Revisiting Biography Clues

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Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) » Sat Apr 23, 2011 8:07 pm

It has been a long time since quizbowl won the crusade against biography bowl. We all know, those awful tossups that start with clues like "He was born in Aracataca" were poorly written, and nobody really likes playing them, so it's great that we have finally driven them out of quizbowl. However, we have done such a thorough job of driving these clues out that it is obviously time to revisit the paradigm of clue selection a little bit. Otherwise, we wouldn't see William Horton decry interesting clues about important things that influenced the works of philosophers in the LIST set, or posts where David Reinstein says "I prefer lit tossups that start with lit" when confronted with a tossup that starts with a clue that was about an event that had a major impact on an author's work.

Here's the deal: not all biography clues are bad. Artists don't work in a vacuum. Artemisia Gentileschi would be nowhere as fascinating an artist if she had not gone through an awful rape and subsequent humiliating trial. Kenzaburo Oe would never have written A Personal Matter if his son were not born with mental handicaps. Beethoven would be nowhere near as legendary if he hadn't gone deaf, and Mozart similarly would be nowhere near as amazing if he hadn't been a child prodigy. When there are really interesting, important clues from a person's life that can be linked directly to why they are important, then question writers should strongly consider using them sparingly to increase the diversity of knowledge being rewarded in a set. I certainly hope we can see people learn to adapt to this, and find a more appropriate balance of these sorts of clues without having people decry them from an absolutist mentality of "BIOGRAPHY BAD!" that has plagued other issues like the bounceback bonus discussion.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Auroni » Sat Apr 23, 2011 8:09 pm

The above is a fantastic post and should be kept in mind by all writers who are writing questions of any kind.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by vcuEvan » Sat Apr 23, 2011 8:15 pm

I've been meaning to make a post like his for a while. In addition to all the things Charlie said, biography is something that's actually taught in classes for lit, music, painting, and dozens of other subjects we ask about. Obviously we need to make sure useless information is filtered out, but it's about time to allow interesting and relevant biographical material back into quizbowl questions.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Cheynem » Sat Apr 23, 2011 9:24 pm

Charlie has a great foundational post. One thing that would be interesting to consider is how to integrate the interesting biography clues without setting up obvious situations in which superficial knowledge of a personality translates into more points than knowledge of works. Obviously, Beethoven going deaf and Milton going blind play major roles in the production of their art, but a lot of people unfamiliar with Beethoven or Milton's works would know that (more with the former than the latter). Before I ever learned anything about any Oe work, I was aware that he had a mentally handicapped son. What are good ways to make sure that biographical clues serve as good rewarding of knowledge rather than simple buzzwords or "chestnuts"? For instance, Faulkner's service in the RFC seems to inspire his oft-unstudied first novel "A Soldier's Pay," but this seems more like an annoying Faulkner chestnut than a clue I'd like to see used a lot in good Faulkner tossups (Faulkner buffs can correct me if I am way off here).
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Auroni » Sat Apr 23, 2011 9:40 pm

A good idea would be to integrate elements of biography into descriptions of works by people. For example, an early-ish clue about Robert Schumann could have a description of his violin concerto which explains how some people think that the haunting melodies of that work were the product of Schumann's increasing insanity at then end of his life. Similarly, a tossup on Smetana could (and probably already has) describe Smetana's tinnitus as being an element of his string quartet "From my Life." Those are two musical examples, but there are literary and visual artistic examples as well, just none that come to me immediately.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by AlphaQuizBowler » Sat Apr 23, 2011 11:00 pm

Jeremy Gibbs Freesy Does It wrote:However, we have done such a thorough job of driving these clues out that it is obviously time to revisit the paradigm of clue selection a little bit. Otherwise, we wouldn't see William Horton decry interesting clues about important things that influenced the works of philosophers in the LIST set
There is more wrong with the LIST philosophy than the biography clues; that's just what immediately came to my mind when I was identifying the problems. Also, I guess that "interesting" and "important" are very relative terms. It also seems like I'm not the only one who has concerns about biographical clues:
Cheynem wrote:One thing that would be interesting to consider is how to integrate the interesting biography clues without setting up obvious situations in which superficial knowledge of a personality translates into more points than knowledge of works...What are good ways to make sure that biographical clues serve as good rewarding of knowledge rather than simple buzzwords or "chestnuts"?

