The Canon

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The Canon

Post by Scaled Flowerpiercer »

I just wanted to bring up how I feel that sometimes the fact that much of High School quizbowl tends to follow a certain canon is a detractor, and wanted to inquire what "pros" are seen in having a sort of established canon.

For one thing, I do want to note that tournament-wise I have been to only NAQT events and 1 GSAC mirror, and I think that NAQT did a better job of being non-canonical than GSAC, but from what I have read in other packets, it seems like most housewrites especially suffer from sticking to a canon, HSAPQ sets I feel have similar held up a non canonical nature.

I feel as though a canon can hurt quizbowl as it allows people to become disproportionately better by studying packets than studying real knowledge. Though of course I can't say much specific about GSAC (which, before I go further, I thought was a very well written set, and I enjoyed playing it, it just happens to be the set that made me think about how a canon can be bad) I felt like studying past iterations of the set exposed me to a huge proportion of the answer lines, and there were also times when the logic of "Well, they already asked about X, and the only other really tossup-able thing similar to X is Y, so I will answer with Y" worked.

I should think that we always want tossups to be testing knowledge, not association of answer lines which you have been previously exposed to with clues (yes, this will always come up to some extent, but it ought not to too large an extent). So, is this as much as a problem as I feel it is, or am I just finding a couple of examples that make me feel as though it is an issue? I just feel like the more varied answer lines are from game to game, the better, as it helps no one when people are just buzzing in on stock that they saw somewhere else, instead of knowledge, and variation of answer lines without regard for any sort of canon would help to that end.

After typing all that I realize I probably could have opened with no more than just "I think having a canon of answer lines that people tend to draw from and write questions about, and that is bad," but, whatever.
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Re: The Canon

Post by mhayes »

At the high school level, I think it's difficult to significantly adjust the canon without delving too deep into subjects. This may lead to an undesirable increase in difficulty.

EDIT: typo
Last edited by mhayes on Mon Feb 20, 2012 5:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Skepticism and Animal Feed »

Hi. I am the foremost apologist for the concept of a canon in quizbowl. Briefly stated, my argument is that a canon helps new players by letting them know exactly what they need to learn to improve. This negates the disadvantages that would otherwise be incurred by people whose schools don't teach them as many things, and also accounts for variance across school districts.

Of course, I make these arguments mostly on the college board: college is a world where people take vastly different courses depending on school or major. High school cirricula are much more homogenous, but not completely so.
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Re: The Canon

Post by tuscumbiaqb »

I agree with everything that Bruce said. One also has to remember that not only elite (or adequate, depending on your perspective) high schools play quiz bowl; when schools that offer literally zero AP classes are taken into account, the supposed homogeneity of high school curricula is pretty far from reality. Naturally, these schools will have a steep hill to climb to become competitive, but a canon, especially those in areas like fine arts and literature that are not covered in high school the same way they are in quiz bowl, can help ease the transition. With that being said, I also like some of NAQT's more creative or off-the-beaten-path answer choices in select academic areas.

The presence of a canon is also a line of defense against bad writing. If quiz bowl's philosophical concensus is that answer lines are not to be repeated very often, then off-the-wall answer choices are very likely to appear because a writer is "trying something different" or mistakes something in his/her wheelhouse for common knowledge.

EDIT: spelling
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Re: The Canon

Post by Emil Nolde »

I just think that the process of deciding what is 'worthy' is almost completely arbitrary. The Three Musketeers is asked about all the time, but other I've never heard The Scarlet Pimpernel come up. That isn't a very good example, because of course Dumas was on the whole a better writer than Orczy, but still.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) »

thyringe_supine wrote:I just think that the process of deciding what is 'worthy' is almost completely arbitrary. The Three Musketeers is asked about all the time, but other I've never heard The Scarlet Pimpernel come up. That isn't a very good example, because of course Dumas was on the whole a better writer than Orczy, but still.
The Three Musketeers is, like, way more famous in the real world too...
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Re: The Canon

Post by Rufous-capped Thornbill »

High school quizbowl is already too hard, removing the canon would just make it all the more so. Canon is not a quizbowl-only concept, it's a real thing that exists to let us know what is truly important and impactful.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Cheynem »

I say yes and no to that. There are plenty of unquestionably important real world things that are not quizbowl "canon" (and in fact prompt grumbles sometimes when they are asked about). We should attempt to ask about what people know, but I think that doesn't always mean "look at what's come up before."
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Re: The Canon

Post by The King's Flight to the Scots »

I think what Jarret's saying is that there is a kind of organic canon that exists outside of qb and overlaps somewhat, but not completely, with what's come up before. I'd agree with that; practically, it means that you shouldn't make Mishima a regular high school easy part just because he's come up a bunch of times, but you also can't just go "Well, everything's relative and what we ask about is arbitrary, so I'm just going to write a billion tossups on whatever I personally define as important."

