The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

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The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Matt Weiner » Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:00 am

Since this has little to do with ACF Fall per se, I am starting a new thread about this exchange in the ACF Fall discussion:
Matt Weiner wrote:There is also the lost art of good teams getting questions early at easy tournaments, though. People like to disparage any tournament where a good team is routinely buzzing early as being a "muddy battlefield" or so on, but it used to be the standard sort of tournament, and I think bringing it back would have several positive effects, such as encouraging people to write more questions at lower levels, and creating more tournaments that a wider range of teams can play.
Crazy Andy Watkins wrote:Well, it would have those positive effects. Do you agree that it brings a meaningful degree of decreased resolution in matches between top teams? If, in a simplified model, the top teams at a tournament all know clues k to n, then the tossups might as well only have k clues for them.
I think that it's interesting to note that, five or more years ago, the standard quizbowl tournament held during the collegiate academic year was something that was pretty easy, that teams of most levels wanted to play, and that featured high-scoring games in which many bonuses were 30ed and many tossups answered on the first few lines when top teams were playing each other.

Admittedly, the standard quizbowl tournament held during the collegiate academic year also used to be a huge pile of hippo shit, with non-academic distributions, bad, too-short questions on trivial subjects, and crazy rules of various kinds reigning over the land. No one is happier than me that this is no longer the case. But, I think that in our zeal to make all tournaments good, we've conflated "done in the past" with "bad" automatically, when, in fact, only 70 to 90 percent of what was done in the past was bad, and there are a few stray ideas here and there that we should have kept, and that we now can learn from or bring back.

One idea that I think we've nearly lost is the type of tournament I described above. Note that "four-line tossups," "buzzer races," "so-called 'academic' tournaments with 25% trash," "clocks," and "inconsistent difficulty from bonus to bonus" are not mentioned in my definition. While those things were indisputably part of quizbowl in the Bad Old Days, they are in no way necessary in order to have an easy tournament that is popular with teams of all levels and high-scoring for good teams. I think it is possible to write a tournament that conforms to the objectively correct principles of good quizbowl (academic distribution, solid clue selection and ordering, tossups of 5 or more lines, bonuses that are interesting, consistent, and written in complete sentences) but is also written such that it moves the buzz distribution up by a notch or two. By this I mean that instead of writing a 9 to 12 line tossup where you expect the best teams to buzz by line 4 or 5 and the decent teams to buzz by the end, you write a slightly shorter tossup where you expect top teams to buzz in the first 2.5 lines, teams that are going to go around .500 to buzz before FTP consistently, and only the bottom of the field to have to wait for the giveaway.

We still have tournaments that are pretty universally accessible; I think this past January's Terrapin is a good example of a tournament that combined modern principles of good writing with an obvious commitment to being answerable by as much of the field as possible. However, it also had tossups that were usually 8 lines long in 10 point font and had really thick clues for several lines at the start. They made for good games in the playoffs, but when reading to the middle teams in the tournament, questions went to the end most of the time. I think this is a true "muddy battlefield" for a lot of teams, and is failing at the purpose of the pyramidal tossup and good quizbowl in general, which is to smoothly sort out the knowledge curve for all teams, not just the top teams.

On the other side of the coin, we have the increasingly popular hard tournament. Hard tournaments sure are great. I've written a few of them and I both like, and am quite good at, playing them. However, the hard tournament plays no real role in expanding quizbowl, since it's pretty boring for new teams to play questions they will score 40 points on. The hard tournament taking up too many in-season dates that could be occupied by more general-interest events is a problem. Another problem is that the hard tournament, itself, often becomes a poor test of who is better at the skills that quizbowl should, ideally, reward. Tournaments that are very hard often reduce to "have-you-heard-of-this bowl." There's no discriminating between knowledge going on when you ask a tossup on "On the Shoulders of Giants." People either will guess it at the end, will fraud it based on feeling out the tossup and piecing together references to the title, or won't know it. Maybe, if you're lucky, there will be 1 person in the tournament who happens to like Merton, who will get a legitimate buzz and mislead you into thinking you have written an appropriate tossup. To me, this can be a muddy battlefield because it's heavily based on luck and on buzzer speed at the end of a tossup, and not based on carefully sorting teams out by multiple levels of knowledge. Overly hard bonuses suffer the same luck-of-the-draw problem and often produce really inconsistent question-to-question results based on the manner in which the writer chose to be adventurous.

