The Big Vision: [1] Index, Introduction, and Basics

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Adventure Temple Trail
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The Big Vision: [1] Index, Introduction, and Basics

Post by Adventure Temple Trail »

The Big Vision: Setting an Agenda for the Next 5-10 Years of Quizbowl Growth

What is this, anyway?

In this thread, I will be putting forward a unified vision for the near-future of quizbowl, using the other subthreads to give specific examples of plans, goals, ideas, etc. for getting there. I have thought for a while that a lot of strategies for improving various aspects of quizbowl have been viewed in a piecemeal fashion as ways to make the status quo slightly better, rather than as part of a unified attempt at bringing about a much larger project. My hope is that, by insisting on thinking on a big and system-wide level, we can informally set an agenda for building a future quizbowl community which is much larger, more successful, and more vibrant than its present -- and begin doing what we have to now to get there in 5-10 years.

I encourage discussion on each of these topics in their respective threads. General thoughts about this thread series, the enterprise, whether the overall vision ought to be different, additional ideas which didn't get their own post, etc. should be posted here.

Index of sections

Part 1: Index and Introduction [you are here]
Part 2: Developing our “Sales Pitch” -- Talking Up Quizbowl Confidently
Part 3: Having Serious Fun -- Rooting Out the “Eh, Who Cares” Attitude
Part 4: Improving Quizbowl’s Finances
Part 5: Regularizing Resources, Results, Recordings, and Reporters
Part 6: Expanding the Circle: Growing more staffers, teams, coaches, and writers
Part 7: Expanding the Circle Even Further: Brief Thoughts on Middle School, College, and International Quizbowl Opportunities
Part 8: Nationally-Competitive Teams, at the National, Regional, and State Levels
Part 9: Re-focusing on the Correct Opponents
Part 10: Looking Outside Quizbowl For Further Ideas?

a.k.a. Where are we now and where do we want to be?

It’s a good time to be a quizbowl player. On most conceivable metrics, the activity of quizbowl is healthier today than ever. The number of high school teams who take quizbowl seriously is exploding, and the number of distinct circuits training top-tier teams has also grown. (There was a time when the greater mid-Atlantic and Michigan were the only games in town; that time has long since passed.) Pyramidal tossups have become enshrined as a non-negotiable standard in most regions.Over the past half-decade, question writing standards have improved sharply, with difficulty control, clarity of phrasing, and creativity all becoming important parts of the good quizbowl experience beyond mere pyramidality. NAQT’s HSNCT and PACE’s NSC bring record-breaking numbers of teams together each year. Generations of players are coming up the ranks who have never heard a computational math tossup or a speed check in a tournament setting. More capable writers and editors are emerging at all levels. Quizbowl summer camp is growing rapidly in size and intensity.

And yet perhaps because of those macro-level successes, the quizbowl community at large, with only a few exceptions, now seems to me to be rather aimless about where to go from here. Many of today’s editors, TDs, and organizers are working without a major inspiring vision or end goal for our game beyond ensuring a steady supply of “more of the same.” While it’s been important to get it right on issues such as pyramidality, math computation, etc. it seems like this community has become rather content to rest on its laurels and simply keep avoiding the bad things of the past, rather than imagining what could be even better than today in the future. In many places, some facets of good quizbowl development, such as average field size, have slid backward even as the number of events goes up. That failure to imagine a greater future in turn hampers our efforts to make quizbowl bigger and better, and prevents us from bringing that future into being. Until and unless we know where we’re going, and what we want the quizbowl world to look like, we’ll just be doing the same things as now, with incremental improvements here or there.

Quizbowl is still, as Charlie Dees has put it recently, “in some form of adolescence.” We’ve only just recently established what good high school quizbowl looks like, and have made it real for at best a single decade (probably less, if you’re just looking at sets and teams that would still play well today). The number of people who really understand this game and want to dedicate their time to it is nowhere near its eventual maximum. To use another strained metaphor, this plane is still on the runway, and there’s so, so much more that we can do to make this game really take off. How should we best prepare for that takeoff? As we go through this “growth spurt,” what can we do now to set good habits which keep the game happy and healthy well into its adulthood?

