This thread is part of the "The Big Vision" series. Click here to go back to index/introduction.Expanding the CircleGrowing more staffers, teams, coaches, and writersGrowing tournaments: Growing the staffer pool
Most college or high school tournaments have one of two major limiting factors on the field size of their tournaments: (a) ability to reserve rooms and (b) number of available staff. Of those, (a) is often harder to negotiate (though not impossible; many schools which are themselves short on rooms can co-host in a nearby institution with a larger building, as VCU and Thomas Jefferson High School have both done to good effect in Virginia). So I’ll focus on (b): It’s usually the case that, without outside help, schools limit themselves roughly to hosting events as big as the number of people on their team times 2 (since one person can moderate for 2 teams at once if needed), minus 2 to account for a statkeeper.
I’m assuming in this post that we want more tournaments to be larger, since we want more active teams to be able to play many tournaments throughout the year, and that won’t continue to be the case if the number of active teams keeps growing and the field size of tournaments remains the same. The average field size of a tournament announced on these boards, if I had to hazard a guess, is somewhere between 12 and 24 teams. There was a time within living memory when a lot of still-extant tournaments had 60+ teams in attendance (e.g.: Ben Cooper, BHSAT, GSAC, TJIAT, and Vanderbilt ABC); by now, many long-running events have shrunk drastically, and most tournaments of recent vintage are pretty small. Thankfully, a lot of that shrinking is because there is now less need to travel than there was several years ago, when teams from Pennsylvania might have to haul up to Connecticut or over to Tennessee to get to play anything at all for a while. But a lot is also because many local circuits still only have about 12-14 dedicated teams in them, with marginal teams who only feel like attending two or three event a year rather than ten to fifteen filling out the rest.
So what can we do to grow the size of our tournaments on the “supply side”? We can ensure that there are more people able and willing to staff events that need it. Circuits have to see it as essential, rather than optional, to keep that potential-staffer network strong and keep growing it, paying attention when new quizbowl alums turn up in their area and maintaining contact with them.
Thankfully, as the number of serious quizbowl teams grows, the number of serious and semi-serious quizbowl alumni grows as well; this steady upward trend has allowed the NAQT HSNCT and PACE NSC to expand greatly over the past few years. Even if they don’t go on to play in college, there are some high school grads who don’t object to going back and moderating, presuming they are informed about goings-on. But as it stands now, a very small handful of people often feels compelled to ‘volunteer staff’ every tournament in their area. It’d be great to get to the point where every state has 20 or 30 non-high-schoolers who are willing to staff on a few Saturdays when they might be available (i.e. 20-30 beyond any given host team), rather than 4 or 5. That way, a sort of rotation could develop among people who each might be able to do one or two events a year without compromising anyone’s ability to greatly increase the scale of their tournaments or burning people out. All of the above requires keeping a strong institutional memory in the community, so we don't forget about alums from four or five years ago even as new ones emerge.
We could also do more to train people who might not have a playing or coaching history. Some schools rely on caring parents or interested friends-of-quizbowlers to fill out their staffer corps; if any of those people take enough interest in the game to become competent moderators, so much the better. NHBB in particular has turned up several people who are at least willing to staff that national even without much prior involvement in quizbowl at large, and from what I gather many are decent. (A few of these people, it seems, proved to have some issues, but I’m sure the few bad apples did not spoil the whole bunch.) Making sure those people are informed about more events where they might be of use could increase their usefulness in their home areas.
That said, I think we as a community tend to have a very backwards attitude towards training new moderators. We treat it as a sort of a praiseworthy inborn skill, rather than a reasonable expectation, when we find a moderator who gets through rounds in 25-30 minutes with the speed and clarity that serious teams want, or a scorekeeper who can add 5s and 10s on a page. This “ya either got it or you ain’t” attitude obscures the truth that many people can, with a little nudging and instruction, significantly reduce the amount of time it takes them to finish a round -- and gets in the way of helping that reduction occur. Many TDs sort of throw up their hands when they find out a poor reader is taking 45 minutes per round, instead of making it clear how long rounds ought to take and cultivating people who understand and carry out that instruction. If we stop treating good moderators as these people who drop out of nowhere and land on a pedestal, and instead get clear about what we want from people who want to help, we’ll create more good moderators from unlikely beginnings.
