Resetting [pt. 1 of 6]: How to Help Hold Up the Game Well

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Adventure Temple Trail
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Joined: Tue Jul 15, 2008 9:52 pm

Resetting [pt. 1 of 6]: How to Help Hold Up the Game Well

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Back to Intro/Contents

Or: Filling the Void

Before March 2015 we had a single person who was:
  • an administrator on (and the owner of) these forums (the Quizbowl Resource Center),
  • the Chairman of the second-largest question vendor company (HSAPQ) and a frequent subject editor for same,
  • a contract writer for the largest question vendor company (NAQT) and erstwhile subject editor for same,
  • the slated tournament director of a high school national championship (the PACE NSC) and a writer/editor of a small amount of questions for same,
  • the slated tournament director of a greatly expanding collegiate national championship (ACF Nationals),
  • the Meeting Chair of the organization running that championship (ACF),
  • working a "day job" as Head (and often sole) Writer of a competition which uses close to 10,000 questions each year worldwide (NHBB).
That's an astoundingly long list of official commitments across six organizations. That's as many as two threes. And that's terrible. (And that doesn't count other "one-off" projects such as writing/running VCU Open, playing/staffing/TDing tournaments on weekends throughout the year, and helping maintain the Quizbowl IRC channel.) There was an earnest possibility -- or so it seemed -- that entire infrastructure of our community could have collapsed in the absence of this one person.

And that's just not a stable way to do things. Unforeseen stuff happens all the time -- people get medical emergencies, relatives die, whatever -- and we need to know that life will continue on most fronts as normal even if we're down one person. What's more, from what I can tell the above list represents an awful and Atlas-like level of responsibility for that person who IS doing so much at once -- to the detriment of any such person's ability to take care of their own health and happiness. Lastly, it's as true of quizbowl as it is anywhere else in the wider world that multi-tasking is quite difficult, that most people are much worse at it than they self-report, and for most people, the quality of the tasks drops somewhat with each additional task added to the pile. It's hard to finesse (or even finish) a collegiate open tournament if one has spent the past week writing an entire high school-level set -- trust me, I've been there, I know -- and there's no reason to wish that situation on somebody but with the number of concurrent duties taken up one order of magnitude. If we take just one lesson away from the past year, it's this somewhat naive but worth-stating lesson: There should never be one person holding up six quizbowl organizations ever again.

This is not to say that we shouldn't have people who are as dedicated as 2000-2014 Matt Weiner in the future, and I definitely don't want to discourage people from wanting to play a large role in holding the community up. In fact, it'd be great if we had more people with that level of dedication, as that would go a long ways towards resolving the problem we had before! It is to say that we need a larger and more diffuse set of people taking on big-name responsibilities, and that we need to figure out how to focus those people's energy better. If we restructure the way we do things so that those types of big-picture dedication doesn't become overwhelming, so much the better.

Here are my suggestions for getting there:

--People ought to build stronger institutional commitments which begin earlier (if possible) and are taken up with the expectation of lasting longer. The word I first planned to use was "loyalties," though that doesn't quite cover it; what I mean is that people who care about the quizbowl community at large should do a bit more to see themselves as one pillar holding up a very large roof, providing concentrated effort in a narrower spot, since it's not possible to be everywhere at once. A single person might like and benefit from all of NAQT, HSAPQ, PACE, NHBB, ACF, and, but that doesn't mean there's enough hours in the week to do a little bit for each one. Each of those organizations (plus many others besides -- think local quizbowl alliances, for one example, or one's own high school/college team) has its own set of tasks and specialties, and all of them have procedures for selecting members and officers based on demonstrated commitment to them or to the things they care about. Of course it's fine to do a one-off task for an organization outside one's usual purview (such as my work on this past ICT). And there's obviously some amount of experimentation and trying out of things to be done in figuring out where one fits best and where one's talents are most needed.
But I'd like to see more dedicated people reach a point where they eventually "cast their lot" primarily with just one or two organizations (or types of task), trusting that the rest of the community will work itself out. If you feel like you're really a part of the operation you're probably doing it right.
I suspect that most people have trouble juggling more than three quizbowl organizational responsibilities in a given year, and many people could afford to focus their efforts on really doing their best for two (including captaining/coaching one's own team in this number). Keeping the number of separate tasks one does to a minimum lets one give more of one's effort towards each task.This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, as there are certainly people who have successfully completed individual years in which they were pretty seriously involved in three or four organizations. (I trust Rob Carson, for example, to be Chief Admin of these forums, subject-edit for ACF Nationals, write MUT, and subject-edit for PACE NSC in the same year.) But that's a state to be worked up to with time and with trust, not an expected default.

