EDIT: prefatory note 2: Much of this post responds to Stephen Liu's comments here in the discussion thread for Chicago Open 2016. If my posts below say "in the tournament" or "in this tournament" without further specifying, it also refers to CO 2016, for which I edited the Mythology category.
Over the years, I've gotten more and more disillusioned with the state of Mythology as a stand-alone category in high-difficulty college quizbowl tournaments. As I said in this year's CO discussion thread, the state of mythology questions in college quizbowl is somewhere between "a bore" and "an embarrassment." Subjects such as science, geography, and film have been improved lastingly by discussion threads on these boards, and mythology is long overdue for similar treatment. In the time since the "interesting geography" reform became the norm two or three years back, I'm hard-pressed to think of a category as far removed from the way in which college-and-older people actually engage with the underlying information than mythology.
I say this as someone who was an accomplished mythology player -- "old-style" mythology was a huge source of my scoring throughout high school and college -- and who spent a large chunk of education, both in and out of the classroom, on classics and even on comparative mythology (the last academic paper I was ever assigned took a whack at N.K. Narayan's treatment of the Ramayana). I've edited Mythology for three college tournaments (MAGNI, ACF Regionals '14, CO 2016) and supervised the category for many high school sets. I suspect that I personally would benefit greatly if the category stayed exactly like it's been. But it'd be bad for the game if it did.
What the Problem Is
In the CO 2016 discussion thread, Stephen Liu says:
I agree with Stephen that most people learn mythology outside the classroom. While many colleges have introductory classes on Greco-Roman myth or comparative religion, almost none offer a mythology major (the Folklore and Mythology concentration at Harvard, which got a mention at this tournament, being one high-profile exception). Just like literature (plenty of people, such as Jordan Brownstein, are voracious book readers without majoring in the subject academically), the near-total absence of "mythology majors" is not in itself reason to hack the category down. I further agree with him that our game is not, in general, about testing knowledge of what's currently in vogue in classrooms to the detriment of everything else, and that the per-packet distribution ought not reflect the relative popularity of majors/subjects to the exclusion of other concerns (such as how much quizbowl-askable material there is in a given subject). Indeed, I think everything I present below is compatible both with Stephen's view of the subject and Ike's much-appreciated post on curbing the excesses of specialization.Stephen Liu wrote:The problem here, I think, is that we're falling into the trap of "the only real knowledge is academic stuff you learn in class." Let's think about how most people approach mythology. Mythology is primarily learned outside of in-class academic environments. The vast majority of people interested in mythology are reading the stories because those stories are interesting and exciting[.]
So if the problem isn't some disconnect with "the classroom," what is it? Putting it succinctly, the problem is this: The mythology category today doesn't reward what intellectually curious college students actually know or learn in ANY capacity beyond studying specifically for quizbowl. Because many myth systems just don't have information running very deep, the reservoir of usable clues in a lot of myth systems is nearly depleted. And a lot of the obscure clues people search for just aren't very useful.
In today's game, you get clues like this two lines into a regular-difficulty tossup:
Several problems here. For one, Laevateinn is mentioned only once in one segment of the Prose Edda. For two, it's legitimately ambiguous whether Laevateinn is a wand, a sword, a staff, or some other kind of object altogether. For three, the "figure" who is said to have created Laevateinn is a mysterious "Loftur"; it's only a matter of conjecture (albeit frequently-regurgitated conjecture) that "Loftur" and Loki are one and the same. For four, it may not even be called 'Laevateinn' at all! That was the gloss of a nineteenth century Danish scholar for a difficult-to-read word in the original manuscript.Missouri Open 2015, packet 7 wrote:Sinmara guards a chest with nine locks that contains this figure’s wand, Laevateinn....
Admittedly, not all examples are that extreme. And some mythologies, such as Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, and Chinese, are far further from genuinely running out of usable clues. But in a lot of myth systems, such as Egyptian, Norse, and Japanese, there's simply no alternative except to to burrow further into objects mentioned on only one line of a difficult-to-read manuscript, to recycle clues that players already know, or to forsake them in pursuit of obscurer peoples like indigenous Canary Islanders. Even in pretty standard topics, you're going to get the same early clues every time you try to tossup basic figures such as Cadmus or Romulus, because their stories just don't have that much more to say than what tossups have already said. People keep writing crappy and/or trivial clues to try and fill out full tossups, such as genealogy bowl ("This man's father..."), single-mention characters, random toponyms, or clues which tell one version of a story with multiple variants as though it were the only one, ambiguous or vague information over-"reified"* into clues (often by secondary or tertiary sources such as Encyclopedia Mythica). And if you manage to avoid all of that, you still run into issues of conflation and syncretism between traditions (e.g.: what do you do if someone says "Ba'al" or "Hercules" if you wrote a tossup on Melqart? What do you do if someone says "Amun" or "Atum" when your desired answer is Ra?)
