History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

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History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Terrible Shorts Depot »

Over in the VCU Open discussion thread, there's been a lot of discussion about a certain social history question that may or may not have been awful. However, the discussion gets at what I see as a major flaw in the history questions that are written these days: simply, there isn't enough social history. Quizbowl history is dominated by military and political history. While political history is indeed a very popular field (before anyone accuses me of trying to argue that there is too much political history in quizbowl, I am explicitly not doing that), military history is, at least at the undergraduate level, barely taught. Quickly scanning the Yale course catalog (high quality school chosen at random), there appear to be somewhere between one and three military history classes, while there are dozens and dozens of classes that fall under the realms of political, intellectual, cultural, and, lastly, social history. This does not square at all with the distribution of history questions in history. This is not supposed to be some Gioia-esque argument along the lines of "the books I read don't get me enough points,"* but instead more in the mode of the push for legitimization in science questions. While there has been quite a bit of discussion recently over how closely quizbowl should hew to what goes on in the classroom, I believe this transcends that, basically because this is a case of quizbowl, effectively, ignoring the way history is taught. A history class on the Vietnam War likely won't have students analyzing the tactics that the North Vietnamese used during the Tet Offensive; instead, it would, perhaps, have students addressing questions involving, say, the self-immolation of Buddhist monks or the way the South Vietnamese population reacted to the intrusion of American troops. Additionally, it's not meaningfully harder to write a good social history question than it is to write a good military history question.

How do you all feel about this?

*For the record, I really enjoy military history questions and am pretty good at them.

EDIT: the reason I'm not explicitly advocating for more cultural and intellectual history questions is that the topics that one would ask about in those fields seem to be mostly covered by questions in other distributions. Reading Peter Gay's Weimar Culture may or may not get me some history points, but it's sure as hell going to get me a lot of points over in arts and literature.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by grapesmoker »

I would personally enjoy seeing more social history questions, provided they were written in a competent way. If you can get people to reliably give the answer with your clues, that's all the more to the good.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Adventure Temple Trail »

Terrible Shorts Depot wrote: Quickly scanning the Yale course catalog (high quality school chosen at random), there appear to be somewhere between one and three military history classes...
Much to my chagrin, as someone who'd be interested in taking one.

My thoughts: Political history questions are pretty great. Military history questions are pretty great. Social history is great too, and I'm with you and Jerry that there's room for well-written social history questions that reward a kind of knowledge which players of this game are likely to have, if people are up for writing them.

Re: military history: While Yale doesn't have many course offerings in military history (and, for those concerned with high school questions, the College Board has a policy requiring no knowledge of specific battles or battle plans for its AP history tests), there are other sources for this sort of knowledge outside the classroom - historical fiction, certain video games / films, documentaries, independent enthusiasm/Civil War buffery, and the like are pretty common ways to acquire actual knowledge of military history, and they dovetail nicely with writing or buzzing in on it.
Last edited by Adventure Temple Trail on Thu Aug 18, 2011 6:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Cheynem »

I would say a lot of the history questions I answer come from me reading things for my own interest, not from what I learn in class. I don't see anything inherently wrong in that, as the kind of history I study does not always lend itself well to questions. I think some social history can be done with like simple answer lines with different sorts of clues (Jonathan Magin, I think, wrote a very fine tossup with the answerline "World War I" which only used like domestic social clues for it). I think some experimentation can be done in bonuses, as well.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Matt Weiner »

There"s going to be.a minimum quota for social history in the collegiate History Bowl set that I am editing. Also, a great way to write social history is tossups on answers like "roman women" or "French Jews" so expect some number of questions like that. If necessary, prepare to Deal With It.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed »

RyuAqua wrote: My thoughts: Political history questions are pretty great. Military history questions are pretty great. Social history is great too.
This is basically my view, expressed more eloquently than I've ever managed to put it.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by DumbJaques »

When you're taking history courses in college, you generally find that it's the competence of the instructor - rather than the focus of the course as stated in the syllabus - that dictates the quality of information. Similarly, I don't think answerlines on battles or elections or Great Men or whatever dictate what kind of clues are used - that's up to the writer. You could write a tossup on Napoleon, for instance, that was nothing but social history, or a tossup on the Vietcong that covered all the stuff you identified in your post.