To figure out the answer, I ask another set of questions. What do we actually want the quizbowl world to look like in 5 years? In 10? What is the next goal that animates us? Where are the major areas of struggle and the major setbacks which hamper quizbowl as it currently exists? In answering these questions, we may as well dream big and be unafraid to set huge goals.

We need, at least in broad outline, a vision for where we want to be, an understanding of where the battles are today which need to be fought on our way there, and an agenda for fighting them.

Do note that, although the majority of this post will focus on high school quizbowl, it will, in places, be directly relevant to middle school and college quizbowl as well -- hopefully it’ll be rather obvious which things carry over to other levels and which do not. I will start out by noting a principle first brought to my attention by Matt Weiner -- “Everything is inter-related.” A person need not be a Sanskrit philosopher to see some examples of how improvements in one area of the community spread out and improve things elsewhere. A more smoothly-run high school game allows college players to put more attention and effort into the college game, results in more high schoolers playing seriously in college, etc. A more robust middle school quizbowl circuit gets more people interested in academic competition at a younger age, opens the possibility of more incoming freshmen founding teams at new high schools, etc. A larger pool of good writers frees up more people (including some currently-overburdened writers) to focus their time more outreach and TD work. The ability of retired players to contribute to high-difficulty sets such as college nationals comes with less guilt when those same retirees aren’t also needed to churn out high school sets monthly. And so on, and so on.

On that note, I won’t claim to have come up with all these thoughts out of the void; they came out of various kinds of observations, outreach work, and productive off-forums discussions with other people who have been thinking through these issues on a quizbowl-wide level. I especially want to thank Matt Weiner, Eric Mukherjee, Matt Bollinger, and Charlie Dees, who inspired this series of posts with some particularly fruitful off-forums chats, and read through/commented on these articles to improve them before they were posted. It’s only by interrelating with one another that we can accomplish all that we set out to do. My hope is that by presenting these ideas here in unified form here, they will spark even more good discussion and a jump start on action.

The big vision

As I just laid out, we have to have a “big vision” or ur-goal or superobjective in mind so that we know what sorts of subcomponent goals we’re trying to accomplish. I’ll use this section to lay out what my big vision for the activity of quizbowl is; the rest of the suggestions in the opening of this thread will flow from, and contribute to, that big vision. I welcome discussion on both the general soundness of having this particular big vision in mind and on the specifics.

My big vision for this game: a world where quizbowl, as an established activity within school systems nationwide, is widely seen to merit the serious respect (and support) given to other, more renowned-at-present intellectual activities such as debate or contest mathematics. I want it to be as flatly self-evident in the educational culture at large as it is to me, when someone says something like “I was a quizbowl state champion my senior year of high school,” that it took hard work and devoted training to make that accomplishment a reality. Most of us know that it reflects well on a school to have people in it who devote themselves to the sorts of cultural awareness and zealous learning that top-flight quizbowl encourages; I want more high school faculty, school administrators, local papers, parents, college admissions officers, and members of the general public to feel that way as well. As I see it, that respect should translate into institutional and financial support on par with older mainstay activities (and perhaps, if we really want to dream big, even with some low-equipment sports), which in turn aids a “positive feedback loop” of greater interest in the game, greater backing, better opportunities for play, and better organization, until we have 300 high schools playing semi-serious to serious quizbowl in every state rather than 30, and that many more people deriving benefit from being involved. The ur-goal is to have quizbowl treated as seriously as something like debate (or tennis), and for it to receive the institutional support that activities of such status.

An Aside on the Sort of Thing that Quizbowl Is -- Not a Sport, Not a Mere Club, But Something...

It helps, in pursuing that status, to know what sort of thing quizbowl is. There’s a certain brand of activities which are neither a full-on athletic sport (in that they don’t involve physical exercise/fitness) nor a mere form of recreation (in that they are nonetheless competitive, rule-governed, and possible to make into a serious life pursuit alongside one’s schoolwork). An arche-problem surrounding quizbowl is that the American educational system and culture at large doesn’t really know how to categorize any competitions of this sort, or how to treat them. Activities of this sort often reduced to clunky analogies involving athletics (“The Super Bowl of the Mind,” as Slate put it) or belittled to the status of mere recreation (“ overblown game of Trivial Pursuit?”). School webpages don’t readily display activities of this sort as a group (since there’s no reified term for them) or laud success in such activities on the whole. For lack of a better term, I’ll use the term “mind competitions” for events of this sort. These competitions might include (at the high school level) debate, math team, chess, robotics, Model UN, Model Congress, and hackathons; at the middle school level, North Americans at large are more familiar with the televised Spelling Bee and Geography Bee, which also fall in here.