As difficulty goes up and editors scrape the bottom of the myth-clue barrel more and more intensely, it increasingly becomes the case that the only viable way to get mythology questions early is to be a quizbowl player dedicated to getting mythology clues early. And becoming a top-tier mythology player requires a MUCH more artificial process that becoming a top-tier player in basically any other currently existing ACF category. In other words, it rewards the worst aspects of "fake" knowledge accumulation and little else. Now, this is obviously the case in every category to a pretty large degree; you don't get better at quizbowl without in some way developing some "fake" process to accumulate a lot of the information you're likely to need in-game (even if it's a process as benign as "going to practice twice a week"). But in other categories it is at least theoretically, and often practically, possible for a newbie with an outside interest to get stuff early based on their pre-quizbowl existence. The best analogy to prior quizbowl deficiencies is to geography, which was recently reformed on similar grounds -- if browsing a "list of lightning gods" is the best way to get that next common link (or write it), this game fails its players in precisely the same way as "almanac clues" failed us in geography; it devolves into a contextless arms race of the most trivial kind.
And I say all this as a player for whom arms-race memorization of mythology clues was a key source of points throughout my career. When trawling Theoi.com or GodChecker was the best way to take advantage of questions as they've been written, that's exactly what I did to win.
(* by "over-reified" I mean assuming that information is more concrete and specific than it actually is. Most deities don't have a specific "jRPG element" or domain that they're connected to one-to-one (is Ukko a lightning god or a sky god or a fertility god or all of the above?), and many objects are somewhat ambiguous (is Laevateinn a sword, a wand, a branch, or something else? No one knows!), and in such cases it's absurd to expect players to guess which of the various possibilities is the one the question writer is looking for.)
How do people learn myths and why?
To get slightly more radical: As it exists today, having a standalone "Mythology" category reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how people learn myths and why they learn them.
Here is a list off the top of my head of why people learn the information found in myths and mythologies:
- Because myths are memorable (compelling, exciting, outrageous, emotion-provoking, or just plain "fun") stories, and humans like memorable stories. (Stephen emphasizes this reason in his post, and rightly so.)
- To understand allusions or depictions in literature, essayistic/academic writing, art, proverbs, and popular culture, and to learn to make such allusions in one's own creative work. (This is the one I find most important. Mythology is important primarily because other forms of human creativity draw on it.)
- To understand other cultures -- how cultures (typically historical or distant cultures) view(ed) themselves, the cosmos, and their place in it.
- To aid in bigger-picture comparative cultural studies and/or to understand some purported universal features of the human mind, tropes of world storytelling, etc. (A lot of 20th-century "mythography" falls into this bucket.)
- As part of learning one's own religion or heritage.
- As part of learning about some geographic location, symbol, glyph, animal, plant, etc. and the history of human thought about it. (A lot of things in the world are pretty charged with symbolism and meaning, and mythical / supernatural associations are part of that.)
Ultimately, I think a lot of the issue is the ACF norm of category "purity," namely that mixing categories is largely taboo. And in the case of mythology, excessive concerns about "purity" / avoiding category-mixing make questions suck more, since it means that it's the norm to ignore specific literary works, statues, historical rituals, paintings, statues, operas, sociocultural treatments, adaptations, etc. etc. This exacerbates the shortage of usable clues -- beyond the basics of which god does what, what crop or weapon or symbol symbolizes which character, and the stories commonly compiled in [Edith] Hamiltonesque tertiary sourcebooks, there just aren't a lot of important clues to draw on without crossing over into literary, historical, artistic, or sociocultural treatments. In effect, with the exception of referencing specific texts such as Ovid's Metamorphoses by name, it deprecates the use of any clue content which could actually specify why myths are important to humanity! I think this is a problem.
(People do also often learn mythology information "by accident" as part of some pop cultural or non-academic phenomenon that draws on it, e.g. fantasy literature, references in video games, etc. It's not an issue if people occasionally get points due to learning about something from a trash source, as they sometimes do in every category; just don't deliberately include trash clues in your academic questions. Almost all people are introduced to Arthurian mythology through 20th-century re-envisionings which we would consider "trash," for example. And it's a rather notorious feature of Japanese RPGs that lots of weapons and summon spells are named after mythical entities.)