People also skew their studying based on the tournaments they expect to play. Teams who are only concerned about hard tournaments find that it's more valuable to know the surface plot of Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful so they can buzz on a hard Paton tossup or capture 10 bonus points somewhere, than it is to have deep knowledge of Cry, the Beloved Country. This is stupid for several reasons. First, it distorts the higher purpose of quizbowl, which is to encourage people to learn meaningful facts about important things, because it devalues learning about important things (Cry, the Beloved Country) in favor of learning about far less important things (Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful). Reading Cry, the Beloved Country would be a huge waste of time for a team trying to get on top of world literature for NAQT ICT or ACF Nationals right now--you can learn the names of the main characters from A Wild Sheep Chase or the plot of Too Late the Phalarope instead, and do the equivalents dozens of time over in the time it takes to read a truly major book. Second, it leads to people writing tossups on Alan Paton like the one I wrote for Minnesota Open, which I now realize is a handy example of what I've recently come to understand is a poor writing practice. These tossups reward the "quizbowl-playing robot" and the memorizer over the literature scholar, because they either spend too much time talking about secondary works, or put clues from secondary works ahead of what should be comprising the leadin and bulk of author questions, which is new clues rewarding the reading of centrally canonical books.

This is a subpar situation that should be fixed. One way to fix it is to implement the admirable suggestions of people such as Mike Sorice, Evan Adams, Jonathan Magin, and Andrew Hart, who have called for a rejuvenation of questions on the core academic canon in hard tournaments. I strongly urge that you do that, but I also think that you can give teams separate incentive to learn about basic things by writing tournaments with easy answers where being able to buzz early on those answers is rewarded for all teams. This means writing that "Cry, the Beloved Country" tossup for a regular-difficulty event and arranging clues in the following order: 1) new clues that reward people who have read the book rather than just studied old packets; 2) clues that very good teams will get; 3) early middle clues that decent teams that are not in contention for the tournament championship will get; 4) later middle clues that people with some level above minimum competence will get; and a 5) giveaway. Over the past year or two, regular tournaments have become a lot more cognizant of middle clues than they were in the past, and are not writing questions that go straight from 1 to 5. However, we're still seeing a lot of questions that are 1-2-5. #3 and #4 are very important for writers to include, as is learning to play for the difference between #1 and #2 for top teams.

There's no reason we can't have a large tournament where the top teams make a lot of buzzes in the first third of tossups, and I think that constructing such tournaments properly and thoughtfully will do more to avoid the "muddy battlefield" than the tendency to just pile on additional lines of tossups or increase difficulty. It will also take an effort from teams to re-teach themselves how to buzz early on easy questions rather than have a wide but shallow knowledge base that is only suited to making one-to-one associations and/or playing harder material. People tend to find buzzer races and "misplaced clues" where they look for them in tossups on Franklin Roosevelt, because people haven't chosen to learn the hundreds of possible hard clues for answers at that low a level, and are waiting to buzz like they would on a tossup on VS Naipaul, where there's only 10-15 things to know and it's much less likely that any one of them will be known by multiple teams. As always, the tendency for people to complain that anything they know is too easy as a method of showing off, and to spend their study time accumulating esoterica so they can get Chicago Open tossups at the end, is working against the interests of good quizbowl by preventing us from writing the kinds of tournaments we need to here.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by No Rules Westbrook » Wed Nov 04, 2009 1:18 pm

Well, as the inventor of the term "muddy battlefield," it should come as no surprise that I think there's a lot of other things to consider here. But, I'll just focus on one quick thing.

