Essay on Formats

by Gilbert Keith

An open letter to ECSU people, on why Knowledge Bowl is terrible.

I enjoy the team aspect of KB, and competing with two other teams instead of one. I think our partiaility QB has only slightly to do with the fact that we like the individual aspect of it. In fact, half of all QB (that we view as legitimate) is about the team aspect involving disccusion, which is very similar to Knowledge Bowl. Furthermore, I feel that it is a player’s right to be able to answer questions individually, and QB provides that option, so it is a win-win situation for me.

Now, let me begin my discourse on why Quiz Bowl is liked much more than knowledge bowl is. Both QB and KB are academic competitions. There are people who take these things lightly and participate just for the “game” aspect of it, but there are people, like myself, who are committed to it and take it seriously. I mean, how different is it from people who do any sport? There are people who do it just because it is enjoyable, and there are others who are really good and work hard to be the best.

I believe (and I’m sure everybody does) that academic competitions must, first and foremost, test the knowledge of the participant. It naturally follows that a person with a deeper knowledge of a certain topic must be rewareded more than a person with cursory knowledge of that topic. Pyramidal quiz bowl (where the questions start with hard clues, which become progressively easier and end in a giveaway) reward people with deep knowledge while KB inherently does not (or hasn’t yet). Let me illustrate this with an example:

Consider these questions on the novel Frankenstein:

Question 1 (Source: 2006 ACF Fall packet by Berkeley A):
One character in this work is enthralled by Volney’s Ruins of Empires, which he hears Felix read to Safie. The protagonist of this work gazes upon the portrait of his mother as Caroline Beaufort kneeling by her father’s coffin, having come home to witness the trial of a woman who had been arrested for the murder of his brother after a locket was discovered in her coat. As a student he studies under M. Krempe and M. Waldman, who rid him of his fascination with Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus. After the title character flees from the Orkneys to Ireland the antagonist kills his closest friend, Henry Clerval. His nemesis then goes on to kill the title character’s wife, Elizabeth Lavenza, on their wedding night before fleeing to the polar regions. For ten points, name this novel about a doctor and his monstrous creation, a work of Mary Shelley?

and Question 2 (from the knowledge master CD):
What tale by Mary Shelley opens with a series of letters from a sea captain whose vessel has rescued a scientist from an ice floe?

Question 1 is supposed to embody “good quiz bowl” while Question 2 is the epitome of all that is wrong with knowledge bowl. See, my point is that a person who has read Frankenstein is bound to remember characters such as Caroline Beaufort, or remember scenes such as the one described in the first sentence of the long question, while a person who has heard only of Frankenstein will probably not know any of that information, but maybe knows that Frankenstein was a doctor who created a monster, etc. As such, shouldn’t the knowledgeable person be able to give the answer first, since, well, he/she knows more about it? But, if we look at the question from the knowledge master CD, the question starts of asking “Which novel by Mary Shelley” which is where most people, even those who only know tiny bits of information about her, will start buzzing. One might argue that there are several tales written by Mary Shelley and it is unwise of people to buzz off of “Mary Shelley” but the question then becomes, what other tales are there by Mary Shelley that can possibly be asked about? Has an average high-schooler heard of such works as Valpegra or The Last Man? No. So, naturally, the team will give the answer “Frankenstein” and get points for it, without actually knowing anything about the novel itself.

Too often the questions are one liners, with really easy clues which do not test the depth of the participant’s knowledge but rather the ability to buzz in early enough to beat the competition. If that happens to me several times through the course of my KB career, what incentive do I have to acquire more in-depth knowledge when I am essentially being tested on buzzer speed? Many people I know participate in knowledge bowl because they love knowing information, and those kinds of questions do not encourage knowing more.

Beyond buzzer races, there are those questions which start off asking about one thing, and then take a sharp turn as to what they are asking about. I am still largely scarred by the question on Beckys that cropped up at the 2007 KB State meet. The question started off mentioning “Tom Sawyer’s sweetheart” which is where ALL the teams (including our own) buzzed in, assuming the question was asking about Becky Thatcher. However, when the first team, which gave Becky Thatcher as an answer, was ruled incorrect, we started thinking of other things that were relevant to Becky Thatcher that could be asked about. However, after all three of the teams in the room were ruled incorrect, and the remainder of the question was read to completion, our team immediately knew that the question was asking for Becky Sharp, the character from Vanity Fair. In fact, I had read a part of the book, and our team was still not able to get the answer because the question misled us. There were tens of other questions like that – I just can’t think of any more and I’d rather not remember any more bad questions. And really, I am not willing to pay to play KB when I know that misleading questions will come up.

