This is a continuation of last month’s post on the consolidation and rise to prominence of Pennsylvania’s circuit. Last time, we discussed the structural changes, such as better tournament practices, social media, and logistical organization of resources. These were useful and helped create a stable circuit, both competitive and socially. That post stayed largely factual in its arguments. This current post won’t be, as it will contain more of my own opinion about how things have come to work in Pennsylvania’s quizbowl community.
I argue that in addition to the nuts-and-bolts structural elements of the circuit, Pennsylvania has become stronger because it has adopted certain cultural values about what we want the quizbowl circuit to be which its members accept as community goals. In a few recent discussions with other locals involved with the game, I’ve refereed to this somewhat humorously as “capital P” Pennsylvania quizbowl, a specific way of doing things, as opposed to “lower case p” Pennsylvania quizbowl, which is simply pyramidal events that occur within the borders of the state. The community has agreed upon some core values that I feel we place different weight on than the larger, national quizbowl community, giving us a distinct identity.
In this post, I will put forth three propositions that I consider central to capital P Pennsylvania quizbowl and the sense of identity we have forged. While there is no written in stone agreement on any one point, but I feel there is a general consensus among the community on these items. They help define what we are, what we’ve done, and what we hope to continue to do.
Proposition #1: Quizbowl can and should be for the many, and not for the few.
This will be a controversial statement: the idea that good quizbowl should be accessible to everyone is treated as a truism in the national community in speech, but not in action. One need only look at the vast number of tournaments that overshoot their difficulty and the factional disputes over how to write questions over elements irrelevant to 99% of quizbowlers to see a disturbing pattern. Question production has become something one does for one’s self as a player, as a study tool, rather than as a product for use by someone else. This mindset holds back the growth potential of quizbowl. Sets are being produced with the advanced meta-game and the in-crowd in mind, and not the untapped mass audience. This is particularly problematic because it limits the number of good, playable questions accessible to high schools who do not know about quizbowl, won’t know the canon, and will feel overwhelmed by the writer’s difficulty arms race as those writers try to learn clues to compete themselves. Too hard sets mean that new teams are unlikely to stick.
Pennsylvania quizbowl’s community has fought this by doing our best to offer playable sets to novice teams. The PA Novice series, currently written and edited by Bill Tressler, provides a tangible product which can be mirrored widely in the state as a friendly introduction. It focuses on broadly known topics and features a very non-mACF distribution that downplays parts of quizbowl that the uninitiated are unlikely to know (letting them work their way to things like fine arts and philosophy after they get their feet wet). JV divisions are near ubiquitous, and they often use easier sets than the Varsity division in order to keep the experience fun for new teams by avoiding tough answer lines or aggressively lengthy tossups. Outreach-focused events avoid IS sets and house-writes, which we have seen time and again overwhelm new clubs. The outreach done by the Pennsylvania community always keeps these issues of difficulty front and center in our strategic planning. A new student’s first taste of quizbowl should always be an accessible and enjoyable one.
Proposition #2: Good quizbowl is more than good questions.
The overall experience of a tournament for high school players is defined by much, much more than simply giving them good questions to play on. This is not to say Pennsylvania Quizbowl sees question structure and game format as irrelevant, anything but. Questions that swerve, unfair game structure, and an overabundance of obscure material do leave students upset and must be combated. What I mean to say is only that good questions are not sufficient in and of themselves to call a tournament “good quizbowl.” One can have the fairest and most interesting questions in the world, but if the tournament runs hours overdue, the price is too high, the staff is aloof, the rules are not made clear beforehand, or the stats are done incorrectly or not posted, the experience of the player will be adversely affected. A central tenant of Pennsylvania’s quizbowl practice is that all these things must run well and this is just as important as using pyramidal questions.
Some of the things discussed in the previous post are relevant here. Chief among them, t the Pennsylvania way requires that all staff are familiar with the rules and if assigned to moderate can read a round effectively in a half hour or less. To make a quizbowl tournament work all your staff must know both the rules of the game and the cadence of the quizbowl match. Without this, delays are bound to ensue. This comes through exposure and cannot be trained on paper or with an explanation. Pennsylvania TDs are proud of our efficient end times, with the standard of finishing before 4:00 and often much quicker. Further, the community publicly pressures hosts that do not do stats on time, and it ensures fair prices for tournaments to give people their money’s worth. Running a “good quizbowl” tournament here means more than purchasing a good set.
Proposition #3: One is not only an alumnus or alumna of their school, but also of Pennsylvania Quizbowl at large.
Pennsylvania quizbowl has a grassroots atmosphere. We could not run anything like the operation we do without the growing group of volunteers who give up many Saturdays a year to read. Most of them played quizbowl for a Pennsylvania high school themselves. They won’t simply help out their own alma mater, but will help at any school they can drive to. The staff corps unites the Pennsylvania circuit through its collective effort to make sure every site has as many elite moderators as possible. Beyond the moderators and statisticians, many of the players themselves become part of this process. I am astounded and humbled by the fact so many players still in high school will give up their own weekends when they’re not playing to read at middle school tournaments, or novice divisions that need help. Pennsylvanian quizbowlers are in the habit of doing each other favors, and thus forming close personal relationships.
We beleive that helping one PA high school makes all PA high schools better. They will drive each other to study and exchange interesting things they learn. Thus, our rising circuit’s success is to some extent a collective achievement, not just that of the constituent schools. Obviously, individual teams that win the titles should get specific recognition of their hard work. Yet, there is a sense that we are all in this together and can grow stronger through cooperation.