Making Interesting Geography Questions

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Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Adventure Temple Trail » Tue Jun 17, 2014 10:48 pm

It seems like discussions of many sets, most notably NAQT sets, over the past few years have often included an aside that the geography was boring or mediocre in quality compared to the rest of the tournament -- in particular, that geography tossups frequently reduce, in their execution, to "almanac clues" ("This peak is W feet tall") and substanceless clues which merely read off as a list of place names to be Associated With the answer of choice ("The X River is near the Y Plain in this country, which is also home to City Z"). What's more, it seems like the category bores many players and teams. Excitement about hearing geography questions seems to dwindle ever more as the average age at a given quizbowl tournament goes up, and while there have been some notable geography specialists in the history of quizbowl -- Jeff Hoppes, Kyle Haddad-Fonda, Dallas Simons, Raynell Cooper, Jialin Ding, and Anton Karpovich, to name some -- few people are interested in studying or learning it, and the number of people motivated by quizbowl to learn more about geography seems especially low (i.e. many of the people listed above had an interest in geography which preceded their time in this game). Since these threads occurred on the topic, more college tournaments have moved to decrease, or sometimes eliminate, the amount of geography questions they ask. (Aside: I have had something of a hunch for a while now that much of the place-memorizing that quizbowlers have done is a holdover from the National Geographic Bee, and therefore stops around 8th grade. In an earlier era, many quizbowlers also did the AAA Travel Challenge, which was a high school geography competition, but that's been defunct for longer than any returning high schooler has been playing the game.)

Now one thing that has changed a lot since this subject was broached a few years ago is that several writers and tournaments have taken it upon themselves to reimagine the geography category in ways that make it more interesting and perhaps more accessible/answerable to non-specialists. I know that HSAPQ has been making a serious effort, both with the first two Geography Olympiad sets and in their tournaments more generally, to do geography questions in a fresh and exciting way. At harder difficulties, Geography Monstrosity has gotten a lot of well-received experimental ideas out there. I'm starting this thread to get some more knowledge and expertise out there from the authors of well-received "interesting geography" questions about what they're doing with the category, how they see it playing out, and what authors in the broader community producing housewrites and packet-submission tournaments can do to enrich the geography category or make it more lively instead of reaching to cut it down or rushing through it as if it were a chore.

Speaking personally about my geography writing for the past three BHSATs and for various other events, I've been trying to include a much higher percentage of clues of this sort:
-"cultural geography" clues (peoples, festivals, attire, cultural touchstones, foods, language groups, etc. of a place)
- organisms (wildlife, endangered or invasive species)
- conspicuous landmarks (sculptures, buildings, parks, monuments, cosmodromes, etc. -- making sure not to step on the visual art distribution too hard)
- travel / travel-guide style info (public transit systems, airports, ferries)
- bizarre phenomena (weird weather, ruins, natural disasters)
- economic activity (crops/farms, key exporters of commodities)

I've found that while these clues tend to produce more interesting-sounding information, it can sometimes be difficult to verify whether they are knowable by the target audience or unique. Suggestions on that front are welcome.

More generally, as I alluded to in the first paragraph, it's my opinion that the largest issue with geography questions as currently written is that they often give little to no context before dropping place names. If geography writers across the board made a larger effort to note why a place is important before dropping each place name, even if they only do so briefly, questions become both more interesting to listen to for non-specialists and more educational for everyone. Saying something like "Settlers of this archipelago made extensive sheep farms on its plains of Lafonia" is going to stick in people's heads better than "This archipelago contains the plains of Lafonia", and the longer version of that clue is better at justifying its existence as a clue about a place of some significance than the latter.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Great Bustard » Tue Jun 17, 2014 11:21 pm

