts.

  • The rubric (and often judging sheets) will be available to the contestants before the event, take some time before the event too if you can.
  • If you have any questions about the contest, ask the organizer in advance or….. (see below)
A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials - focus on my Finnish Coils Work In Progress

A&S display at Avacal Sergeant Trials – focus on my Finnish Coils Work In Progress

If there is an opportunity to meet with the contestants and the organizers before the contest begins, ensure that you attend – this would be the best time to ask questions about the contest, so your attention can be focused on your contestant – and the questions you have might be the same ones your fellow judges (or student judges) have forgotten to ask themselves.

Focus on the piece of the project that the contestant wants you to judge. If they have entered a dress, judge the dress – the fabric, the construction, the design, the fit, etc… if they’ve entered a piece of embroidery ON the dress, then judge the embroidery, not the other elements of the dress. Is the stitching consistent? Is it done with suitable materials? Is the design appropriate? Are the stitches used correct for the design, and the culture for which the embroidery is being entered for?

Ask your organizer if you can award half marks or bonus marks. (This may be obvious on the judging sheet.) (For the purposes of tallying up the score sheets, try to avoid one or three-quarter marks however.)

Can you commit?

SCA events can have a LOT to do for everyone… you might want to help with judging, but also want to shoot archery, volunteer at gate, help in the kitchen, and serve on retinue… This is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to find judges – everyone has so much to do.

If you do volunteer to judge, please commit to participating for the full time the judging is going on. This might mean sitting in on one judging session, or several.

  • Consider that sometimes events run on “SCA time” – things occasionally run longer (or start later) than the organizer anticipates.
  • Consider bringing yourself a snack and drink in case judging runs into lunch time (etc). (Your organizer may do so, but may not be aware of all of your allergies, sensitivities, and preferences.)
  • Committing to your whole booked time shows respect for the contestant you’re judging, AND the ones you aren’t judging, as well as your fellow judges.
  • Consider where you are scheduled to be before the judging too – if your OTHER commitment also runs on ‘SCA-time’, you may run late. Keep an eye on the clock, and if you know you will be late, contact someone to let the organizer know as soon as possible so that no one is waiting for you to arrive before beginning.
My display

My display

Consider your other conflicts – you may not want to judge a particular contestant if there is a conflict – if you are a member of their household, their teacher, their Laurel, or their partner. This doesn’t mean you can’t supportively judge a different contestant though – since you’re assessing each contestant on their own merits, and not one contestant being judged against the other.

Try to be flexible – even though you really WANT to judge the mead entry (*wink wink*) your judge might assign you to a different session. Try to help out where you’re needed (and maybe ask if you can sample some of that mead after the contest… )

What else can you do?

If you don’t have the time to commit to judging, have a conflict, or still don’t feel qualified to judge, there are lots of other things a contest organizer can use help with.

Runner – Your organizer might need someone to “run” and get water or snacks for the judges if their discussion (or the contest itself!) runs past the scheduled time. The judges might need  you to “run” and get the contestant when they have an additional question. This job might just mean popping by once in a while during the competition, but still having lots of time to dance, participate in a bardic circle, visit with friends, or shop on merchant’s row.

The non-competing displays at Silver Arrow

The non-competing displays at Silver Arrow

Tally – If you’re good with numbers, consider volunteering to help tally the scores at the end of the contest. Just having another set of eyes (especially if the results are tight) can be really helpful, especially when the organizer is a bit stressed out. If you volunteer to help tally, you won’t be needed until the end of the contest (or the end of each session, depending on the format of the contest), giving you time to do other activities in between.

Student judge – If you don’t feel ready to judge, consider volunteering as a student judge. This will give you experience, have the opportunity to see the contest from both sides of the coin, get insight into the judging process, and have support from the judges. Student judges need to commit the same time as the other judges – including coming to the pre-contest discussion, attending all of their assigned sessions, and giving their contestants their full attention during their session.

  • For those artisans considering entering future contests, sitting as a student judge can teach you a lot about the process!

Set-up & tear-down – Getting ready for the contest and cleaning up afterwards can’t be done by just one person – consider volunteering to help out. Many hands make light work, so this can usually happen quite quickly.  Check the schedule – you’ll only be needed before the contest starts (setting up tables, laying table cloths if needed, setting up chairs, perhaps hanging some signage, etc…) and when it ends (cleaning, putting away, or moving the same).

Back-up judge – Stuff happens, and sometimes our judges get sick, get stuck in traffic, can’t make it because of road conditions, etc. Back-up or relief judges are those go-to people who are willing to change their plans at the last minute to pitch in and help out. Usually these are super-flexible people who have a fair amount of experience with competitions, & they’re super valuable!

  • On a good day, they won’t be needed at all.
  • On a bad day, they might be working as a judge, and doing tally, and a runner for the whole contest.
  • Having MORE of these superheroes means that the workload is less on all of them.

Judges needed!

For competitions, challenges, and tournaments, we always need judges. Why?

Samhain 2015 naalbinding display

Samhain 2015 naalbinding display

Organizers can use some distance – Organizers of the competition (etc) are likely doing a bunch of things to organize it, but also would like to get a little distance from the selection of the winner (after recruiting and helping participants get involved). Generally they can be unbiased, but a little distance is good if the help is available.

Variety is the spice of life – for contestants and for judges. Having MORE judges means that no one judge has to commit spending their whole day in sessions, but instead can judge just one or two. It also means that a judge who has volunteered for the last 3 competitions can have an afternoon off to go do other things.

Your expertise is needed! You might not think you know as much as your local Peers, but you doubtlessly have something unique and helpful to add. AND… a non-expert who is willing to help is 10x more valuable than an expert who isn’t!

People are busy – as I addressed above, there are often time conflicts – the judge who loves A&S also loves archery… and wouldn’t  you know it… the two events conflict. If YOU don’t have any conflicts, and can volunteer in their stead, then they can shoot while you judge!

Thanks to…

At Silverwolf 2016 I attended a class /discussion by Kataryna Tkach on Judging A&S Competitions. While I haven’t copied her work, I did reference it in writing this.

Oh.. and since there’s more of a reason than just to fill up my blog….

I need judges!

On November 5, 2016, I’ll be hosting an Apprentice’s Tournament at Samhain in Montengarde (Calgary), where I’ll need judges. Likewise, at 12th Night (January 21) in Montengarde I’ll need judges for the A&S championship – the selection of Their Excellencies’ new Emerald Rose.  If you can volunteer, please contact me! Instead of an A&S competition at Winter Coronation (November 18), I’ll be assisting to host a prize tournament, and we’ll need judges there too.

I’ll also be hosting other challenges, contests, competitions, and tournaments throughout my additional time as Kingdom A&S Champion, so please assist if you’re able throughout the year!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.