Matt Reflections and the Future

Written by on 28 May 2009 | Uncategorized

Aegis was a good time, and I am glad to have gotten to work with all of the people who were involved, especially Nick and Carlo.

In a way I feel like Aegis was ahead of its time. We were a group of current and very recently graduated players who felt like more needed to be done for question quality in Illinois. Some coaches felt that it was inappropriate that players were writing the questions, and others heralded it. The power of players and former players is going to tell where the future of quizbowl in Illinois is going to go.

So much of quiz bowl is “student centered” in other parts of the country, but the idea that players should have any say in how Scholastic Bowl is run is still quite a revolutionary concept in some parts of the state. I use the words “student centered” not only because it is true, but also because it is one of the biggest educational buzz-words of the past few years. I think that if we want quizbowl to become something more than what it is (though I guess some of us don’t want that), then I think it is paramount that students get more of a say.

Just this past weekend, I attended the PACE NSC (arguably the nations premiere quizbowl tournament) for the first time. The amount of autonomy among the best teams was astonishing. Most went without a coach, and even when a coach was present, it didn’t seem like they bothered to do anything. The players knew where they were and what they had to do. There are only a few teams in Illinois that can operate that way, and most do it out of necessity. There is, however, no reason why this could not be more of an accepted practice for teams in Illinois. I think it is largely a case of coaches who think they know what is best for students, even when they are painfully out of touch.

Illinois still has a long way to go to, but I think that if the right people get involved, and they stay involved, it can rise up out of the murky swamp of Scholastic Bowl that we’re currently bogged down in. Either quizbowl is going to have to integrate with Scholastic Bowl, or the two will become further separated. Integration would have to involve most teams recognizing that pyramidal questions (and maybe ACF-style bonuses) are for the better, and separation would involve a diaspora of quizbowl oriented teams creating a completely different circuit. It’s a big task, and I think that big changes are going to happen one way or another.

Carlo Reflections

Written by on 16 May 2009 | Aegis, Question Writing, Thoughts

I’ve been writing Illinois Scholastic Bowl questions since my junior year of high school, when Nick and I wrote the first New Trier Varsity tournament. Matt started Aegis with us the next year, and we’ve been writing tons of questions ever since.

It’s sad to see the end of this era, but at the same time, I’m glad it’s ending. Lately, whenever I’m not doing long math problem sets, I’m busy trying to juggle friends and research and side jobs. I spent last summer taking classes and doing math research, so I didn’t really get a chance to write any questions until fall semester. And, as I found out, I simply don’t have time in my fall semester to write hundreds of questions on top of everything else.

It’s partly that our writers have never been as invested in the process as Matt, Nick, and I were. That’s somewhat an effect of our business model–people asynchronously submit questions, as we edit them into packets. I can sympathize that it’s hard to get really excited about writing lots of questions when they just disappear into a black hole. I would write to fill quotas–to finish the science in Masonic State, to write the non-computational math for Kickoffs. It would have been much harder to motivate myself if I wasn’t sure how, or if, my questions were going to get used.

But I think the general lack of enthusiasm is understandable from another perspective. I mean, we were the ones who started a company to write questions. Of course, we were the ones most excited by the prospect. And I don’t mean to say that our writers were apathetic–Brad and Kristin in particular stand out in my memory for all the times they would stay up with us finishing tournaments. Greg and Jonah were given specific assignments and kept well-informed of our time tables, and they performed admirably.

In general, though, I associate Aegis with a recurring frustration that I had to pick up the slack so often. I was responsible for a large amount of the infrastructure in Aegis–not only did I put up our website and write the program we relied on for all our question editing, but I was the only person able to assemble the packets when all was said and done. I’m not whining about it–the technology just happened that way. And Matt and Nick certainly did much more than their fair shares as well. But still, I was just always frustrated at how much needed to be done, and how little our writers were, on average, helping.

I’m much more frustrated, however, at the Illinois Scholastic Bowl community. Aegis was formed at a time when I thought it was becoming clear to everyone that pyramidal questions were clearly the way to go, but there was not enough supply to meet the growing demand.

I was half-right. There is, and continues to be, a dearth of good pyramidal questions in IHSA format. NAQT only creates one IHSA set every year, and HSAPQ refuses to include computational math. With Aegis’s departure, there isn’t really any reliable provider of pyramidal questions. Sure, Jonah is around to edit some tournaments, but as he gets further from the current circuit, it will be difficult for him to keep rounding up high schoolers and recent graduates interested in helping out. Coach Reinstein writes Solo every year, but it isn’t extraordinarily pyramidal, and he doesn’t write any other tournaments himself.

More importantly, Illinois does not even agree that pyramidal questions are best. Not only are many coaches simply unaware of the argument, but many are indifferent or insist that they know what’s best, rather than the players themselves.