It is my opinion that there are two different worlds of quizbowl out there. There's the world of experienced and dedicated players who attend lots of tournaments, write packets, study clues, read primary and secondary sources out of interest generated by qb and otherwise, basically see this game as a career. There's another world of players who, by and large, don't do those things. I think that it's not even intelligible to speak of those two groups as playing the same game, and increasingly so - the interests and desires of one group in terms of quizbowl is extremely divergent from the other group, such that you can't satisfy both of them. Weiner's advice is generally great for tournaments that, on the whole, have a target audience with low canon knowledge.

But - my two ultra-hard Experiment tournaments featured fields that made buzzes at all points in the tossups I wrote, many of which contained super hard answer lines. I'd vehemently contest any claim that it devolved into players sitting around and waiting till the end of tossups and then making constant buzzes off of vague or fake knowledge. In fact, I'd confidently offer that those tournaments did a fantastic job of distinguishing between all tiers of knowledge - the "real primary knowledge" tier, the "real secondary knowledge" tier, the "decent knowledge of middle clues" tier, the "memorized knowledge of giveaways" tier, and so on - any tier you could possibly want rewarded.

Moreover, and most importantly - I'd argue that my Experiments did a much better job of rewarding those tiers of knowledge - amongst the field that played them - than any Penn Bowl-level difficulty set could ever pull off. I know that some people out there love to think they can create an infinite number of 6-line tossups on Franklin Roosevelt that satisfy the needs of all levels of players - and maybe you can, but it's really really hard. Like, really hard. Sorry, but in practice, if you write a packet full of six-line tossups on "core subjects" to be played in a room with Chicago A facing Minnesota A - the battlefield is gonna be pretty "muddy." That's just how it is.

Besides, the notion that there are players out there who know nothing of Cry the Beloved Country, but have memorized a few characters from Too Late the Phalarope, and are triumphing, is absurd. The truth is that there are players who are dedicated and have learned how to play this game, and those players' interests are just very different from the interests of most college players and teams.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Important Bird Area » Wed Nov 04, 2009 1:43 pm

Matt's post is essential reading for everyone who plans to write for college quizbowl in the future. Well done.
No Rules Westbrook wrote:Sorry, but in practice, if you write a packet full of six-line tossups on "core subjects" to be played in a room with Chicago A facing Minnesota A - the battlefield is gonna be pretty "muddy." That's just how it is.
I haven't gone and looked up the original "muddy battlefield" thread, so maybe this isn't quite what you meant, Ryan; if so, my apologies.

But this attitude is precisely the problem Matt identifies: too many people are writing "regular difficulty" tossups intended for a Chicago A-Minnesota A match. That's not actually the point of "regular difficulty" - those matches are why we have a difficulty level called "nationals." (I'd actually go further, and argue that well-written six-line tossups on core subjects will do a perfectly fine job of distinguishing even those top two teams, although the final result may very well feature a lot of early buzzes and 30ed bonuses and a final score of 460-370 or something.)

Here are some stats from the 2009 SCT (these won't include Chicago for the obvious reason, but the principle applies to any top team):

Minnesota A 58/138/47 (21.07)
Illinois 67/135/54 (19.70)
Brown A 84/128/49 (21.34)

Just how muddy is that battlefield? Even for the best teams in the country, a solid majority of correct buzzes are in the second half of the tossup, and the bonus conversion maxes out between 21 and 22. That's not nearly enough for me to conclude that the battlefield is muddy enough to produce results that are random.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by No Rules Westbrook » Wed Nov 04, 2009 1:46 pm

The idea that too many people are writing "regular difficulty" tournaments with Minn A-Chi A matches in mind, and not other matches - is one I absolutely agree with, Jeff. To the extent that this is the point to take from Weiner's thread, I wholly endorse it.