This is basically what I'm saying: in my view, biographical clues are at best a waste of space and at worst "chestnuts" that let people fraud me out of points on people whose works I've actually read. Or the bio turns into really transparent hints about the person's time period and location (I'm thinking of one specific LIST tossup). What's the point of embarking on a difficult attempt to include "good" biographical clues when there are so many good clues about the works anyways? If you really want to work something in, at least do it in the bonuses so people aren't buzzing off of it.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) » Sat Apr 23, 2011 11:13 pm

You totally misread Mike Cheyne's post right there, since he was in fact not arguing against using biographical clues at all, but was taking my position that we need to have well-chosen biographical clues and was simply voicing a concern about how it might be hard to do that in some instances, which is why we need to discuss this issue more and try to experiment with using good, sparing biography clues, rather than run away screaming every time something that's not straight out of the writings of Wittgenstein gets mentioned in a question about it.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by AlphaQuizBowler » Sat Apr 23, 2011 11:28 pm

Mike Cheyne certainly made it seem like he thought that, if not used carefully, biography clues could lead to "obvious situations in which superficial knowledge of a personality translates into more points than knowledge of works" and could become "simple buzzwords or 'chestnuts.'" I don't think it was inaccurate to call these "concerns" in my post. Perhaps I didn't delineate clearly where I was stating my opinion--everything after the quote is my reaction to his thoughts. And my reaction is, to state it more clearly: why bother putting in the effort it takes to find and write usable biography clues when it's so hard to keep them from being frauded?
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Cheynem » Sat Apr 23, 2011 11:42 pm

I think you're probably being too harsh, William. I agree with Charlie that biographical clues are occasionally a good thing (he's not saying they should be in every question). I was wondering what the best ways to implement this were. I agree that I don't want to see a production of stock chestnuts like my Faulkner example, but I think there are probably good ways to introduce some fascinating yet important biographical detail. My post was intended for people to discuss what constitutes a "stock chestnut" and what is an important detail.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Deviant Insider » Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:55 am

Jeremy Gibbs Freesy Does It wrote:When there are really interesting, important clues from a person's life that can be linked directly to why they are important, then question writers should strongly consider using them sparingly to increase the diversity of knowledge being rewarded in a set.
I agree with this statement, but I stand by the complaint I made earlier. In that case, the first clue of a tossup referred to something mentioned a few times in the writer's wikipedia article, and there was no attempt to tie it to his works even though such ties would be easy to make. That same clue could have been used later in the question with a description of how it impacted his works, and it would have been fine. (I don't think the set is cleared, so I'll leave it at that for now.) In other words, the question rewarded reading a wikipedia article above reading actual literature, and this is a writer whose works are often recommended to high school students.

In general, I stand by the statement "I prefer lit tossups that start with lit". The addendum I'll make is that with canonical works, it is fine to start with criticism. Even with this addendum, it's possible that there are very rare exceptions to this rule. Biography clues can be important and interesting, but they should be kept in their place, which is different than saying that we need to eliminate them.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by vcuEvan » Sun Apr 24, 2011 9:49 am

Westwon wrote:
Jeremy Gibbs Freesy Does It wrote:When there are really interesting, important clues from a person's life that can be linked directly to why they are important, then question writers should strongly consider using them sparingly to increase the diversity of knowledge being rewarded in a set.
I agree with this statement, but I stand by the complaint I made earlier. In that case, the first clue of a tossup referred to something mentioned a few times in the writer's wikipedia article, and there was no attempt to tie it to his works even though such ties would be easy to make. That same clue could have been used later in the question with a description of how it impacted his works, and it would have been fine. (I don't think the set is cleared, so I'll leave it at that for now.) In other words, the question rewarded reading a wikipedia article above reading actual literature, and this is a writer whose works are often recommended to high school students.