In a related vein, USGO will be debuting a regional quizbowl set in 2014-15, which will run in a format basically identical to that of a standard high school History Bee. It will be an alternative way to qualify for USGO Nationals, give USGO students who aren't as used to the buzzer a chance to hone their geo quizbowl skills, and be a way to encourage the comprehensive approach to geography questions that Matt has outlined and which I wholeheartedly support. Matt Weiner will write this set, and I will edit it. People will still be able to qualify for USGO Nationals through the National Qualifying Exams; this is meant to complement those. I expect about 12 regional sites will take place for this in 2014-15. Ultimately, that number will go way up, but for 2014-15, our primary goal here is in launching this and getting feedback before we turbocharge it.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Schmidt Sting Pain Index » Tue Jun 17, 2014 11:45 pm

Speaking personally about my geography writing for the past three BHSATs and for various other events, I've been trying to include a much higher percentage of clues of this sort:
-"cultural geography" clues (peoples, festivals, attire, cultural touchstones, foods, language groups, etc. of a place)
- organisms (wildlife, endangered or invasive species)
- conspicuous landmarks (sculptures, buildings, parks, monuments, cosmodromes, etc. -- making sure not to step on the visual art distribution too hard)
- travel / travel-guide style info (public transit systems, airports, ferries)
- bizarre phenomena (weird weather, ruins, natural disasters)
- economic activity (crops/farms, key exporters of commodities)


As someone who specializes in Geography, I agree with much of what has been said. Instead of simply listing place names, questions should attempt to explicate upon geographically or culturally significant phenomena. Although I perform well on the NAQT style of questions due to preparing for middle school Geo bee, I find the approach that HSAPQ has taken with the Geo Olympiad question sets much more rewarding in nature (for the most part). However, there are a few aspects which really annoy me (and other Geography specialists with whom I have spoken with seem to agree). Primarily, I really despise travel bowl, by which I mean questions that proceed to list off locations/lanmarks that have no legitimate global significance on a macro level (i.e. you would only care about something as a tourist in that city, not for any other geographic/cultural reason). This pretty much distinguishes who has traveled to the location in question, not who has actually studied that particular location's cultural or geographic significance within various global spheres. Secondly, I don't really like geography questions which are essentially just current events (even though I do enjoy CE). I don't really see the reason to make Geography questions involving locations that are relevant particularly because they have appeared in the news recently, when such knowledge can be tested via the CE distribution. Lastly, although this is more of a technicality, pronouns need to be clarified more often. If you are using the term "region" as the reference pronoun in a question, it would really help to specify what you mean... (really, using the word "region" is of no help whatsoever, as I have no clue if you are talking about a cultural, geophysical, administrative, etc. type, which leads me to neg even though I know what I am talking about).
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby gustavus.adolphus » Wed Jun 18, 2014 12:10 am

I preface my comment here with the caveat that I'm not a geo player, and therefore my ideas on this aren't exactly the most well-formed.

RyuAqua wrote:- conspicuous landmarks (sculptures, buildings, parks, monuments, cosmodromes, etc. -- making sure not to step on the visual art distribution too hard)
- travel / travel-guide style info (public transit systems, airports, ferries)
- bizarre phenomena (weird weather, ruins, natural disasters)


To me, this sort of knowledge, while interesting, is really made easier by actually going (or living) in the place of question. For instance a tossup about Chicago that drops a clue about the Shedd Aquarium functionally requires the player to have been there.

That sort of clue, while, interesting, is definitely different from most other categories in QB, where most of the canon could conceivably come up in classes at a High School level. It forces an interested player to either have the means and time to go to lots of places that could conceivably come up in QB, or to read almanacs or travel guides about particular places, both of which are pretty sub-optimal.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Irreligion in Bangladesh » Wed Jun 18, 2014 12:36 am

Schmidt Sting Pain Index wrote:Primarily, I really despise travel bowl, by which I mean questions that proceed to list off locations/lanmarks that have no legitimate global significance on a macro level (i.e. you would only care about something as a tourist in that city, not for any other geographic/cultural reason). This pretty much distinguishes who has traveled to the location in question, not who has actually studied that particular location's cultural or geographic significance within various global spheres.