I don't think that's necessarily desirable, though - sure, there's a place in tournaments for pure social history, just like there's a place for pure tactical stuff, tossups on nothing but electoral campaign clues, etc. But most of your questions should draw from a variety of these kinds of clues, for reasons of proper historical coverage* and perhaps more importantly, ideal playability.

*On a related note, deliberately de-emphasizing military/political/whitetastic/male-dominated history because the other perspectives used to be eschewed in favor of those things is just as asinine in quizbowl as it is in academia. Historians care about truth, and I cannot understand why that seems so compatible with various political agendas to many history professors. Sometimes battles were kind of incidental, and sometimes they're an invaluable tool for understanding why history took the course it did.

Where I'm really going with all this, though, is that I don't agree at all that we've got any kind of social history crisis in quizbowl. Good writers incorporate social history into their normal output all the time - even in tossups on battles or whatever. Deliberately trying to de-emphasize anything for some kind of perceived bias would be, in my opinion, quite misguided. As Jerry says, if you want to write some social history, go for it (and people do), but as with everything in quizbowl I recommend doing what good writers already do - incorporate new, answerable information into the framework of existing topics. I guess there are classes where you talk about nothing but Haruki the 19th-century Japanese peasant and how much his life blows, but in good classes you learn about why how much his life blew led all his buddies to jettison the samurai and get their Meiji on. If you don't think things like the Meiji Constitution (which shows up all the time in questions) are social history, you don't really understand how and why they were created.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by grapesmoker »

DumbJaques wrote:*On a related note, deliberately de-emphasizing military/political/whitetastic/male-dominated history because the other perspectives used to be eschewed in favor of those things is just as asinine in quizbowl as it is in academia. Historians care about truth, and I cannot understand why that seems so compatible with various political agendas to many history professors. Sometimes battles were kind of incidental, and sometimes they're an invaluable tool for understanding why history took the course it did.
I don't want to turn this into a debate about academic historiography, but there's a reason people do this: it's because the histories of marginalized groups are routinely overlooked in the histories constructed by the dominant groups. It's not so much about Truth with a Capital T as it is about whose we're talking about. Whitetastic male-dominated history gets plenty of exposure anyway, so there's no reason why we can't do a little something extra to ensure that history from another perspective gets some coverage too.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by No Rules Westbrook »

I endorse C. Ray's post.

Deliberately trying to manufacture "pure social history" is going to lead to nothing but heartbreak and wild pained groaning (which is, by and large, how the qb universe Deals With It). And, by it, I mean problematic questions which have the capacity to draw even quite knowledgeable players into buzzer races, games of chicken, and various other suboptimal qb playing circumstances.

And, personally, I think the microhistory and anti-white, anti-male history trends are complete tripe. It's possible to admit the truth, the historicity, of the world as seen from the perspective of a chlamydia-ridden 13th century French peasant wench...but not to be terribly interested in studying that person. While I like writing tossups on The Cheese and the Worms, I'm pretty annoyed by the modern history class that teaches that way.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed »

Rather than argue a subjective question like what kind of history is interesting, it would be more productive if we acknowledged that there are multiple legitimate paths to acquiring knowledge about history: yes, there are classes, but there is also independent reading, which I suspect is where most quizbowlers actually get most of their history knowledge from. There are also things like documentaries that have taught me good clues before. Heck, it's even possible to learn history from literature and art. I've long suspected that certain obscure figures from British history come up more frequently than I'd predict because they are featured in Shakespeare plays.

If you take classes, yes, you will mostly learn social history. But if you do something like read Shelby Foote, you will learn far more clues about battle tactics than you can ever hope to use.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by grapesmoker »

No Rules Westbrook wrote:And, personally, I think the microhistory and anti-white, anti-male history trends are complete tripe. It's possible to admit the truth, the historicity, of the world as seen from the perspective of a chlamydia-ridden 13th century French peasant wench...but not to be terribly interested in studying that person. While I like writing tossups on The Cheese and the Worms, I'm pretty annoyed by the modern history class that teaches that way.
It's absolutely shocking that a white dude would think this way. There's nothing "anti-white" or "anti-male" about studying history from different perspectives, and it's continually shocking and appalling to me that ostensibly college-educated individuals fail to grasp this basic fact.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Matt Weiner »