Again and again, the players I have talked to, from all over the state, agree that pyramidal questions are more fun to play on. But I have heard coaches argue that they “know the players don’t want that.” Even when we put out a players’ survey, coaches attacked its validity for a number of silly reasons. (For instance, the survey was put up after the season, so only the “dedicated” players responded to it; the others, apparently, had already forgotten all about Scholastic Bowl.)

Collegiate players’ typical contribution to the pyramidal argument is, “You have to think about this logically, and without ad hominem attacks. But you’re stupid if you don’t think pyramidal questions are the best, and I don’t care to explain why again.”

I am happy to speak with people who honestly are unfamiliar with pyramidal questions, or people who have legitimate concerns about the potential adoption of ACF format in Illinois. But frankly, the discourse on the subject is idiotic. It’s entirely idiotic. The organization in charge of Scholastic Bowl is an athletic organization which doesn’t understand Scholastic Bowl and has no reason to. Fair enough. But why are they still in charge?

And the IHSSBCA is bogged down by combative coaches who refuse to let any change happen to the activity they’ve been coaching for 20 years. The new questions are too hard; they’re too long; nobody likes them. The Sterling Kickoff finished their morning–five 16-question rounds–after 2 PM. A tossup went dead on the Revolutionary War, after mentioning Cornwallis and Yorktown. So did another on Avogadro’s number, after mentioning moles and its value.

You know what? I love quizbowl because it is a true test of cultural literacy. To win at quizbowl, you must be well-versed in everything; you must quickly recall all sorts of non-trivial knowledge from ancient history, English poetry, biochemistry…every subject.

Quizbowl is, inherently, an elitist activity. The express purpose is for the more knowledgeable team to win. Coaches complain that it’s unfair that the Chicagoland teams keep winning. It’s unfair that they have AP classes and their students know more.

Yes, it’s unfair. The better students are better at the game. That’s the point. If you want an unpredictable game where unknowledgeable teams can win just as often, play ping pong. It’s just absurd to me that coaches literally object that the better teams always win. It’s just absurd.

I don’t have the energy to continue this debate. I have been pushing against the tide, and the tide has won. Aegis can’t continue; there are, in my mind, no great question providers left in Illinois. Maybe some day, Illinois Scholastic Bowl will catch up to modern quizbowl standards, but I don’t count on it. I’m not even sure that’s what we want. Only a handful of teams truly want that, and they can always travel to college tournaments. The rest would prefer not to lose all the time, and simply aren’t interested in putting in the time and effort required to become culturally literate on top of all of their schoolwork.

I don’t blame them. I don’t have the time, either.

Carlo Announcement

Written by on 16 May 2009 | Aegis

As some of you may have already heard, Aegis will not be continuing operations as of the end of the 2008-09 season. Our base of writers has grown substantially smaller due to the difficulty of writing Illinois format bonuses, which leaves the directors with a lot of work to do. None of us can handle the amount of work this requires any longer, and so we are ceasing operations. Check out our blog in the near future if you are interested in our closing thoughts about Aegis and writing for Illinois Scholastic Bowl.

Matt Quiz Bowl Camp

Written by on 08 Nov 2008 | Experiences, Thoughts

So, over the summers, I work for an overnight camp up in Michigan. It just so happens that the Camp Director at this camp is none other than Rob Grierson. This connection is, of course, how I got involved here at Echo. It’s a traditional summer camp, with fishing and canoeing and archery, but as of late, it’s also had a bit of quiz bowl.

At the beginning of every summer, during staff training, Rob gets out his buzzer system that his father built for him way back in 1968. It’s made out of a doorbell and a lot of different Radioshack project kits. We use it to run “Manual Jeopardy!” where we get quizzed on different things from our staff manual. This is always one of the staff’s favorite rotations, since they “get to use the buzzers.”

It started as a joke: people knew about my and Grierson’s relationship to quiz bowl, and they started requesting “Quiz Bowl with Grierson” and “Quiz Bowl with Laird” on their Cabin Group request forms. Well, someone with a sense of humor decided to give a cabin “Quiz Bowl with Laird” and we ran with it. I set up a podium, took a bunch of pop culture questions that I thought middle schoolers might know from Aegis packets and the NPMTs. The kids loved it, and we even got a write up in the camper published daily newspaper.

It was really interesting to see these kids, who had never had any experience playing or watching Quiz Bowl, interact with the buzzers and each other. Since cabins are usually twelve campers in number, we split into 3 teams of four, and gave them creative team monikers like ‘Team Urinal Cake’ and ‘Team DooDoo Sandwiches.’ Mostly bodily function related. We’re that kind of camp. They savored the opportunity to make personal nametags with completely ridiculous names.

The noteworthy thing to say about the actual play that these kids exhibited is that they had much greater success with pyramidal questions than they did with one liners that I had from an old Patrick’s Press book. This was an experimental control group: one who had pristine opinions about quiz bowl; untarnished by a coach’s bias, by the internet’s bias, by experience. They understood within twenty minutes of playing that “those longer questions let us think harder about them, and if we know more, we can get it faster.”

The Pyramidal debate: settled by twelve year olds.