I'd like some discussion about this -- specifically, some more elaboration.

For example, take a hypothetical geo tossup on Chicago (which I coincidentally chose before Adam made his Shedd Aquarium point :smile:) I live near enough to Chicago to visit it frequently, but far enough away to call it tourism when I go -- specifically, I've been to Millennium Park a couple of times, and I've heard Millennium Park come up in quizbowl questions a couple of times, so let's talk about it. It's definitely touristy enough, and I don't think it's known enough outside of Chicago, that I feel comfortable using it as an example of a landmark that has little "legitimate global significance on a macro level."

If a tossup just says "This city is home to Millennium Park," it's a boring namedrop, and I think we can all agree that that's sub-optimal. Apart from probably not being close to unique, you don't get to hear anything about it. Maybe the question writer was running out of room and wanted to shoehorn one extra clue in -- I suppose we can't fault this hypothetical tossup for that, but it's probably the only good reason to strike such a glancing blow at this clue.

So, my question is -- which, if any, of the following clues strike you (Varun or anyone) as subpar "travel bowl?"

1. "During the summer, free classical music concerts are held in this city's Millennium Park..."

2. "This city's Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry, is in its Millennium Park..."

3. "A reflective steel 'bean' in this city's Millennium Park distorts its skyline..."

4. "Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture is in this city's Millennium Park..."

5. "This city's Millennium Park was built over industrial land overlooked by Daniel Burnham's design for nearby Grant Park in his 1909 "Plan for" this city..."


I think that quizbowl's tendency towards names would generally favor #2 over #1 and #4 over #3, though that's not to directly imply that 1 or 3 are bad clues in their own vacuum. (#1 is too lengthy for what little clue there is, though I think #3 is solid.) The tendency towards names can crowd out more descriptive clues; how much does that contribute to what you dislike about "travel bowl?"

I think that clue #5 above combines what you call "travel bowl" and the "studied significance" that you mention; Burnham's plan for green space in Chicago is important, and is probably studied. Does it do so in a way interesting enough to avoid being labeled as "travel bowl," or is Millennium Park, as a clue, consigned to "travel bowl" by its relative unimportance?
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Great Bustard » Wed Jun 18, 2014 1:41 am

Just a note on Geography stepping into Current Events / Fine Arts, etc. You can expect more of this in USGO questions than in other realms, I suppose, in the same way that NHBB encompasses many things that are otherwise tangentially history in most quizbowl contexts, but work because they are history of other sorts. The whole discipline of Geography is one where the value of studying it is largely a matter of how it relates to other fields, whether cultural, political, or otherwise, so some overlap here is clearly not only ok, but probably desirable in many places, bearing distributional requirements in mind.
As for travel bowl, I think the same holds here as it does for many topics - if landmarks/tourist attractions are presented in context with some explanation given of why they are noteworthy/worth visiting, then I don't see anything wrong about it. If it's just blatant equivalency identification (i.e. Seattle = Space Needle, Chicago = Millenium Park, etc.), then yeah, that's the Geo equivalent of biography bowl, which quizbowl moved past years ago, and rightfully so.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Schmidt Sting Pain Index » Wed Jun 18, 2014 1:45 am