Most of my discontent towards knowledge bowl is directed towards the quality of the questions. Players deserve to play good questions, and given the state of questions which can be seen form the Great Auk questions, the players aren’t getting what they deserve. I see a natural tendency for the better teams to disengage themselves from the active KB circuit if steps aren’t taken to drastically improve the quality of questions.

Another thing players absolutely dislike is not knowing how much a certain category is represented in a competition. This is an important criterion SEVERAL teams across the nation follow when they choose the A/B/…/X/Y/Z teams. In knowledge bowl, it is never known how many science questions, or how many history questions will show up in a particular round. Consider two situations:

  • A) A coach is forming teams for his first KB meet, and he has chosen three players to be on his A team – One who is really good at science, one who is amazing at literature, and one who is impeccable at history. Now, he has two options for the fourth position – one who is only good at computation questions, and another who is only good a pop-culture questions. Which player should the coach choose? Surely, he should pick the person who can bring in more comparative advantage to his team. But, how can the coach know which player gives his team more of a comparative advantage, when he doesn’t know anything about what sort of questions might show up?
  • B) Based on past experience a coach concludes that history is the most represented category, surpassing literature and science, and therefore decides to have 2 history students on his team compared to one science specialist and one lit specialist. The team plays its first round in the tournament, only to discover that 10% of the questions were history questions, while geography questions were highly represented that round. The coach’s hard work behind fine-tuning the team has just been rendered useless because of the wavering nature and total unpredictability of the distribution.

Both those situations must be avoided, and this is why it is important for a team to know the relative representation of important categories in the tournament

There are some other greivances associated with KB, which include:

  • Clear and logically equivalent answers aren’t accepted. This is extremely wrong on several levels. First of all, a logically equivalent answer should be accepted, because KB should not be testing “do you know what the author of this question thinks the answer is?” as compared to “do you know what the answer is?” Second of all, the arrogance of the Great Auk necessitates several “moderator meetings” before the rounds begin, which are generally a big waste of time. They shouldn’t be necessary, EVER.
  • Over-representation of some academic disciplines, accompanied by under-representation of other academic disciplines. The most puzzling thing I feel about KB is the inordinate emphasis on such stupid categories as identifying tenses and moods and earth-sciences (geology). Who even cares about geology? When was the last time a high-schooler took a course in general geology? When was the last time a player got a geology question correct due to advanced knowledge of the topic? And since when has identifying tenses in a particular sentence become a life-skill? I don’t think that it has ever been useful, because I assure you I can converse in proper English. Just looking into the Knowledge master CD, I can see 27000 questions on “language arts” 12000 questions on “earth science,” 6000 on “geology”, compared to 3000 on “American Government” and 4000 on “Chemistry” 4500 on “Physics.” This clearly shows that the Great Auk (and KB by extension) values certain mundane categories such as language arts and earth science more than American government, Chemistry and Physics. This must be changed, and I needn’t have to say why it must be changed.

    Also, since when was “fine arts” almost exclusively reserved to music? And why is all music only about music theory, and next to nothing about composers, musical pieces, or operas? As far as I know, music and painting/sculpture generally have an approximately equal emphasis on quiz bowl.

  • 15 seconds is way too much conferring time. 10 seconds is more appropriate.
  • There is no lockout. I mean, seriously, why in the world has KB not used lockout systems? If we did indeed use lockout systems, fiascos such as the “Becky Thatcher” event wouldn’t have occured.

I hope you get the gist of my argument. It simply can be boiled down to A) The Great Auk sucks B) The Questions suck, and C) the format is weird. I don’t know what incentive the great auk has to improve its questions, but I am sure that because they don’t see any competition to their business, they can continue to provide low-quality questions to the ECSU league so long as they remain the lone provider.

I am going to try my best to challenge that, and hopefully I will be able to do something to improve the quality of KB in MN.

Many Thanks,
Gautam Kandlikar