In general, I stand by the statement "I prefer lit tossups that start with lit". The addendum I'll make is that with canonical works, it is fine to start with criticism. Even with this addendum, it's possible that there are very rare exceptions to this rule. Biography clues can be important and interesting, but they should be kept in their place, which is different than saying that we need to eliminate them.
I'm confused by this post, and by some of the other posts in the thread. Why does biographical information need to be explicitly connected to an author's work? Why is well known information about a person a "chestnut" when well known information about his work is a "clue"? Does anyone have a rationale for these other than quizbowl tradition? I agree that quizbowl questions should reward reading literature, but I also think they should reward knowing about an author's life.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Mechanical Beasts » Sun Apr 24, 2011 12:44 pm

I think biographical clues often raise the same sorts of red flags that come up when non-scientists write science questions and attempt to pick science clues. Biographical clues got the bad rap associated with early bad quizbowl, where minutiae reigned supreme. I'd say it takes a certain level of expertise to select biographical clues that are not minutiae: maybe Grignard was inspired by visions of his father's sailmaker past when coming up with Grignard reagents (he wasn't. but hey, Kekule had that Ouroboros dream about benzene...) and I can't imagine that that doesn't come up similarly in evaluating whether an element of an author's life is of significant importance* to a literary understanding of that author.

*of course it's of some importance, since all information is, but our job is to compare it to the least significant clue that otherwise fit in the tossup
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Deviant Insider » Sun Apr 24, 2011 1:48 pm

One of the things we want to do is reward and encourage book reading. One of the ways to do that is to write tossup leadins and hard parts of bonuses that, to the best of our efforts, require book reading. Evan is right that at this point Macondo is basically a chestnut for Garcia Marquez that Quiz Bowlers know whether or not they have read any books, and if you read the right packet or Sparknotes, you may know that Macondo at one point was a village of twenty adobe houses, which might come up in a leadin, but we should still try to reward deep knowledge gained from reading books.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Andrew's a Freshman » Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:49 pm

I can't think of a non-minutia bit of biographical information that would be acceptable as a lead-in. That seems oxymoron-esque.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by The King's Flight to the Scots » Sun Apr 24, 2011 9:39 pm

Westwon wrote:One of the things we want to do is reward and encourage book reading. One of the ways to do that is to write tossup leadins and hard parts of bonuses that, to the best of our efforts, require book reading. Evan is right that at this point Macondo is basically a chestnut for Garcia Marquez that Quiz Bowlers know whether or not they have read any books, and if you read the right packet or Sparknotes, you may know that Macondo at one point was a village of twenty adobe houses, which might come up in a leadin, but we should still try to reward deep knowledge gained from reading books.
As a side note, Macondo is really not a "chestnut" either: it's the town where a ton of Garcia Marquez's stories and novels are set. It consistently comes up late in GGM/100 years tossups because it's an Important Thing you'll know if you have basic knowledge of Latin American literature.

Nobody is disputing the idea that you should reward reading books. However, I don't see why every clue in a literature tossup has to be a plot clue from a writer's works. Literature classes frequently cover biographical facts, in order to educate students' interpretation of a work of literature. As Evan has pointed out, numerous biographical clues are interesting, important, and known, yet they rarely to never come up. I don't see anything wrong with their judicious use in literature tossups. Against the assertion that such clues are "chestnuts," I contend that, in fact, the use of well-known and underrepresented biographical clues will require players to know something more than the same old plot clues they've learned by rote; while I see nothing wrong with gaining knowledge from quizbowl sources, the game becomes much more interesting when we do demand something more.

Again, however, the use of these clues must be judicious. I would provide a similar warning about biographical clues as the ACF website does about element tossups: if you're an inexperienced writer, be wary of them. Days and places of birth, parents' names, and other "top of the wiki article" clues will be boring and useless. Just finding any old fact about a writer's childhood will be similarly useless. What kinds of clues, if any, will be useful, heavily depends on which author you're writing about. However, such sources as introductions to novels will often well-known facts relevant to the author's work; by finding useful, concise sources and filtering out the useless/boring clues, you can use biographical facts effectively.