I will stake out a middle-ground position by noting that, on the one hand, there was certainly a long trend in academic history of privileging white/male/Western perspectives but, on the other hand, the backlash against this has been in full swing for going on five decades now, so if one bases historical understanding on contemporary academic work, it's pretty likely that a diversity of topics will be represented. I think that it's good to ask questions about topics that might fall specifically under "African-American history" or other histories of particular groups, if for no other reason than because this is often fertile ground for asking interesting, accessible questions that one might otherwise not have thought of when trying to come up with answers. And of course, as for nonwestern history, we already have a specific category requirement for that. I think Chris is correct in noting that social history can be the source of clues for almost any kind of history answer, but I also think that trying to ask social history specifically is a good thing within reasonable limits. In the collegiate NHB set, we're looking at around 650-700 total history questions, so I think attempting to write around 30 of them from a predominantly social history paradigm is hardly some sort of untenable ideological crusade.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Tees-Exe Line »

As a fan of social history in general and specifically of social history in quizbowl, I'll take issue with what Ryan wrote--recent scholarship that prioritizes the history of regular people and the use of non-official sources has shed a great deal of light on empirical reality in history. It's really impossible to overstate how important that trend is if you care about figuring out what happened in the past, which I think is the chief aim of history of any stripe.

As for social history in quizbowl, I'll provide an example to sharpen this discussion. I submitted the following tossup to Chicago Open, where it wasn't used.
Tacitus reports that German tribes did not engage in this custom, which was prevalent in Rome in his time, but rather they practiced its opposite along with monogamy. Some scholars have argued that the depiction of Penelope’s impoverishment at having to accommodate her suitors in the Odyssey reflects that this custom was prevalent in Homer’s time but incorrectly projected to Bronze Age Greece, when this custom was not practiced. One recent paper estimates that the average value of the transfer associated with this custom has increased 15% annually in India since 1921 despite serial legislation aimed at eliminating this custom. That inflation may be explained by increasing heterogeneity in household income holding caste constant and a resulting bidding war among socially suitable brides. Another interpretation of this custom is as a pre-mortem parental bequest which increases a wife’s bargaining power. That explanation is consistent with evidence from Taiwan that increasing this quantity reduces the frequency of extra-marital affairs. In any case, inflation associated with this custom has been put forward to explain selective abortion and female infanticide. For 10 points, what is this custom that refers to a transfer of wealth that accompanies the passing of responsibility of a bride’s welfare from her family to her husband’s?

ANSWER: dowry
Let me say that this is not aimed at criticizing Ryan in particular--I thought he did a great job editing CO, and so what if he didn't want to use some tossup I wrote. But I really liked both the answer line and the clues here. In returning to it I see that it has issues with clue placement and transparency--and perhaps it wasn't used because it would be a pain in the ass to edit, and that's fine. But I want to hear from the critics of social history what, substantively, is wrong with this and whether this kind of thing is worth even trying to write, because it seems to me that it is.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed »

I'm not [yet] opining on any specific question, but if you find yourself writing a social history tossup that may also overlap other categories, such as law, social science, religion, etc., a good place for it may be the 1/1 "Your Choice" distribution.

All that Trash and Geography being chased out of mACF packets needs to be replaced with something, after all.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by Auroni »

There is nothing empirically wrong with this tossup's answerline; it probably was not used since the answer could be guessed from all the clues associated with marriages and paying money, so it would have to be freshly rewritten. I would have used it had it been better written.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by No Rules Westbrook »

Yeah, I have no problem with the idea of a tossup on dowry. I just think that one presents a game of chicken, where people think dowry fairly early, and it's just a matter of who goes in with the buzz. I'm not sure that I can envision a non-transparent tossup on dowry - or I would have probably tried to write one (sorry, I know the term transparent is a loaded one in qb)

Actually, that's probably a good example of what I think are the perils of specifically trying to do "social history" in qb - you put a ton of effort into being coy, shifting words and phrases around, avoiding transparencies, etc. - and you still end up with something pretty sub-optimal but you just shrug and go "oh well, good enough - it's social history and I wanna ask about that!" I don't like undergoing that process.
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Re: History Questions in Modern Quizbowl

Post by DumbJaques »