Possible tournament hosts who happen to be especially physically close to one another should also talk to each other about the prospect of co-hosting
tournaments and splitting the revenue. In keeping with Matt Weiner’s “fewer, bigger, better tournaments” ideal expressed on these boards about two years back, it seems like there are some “overstuffed” circuits which better served by one well-run 40-team tournament than by two 20-team tournaments on adjacent weekends. This is in part because many players (and many of the coaches whom we’re trying to convince about the worth of devoting time and energy to quizbowl) benefit from a week’s break to recharge their batteries, and in part because “big” is one signal of importance to marginal teams who often don’t yet have the funding or energy to go to eighteen tournaments in a year and have
to pick. Once it becomes clear that there are still dozens of teams able to attend, it becomes less of an issue that two schools, rather than one, are removing themselves from the field.Encouraging real coaching; developing more responsible adults as effective advocates and community members
In many places, coaches and advisors can be real advocates for funding, or successful recruiters of new team members, in ways that players themselves simply can’t be. But it’s often unclear where new quizbowl coaches, much less successful new quizbowl coaches, come from. Because high school quizbowl as we understand it is neither very widespread nor very old (at most 18 years old if we date from the founding of NAQT and PACE; closer to 7-8 years if we mean the era in which good quizbowl principles became a widely adopted standard) it’s not realistic to expect waves of former players to find their way back into teaching and also coaching, as might be the case with sports such as baseball. This means, in many regions, that starting, inheriting, or advising a quizbowl team is often a big gamble for teachers who don’t necessarily have a past history with the game or know how to facilitate it.
And we seem to be relatively short on advice for people who want to take that gamble. We need ways to show more new teachers with no quizbowl experience that (a) this game is worth doing [see “sales pitch”] (b) the often-strenuous schedule of Saturdays, which can be rough for teachers with papers to grade and lives at home, is worth it (c) there are ways for them to quickly pick up tips on managing kids, improving their teams, etc. by which they become a huge positive improvement over the baseline.
When I played high school quizbowl several years ago, several prominent players had the idea (often in tandem with the “amateurism” attitude which I criticized above) that “the best coach is no coach” -- that since college teams are student run, and college teams had gotten with the good-quizbowl program before high schools, it was no longer necessary for kids who were motivated enough to be burdened or restricted by older, out-of-touch adults. The paradigmatic student-coach pair, it was thought, was a conflict between a younger team member who wanted to play high-quality questions and a hidebound old coach who only cared about speed checks/local format/what-have-you, and tried to hold the students back. Now, this did (and still does) happen sometimes, and it hampers quizbowl progress when it does happen. But it’s a logical fallacy to assume that “for dedicated kids, no coach is better than a bad coach” implies “for dedicated kids, there is no such thing as a good coach.”
(Even more extremely: since many college teams managed to get good quizbowl practices down pat prior to the contemporaneous “old guard” across various organizations, there was a current of people who developed the erroneous belief that any
people above, say, the age of 25 are already out of touch and unfit for quizbowl community leadership. Even if this were true in 2009, it’s patently untrue now -- many people who were college students years ago have continued in their expertise and involvement with good quizbowl as they’ve gotten older. We want to retain the people who know what they’re doing and deal with the people who don’t know what they’re doing, rather than assuming that certain people know better by virtue of being younger.)
Why are coaches good? Well, for one thing some states require each team to have a faculty sponsor to compete officially (e.g. Missouri). For another, having 15- to 18-year-olds handling their own finances, transportation, etc. is decidedly not ideal. (There’s a ton of praise to be given to those faculty advisors who do even minimum functional tasks -- sign off on the club registration and funding forms, call to ensure the transportation is there Saturday morning, etc. Even that little bit of adult involvement, taking some of the basic responsibilities out of the players’ hands, frees up more of students’ time and attention to be put towards learning clues and improving as players.) Conflicts among peers and teammates, both on an interpersonal level and a gameplay level, can have bad consequences fast if not tempered or calmed by a trusted figure with some remove from the directness of high school life. Coaches can also notice things about their players which players might not catch on to while in the heat of a match setting, or have suggestions that players might not see on their own for areas of improvement, techniques for reducing negs, picking an A-team out of a set of greater than four players, etc. (making teams more functional
). Coaches often know some of the stuff that comes up in packets by virtue of being teachers (or, if they accumulate enough years of coaching, by being around packets and tournaments for longer than any player under their purview), which helps them improve their players. A surfeit of available coaches can help solve the staffing problem when tournaments are small (see below) -- while many coaches obviously like to follow their teams throughout the day to see them perform, it can help expand tournaments greatly when coaches can be pulled into a staffer corps as needed (NHBB more or less requires each team to bring a staffer, which works well for them in this regard.)
I’d also like to see more coaching advice get out there, so more newer and younger coaches know how to get off to a solid start with their players -- there’s way less coaching advice than player advice in the air), so it doesn’t seem like such a crushing task for new coaches/advisors, and they can start to see ways in which their role improves the team right away. Even small things that more involved coaches do, such as “take score as your team plays if you’re watching them,” could stand to expand more broadly, and as I pointed out before, it’s amazing how much even a tiny
bit of faculty support can go a huge way in helping motivated players take off and realize their full potential.
