Pyramidal quizbowl has never been a stagnant activity- the difference between sets from 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011 is staggering in scope, style, and quality. Though the question writing process has gradually become more stable, the game continues to evolve to match the tastes of its production teams. While I don’t want to wade into deep question writing theory, it is worth noting that the canon is always in flux, and teams seeking to compete at the statewide level will need to keep pace with it. To this end, I thought it would be worth going over a few of the trends in question writing I’ve noticed over the past four or five years, and how this has changed the sets I’ve moderated and which our teams play.
Before going into specifics, it should be noted that trends in the high school game follow trends in the college game– by incorporating their distribution and then either normalizing or rejecting those changes. This is largely because the majority of editors, including large chunks of NAQT and HSAPQ writers as well as some outside hands on housewrites, are collegiate players of great experience. They write the game as they know it. In the not-too-distant past, non NAQT/HSAPQ question sets for high schoolers often looked eerily like college sets for the worse, with overemphasis on social science few high schoolers were exposed to, an excess of world lit which rarely is assigned in English classes, and too many niche topics and insider jokes that played better in the smaller, more national college circuit. These sorts of issues were very problematic even six or seven years ago, when I was playing, but have largely been rectified. Still, when there is no obvious disconnect between what high schoolers know and where the college game is going, the high school game tends to follow it.
Here are some of the trends in distributions and question writing of late:
- More film in fine arts- Once confined to the pop culture realm, classic film has been booming within quizbowl packets. As a respected visual art with lots of criticism and ample gettable answers, film plays a seemingly a larger role in sets each new season. When in need of a study break from other subjects, it might not be a bad idea to pop on an old Hitchcock film or Oscar winner. It should be noted recent releases still fall under the pop culture distribution and haven’t increased their share- we’re talking venerated titles (the turn of the millennium is a good benchmark).
- History questions becoming more conceptual- Quizbowl was once rife with simple rote military and political history pointing to very specific figures and moments in time. There’s still a fair number of questions on this, but increasingly we’re seeing tossups getting creative with their answer lines. Rather than, for example, writing a tossup on “The Roman Empire,” you’ll see tossups with an answerline like “women” or “taxes,” utilizing only clues from Ancient Rome. The same knowledge is tested, but using a general rather than a specific answerline. This has made the sets less stale, and in my opinion more fun. However, it has decreased the usefulness of classic study techniques like list memorization and flashcarding.
- The limiting of the social science canon- Largely as a reaction to the flood of social science as a mirror of the college game (often a full 1/1 per round) that peaked in the late 00’s to early 10’s, all but the hardest housewrites have severely limited their social science use. This particularly applies to anthropology, sociology, and linguistics (less so for economics and psychology, as there are AP courses for these topics and high schoolers thus are far more likely to know them in depth). This makes these topics easy to master at regular difficulty and a tough but quite manageable challenge for nationals. I would highly recommend players specializing in larger categories pick up one or two of these fields as minor specialties for a steady 30-50 points per tournament.
- Philosophy becoming the smallest piece of RMP- this is probably the newest trend, which I’ve only seen regularly in the housewrites in the last year or so. For similar reasons to the social science reforms, philosophy is shrinking at the expense of myth and especially religion in sets. It remains to be seen where this will stabilize.