Well, the potential clues mentioned above are certainly meaningful and ones that I can appreciate (as someone who has dabbled in the study of architecture in a purely academic setting as well as having studied Millenium Park before). I would certainly enjoy answering a tossup like that, but why not classify it under the architecture distribution if other clues correspond to architecture as well? I think this thread has established the need to define a contextual foreground before inserting any particular clues. A multitude of variations exist among the possible clue space for answers involving locations. For the geography distribution in particular, it seems pertinent in my opinion that such questions apply to more proper academic geographical constraints. It's obviously true that geography as an academic discipline is intertwined with and applicable to an array of other disciplines (i.e. history, politics, physical science, anthropology, architecture, etc.), and thus using only "pure" academic geography clues is quite difficult in most cases (and certainly more dry, which I understand will not appeal to most people). I would not mind a Geography tossup on Chicago including one of the clues mentioned above, but if many or most of the clues refer to architecture for example, what's the purpose in classifying it as geography? As for travel bowl, a clue such as "Shedd Aquarium" would apply as it appears to be minutiae in my opinion (pardon my lack of knowledge if I am actually wrong, I've never heard of it before). Moreover, using such a clue once in a question is probably fine and justifiable, but I just don't see the point in questions that are simply filled with such clues. If the justification behind them is that they make geography more accessible, why not instead decrease the geography distribution and allocate it to other worthy disciplines, instead of tainting the geography? I realize there are probably only a handful of members in the quizbowl community who have seriously pursued geography in an academic setting before, so its not viable that all tossups purely reflect this disposition. I would just like to see more of it referenced at some point during a given geography tossup, if "geography" is indeed desired.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Auks Ran Ova » Wed Jun 18, 2014 2:27 am

Arbitrarily claiming that major landmarks or attractions of a given place are "travel bowl" that only people who have been to that place have any hope of knowing does not seem like a productive route on which to take this discussion.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Cheynem » Wed Jun 18, 2014 9:13 am

The Shedd Aquarium is a pretty major deal, for what it's worth.

My approach to writing geography is to think about "what are interesting clues about this place?" This can include tourist destinations, climate, animals, people, religious practices, popular culture, history, etc. I try to mix it up a bit to avoid continually rewarding one type of knowledge. In general, I think geo tossups could be better appreciated if we regarded them as highly interdisciplinary.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby KnicksRule » Wed Jun 18, 2014 9:15 am

"Travel Bowl" / Questions about Cities are definitely rewarding in my opinion. While they seem "annoying" to someone who came from a NGB background or studies Geo from map-based atlases, they have definitely taught me plenty of interesting information. (This is coming from someone who came from those 2 backgrounds almost exclusively).

However, I really enjoy NAQT's geography questions. Though I think geography encompasses far more than just physical features etc, I think 1.9 questions out of 24 questions is a reasonable amount for this style of question. In reality, geography can be part of 30-40% of clues at least -- Architecture (Millennium Park), History (Opening tossup in NHBB - Battle of Iquique: Chile), Religion etc. In my opinion the aforementioned questions should not be part of the geography distribution. If geo is considered all of the previous disciplines (CE, Fine Arts, etc.) it should have a much greater distribution.

Also, with the expansion of the definition proposed, it will be difficult to study this new brand of geography. There is no defined canon and FA specialists and History Specialists would likely be stronger at "geography" than even a NGB winner.

In short, I believe that the "classic" geo questions should remain as is (at least 1/1 per packet) and possibly another 1-3 tossups should have geo related clues but be classified in other categories. There is already enough Fine Arts, Literature, RMP distribution in quiz bowl and I am not favoring the absorption of geo into their distributions (7/7 Paintings, Music, Books compared to .5/.5 Geography). As it is, geography is not given enough importance.

Also it is fair to consider both Shedd Aquarium and Millennium Park as strictly part of Geography. They are relatively major landmarks.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Matt Weiner » Wed Jun 18, 2014 10:55 am

It's absolutely bizarre to say that the locations in a particular city which are of significant architectural, cultural, or entertainment importance are not relevant to why you would know about that city. As if knowing the names of the five largest reservoirs in Abuja is somehow "relevant" or "important" in any way whatsoever. Places are important because they have important things there!

If I can summarize what HSAPQ has been trying to do with geography in the past two years, it would be "making geography geography." This is what the International Baccalaureate syllabus defines geography as:

The aims of the geography syllabus at SL and HL are to enable students to:

develop an understanding of the interrelationships between people, places, spaces and the environment
develop a concern for human welfare and the quality of the environment, and an understanding of the need for planning and sustainable management
appreciate the relevance of geography in analysing contemporary issues and challenges, and develop a global perspective of diversity and change.