On the question of just how muddy the various battlefields are, I quibble. But be that as it may.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by theMoMA » Wed Nov 04, 2009 2:07 pm

If I'm not mistaken, those SCT numbers don't reflect the lineups that actually played ICT, if that matters.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Auks Ran Ova » Wed Nov 04, 2009 4:50 pm

Matt Weiner wrote:learn the names of the main characters from A Wild Sheep Chase
Inadvisable!

Anyway, I generally agree with the points Matt's making here. And yes, that "Minnesota A" SCT team only had half of the real "Minnesota A" lineup.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed » Wed Nov 04, 2009 4:54 pm

Your biggest obstacle is going to be the fact that many good players are simply uninterested in playing easier, more accessible tournaments. Some find it boring and unchallenging. Others might secretly enjoy it, but refrain from doing so because of fears that they will lose the respect of others (or themselves!) by playing what's seen as an easy tournament.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Captain Sinico » Wed Nov 04, 2009 5:22 pm

One side of the debate here continues making normative statements about the current state of quizbowl ("quizbowl currently is..." "quizbowl currently rewards..." "current quizbowl players are currently interested in playing current types of questions at difficulty level...") when this debate is entirely about the positive future of quizbowl ("quizbowl ought to ask..." "quizbowl ought to reward..." "quizbowl ought to interest..."). The only basis I can see on which such a disconnect of discourse is even defensible is the thesis that quizbowl can never be better (or even change much) from its current state which defeats the purpose of any discourse and is plainly wrong anyway, given how much the game has changed recently.
In fact, it seems to me that most of the mealy-mouthed defense of current practice in the form of normative statements about the current state of the game serve pretty well as damning criticism. The fact that everyone seemingly agrees that the game largely fails entirely to engage (or even attempt to engage!) intellectual curious, intelligent people who don't study old questions for the sake of the game alone or that superficial study is much, much more effective than deep study in pretty much every area should alarm the people making those statements; they certainly alarm me. If those things are true to the extent claimed, then we have a sick, pointless game and we should either fix it or stop playing.
The fact is that what is needed here is not to write questions that are "easier" on the same axis of difficulty that we use now. On the contrary, we desperately need qualitative changes largely of the kind Matt is describing here and I have been militating for for some time, which include a recalibration of what we consider difficult. For example, we need to recalibrate our notions of answer fitness to include a much stronger general academic component and to remove the sufficiency of archive abundance.

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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by aestheteboy » Wed Nov 04, 2009 6:36 pm

I think the point that Matt makes here, and the one that Jonathan makes in a related thread, is super important. I'm glad that people had the courage to speak out against something that I think defines quizbowl today; I've been thinking about if for a while (and discussed it privately with a limited number of people), but I certainly didn't want to accept or admit to the flaw that could potentially delegitimize quizbowl completely.

I think an important thing to consider is that writing comes before playing. In other words, the way people write questions determine how people prepare/study/play those questions and not the other way around. The problem, then, is not that people are playing with "fake" or "superficial" knowledge, but that the questions reward fake knowledge. If, hypothetically, the question archive could somehow enligthen the players and give them true, enriching form of knowledge that we as academics want to promote, then it wouldn't be a problem that referring to old questions is an extremely efficient way to improve.

Then, the key question we ought to ask is, "Why do writers write questions with fake clues?" (Why do so many tossups that we encounter today reward people for remembering character names from Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful more than for reading Cry, the Beloved Country). Well, the answer is clear: it's extremely difficult and time-consuming to write questions that reward "actual" knowledge! What kind of clues distinguish people who have learned Cry, the Beloved Country in a literary class from someone who simply read it for fun? Presumably, clues that you would only encounter in a such class! What kind of clues distinguish people who have actually read Cry, the Beloved Country from someone who learned the plot clues from SparkNotes? Again, by definition, clues that you can only learn by actually reading it!