These activities, as we all know, can be approached with a sort of seriousness which transcends games with friends, and with as intense a competitive mentality as sports. Unlike sports, though, seriousness in mind competitions comes with presumptions that the people who care are “nerrrrrrds” or off-puttingly overzealous about what ought to merely be a frivolous diversion. (The typical attitude towards a Spelling Bee champion, for example, is part awe at 13-year-olds doing what many an average adult can’t, but also part snooty dismissal of the homeschool-industrial complex built up around that activity.) (I don’t think the Spelling Bee has nearly as much worth as quizbowl, to be absolutely clear.) There’s a broader point to be made here about the persistence of anti-intellectualism in American life, and the weird dismissal of the mental efforts of those who make mental effort by those who couldn’t or wouldn’t do so -- that sort of double-sided awe and derision. But it’s time to seriously up the ‘awe’ side of that equation.

Our minimum goal, if we’re self-respecting, self-promoting quizbowlers, should be to insist that quizbowl have pride of place among other mind competitions, and to purge doubt about whether it belongs in that pantheon with other activities a school might take pride in or encourage. We know from all the effort we put in that the game deserves this. But the world at large doesn’t, and doing more to help the game reach its full potential will go a long way toward ensuring that the world at large sees it more like we do. Given how far we’re lagging behind that potential, and the larger amounts of time that the other listed activities have had to accumulate resources and prestige, we really need to zoom ahead. Our efforts alone won’t dislodge general attitude towards competitive intellectual pursuits (in part because they aren’t bundled in with athletic conferences, most mind competitions organize only within themselves, making any coordination impossible), but for now it should suffice to say that there are many types of organized mental exertion which get a lot more credit than quizbowl does. When quizbowl proves itself to be the sort of activity that reflects well upon a school, more people in more schools will want to establish and nurture it, cultural issues aside.

(Incidentally, this is part of how hokey television shows run on bad questions damage quizbowl -- through their evident badness at actually rewarding knowledge, they give the world at large low expectations about the sort of seriousness that quizbowlers find it natural to put into their game. If the world at large watches them at all.)

About Getting There:Think, Plan, Act Beyond the Super-Short Term

Most people in quizbowl think and plan things out, for the most part, up to one year in advance. Given the school-year cycles on which the activity is run, and the fact that the average career in high school or college quizbowl is only two to four years long, this is pretty understandable. but it also means there’s relatively few people even thinking on the level of “In 5 years I would like __________ to be true”. What’s more, the game is young, and most people who are involved today don’t have the historical memory to see how much change can be accomplished in units of time that outlast their own involvement. It’s just the case that making plans on longer timescales allows for greater accomplishments, and bigger-picture thinking, than can be accomplished in a single year. In part, what I’m calling for with this post is a change in the way prospective quizbowl organizers think. To think of yourself as part of a “long run,” even if your own time in quizbowl ends before that long run does, and to seek out people to continue the work you do once it comes time for you to hang up your own hat.

In my experience, the desirability of long-term planning is demonstrated by what I’ve seen in another arena: the successes of the very best quizbowl coaches. The difference manifests itself in the time-scale that the best coaches work on. A good coach works to improve the players they have and ensure that their current set of players finishes as high as it can. The truly great coaches of high school quizbowl history -- Julie Gittings, John Barnes, Eric Huff, etc. -- didn’t take things one year at a time. They looked to the players who could be winning titles in two or three years, and started developing those people with a long-term goal in mind. And on top of that they looked towards replacing each year’s graduating class with a new class prepared to step into their shoes three or four years down the line. And on top of that, as I’d be loath to forget, the students who actually played those winning games took it upon themselves to bring up trainees and younger friends through their own mentoring, example, and friendship.

In order to set goals which take more than a year to enact, you need to have lead time to act on them and the willingness to see yourself as part of a larger era beyond immediate contingency. In two years, the sophomores on a given team could be seniors contending for a national title as seniors, even if they don’t impress in the moment. A yearly tournament could go from 32 to 64 teams, but only if successive TDs commit to expanding it by 8 teams each year and run it well. As more organizations such as NAQT and NHBB schedule their championships for multiple years out, plans for the quizbowl future are naturally growing, and local organizations, alliances, and teams may as well follow suit.

