One of the main areas for stress and strife in the SCA is the subject of awards and recognition. We're all human with egos who appreciate being told we're doing good. When that doesn't happen as quickly as desired or expected it can cause a lot of angst. I have felt this and everyone I've asked has as well. I am hopeful that this article will help set better expectations and reduce unnecessary angst. In order to do that, I will try to explain the SCA award process and contrast it to the merit badge approach used by the Boy Scouts.
Bottom Line Up Front: The Boy Scouts have an explicit checklist of requirements for merit badges and ranks. The SCA award standards are much squishier. By understanding the differences and the inherent delays in the SCA process hopefully you can focus more on having fun in the SCA and less on stressing about awards.
The Boy Scout* Award Method
I went though the full Cub and Boy Scout path as a boy and reached the rank of Eagle Scout. I now have two teenaged sons in scouting and have served as a Cub Den Leader for 5 years and am now easing into adult leadership in their troop. I think very highly of the Scouting program and am discussing it here only to point out differences between their approach and that of the SCA.
The Boy Scout "merit badge" is recognition of completing an explicit set of tasks on a narrow subject over the course of a relatively short period of time (hours to months). There are 136 merit badges currently available on subjects ranging from outdoor skills (camping, hiking, fishing) to career (engineering, dentistry, law) and hobbies (photography, sports), etc. Each badge has a list of tasks that much be performed in order to earn the badge. For instance, you can read the 10 tasks needed to earn the camping merit badge here.
There are seven ranks in Boy Scouts starting with "Scout" and ending with "Eagle Scout". Each rank has its own requirements (for instance, here are the Eagle requirements.) To earn your Eagle you need to have earned a minimum of 21 merit badges of which 13 are specified and 8 are elective. You have to have served as an officer in your troop and organized, lead, and completed a significant service project. The requirements of the earlier ranks are all stepping stones on the path to Eagle. The path is designed to be accomplished by teenagers during middle and high school but only about 4 percent of scouts reach the Eagle rank. Earning your Eagle Scout award is a major accomplishment that you can feel proud of for the rest of your life. I still list mine on my resume more than 30 years after earning it.
Academic degrees have similar explicit requirements. I have a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering. To earn that degree I had to complete a specified number of class hours with some specified classes and some elective classes. I also had to complete a research project and write a thesis based on that project.
The SCA Award Method
The SCA award method is both similar and very different.
Similarities include awards for different activities and different ranks that can be achieved. The SCA has awards available for contributions to most of its activities. Most fall into one of the following categories: arts, service, and fighting. Some Kingdoms also have more focused awards such as Atlantia's Order of the Sea Stag which is for high quality teaching of martial skills for the armored or rapier field. Multiple levels are available for most awards to allow recognition of novices, journeymen, and experts.
The core difference from the Boy Scout model is that SCA awards are awarded at the discretion of the Crown or Baronage. They choose who to recognize, hold a medieval style court ceremony, and call people up to bestow awards as they choose. They request recommendations from the SCA at large and input from current recipients of awards (see polling orders below) but they are the ones that make the actual yes/no decision on presenting an award. The buck stops there. This means that, very intentionally, there are no checklists for earning any awards. Also, awards are generally presented in court as a surprise to the recipient which inherently makes transparency on how you're progressing toward an award very difficult. Crowns change twice a year so the standards used for that yes/no decision can vary.
So, if there are no explicit requirements for any award, how does one earn one? Well, the first step is to look at the definition of the award. Here is the list of Atlantian awards and what they are for. Other Kingdoms have their own lists (as will most Baronies). In addition, there are society level awards called Peerages for arts, service, armored combat, and rapier combat. You'll note that in many categories there is an Order of Merit award (e.g. Atlantia's Coral Branch for arts), an Order of High Merit (e.g. Atlantia's Pearl for arts), and a Peerage (e.g. the Laurel for arts.) These are sometimes alternatively referred to as Award of Arms/AoA, Grant of Arms/GoA, and Patent of Arms/PoA award levels. The multiple levels recognize different levels of accomplishment in the subject discipline.