If I'm missing the part where it says "memorize arbitrary things on maps so you can buzz on countries from lists of 17 rivers there," please point it out.

"Geography" as NAQT and most other quizbowl understand it has nothing to do with what geography is in academia or why anyone should care about it; it's simply mid-90s "quizbowl is the memorization of whatever random things we randomly choose to reward" doctrine, unaltered, because the people who have led efforts to real-ify most other categories generally have not cared about geography at all.

Tourism, economic impact of the physical landscape, interactions between humans and the environment, political conflict over resources and boundaries, and the impact of place on culture, history, and current events are the ONLY things geography should ask about. People who want more map-memorization stuff are just asking for fake quizbowl. No one should listen to them.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Lo, Marathon Ham! » Wed Jun 18, 2014 11:43 am

Matt Weiner wrote:Tourism, economic impact of the physical landscape, interactions between humans and the environment, political conflict over resources and boundaries, and the impact of place on culture, history, and current events are the ONLY things geography should ask about. People who want more map-memorization stuff are just asking for fake quizbowl. No one should listen to them.


As a quiz bowl player, I find these types of questions extremely rewarding, but I don't really consider them geography. I am not a geography player at all so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I feel like these fit in a different category. By dropping history, fine arts, or current events I think the questions becomes one of a more miscellaneous type. I think a lot of people have the wrong conception of studying physical geography as it not just memorizing a list of things to buzz off of. Observing and learning maps can be very rewarding, although I do think that almanac types of clues should be done away with. I do think the inclusion of culture and human geography clues is very important when writing a geography question, but I do not agree with the fact that some questions seem to pollute question with clues from other categories all of which have their own (much larger) distribution.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby vinteuil » Wed Jun 18, 2014 12:39 pm

MoeMoney wrote:
Matt Weiner wrote:Tourism, economic impact of the physical landscape, interactions between humans and the environment, political conflict over resources and boundaries, and the impact of place on culture, history, and current events are the ONLY things geography should ask about. People who want more map-memorization stuff are just asking for fake quizbowl. No one should listen to them.


As a quiz bowl player, I find these types of questions extremely rewarding, but I don't really consider them geography. I am not a geography player at all so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I feel like these fit in a different category. By dropping history, fine arts, or current events I think the questions becomes one of a more miscellaneous type. I think a lot of people have the wrong conception of studying physical geography as it not just memorizing a list of things to buzz off of. Observing and learning maps can be very rewarding, although I do think that almanac types of clues should be done away with. I do think the inclusion of culture and human geography clues is very important when writing a geography question, but I do not agree with the fact that some questions seem to pollute question with clues from other categories all of which have their own (much larger) distribution.

Look, I like "map clues" (and HATE "almanac clues") as much as anyone (even if I'm not that great at them), but you have to explain why it's "rewarding" to study them. I generally find map-geography interesting only inasmuch as it helps me talk to people from/travelling in that country, study the history/culture of that country, etc., and that's exactly what the more "miscellaneous" questions are pointing to.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Skepticism and Animal Feed » Wed Jun 18, 2014 2:18 pm

This issue isn't about identifying an objectively correct way to study geography. Such a thing doesn't exist. It's about making the geography distribution more appealing, interesting, and accessible to a broad range of players.

I've always said that quizbowl isn't about rewarding any particular mode of study, it's about rewarding intellectual curiousity. I think that intellectually curious people engage with geography in a number of ways. Some people read almanacs and view maps, and enjoy doing so greatly. Some people take geography classes in school or read academic geography literature. Others travel. Others have an interest in economics, hydrological engineering, earth science, history, religion, ethnography, linguistics, bird watching, or a wide range of possible fields that at some point intersect with the physical layout of the Earth and/or the geospatial distribution of its people.