A lot of the aims discussed in this series have seen basically no progress in 6 to 10 years, despite years of people talking a good game. That’s in part because other types of progress had to be made first, but also in part because these goals haven’t been as well-explicated as “get rid of computational math” or “put clues in descending order of difficulty.” I hope that at least some of these threads change that lack of explication.

Don’t Be a Defeatist -- Be Willing to Think/Dream Big

Defeatism about what’s possible is also a huge drag on future success. (And mutually reinforces the lack-of-confidence stuff.) One can define this defeatism, I suppose, as “failure to see beyond the immediate present.”We have to resist the urge to throw up our hands and assume the future will resemble the past in every way in order to be able to advocate for the activity we put so much of our energy into. If some bad aspect of the game has stayed the same for 15 years, the proper claim to draw from that is not "well, that seems like forever -- probably not worth the effort to address", but rather "Let's fix it for the next fifteen."

"Concluding" Introductory Remarks

So, with all that in mind, I’ve posted several threads expanding on some major agenda points which follow from this big vision of longer-term stability & growth. They were originally written in the order you see above, but feel free to read through the areas which interest you, or all of them. I look forward to hearing the thoughts and suggestions of other people with similar visions.

It’s almost certainly the case that most people, just won’t be interested in getting involved this game. That’s totally fine. But I’d like to see us move beyond a world where dumb luck -- the dumb luck of getting to go to a school which has a team, or of stumbling across the Quizbowl Wiki on the Internet -- is the largest factor in determining whether a person plays or not. And once that’s true, it’d be great to get to a world where twelve to twenty players per school see the excitement and enrichment that quizbowl provides, rather than the average of four to six (plus their parents, plus their non-quizbowl friends, plus administrators, etc. etc.).

There’s many important topics which I don’t get to address in this post series. Those omission are not to be counted as tacit endorsement of the status quo.

This post is not-so-subtly influenced by Paul Litvak’s now-infamous 2006 prophecy, thankfully proven false, that college quizbowl would be in its demise five years down the line. Just as he turned out to be delighted at how wrong he was, I also look forward to seeing, five or ten years out, how much further we can push than is even imaginable today.
Last edited by Adventure Temple Trail on Sun Aug 31, 2014 3:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Matt J.
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Re: The Big Vision: [1] Index, Introduction, and Basics

Post by Nick »

Firstly, I wanted to say that all of this (The Big Vision) is great, and I appreciate you taking the time to share all of these thoughts.

If you don't mind me asking, Matt, what do you see yourself doing personally in the next several years? What do you see your involvement in quizbowl being?
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Re: The Big Vision: [1] Index, Introduction, and Basics

Post by Stained Diviner »

Thanks a lot for this entire series. The entire concept of needing to think “In 5 years I would like __________ to be true” is important, and we need to think about how our actions now can move us in that direction. There are a lot of important points throughout this series.

While your big vision is good, I think it is also important to emphasize the importance and meaning of this activity to coaches and students who are already involved in it to some degree. In states where it is common for schools to have quizbowl teams, there are a number of students and coaches who think of it as a chance to get together a few times a year, ring a buzzer, and hope you win. While we want "high school faculty, school administrators, local papers, parents, college admissions officers, and members of the general public" to respect our activity, we also want the people already in the activity to respect the activity. Part of this is addressed in other posts, especially Parts 2 and 3, but I also believe that organizations such as PACE, IHSSBCA, and several others need to make major efforts to educate coaches and students about what our activity is like at its best. Those same organizations should also play a role in educating outsiders as well, but the education of people who are already involved is extremely important.

If we want to get to the point where it doesn't take dumb luck to get involved in this activity, then we need more teams. If we want to get to the point where it doesn't take dumb luck to get involved deeply in this activity, then we also need more teams to get deeply involved. Both of these things are important, and the relative importance of them varies from region to region.
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Re: The Big Vision: [1] Index, Introduction, and Basics

Post by cvdwightw »

I had this in a different thread, but I think it belongs here better.