No one has the knowledge base to produce good (as opposed to fake) questions consistently throughout the year, especially without being biased toward topics and answers that one has more familiarity with (which explains people's fondness of writing vanity or single-subject side events). Any serious discussion of this issue should address this point.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by No Rules Westbrook » Wed Nov 04, 2009 6:56 pm

I reject the notion that qb as it is today rewards fake or superficial knowledge over real primary-source-acquired knowledge.

Good questions today always contain several clues that are very rewarding of primary real knowledge. But there's also nothing wrong with rewarding "knowledge gained through studying and writing quizbowl" - that will always be a big tier of knowledge that this game rewards. It's not a failure of this game that such knowledge is rewarded, in fact it's the very basis of this game.

And with the exception of a few topics, like maybe your Edwidge Danticats - I think people make a bona fide effort to write on things that have importance from an academic perspective, and the good writers are very cognizant of this. So, the things people are learning - no matter whether they're learning them from a class, because they study old questions, because they write questions, because they look some stuff up on wiki - are generally important things.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Mettius Fufetius » Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:04 pm

I would question the assumption that all study that somehow involves named things and plot synopses is as superficial as reading a Wikipedia page. In particular, scholarly articles -- such as this one, which this thread prompted me to read, tying namelessness in A Wild Sheep Chase to various sociological issues, to other literature (including Banana Yoshimoto!), and even to a cultural studies book about Pokemon and its predecessors called "Millennial Monsters" -- indeed contain named things and plot summaries, but tie them to a wider context and are therefore, I would argue, legitimately educational. Additionally, the existence of this wider context allows me to learn and actually remember this information, which enables me to do well on questions that I've read articles on.

This describes the major way that I currently get knowledge for quizbowl in the humanities, with packets (or, e.g. packet-submission writing assignments) only providing the impetus for what to look up. Even while I think it's a highly efficient way to get better at currently constituted quizbowl, I've never thought it was some kind of solipsistic waste of time with no larger benefits; and if I did think that, I wouldn't bother doing it. I'm also not sure how drastically circumscribing the size of the canon is going to make for a more relevant game, given that the humanities canon in quizbowl is already smaller than the list of things actually studied. If that weren't the case, I wouldn't be able to find readable articles on named things in the humanities, which I almost always can.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by marnold » Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:25 pm

I generally tend to agree with the recent thrust of the posts by Matt and Jonathan (at least in part because it seems remarkably hard to disagree with claims like "quizbowl should reward understanding" or "questions should allow teams with lots of knowledge to get questions early"). However, I think that to make these sorts of ideas actually stick, one really important thing needs to change: the way tournaments are analyzed on this very forum.

The method of "this is a question I liked, this is one I didn't" seems to me to be one of the major reasons that people write questions in the sometimes unfortunate manner they do. Matt, Sorice and others have pointed out the prevalence of bitching about questions being "transparent" or "too easy" as a proxy for "woo look at me I know stuff," but the more general structure of discussion seems to be thus: a player remembers a question that screws them over since that's natural to remember, especially when it involves losing a buzzer race (because those are frustrating); then they post about the question; the thread becomes entirely about a handful of questions with everyone clamoring to demonstrate how much knowledge they have by assessing those particular clues; ultimately, very little is said about a tournament in a more general sense. This process seems to strongly encourage all the bad kinds of writing Magin's, Matt's and Jerry's threads have decried. No one ever posts about questions that are bad because no one could possibly buzz in the first 4 lines, so that sort of behavior goes uncriticized, while "transparent" questions, "too easy" questions and buzzer races are inevitably pointed out. To get rid of those claims, questions become more vague, more difficult and filled with lines of hard clues at the beginning, respectively. No one wants to use bad clues or misplace easy clues, so it's easier to just go to the archive to find some stuff that will make the tossup inoffensive - even if bad - so it won't get picked apart.