In Atlantia, the Orders of High Merit (GoA) awards and Peerages (PoA) are all polling orders. That means that the previous recipients of the award are consulted by the Crown before the award is given. The orders maintain watch lists of promising candidates, discuss them, and make recommendations to the Crown. But as with all other awards, the Crown makes the final go/no-go decision which does not have to match the recommendation of the order. I am a member of multiple polling orders. I have previously written an article on my general approach to providing advice to the Crown and my specific standards for rapier related orders which can be read here.
Because of the polling process, it takes a bare minimum of 6 months after someone has reached the appropriate level before they can receive the award. Because the system is imperfect it can, and frequently does, take many years. Delay factors can include where you live in the Kingdom and how much you travel which both effect how many people know you and know your accomplishments. Being a generalist (in either service or an art) can make it more difficult than being focused on a narrow area because you stand out less. Timing during a reign can make a difference: if someone else does something exciting and shiny right before a meeting or polling you could drop off the radar and be put on the back burner.
To me, the general bottom line standard for any SCA award is: accomplishments of similar quality to the other recent recipients of the award (the last year or so).
Finally, let me remind you that anyone can recommend anyone else for any award. Please do so! The Crowns and the polling Orders are not omniscient. If you are frustrated that someone hasn't received deserved recognition, then you need to do your bit to fix the problem and write a recommendation. In Atlantia, you do that here.
"Keep Doing What You're Doing"
So, again if there's no checklist of requirements, how do you measure your progress toward a desired award? You don't have to be completely in the dark. There are multiple approaches to getting feedback and advancing along a path to a desired recognition.
Your most readily available feedback is self-evaluation. This can be tricky due to the ego or if your field doesn't have concrete metrics to measure your performance against. But, work on it. Try to remove your emotions from your self-evaluation. And see if you can come up with some measures of performance that you can track over time such as archery scores, or tournament win/loss records.
The next source of feedback is a coach or mentor. This should be someone with an understanding of your field who can accurately rate your performance. The better their understanding of the field, the better and more accurate your feedback can be. If they can help identify weak points and plans to address them, rapid progress can be made. Check back with them regularly for updated feedback.
Finally, you can ask current members of the order you're pursuing. Many will be willing to give pointers on areas where your efforts can improve. Try to leave your ego at the door and listen. Ask a few different folks if you can. Focus on the common features of their commentary and dismiss the almost guaranteed conflicting advice.
Master Dante recently recommended a book on developing expertise to me. I read it over my extended Christmas break and recommend it as well. It is "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise" by Ericsson and Pool. You can buy it on Amazon.
Eventually, you will start to hear "keep doing what you're doing". This is common enough that is a cliche and it can be very frustrating to receive as advice. While it can mean that the person saying it doesn't know or care enough to give you actionable feedback, that is uncommon. Generally it is sincere and means that you are already in possession of the desired clues or skills and just need a little more time for people to notice. Sometimes, if the person is a member of the order and your recognition is close to being approved it could mean that they're not going to steal the thunder of the Crown and spoil the surprise. You may even be scheduled to get the award at that very event. My advice is to take "keep doing what you're doing" as positive and well meaning feedback that you're on the right path and getting close. Please don't quit in frustration or start burning bridges!
I try very hard to only do things that I love and let the awards come as they may. I encourage you to do this as well. If you're not having fun with what you're doing in the SCA, change what you're doing by either fixing the problem or moving on to something else. I hope this article will help reduce the very human frustration with the SCA awards process and help you enjoy your hobby more.
After I first posted this article, I received the feedback that articles like this are inevitably posted by someone who has already "got his". I think that is both valid and accurate. I had it in the back of my mind as I wrote this, but didn't (and don't) have any particularly constructive way to address it, beyond my repeated "It's ok to be frustrated. I was. Everyone was." I tried to avoid being condescending, but it is hard to predict how people will react to the written word. Please feel free to provide feedback about this, or anything else really, at events or other modern contact methods. My sca email is BaronLlwyd at Gmail.
*The Boy Scout program is now more properly referred to as "Scouts BSA" to reflect the inclusion of female scouts in the teenage program as of Feb 1, 2019.