It does mean it's OK, and even good, to ask about things people know that don't really come up.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Auroni »

I agree with what Mike said. You should be writing questions with a stern expectation of what people are likely to know, which often means asking things that haven't come up much before (but that are unquestionably gettable by most teams in the audience).
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Re: The Canon

Post by Stained Diviner »

The concept of a canon in quizbowl is a fairly complex concept. One of the reasons that it seems like NAQT strays from the canon more often than a lot of the independent housewrites is that they use a different distribution. NAQT tends to have more geography, current events, pop culture, general knowledge, and interdisciplinary questions, and in those categories the canon is not very well defined. The independent housewrites tend to have more fine arts, social science, philosophy, and religion, and in those categories writers need to be very careful to avoid asking questions that lots of teams will miss. (For religion, topics related to Christianity are not that restrictive, but you have to keep things pretty simple when asking American high school students about non-Western religions.)

I also think the point made in the last few posts is important. Writers have opinions on what is important and what is not important, and if they think the canon overemphasizes a topic then they should avoid writing on it. Similarly, if writers think that a topic underemphasizes a topic then they should try to work it in, though it must be done in a way that doesn't mess with the competitive aspect of the match--use it as a clue for something that people are likely to know about or as the hard part of a bonus.

I write a lot of questions, and I feel more comfortable ignoring the canon in some areas than others. I have taught high school math and physics and completed the equivalents of majors in those topics, so I have a lot of familiarity with what high school students should know in those subjects and don't really care about whether or not a topic has come up before. My last biology class was taken in 1982-83, so if I'm writing bio expect questions on organelles, organs, and other bio topics that you've already heard lots of questions on.

One misconception is that having a canon severely limits the amount of material a team should learn to become good at quizbowl. Take classical music (including opera), for example, where there are maybe 40-50 composers that come up a lot. That's a lot of material even though learning a list of 40-50 names isn't a big deal. If you just want to get the tossup giveaways and easy parts of bonuses, you have to learn the titles of two or three pieces by each of them, and at that point you'll be a respectable but fairly weak team. If you want to get good, you'll have to learn something about those pieces, and you'll have to learn about several pieces for the most important composers. At that point you'll be good at that topic, which accounts for about 5% or slightly more of the high school canon.

In some ways, the canon means that you have to learn more. Before there was a canon, back in the 1990s, teams got good by memorizing the titles of works by authors, poets, sculptors, painters, and composers. Without a canon, it wasn't realistic for students to learn about those topics with any depth. Now that there is a canon, learning titles is no longer good enough. You have to learn what's in between the covers of those books.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Matt Weiner »

In terms of descriptive linguistics, it seems to me that the most common use of "canon" is to refer to the idea that, because something has come up a lot in the past, it is automatically appropriate to ask about or easier now. This is ridiculous on its face and dangerous to the goal of writing accessible packets, so I oppose the idea of "the canon."

Obviously, one should not ask about things that people cannot answer; writing a bunch of high school tossups on "The Unreality of Time" is bad not because that is not in "the high school canon" but because such tossups are unlikely to be answered by high school players. In the majority of cases, invoking "the canon" seems to go directly against this notion that it's bad to write unanswerable questions, by providing a justification for doing so.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Auks Ran Ova »

Matt Weiner wrote:In terms of descriptive linguistics, it seems to me that the most common use of "canon" is to refer to the idea that, because something has come up a lot in the past, it is automatically appropriate to ask about or easier now. This is ridiculous on its face and dangerous to the goal of writing accessible packets, so I oppose the idea of "the canon."
While this is true, if the idea of "the canon" itself is used descriptively rather than prescriptively it is of a bit more use. The idea that there is a vaguely-bounded corpus of things that are regularly askable and reasonably convertible, and thus often appear in tournaments, is not an unreasonable one. It's only when people assume it's much more rigid than it actually is, or that it operates in ways it should not (assuming anything that doesn't "come up all the time" is somehow illegitimate, or committing the aforementioned "I will write about x a lot, then x will have come up a lot, then x will be famous" fallacy, respectively), that it becomes stupid.
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Re: The Canon

