(Thankfully, the answer is not "six feet of earth from his head to his toes")
There's a whole lot of questions being written these days. With the explosion of good quizbowl nationwide has come an explosion of question sets which at least aspire to embody good quizbowl principles. And this explosion of aspiringly-good sets requires an explosion of writers capable of producing them, or else the entire production model will be unsustainable and on the brink of collapse.
I've already written about this elsewhere (as part of the "Big Vision" series last summer), but: It is my opinion that there are too many question sets being written each year. Or, to put it another way: There are too few capable question writers available to sustainably produce the current number of question sets which are expected to be good each year. Or, more succintly still: Too many sets are being written by too few people. (To give credit where credit is due, Matt Weiner was actually one of the first people to sound the alarm about this.)
You may ask: "But I love quizbowl! How could there possibly be anything wrong with lots of quizbowl to play all year long?" Well, let me tell you. Here are some problems with the current arrangement:
- People who could be focusing their resources on other projects are unable to do so because they're busy writing questions for one to umpteen sets at once. This affects the busiest and most involved people most heavily, preventing outreach work, dedication to tournament logistics, stockpiling for vendors that can use their questions far into the future, etc. -- and increasing the risk of burnout.
- When there are tons of tournaments all the time, only the most dedicated teams attend them all and many of the less-involved teams stay away from most of them; this means that any individual tournament makes less money than it would in a world where there were fewer & all teams could reasonably be expected to attend all of them. As a result, a lot of sets just end up getting thrown right on the heap of quizbowlpackets practice questions rather than getting heard widely by teams in-person.
- The sheer number of tournaments in today's active regions is poisonous for outreach and recruiting new teams. Put yourself in the mindset of a brand new teacher or parent, expected to coach a team in an active area on top of the existing duties that your job requires. You're already giving up Saturdays that you could be spending at home with family or on grading exams, etc. Are you likely to stick with it if there are 20 weekends you're expected to give up, rather than 8 or 10? Or are you going to flee in terror? (Many people don't flee, obviously, but some do and have.) Furthermore, will you know which tournaments are the important ones to focus on and the ones you really shouldn't miss, or are all the events in your region billing themselves as essential? It's easy to get fatigued if you don't know what to focus on, and so many people don't try.
- Many sets by newer or untested writers are not as good as they could be if efforts were combined; in the event that a set by a newer or untested writer is actually good, fewer people get to see that it's good and promote that writer's work in the future.
Let's actually count out how many sets we need, total. I'll start with middle school and college first, since they're much simpler / much less problematic:
For middle school: I don't really know anything about middle school quizbowl, as I have never staffed it, but it seems like the existing 4 NAQT sets per year, plus MSNCT, plus NHB events, is sufficient for most teams' needs at this juncture. Given that NAQT format and style is the accepted norm for legitimate middle school competition, there's no need to add a second national championship or very many other sets outside their purview, and there seems to be little impetus to bring them into existence.
For college:The year is shorter, running from October to April, and regions are more distinct & smaller, making it easier to standardize the calendar nationwide. Most years converge on a calendar sort of resembling the following slate of 13 to 16 events, with a bit of aberration here or there, and this seems to work pretty well:
Fall semester: "true novice" event; "Regular-minus" or "Fall-plus" event; Regular Tournament 1; ACF Fall; Regular Tournament 2
Spring semester: ACF Regionals; NAQT SCT; Regular Tournament 3; (possible Regular Tournament 4); "Regular-minus" or "Fall-plus" event (MUT for the past eight years); Nationals Prep/Hard Open; NAQT ICT; ACF Nationals
Summer: Chicago Open; maybe one or two more summer opens
For high school: Let's assume for the sake of argument that we can assume every school will be back in session by September 1, such that the club fair and new student recruitment can reliably take place by mid-September. Let's also assume for the sake of argument that most high school teams benefit from some downtime between tournaments, such that each region works best by scheduling one tournament every two weekends. If you had one high school set to be played every OTHER week of the year from mid-September through April, you would need fifteen question sets total. (This seems on-its-face healthier to me than circuits which have a tournament every single weekend; for one thing, it's impossible to reliably draw on college players as staffers for many high school events if the weekends on which college tournaments take place aren't kept separate from the weekends in which high school tournaments take place.) Then the last weekend of April is taken up by NHBB Nationals, and late May/early June are taken up by HSNCT, NSC, and NASAT, all of which either block out the prospect of local tournaments or take place after most schools are out of session. If you assume teams do want to play a regional tournament amidst all that in mid-May, you're up to sixteen required tournament sets each year.