What To Do About It
My proposed solution basically boils down to three points: (1) reduce (or remove!) the standalone Mythology category, (2) revamp the way any remaining myth content is written, (3) recategorize questions on myth-related clues and topics in other areas of the distribution where they fit better.
(1) Reduce the amount of required myth
Giving a full 1/1 to Mythology every tournament means that the same content comes up over and over, which makes it one of the easiest categories to master. I read the Kalevala for points, just like many of you, and I was rewarded for it at virtually every tournament I played thereafter. It's kind of crazy that reading the Kalevala in a reasonably thorough manner (as I did for points, just like the rest of you) will guarantee you point at basically every tournament, when no other comparable work of 19th-century literature comes up every tournament (and even the Iliad probably won't). What's more, it eats up space that a lot of other small categories could use more readily. As has been noted before, it's pretty insane that all of the social sciences (which make up a plurality of academic majors) gets 5% of each packet while the above state of affairs continues.
As was done with geography, we can leave mythology largely to low difficulties and just require less of it as difficulty level goes up. I will go out on a limb and go as far as to say that above Regionals difficulty, mythology questions can and should be entirely optional (see part (3) below for more on what to do if so), and that at Regionals difficulty mythology needs only one question per 20/20 (at most). (I'd be happy seeing Regionals go over to something like 1.5/1.5 for the Religion-Mythology continuum, requiring say 1 question on a text, 1 on contemporary practices, and 1 on archaic religion or myth.)
(2) Revamp the writing of existing myth questions
Much like my "interesting geography" thread, it's easy to call for a change in how a category is written and harder to provide an actual guide for how to do it. So without further ado, here are some things you can do to make your mythology questions better, and better able to reward the kinds of learning stipulated upthread:
- Include a decent amount of mythography, social science, "thought," and scholarship derived from myths, etc. -- show how mythology relates to and is discussed within existing academic work (At SCT 2014, there was a Mixed tossup on Medusa which began by describing the essay "The Laugh of Medusa" by Helene Cixous, e.g. -- why not do that in myth proper?)
- Embed mythology information in the cultural and geographic contexts that make it important, even if it encroaches on "Geography," "History," or "Religion" to do so, (which cities or geographic features they tie to in reality, how deities were worshipped or sacrificed to, temple architecture, archaeological sites, etc.)
- Use textual clues from the core texts that players actually read and area aware of, citing actual texts wherever possible. I agree that most players aren't reading the Shabaka Stone, but tons of people read the Homeric epics, the Eddas, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, etc. and those works should have disproportionate representation compared to more out-there stuff.
- Minimize excessive deep-diving into characters, places, or items which are only mentioned on one line of one text or which don't have broader significance (Norse myth, in particular, is riddled with these).
- Minimize genealogy-bowl except in cases where all relatives involved are clearly important and the genealogical relationship is clearly important.
- Venture beyond rarefied ancient "mythology" to bring up more supernatural info of different types. These include: historical legends (the sword of Damocles, Pythias and Damon, etc.), tall tales/fakelore (John Henry, Pecos Bill, etc.), cryptids and fantastic beasts (unicorns etc.), urban legends, etc. etc.
- Focus in on symbology (plants, animals, symbols such as 'the lightning bolt' or 'the wheel', numerology, etc.)
I will readily concede to Stephen right now that, when taking the multi-pronged approach above, shifting the balance excessively toward mythography content is likely to make questions too hard. In fact, I agree with him that mythography is a relatively minor and passé social science as things go, and doesn't need more than a handful of mentions in a standard-size set. (I'm not sure if anybody of note has done it seriously since Levi-Strauss and Bettelheim went out of vogue late last century.) At lower levels, clues like "Friar Francisco Ximenez translated a collection of myths from these people into Spanish," for example, are certainly real and knowable and good if sprinkled in.
(3) Recategorize myth material elsewhere
(and make an effort to push it)
If the category of mythology didn't exist at all, would it really be so bad? We could still ask about currently-observed traditions (Hinduism, Shinto), through Religion, about classical epics or characters or scenes through Literature, about artistic depictions in art or Mixed_Pure_Academic, about foundation myths in their historical context or the patron deities of historical figures in History, about etiological or tutelary deities in Geography, about mythography and theories based on mythical figures in Social Science and "thought," and about anything of anyone's choice (including "typical" or "pure" myth!) in Your Choice. And we could be less coy about the mythological plot points when writing questions on mythological material in other categories (e.g. Idunno, an opera tossup on Il Ritorno d'Ulisse). Even if mythology does exist to some extent in packets, other categories are richer and full of more exciting ("fun") material when they don't go out of their way to avoid mythology material.