Obviously if the new method is more about tournaments as a whole ("the social science was too hard...") there will still be discussions of individual questions ("... because X, Y, Z are out of the difficulty level"), but I think some of the issues with bad questions would be corrected by getting rid of the current method of talking about tournaments. I've always thought that the "individual question" method of discussion was fucking useless, and now I can hitch my hatred to the up-swell of support for better questions.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Important Bird Area » Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:40 pm

marnold wrote:No one ever posts about questions that are bad because no one could possibly buzz in the first 4 lines, so that sort of behavior goes uncriticized
I'd like to follow up on this by noting that it's actually very hard to make this sort of criticism with authority. It's quite easy for (say) a mediocre science player to hear such a tossup and conclude only "well, I didn't know any of those clues, but I bet Seth and Jerry and Sorice did; I should study up."
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by theMoMA » Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:42 pm

That's a great point marnold, and something that I'm tired of seeing even though I'm sure I buy into that system even when I try not to. It's so easy to remember that terrible tossup instead of giving thorough reflection on the set in general. As a writer and editor, it's also disappointing and unfulfilling that the vast majority of discussion devolves into tangents about whether Basque mythology is appropriate when all I really want to see is a reasoned critique of the questions as a whole.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) » Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:43 pm

Perhaps if a bunch of people agree, we could run an experiment for the Terrapin discussion (since that's next) where the staff of the board vigorously police the thread to cut out any posts that criticize individual questions for no greater purpose than criticizing that one question. I agree that little good can come of someone saying "I think the Grosse Fugue is too easy for an ACF Fall lead-in" as an independent statement, and perhaps if we experiment with cutting comments like that, unless the writer brings a clear link between the flaw and some greater problem affecting the tournament or quizbowl, say, "I thought the Grosse Fugue was a good example of a bunch of music tossups at ACF Fall not having enough technical description of it before dropping the title," that would be a more useful way to conduct the criticism. [Note: I don't necessarily agree with those statements about the fugue, but that is neither here nor there]. I would ask the staff to consider experimenting with this kind of policy for the next discussion thread, and if it bombs, we can go back to the drawing board about what kind of tactics we should take to focus discussion.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by Matt Weiner » Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:45 pm

No Rules Westbrook wrote:Good questions today always contain several clues that are very rewarding of primary real knowledge. But there's also nothing wrong with rewarding "knowledge gained through studying and writing quizbowl" - that will always be a big tier of knowledge that this game rewards. It's not a failure of this game that such knowledge is rewarded, in fact it's the very basis of this game.
By no means do I want to disincentivize studying for quizbowl. I firmly believe that the most fundamental justification for the existence of (good) quizbowl as a valuable activity is that there is a clear, medium-term relationship between self-directed learning about important topics and competitive success.

Anyone proposing to rule out an enormous and clear role for studying in the quizbowl of the future will garner no truck with me. The question is merely, what sort of studying, about what topics, is to be rewarded by the questions that we choose to write.
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by grapesmoker » Wed Nov 04, 2009 8:28 pm

Captain Sinico wrote:One side of the debate here continues making normative statements about the current state of quizbowl ("quizbowl currently is..." "quizbowl currently rewards..." "current quizbowl players are currently interested in playing current types of questions at difficulty level...") when this debate is entirely about the positive future of quizbowl ("quizbowl ought to ask..." "quizbowl ought to reward..." "quizbowl ought to interest...").
I think you mean "descriptive," where you say "normative," since it's people who are arguing about what quizbowl ought to be who are making the normative statements.
Jerry Vinokurov
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Re: The lost art of good teams getting easy tossups early

Post by New York Undercover » Wed Nov 04, 2009 8:32 pm

grapesmoker wrote:
Captain Sinico wrote:One side of the debate here continues making normative statements about the current state of quizbowl ("quizbowl currently is..." "quizbowl currently rewards..." "current quizbowl players are currently interested in playing current types of questions at difficulty level...") when this debate is entirely about the positive future of quizbowl ("quizbowl ought to ask..." "quizbowl ought to reward..." "quizbowl ought to interest...").
I think you mean "descriptive," where you say "normative," since it's people who are arguing about what quizbowl ought to be who are making the normative statements.
Not that this is particularly relevant but he just switched positive and normative.

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