Post by theMoMA »

A slightly pompous treatise on the canon had this to say, which I still find somewhat useful:
[Some may say that] the canon is something that is quantifiable or that has definite boundaries. It is not. It is not a definite thing. It is a series of individual writing choices at a certain level of quizbowl competition that tend to fall within a central limit. It's a pattern of our behavior.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Adventure Temple Trail »

theMoMA wrote:A slightly pompous treatise on the canon had this to say, which I still find somewhat useful:
[Some may say that] the canon is something that is quantifiable or that has definite boundaries. It is not. It is not a definite thing. It is a series of individual writing choices at a certain level of quizbowl competition that tend to fall within a central limit. It's a pattern of our behavior.
While that quote is useful, the so-called "Great Chain of Being" is exactly the kind of thought process which Matt Weiner and Rob rightly denounce upthread, leading to really destructive ideas about difficulty-qua-previous-tournaments which leave new teams and reasonable-difficulty tournaments in the dust. I wonder, Andrew, if you still believe in it. For what it's worth, I personally would discourage any new writers from taking seriously any "Great Chain of Being" in which a hard bonus part becomes a tossup answer through magic of quizbowl alone, rather than investigating as best they can how well-known a prospective topic is, irrespective of its difficulty or easy/middle/hard-part status in previous tournaments.
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Re: The Canon

Post by theMoMA »

Perhaps it could be read that way, but I have always understood canon expansion as something to be done, not for its own sake, or for the sake of some kind of masochistic difficulty inflation, but for the sake of better representing the universe of things that one ought to know in the game of quizbowl. Sometimes the real world creeps in and reveals that an area that we've previously explored lightly is actually much more important than we realized. We learn a lot of what we know about what should come up from what does come up, so we are often blind to things that we really should be asking about. When we encounter one of these new and important topics, it's actually really important for us to introduce it to the game sensibly instead of whipping up a batch of "Real Topic X" questions and cramming them down the throats of our various target audiences.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Adventure Temple Trail »

Certainly, mirroring the academic universe of real people's knowledge should be the primary reason to ask about new or previously underasked things. However, it really depends on the topic involved and the tournament difficulty level involved whether writing a leadin is the best way to do so, or it's a hard part, or it's okay to just go ahead and make the tossup happen. It's more case-by-case than anything else, in part because difficulty is and must be grounded in the real world - it was totally okay for Georgia Tech to just go ahead and toss up "matzah" as a Real Topic X for Fall, lack of previous tossups be darned. It wouldn't have been okay for them to toss up, I dunno, Pirkei Avot, even though some small amount of Fall's audience will know of it, because not enough of Fall's audience has that kind of exposure in their actual lives.

I'm really concerned that the very idea of a Great Chain of Being really does promote perverse incentives that neither of us actually wants, namely:

-the idea that the difficulty of hard things goes down due to being asked about many times (this isn't true unless you're a really good team anyway),

-the idea that things can be inappropriately hard things can be pushed "into the canon" to make people aware of certain things a given player finds cool if enough people have the above misconception and that given player submits enough packets over the course of their career.

It's really always preferable to just do some investigation into the real-world fame and importance of a thing and bracket aside one's own personal interests, obsessions, or desires for future points. Usually for things which are obviously hard a leadin or third part will be the best way to break in a new topic, and will remain the best way to keep that topic around unless the thing earnestly gets more famous independent of quizbowl.
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Re: The Canon

Post by theMoMA »

I think, perhaps to restate more succinctly what I've already said, that expanding the canon is necessary because the "universe of things that have come up" isn't the same as the "universe of things that should come up." And asking about new stuff is how we avoid quizbowl-as-echo-chamber.
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Re: The Canon

Post by Auroni »

theMoMA wrote:I think, perhaps to restate more succinctly what I've already said, that expanding the canon is necessary because the "universe of things that have come up" isn't the same as the "universe of things that should come up." And asking about new stuff is how we avoid quizbowl-as-echo-chamber.
I agree for certain categories such as possible social science and religion, but for many categories, the echo-chamber is pretty big as is. There are cases of prominently overlooked things, but often those things are actually neglected aspects of subjects that already come up. For example, last year we all learned about the Tonypandy Riots, an important episode in Winston Churchill's political career. What I'm trying to say is that I think that internal canon expansion should happen more often than it does now, so that there's boundless creativity to be had in those echo chambers.
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