And this needn't be limited to academic categories, either. Let's say something is really only knowable through popular media. Go ahead and write the trash tossup on The Once and Future King -- as Matt Bollinger has been fond of pointing out elsewhere, we don't have to reserve the Pop Culture distribution for our most lowbrow vanity impulses.
If it weren't possible to have a serious post-childhood interest in mythology, we would need to lump mythology in with geography, current events, and trash as categories which are helpful for getting middle schoolers and high schoolers involved in the game, and curtail it without replacement in the college game. But again, I'm not Marshall, and I don't think that myth content is entirely and inherently intellectually unserious. Rather, I think that the way people engage with myth as adults is better represented by a mythology-less (or mythology-light) distribution in which plenty of content derived from myths is represented here or there in other categories such as literature, history, fine arts, religion, social science, geography, and pop culture where appropriate. If we make sure to use those clues where appropriate, rather than shying away from them as a violation of "purity" or a taboo against category-mixing, we'll have a more vibrant game.
Conclusion and Broader Points
Over time, it seems like quizbowl writers have largely agreed that the following categories can (and perhaps should) be shrunk well below 1/1 per round as difficulty goes down, and grown as difficulty goes up:
World Literature, Philosophy, Social Science, (Chemistry below HS nationals level, each component of Fine Arts, but only once you get down to HS novice and middle school level)
And that the following categories can (and perhaps should) be shrunk as difficulty goes up, and grown to as much as 1/1 per round as difficulty goes down:
Math, Geography, Current Events, Trash
The least radical takeaway from this thread would be: "Put Mythology on the latter list."
Now I can readily admit that Chicago Open, and this past CO in particular, was perhaps not the best pilot run of these approaches. For one thing, I used many submissions that didn't cohere with this view; for two, Chicago Open is a very hard tournament, so it's going to try these ideas out in a very difficult way rather than proving that it can be done accessibly, even at Nationals-level events. For three, we announced a 1/1 Mythology distribution at a tournament with eight independent subject editors, so I used that space to try out what might have been spread out across other categories in my ideal tournament. (My tossup on the "shield of Aeneas" was probably better-classified as a Literature tossup, for example, but another editor was already filling Literature as he saw fit.)
The distribution is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's probably part of the reason we haven't had a superstar geography player in college recently that we don't ask as much of it, making this a less attractive game to geography superstars on the fence about playing it, and making geography study a less attractive proposition in terms of time and opportunity cost than studying a larger category. If mythology were less of a thing in college quizbowl, it's likely that we'd see a similar process of other intellectually important material getting priority.
It's my personal view that mythology is a boring category, and a chore to edit up to standards. Maybe I'm totally wrong. Maybe a lot of people do love mythology in quizbowl and without for its own sake, and the game's high mythology content makes more myth-lovers out of non-myth-lovers, and that's how we want things to be. It may just be that mythology bores me because I am old (in a year I'll be 25, and officially a "dinosaur"!). Maybe there are more good questions which do what I'm asking already than I give credit for. I am welcome to hear others' thoughts.
Addendum: Distributional Pluralism
That said, if you read all this and you say "fie to all that; I can write 1/1 accessible Mythology for every packet forever," and do so well, then I look forward to seeing what results.
More generally, I would like to see more "distributional pluralism" in future years, which is to say, taking a stab at doing things a different way, and seeing whether it works out. We can have some tournaments do things differently than usual. There's a lot of inertia when it comes to distributional concerns -- I think often people are afraid of tinkering with the default we have to see what might work better or be doable. And a lot of distribution fights reach a fever pitch in this community because an ACF packet only has 40 slots, meaning that expanding any one category means shrinking another, to some specialist's detriment. Let's see more non-NAQT events try 21/21 or 22/22 or 24/24 per round. Let's see a tournament do 2/2 honest-to-god Social Science, in keeping with what John Lawrence suggests here. Let's ask if our 'Big Three' really need to be the same size, or if there could be a 'Big Four' or 'Big Five'! There are many tournaments per year in which to explore many possible tweaks. Remember that "we do things this way because we do things this way" is not valid reasoning, and that unless someone does something completely exxxtreeeme such as rounds with 8/8 Science at the expense of half the History and Literature, each tournament is only one tournament, making it easy to just not do things again that way if an experiment goes badly.