A good geography distribution rewards all of these activities, not just some of them.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby alexdz » Wed Jun 18, 2014 4:03 pm

I agree with Bruce 100%.

As someone who has actually "seriously pursued geography in an academic setting before," having minored in it while studying sociology & linguistics, I came to understand that spatial distributions of things have a serious impact on what is considered good, important or meaningful. For example, Bantustans in apartheid South Africa are a great example of geography having a huge impact on history. Geography highlights the power of place (in fact, The Power of Place is a great book written by the late Harm de Blij, one of the world's foremost geography advocates).

As for geography in quizbowl, I too am frustrated by "map bowl" that presumes existence is the same as significance. Geography shouldn't be "list of landmarks" - it should reflect things that are significant because of their location or distribution on the planet. Geography questions straddle the disciplinary divide between social science and Earth/physical science, and that I think is important. I came into geography because of social science, and left it enthralled with Earth science - in fact, having thought at one point I would be a linguist, I'm now a science educator. And as Bruce said, we should reward intellectual curiosity. I'm a prime example.

Any or all of the suggestions made upthread by Matt are great ways to make geography more interesting, relevant, and reflective of its place in academia.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Skepticism and Animal Feed » Wed Jun 18, 2014 4:28 pm

I just want to clarify that, unlike Matt Weiner, I'm not for totally dropping map/almanac clues from geography. Clues such as "the blahblahblah river runs through this country" or "this nation's highest peaks include Mt. Soandso" are fine, they just shouldn't be the sole or dominant kind of clue. I think map knowledge is legitimate knowledge - but so are a bunch of other things that we've been ignoring.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Adventure Temple Trail » Wed Jun 18, 2014 7:05 pm

I disagree to some extent with Bruce's assessment. As I've said elsewhere, it seems completely unnecessary to me to include clues in a tossup unless the author can justify why they are externally important, significant, special, or unique. Now, there are a lot of rivers and high peaks with a lot of cultural, economic, historical, or mere human-settlementy significance -- including, in some cases, because they're really wide or really tall (and thus very good at provoking human awe, promoting or impeding the spread of civilizations, etc.) What's more, it can be clear to players that a given thing is important even if every tossup on that thing doesn't elaborate at length as to why (we have plenty of tossups on Shakespeare which don't repeatedly stress his contributions to English vocabulary or dramatic tropes or his paramount place on syllabi, for example -- it's understood without needing to be said every time). The point of mine which I think Bruce overlooked is that the bulk of geography questions utterly fail to explain anything of significance about the rivers, mountains, etc. which they name-drop (except perhaps the fact that they are west/east/north/south of some other place), reducing them to a game of association-memorization. Perhaps making sure that every clue is preceded by some meaningful explanation of significance is going overboard, but unless it's something like the Nile or Mount Everest I imagine that a lot of people are genuinely curious why Mount Soandso matters in some way. Is there oil there? Has it killed some mountain climbers? Is there an army base nearby? Did a boat settle there in a sacred text? Why not say so?

I think that Varun is correct to note that it can be hard to ascertain the difficulty of "travel" or "landmark" clues if one isn't from the place one is writing about or hasn't been there, and that a lot of those clues can seem impossible in part because many of them are being used for the first time very recently. That said, many travel guides, hotel sites, encyclopedias, and even dedicated online resources such as Wikitravel have been helpful in at least showing me what some bulk of travelers tend to try and see in places where I haven't been. Again, I as much as anyone else am interested in tips on what has made these clues work well or flounder; I haven't moderated USGO, for example.
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Re: Making Interesting Geography Questions

Postby Skepticism and Animal Feed » Thu Jun 19, 2014 12:49 am

Matt seems to believe that mountains and rivers can never be important in and of itself, but can only be important in the context of something else. I disagree. But it's an academic disagreement: we're on the same team in terms of wanting more diverse clues in geography questions.
Bruce
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