I differ from Evan on a couple of points here. Aesthetically, I would prefer to lead in with a deep clue from an important work, since it would suck to read many of an author's works and still miss the tossup because the other team knew a random fact. I do consider biography secondary to the "actual" literature, since we wouldn't really care about Faulkner's life if he hadn't been a hugely important author. However, once those with deep knowledge of an author's works have been rewarded, I encourage the use of biographical facts as middle and early clues, and I'm not averse to the occasional well-chosen lead-in. As it stands, those clues are almost unrepresented, meaning that question writers aren't touching on a significant body of real knowledge.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Cheynem » Sun Apr 24, 2011 9:46 pm

I agree with Matt Bollinger here, both in terms of describing untapped clues and the care with which such clues should be attempted. Part of it is me being gunshy due to playing in an era when you could get many tossups on William Faulkner by memorizing the biography clues about him working in Canada during World War I instead of rewarding knowledge of any of his books. I think in general the key point that Matt makes is valid: both biography and literature clues should avoid obvious, overused chestnuts and instead try for interesting, important material.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by Deviant Insider » Sun Apr 24, 2011 10:04 pm

If there is a famous biography or autobiography of an author, or the author wrote some well-known essays including personal anecdotes, then it would be possible to start a tossup with biographical information about them to test knowledge of such a work. This might work for somebody like Angelou or Nabokov. As a general rule, though, I think it's a bad idea, and any fairly brief general audience article about a famous author's life probably should provide information for the second half of a tossup only and should be used very judiciously for medium and hard parts of bonuses.

I may be disagreeing with some people, but I don't think we're that far apart. I'm not saying that you can't mention Oe's son, and if this thread helps writers realize that such things are OK, then I'm OK with that.
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Re: Revisiting Biography Clues

Post by ValenciaQBowl » Thu May 05, 2011 8:14 am

Sorry for reviving a nearly moribund thread, but I rarely venture into the HS areas and was doing so this morning mainly because I'm on a week off from teaching.

To go from Mike's Faulkner example above (btw, the novel is simply "Soldier's Pay," but no biggie--and note that that novel is "under-studied" because it's not very good nor very representative of the way he later wrote), I think that knowledge of Faulkner's life details can be critical in providing perspective on his work.

For instance, before I teach "The Sound and the Fury" or "As I Lay Dying" in my American lit survey courses (for college freshmen/sophomores), I show an hour-long video biography of Faulkner made by the BBC (yeah, go figure). Especially with "The Sound and the Fury," I think it's of value for students not only to know something about the cultural and economic conditions of the South in the era between the World Wars, but also to know that Faulkner was sardonically called "Count No 'Count" (as in "of no account," a bum) by some classmates at Ole Miss, referencing the irony of his attempts at aristocratic bearing while having no money. Certainly that condition speaks deeply to the pains that lead Quentin Compson to drown himself, so there's no question that this helps us better understand the predicament of families like Faulkner's (and the fictional Compsons) who had seen their fortunes wane in the 20th century, and who had been supplanted by cunning and aggressive Snopeses. And though I tend to teach from a bastardized Formalism, I still think biographical and political and cultural context should be included, especially since so many beginning college students don't know much of any of that.

But I agree with Evan's post above that even if biographical details don't specifically speak to a theme or plot development in a writer's novel or whatever, it doesn't mean they're not sometimes worth including. We're all better off without the old "Son of a fletcher-maker" clues, but there's a reason we read biographies, and knowing things about, say, Naipaul's hideous treatment of his wife, or Larkin's bizarre pornographic obsessions, or Koestler's brutal sexuality, are all part of being knowledgeable about the literary world. That kind of stuff is part of regular intellectual analyses/discussions of these writers, and it's certainly part of what educated people in the field know about them. Of course literary clues for authors/works are best, but if we're going to reward what English majors/professors know about literature the way we are to reward what music folks know about music, then important biographical clues should be considered on their own merits.
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