To some extent, we need to figure out what the "people who have gone before us" (back when there was no such thing as "good quizbowl") did to provide quality multi-subject academic competitions. I use that term loosely to include not only good quizbowl, but also "bad quizbowl" and things like Academic Decathlon that are clearly "not quizbowl," because the challenges of all of these kinds of competitions are similar: they must attract students who are interested in learning multiple subjects, they cannot target a specific department to obtain a champion on the school faculty, and they must promote the ideal of a "well-rounded citizen," whatever that means.

I am generalizing very heavily based on no firsthand experience, but it seems like regions/states where any form of multi-subject academic competition is played at almost every school have:
  • Heavy buy-in from school administrations that the activity is worthwhile
  • Some form of stratification that allows "smaller" schools to compete on roughly-even footing
  • A well-defined league or qualification structure that determines the state/regional champion
  • A unifying body and/or coaches' association that gives "legitimacy" to the local/state format, gives "prestige" and recognition to the winners, and supports coaches through networking and development
  • A well-defined "season" including a regular match/tournament schedule that deviates only slightly from year to year
  • A local or public TV contract to broadcast, at minimum, the championship match
Now, obviously not every region has all of those things, but my guess is that if you live in a place where almost every school participates in some form of multi-subject academic competition, you will recognize at least 2/3 of those things in your region.

In terms of national quizbowl, we've already overcome one of the biggest obstacles: we have a "national format" that is pretty consistent from state to state and tournament to tournament: 20/20 tossup/bonus with power marks, neg-5 interrupt penalties, and three-part bonus. Every "good quizbowl" tournament uses this format with occasional modifications (HSNCT is timed; NSC abandons interrupt penalties; some independent sets are not power-marked; etc.). This means that we can meaningfully talk about "national quizbowl" in the sense that every single "national format" tournament can use the exact same set of rules with some minor exceptions (for instance, timing rules in NAQT).

In order for "national" quizbowl to take the next step, in my opinion, we need to emulate some of the things that "local bad" quizbowl does well. These could include:
  • Developing a major national or international unifying body. Considering that PACE now is officially a nonprofit organization, I think they are probably in the best position to effect this change. One potential way to do this would be for PACE to absorb local "quizbowl alliances" as essentially local branches or affiliates, but this would require a lot of bureaucratic wrangling, especially in areas that may not want to part with the independence to do things "their way."
  • Restructuring the way we announce, promote, and schedule tournaments. To attract more teams, we need to schedule tournaments in a way that most sports do it: there are tournaments that are clearly there for the host to make some money and the teams to compete against each other with relatively little fanfare, and there are tournaments that have quite a bit of prestige. In other words: if we promote certain "prestigious" tournaments (such as NAQT and/or HSAPQ State Championships) and make those the "must-attend" tournaments on a school's calendar, then smaller, local "practice" tournaments should pop up organically.
  • Putting out a product at the "prestigious" tournaments that is worthy of teams attending, in non-quizbowl terms. This could include a keynote speaker, a pre- or after-tournament banquet or social, a championship match/awards ceremony that encourages an audience, etc.
To put this in kind of business terms, we need to go from a community that produces good quizbowl to a community that sells good quizbowl. We know we have the best product out there, but people aren't buying it - either they're not interested, they don't know it exists, or they prefer an inferior product from a competitor. Selling good quizbowl is going to require a lot of skills that the stereotypical quizbowler does not have. We need to think less about how to improve the game, and more about how to package it so it appeals to new players without compromising quality. Then - and this is something that the community is notoriously bad at doing - we need to act on those ideas.

I don't know if there are current or former members of the community who do this kind of business/sales/marketing analysis as their "real job" - in my experience, quizbowlers are much more of an academic lot. If you know people who have this bent, frame this situation in a business sense ("We have a great product and we're having trouble reaching new customers/we're trying to break into a small market/many of our potential customers have longstanding contracts with companies that produce inferior products") and ask them if they have any ideas for how to go about dealing with these issues.
Dwight Wynne
UC Irvine 2008-2013; UCLA 2004-2007; Capistrano Valley High School 2000-2003

"It's a competition, but it's not a sport. On a scale, if football is a 10, then rowing would be a two. One would be Quiz Bowl." --Matt Birk on rowing, SI On Campus, 10/21/03

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