Now let's count out the number of regional sets that actually existed this year for high school alone, and then the number of championships:
NAQT Regular: IS-138, IS-140, IS-142, IS-144, IS-146
NAQT Introductory: IS-137A, IS-139A, IS-141A, IS-143A, IS-145A (not used in all circuits; made largely from TV material)
HSAPQ: Tournament-52, VHSL Series (State Series)
Housewrites Regular-and-Up: BISB, HFT, GSAC, Potatoville, VTACO, BHSAT, HERMES, Prison Bowl
Housewrites Introductory: SCOP Novice
NHB Regionals: Set C, Set B, Set A, US History Regional Set (not counting the written quizzes)
Championships: NHBB Nats (US Bee/Geo Olympiad/Bee/Bowl), SSNCT, HSNCT, PACE NSC, NASAT
State-Specific / Not Widely Mirrored: Scobol Solo, OAC, Masonic Sectionals, Masonic State, Right Triangle Open, KAAC, etc. etc.
Held Over from Last Spring: BELLOCO, Maryland Spring
Assuming a school can exist only in one state and only plays one state-specific event, it was theoretically possible to send a team to 31 quizbowl and History Bowl weekends -- potentially more if there are more state-specific events. That number shrinks somewhat (to 25) if we assume the team is not a novice team and the person playing SCOP, A-sets, etc. is not also playing NASAT. But it grows again if tournaments run on college sets such as DII SCT, DII ICT, MUT, and (for this year, at least) ACF Fall and Regionals are added to the mix, or if the state series takes multiple weekends to play. As a serious question, how many teams came close to playing that many tournaments during this past year? Aren't we near a point where it's literally impossible to play everything, given the presence of winter and summer break? Even though times have changed even since I was in high school (and I was satisfied playing nine HS tournaments, one college tournament, and HSNCT/NSC), and more people would literally play a tournament every weekend if given the chance, I don't think that number has risen enough to counteract the bad effects on coaches' sanity, outreach, etc. that I listed above. I would suspect that even among the best and most dedicated teams, only a mere handful would notice if the number of competition opportunities reduced to 20 in their surrounding area, and not much larger a handful would be seriously aggrieved if it went down further.
I haven't done the math on this, and probably couldn't since some of the information is not publicly available, but if I had to guess, I'd venture that the total number of people who actually wrote substantial numbers of questions for all those sets (for now let's say "substantial" means "triple-digit or higher") is below 100 total. It's really not that many people doing all this work, and many of them are doing multiple sets or organizations. There's way too large a supply of tournaments, too little demand for most of it, a huge strain on the specialized type of labor it requires to produce these questions (which doesn't just pop out of thin air don't ya know), and a huge strain on coaches, chaperones, and captains if they're earnestly expected to go to all of it to stay competitive.
What to move towards
If there are fewer sets, nothing stops some of those sets from being used at a larger number of sites at a more granular level (e.g. the Turnabouts setup in Illinois or the Fall Kickoff setup in Ohio, where multiple locations across the same state use the same set on one day). And the choice between "hosting a small tournament to make money" vs. "hosting no tournament and making no money" becomes a false one -- there is the as-yet-untried prospect of collaborative hosting, in which two or more schools can pool their efforts to host a much larger tournament than either could reasonably staff independently, and split the proceeds. Thinking long-term, I'd much rather have a world where every tournament fits into one of those two bins (small, but draws only on a short-drive-away local field |OR| large, but draws on huge numbers of teams from across a broader region such as "the mid-Atlantic" or "the Southeast"). What shouldn't continue is the rut that many high school sets are stuck in now, where the mirrors are spaced out as widely as college tournaments are but they also don't have large fields; e.g. a "Northeast" mirror with 20 teams and a "mid-Atlantic" mirror with 10 more and a "Great Lakes" mirror with 8, etc. etc. -- that's not a good way for anybody to be getting revenue in. Either mirrors ought to be spaced-out and quite large, or closer and smaller; if a set can't manage either of those setups it's probably going to be missed by all but the most dedicated teams.