We can be nontheless be aware of the problems and pathologies which often negatively impact coaching, and isolate those things as bad / worthy of discouragement (i.e.: It is bad for coaches to think of themselves, rather than their players, as the center of attention).Growing tournaments: Actually doing actual reaching out in your area
But those staffers have to read to teams.
If we really want a world where 300 high schools play quizbowl in each state seriously, rather than 30, we are sorely, dismally behind the curve. Right now, the primary determinant of whether a given high school student has a successful quizbowl career is total dumb luck -- the matter of whether
they’re lucky enough to go to a high school that has a team (to say nothing about broader socioeconomic factors which make teams more likely to cluster in some areas rather than others). If we believe internally that this is a worthwhile activity that should exist at every high school, and that any kid in any district ought to have a shot of trying it out, we need to start setting “a buzzer in every high school” as our goal for the rest of this decade.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about outreach -- how to do it? how to succeed? -- as of late. Again, since many threads exist on the subject already, including on subtopics such as contact lists, I won’t rehash it from the beginning. I will say, drawing on my outreach efforts both locally (in DC and New England) and nationally (with PACE), that it’s safe to put a quizbowl spin on a mid-20th-century social justice slogan and declare: All outreach is local
. What do I mean by this? I mean that dedicated people have to be on the ground, planning events, talking to prospective coaches who they can actually meet, and putting their shoulders to the wheel to get new teams into quizbowl. (And again, if there were more money in the ecosystem for mailers, instructional videos, etc. this would be easier.) Sending emails or letters into the void works sometimes, especially if schools are already playing some sort of televised buzzer show or local bad format, but they work even better when they are from people in one’s own area who can be talked to and met. National organizations do effective outreach when, and only when, they are able to work with people on the ground in a given area. Part of the reason why so many teams play quizbowl in well-organized states such as Illinois, Texas, Missouri, and California (both Northern and Southern) is that real organizations of real people do real on-their-feet work to get real coaches at real new schools to come to their real events, which are run efficiently by people who care about getting return customers.
So what does that imply for all of us? For the most part, that in your area you, dear reader, are your own best bet at being the change you wish to see. If they don’t already, prominent players need to start seeing themselves as evangelists, talking up the benefits of quizbowl with friends at other schools, making stronger connections to players on less-active teams, and doing their utmost to get marginal and brand-new teams into established tournaments. It requires a lot of attention to the teams in the bottom half of fields and to occasional attendees -- making sure they know about all the events in the area, seeing if they’re enjoying the things they do go to, getting their coaches’ email to ensure they’re always invited, etc. It also requires attention to teams who might do similar activities such as Science Bowl, History Bowl, or Certamen -- wherever there’s overlap among players or coaches, a simple line such as “Would you guys be interested in an event like this, but for all academic subjects?” can go a long way when said by a quizbowler to a previously non-quizbowling opponent. It also requires leaving no stone unturned -- refuse to make assumptions or fall prey to biases about who “usually” attends tournaments, no matter how unlikely it seems that a quizbowl team could possibly exist in such-and-such school/area. We can’t dismissively quip “But they’re a poor/underserved school in a dangerous area,” “But they’re an athletic prep school,” etc. when actually looking for new teams to bring into the fold. There are people who care about learning in every
high school in America.If your area has a working quizbowl alliance, ensure that it has resources to operate and take on big tasks.
Groups of concerted quizbowl advocates across multiple schools can often do more than individual people or teams can on their own; in some states they run state championships, local events, mirrors, etc. and could do a lot more to promote the game with more finances on hand. That said, there have been some quizbowl alliances which have barely done anything besides set up a website and cobble together a members list. This is putting the cart before the horse. A dysfunctional quizbowl alliance is worse than nothing
for getting a circuit together, since it creates a bad image for good questions. It’s much better to have a set of informal regional “Dons” setting a coherent schedule and working together without a name on it, than to have nobody doing real work at all and a fancy acronym full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Similarly, making posts on the forums does almost nothing to get your imprimatur out there to the teams who actually need it. So make sure your organization of choice has a good track record before putting more into it.
What do people on this board think about Quizbowl embassy trips?
I think E.O. Smith may have done this a while back, as did GDS in the very distant past visiting places like Benjamin Banneker High School downtown-- bring some team members over to another school after-school one day, to show how the game is played and encourage people there to set up something. (Doing after-school meets or informal matches between multiple schools is an under-done good thing, if your city or area has multiple teams which are relatively close to one another and the ability to get from one school to another.)