--Perhaps in contradiction to the above: people should use the time between seasons to set their levels of commitment for the upcoming competition year. Once NASAT is over, every major organization (with the possible exception of ACE Camp) has a small amount of downtime before it begins the summer -- now (and around this time in future summers) is a good time for involved folks to reassess what they do, what their priorities are, and where they want to step up or tone down their contributions. That way, people don't feel like they're stuck doing things forever just because nobody else bothered to ask. Splitting up one's participation in quizbowl into mini-arcs for each competition year -- what can you agree to do THIS YEAR as opposed to forever? -- is probably healthier as well, though it's of course not optimal for long-term planning. Think diachronically as well as synchronically - are there ways to space out tasks during the year so you are never overwhelmed with producing, say, more than one question set at once?

--Know your limits. (I have plenty of trouble with this one.) There may be times when there is a dire need somewhere and you still can't do it even though you know how dire the need is. Trust that either (a) someone else will fill the void or (b) the failure of an individual event here or there to get its own act together isn't always your fault or a catastrophe for the world. Be aware that direct tradeoffs exist and that you can't be in two places at once. Don't be afraid of saying "no, I'm not interested" or "I can't; I'm too busy" UP-FRONT if you simply wouldn't be able to fit something in, even if it's tempting or interesting. (To some extent, this requires organizations to be able to take an UP-FRONT "no, I'm not interested this time" or "I can't; I'm too busy" for an answer.) Every major quizbowl person has felt the crunch at some point, and getting shanghaied into tasks that one doesn't have the energy for just leaves everyone feeling used and sad. Much more on this in part 3.

---As a corollary to the above: Not everybody should feel like they have to do more if they don't want to do more than just play for their team. There are some basic maintain-the-team-you-play-for tasks like staffing if your school hosts an event, which can reasonably be expected of every player at some point; I mean beyond that baseline. The goal is to get to a world where the people who do want to do more are numerous and effective enough, and good enough at finding each other, that there's no need to pressure people to do more than they're well-equipped to do.

That said, a lot of the above only works or makes sense if we have enough pillars to hold up the entire roof. So:

--More people need to be brought up the ladder BOTH on the writing side AND the logistics side. In order to remain sustainable, we as a community have to be constantly finding and training those new people who do have potential to be larger contributors. If you have an experienced TD, have an assistant TD "shadow" them for the day, then put them in the hot seat next time. If you have a question set or writing project in the works, consider bringing on a new person or two to see how a sizable chunk of their questions might look, and/or recommend new writers who did well on your projects to other question companies and writing teams so those newer writers can go on to establish a reputation for themselves. This will ensure that organizations have a bigger pool to choose from. I don't think we were failing to do this before, but we could certainly stand to do a lot more of it at all levels.

--Ensure that you're paying attention to and talking up good work among the circle of established contributors you know well. Some past discussions have compared the set of people who plan most of quizbowl to a "free market", but that has never rung true to me -- it much more resembles a cartel, and that cartel makes decisions best when it has access to all the available information.

--Logistics people need to be valued much more for what they do, and need to earn recognition the same way that writers do for a track record of jobs well done. Right now, there's little incentive for people to get seriously involved in doing things that aren't (a) playing quizbowl well (b) writing quizbowl questions that are well-liked by the most prominent good players in the game. I'd like to see that change through more praise and earnest awarding of prestige to the people that keep big tournaments and operations running well, as players and writers would be far less able to demonstrate their greatness without this third component.

--Acknowledge more often when people "off the circuit/forums" etc. do things well, so they can be brought in and encouraged to do more. In part due to their stunning success among teams that really care about the game, the Quizbowl Resource Center forums are often an example of the "what you see is all there is" fallacy at work. There are plenty of people who AREN'T yet as plugged-in, or who don't make a name for themselves very often, but who have nonetheless been crucial to the success of a given question set, tournament, regional calendar, or organization. There are plenty more who don't get that chance because of the fallacy assuming that people who don't post on the Internet must not exist as truly or as seriously as those who do. There are, right now, more competent and dedicated high school players graduating each year than ever before. There's plenty of manpower to draw on, but it's under-used and often utterly undiscovered.

In order to fill in this year where it seemed necessary, both during the crisis and before, I felt like I had to contribute at a fever pitch on several different burners all at once. I don't ever want to have to contribute at this fever pitch on so many burners at once ever again, and think that no one should have to. We're a grown-up enough game and have enough people involved that we can make it work with a more diffuse net of people, each responsible for as much as they can handle.
Matt J.
ex-Georgetown Day HS, ex-Yale
member emeritus, ACF

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