What's more, lot of state-specific writing work (e.g. for VHSL, Masonics, OAC, etc.) is reduplicative, and could be streamlined by use of a single State Championships set of the sort HSAPQ has been looking to generate, or by switching the multi-tier state championship over to NAQT questions as Alabama (ASCA), Georgia (GATA), and Missouri (MSHSAA) have done. It really isn't that hard to customize a common pool of tossups around the edges so as to add the 2-10% of state-specific content or format it in the remaining wonky state-specific ways. It is much harder to expect that each state's dedicated people will find a way to write 700+ new tossups on their own, which again prevents those same people from doing other kinds of dedicated work in their local circuits.
There are some issues with cutting material from the calendar, though, which it's worth addressing honestly. One such issue is that some writers -- particularly inexperienced ones looking to get their start -- might be "blocked" from writing a set that could actually get played, reducing their ability to improve (both as players, from learning a bunch of stuff through the writing process, and as writers). Seeing as NAQT just set its minimum writer age to 18, there is now little outlet for HS players who want to write besides by writing their own sets. So what is to be done? For one thing, more people can consider using the large question vendors as their outlets for writing. As I've written elsewhere, it can't hurt if the world we eventually get to is one in which the major question companies have large stockpiles they can draw on to build sets with relative ease. As high school players are much less able to write college sets than the reverse, it may make sense for college players to do this more readily; nonetheless, it may still be true that some ambitious high school players will have to stockpile their questions for use by future vendors, or hold onto them privately for individual study purposes.
There's also prisoner's dilemma-esque situation here: People gravitate towards writing full sets by themselves ("defect" / take the self-interested option) because it makes them more money than the currently-visible alternative of collaborating or mirroring ("cooperate" / the collaborative option). That isn't necessarily the way things have to be with some reshuffling, though. The goal is to have a world where collaborations in a calendar with fewer sets on it ultimately make hosts and co-hosts the same amount or perhaps even more money. When multiple schools all staff the same tournament, they are much more able to expand to host more teams (if two schools each had to set a field cap of 24 given their own capacities, they could set a cap of 48 for a collaborative event -- to say nothing of the efforts that pooled outreach/recruitment efforts could do beyond that) and a larger revenue can be split multiple ways with little trouble.
Also, as I understand it, every major question vendor company fixes the number of sets that it writes pretty much in stone each year based on expected demand, and all are trying to make a profit. So it's similarly unrealistic to ask existing vendors to cut back for the sake of the community, as that will be an immediate revenue loss for them unless and until a broader transformation occurs in how large or closely-spaced (or both) tournaments become in the future.
Setting new norms for who gets to write sets and how
This community is organized on a very ad-hoc basis with few authorities or structures for dispute resolution, and that gets more true as you get up to the college and open level. This has an effect on how set production is done. As of now, anybody can up and announce a set without anyone having asked them any of these questions beforehand:
- Do you really need to write that set?
- Do you expect you'd actually do a good job, and if you've never done a set before, do other people with influence in the community actually agree with your self-assessment?
- Have you gotten help or asked to subsume your efforts into an existing project?
- What are you willing to do to ensure that your set has a large audience?
This is less important in high school than it is in college, since most sets can be run at any time during the year after they are completed, but: "seek[ing] the blessing" of existing events/people can be important if you have a new event and you're displacing the time period of an old one, so nobody is surprised or thrown for a loop. What's more, it's important to let people know if you're going to be discontinuing your set or if it was a one-time thing (or if it's discontinued for a year but slated to come back thereafter), ideally during this summer timeframe.
To conclude: I think that the number of high school sets (or at minimum the imbalance between the large number of sets and small number of writers) is a serious problem affecting the quality of the community, which is a drag on other kinds of efforts. I suspect that the needs of 95+% of teams would be adequately met, and the detriment to the super-dedicated 5-% outweighed by other goods, if we as a community pooled our resources to put together fifteen regular-difficulty question sets a year total, and maybe fewer than that. Given the continued existence of A-sets and nationals, that doesn't seem unreasonable to me. If "that's never going to happen," I am open to further discussion about what to do about this situation. For example: I've received some pushback from people I've talked to about this post before I made it, saying that I've actually got the problem all wrong and there are actually too FEW usable high school sets in existence right now, particularly in areas such as Illinois or the mid-Atlantic which actually do have to use them all across a pretty large expanse of territory. (In which case the problem seems to reduce to "there are too few writers; generate more writers"?) I am curious to hear what folks from regions that use every set think about what my proposals would do in their areas; more generally, if you disagree with me, please pop in, so we can be more likely to converge on a workable, healthy way to reset this aspect of the quizbowl community than just my opinion.