Yeah, I think Marshall is kind of making the incorrect argument in favor of the position (the correct argument seems to be Matt's, in my opinion) - the tossup he posted is actually a perfect example of why you might NOT want to prioritize the theoretical goal of "write a social history question" over the practical reality of a given question.
Tacitus reports that German tribes did not engage in this custom, which was prevalent in Rome in his time, but rather they practiced its opposite along with monogamy. Some scholars have argued that the depiction of Penelope’s impoverishment at having to accommodate her suitors in the Odyssey reflects that this custom was prevalent in Homer’s time but incorrectly projected to Bronze Age Greece, when this custom was not practiced. One recent paper estimates that the average value of the transfer associated with this custom has increased 15% annually in India since 1921 despite serial legislation aimed at eliminating this custom. That inflation may be explained by increasing heterogeneity in household income holding caste constant and a resulting bidding war among socially suitable brides. Another interpretation of this custom is as a pre-mortem parental bequest which increases a wife’s bargaining power. That explanation is consistent with evidence from Taiwan that increasing this quantity reduces the frequency of extra-marital affairs. In any case, inflation associated with this custom has been put forward to explain selective abortion and female infanticide. For 10 points, what is this custom that refers to a transfer of wealth that accompanies the passing of responsibility of a bride’s welfare from her family to her husband’s?

ANSWER: dowry
No offense intended, but the practical reality of this question is that it's not very good. Not because the clues are illegitimate or useless or anything, I don't know anything about that stuff but they seem solid as people have noted. Rather, here's the issue: I've heard of absolutely nothing in this tossup (the Tacitus thing, the Homer thing, the thing with Indian caste relationships which I know absolutely nothing about, Taiwan); to tell you the truth, dowries always confused me and I'm always like 10% unsure which way the money is actually supposed to be going. I shouldn't be beating anyone to this tossup, but I'd be buzzing here on the second clue (the thing about Penelope) because you've basically talked about a custom that involves a woman being courted for marriage and the money associated with that. If I was a less impulsive form of myself, maybe I'd sit on it - for half a line, until you say "this is a custom where you transfer value."

The issue with questions like these is that they're very hard to do well, and are prone to any number of issues - the one outlined above isn't even the only major problem in the tossup. For one thing, some of these clues are kind of non-specific and difficult to buzz from (particularly when hearing a tossup read at speed in a game, as opposed to breaking it down like we are now). Like 1/3 of the question is also drawn from this one recent paper, which either requires you to have access to that specific thing (to draw an analogy, I would not endorse having 1/3 of the clues in your science questions require players to have read X recent paper) or, as mentioned above, invites you to buzz without specific knowledge but just based on reasoning out what the question is probably talking about.

I'm not at all saying questions on this kind of thing are illegitimate, but they are not something we should be making a community push toward having in tremendously greater quantities. We don't need to get into an ideological debate about history to reach that conclusion, either, because the number one reason is that there are just a very finite number of people who can make such questions good with any kind of consistency. That's not said disparagingly, but rather a reflection of just how hard that is to do; I consider myself a pretty good history writer but I don't think I would attempt to edit this into a playable tossup, because I lack the (considerable) knowledge of the subject necessary to do so.

Conversely though, I do agree that in a collegiate history bowl event being written by one of those very people, having a small amount of social history questions is absolutely fine. My argument is more against some big, general quizbowl movement that ends up distorting the canon a bit for a year or two until people realize what a bad idea it is (e.g. "X ethnic group in Y place" tossups, the Organic Revolution driven by the bloody 2007-2009 Watkins-Mukherjee War, the paucity of good, academic current events because people kept writing shitty, trashy current events,* etc.). If you really think the lack of such material in quizbowl history is such a problem (and I don't, for reasons outlined above), then you should almost certainly seek a remedy that involves using social history clues for a more traditional answer line.

*This one is actually still a problem, though delightfully addressed by events like VCU Open 2011. Seriously people, if you want to make one of these pushes, push here. I'm not even kidding when I say that the lack of academic current events in mACF has its origins in really terrible CE questions that NAQT used to write when most quizbowl was terrible, and that's a horrible reason to deny a pretty significant portion of academia.


EDIT: I also agree with Auroni that tossups on things like "dowry" might find a much happier home in that 1/1 general academic slot - indeed, even if the playability issues with the tossup were dealt with, it still feels only vaguely like a history question. Much more importantly, you can drastically improve the playability of questions like that if you're able to draw from various sources that might not be within a given category; without knowing much about the subject, I'd say the answer to improving the dowry question probably involves religion and social science clues (and really a number of those clues are kind of SS anyway).
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