I would like to hear more from outreach types who have successfully shepherded brand-new quizbowl teams into existence and/or competitive status. What worked, and what didn’t work? It seems like the most successful method as of late is fishing for some record of activity in a quizbowl-like entity at a target school (Certamen, Science Bowl, History Bowl, a local speed-check TV show), and then finding (through school sites, TV-show info, etc.) an adult to speak to from there about all-subject good quizbowl tournaments. A lot of the New England growth of the past two years came from uncovering teams who first tried local TV programs and then decided to take quizbowl seriously. But that still tells us little about schools that create something ex nihilo
in places like Oregon.Growing the writer pool so as to relieve strain on existing organizations
The regular need for a large supply of newly-written, good question material makes quizbowl pretty unique. While there are other activities that require new creative output regularly (contest math needs a steady supply of new problems to be written; policy debaters create “cards” with evidence on them) it’s generally the case that in most activities, the playing community doesn’t have to design new instances of its playing equipment every time there’s a new competition held. Tennis players don’t have to make new tennis balls from scratch for each new match, for example, and while golfers or trading card game professionals might have to buy the latest goods to stay competitive, they don’t have to actually forge a new, unique 9-iron out of a mold (without copying any previous 9-iron) every time they play a new open. But the need for new, non-recycled, and good questions is a constant in our activity, which we may as well reckon with on its own terms.
As with many things, we’re doing much better on this front than we were even 5 years ago, and leagues better than we were 10 or so years ago (in part because there are more people coming up through the system). There’s easily about a half-dozen truly great high school sets being produced each year, and two dozen more usable ones. But there’s a long ways to go in ensuring that this stream of questions is sustainable and steady. I don’t think it reveals anything outside public knowledge to say that both of the major question vendors would be happy to receive a few dozen more talented writers, so the burden of completing multiple sets a year is spread much more evenly (or perhaps rotated more). Plus, having a much larger pool of people writing high school sets frees up people who are able to write college questions to write college questions.
There will be some flux from year to year, of course, as players come into and graduate from caring about high school questions; what’s more, some somewhat-unwilling people will end up getting dragged into their school’s writing projects and not really want to spend time improving at writing beyond that. But we could do more to ensure that writers who show talent working on one set are offered (and encouraged to take, to the extent they’re able) more opportunities to throw some questions in the never-ending stream of low-difficulty needs.
And there should be plenty to choose from. After all, There are already more high school sets being produced each year than any team could conceivably play in one season
. Perhaps this is not optimally allocated; if the total number of independent sets contracted somewhat, the excess writing talent could be put to use writing for vendors. Again, being unafraid to think big, imagine how well-off we’d be if we get to a point where so many people are writing questions that there are extensive backlogs in (secure) storage for future use, and people can write for the NAQT IS-set three years from now rather than for the one due in a month. (Current Events questions excluded, obviously, but the general point stands.)
Perhaps because it is difficult to know which good writers will want to stick around, and it’s proven difficult to get people to coordinate on writing projects, it’s worth asking here whether it’s possible to teach better question writing skills in a meaningful way to larger numbers of people. If the answer is “no,” then we just need to hope to find those people who can write and edit well as more writing projects occur. Speaking personally, I’ve had my share of dispiriting experiences trying to teach some of the writers I’ve worked with (leaving them unnamed) to absolutely no avail -- even when I pointed out a very specific type of writing mistake (itself a time-consuming process on my part when I was already rewriting their questions from scratch), and instructing them not to make it again, they just kept making it over and over. By contrast, some other people were very receptive to what I had to say and took it to heart, and of course there was some middle ground where some people produced stuff which was usable with some editing, but never got beyond that point. Even so, more people producing “usable-with-edits” questions could be a tremendous resource.
To me, the answer to the question ‘Can excellence in writing be taught?’ seems to be ‘not really, unless the student in question is independently very interested in learning to write better for its own sake and actively seeks out improvement of their own skills.’ Or perhaps more concisely, ‘It can be self-taught with enough genuine care’ and if the person in question listens to criticism. In general, we should be on the lookout for people who are self-motivated enough to read up on writing tips on their own, and responsive enough to feedback to actually improve their writing from tournament to tournament.
People who keep writing bad questions over and over, beyond a certain point (maybe 18 to 24 months? I haven’t counted) generally can’t be fixed, and should be told (since in the future we’ll have so many more enthusiastic people involved) to learn other helpful things such as outreach or logistics. People who refuse to listen to feedback, who keep insisting that their questions are good when experienced editors tell them their questions are bad, etc. are definitely not people who help quizbowl by continuing to write bad questions, and should have an eye kept on them in case they have similar attitude problems across the board.
It remains to be seen whether the NAQT mentoring program, PADAWAN, etc. are working to reverse this sobering trend and increase writing competence and confidence on a larger scale than we currently have.