Understanding Literature as a Category

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Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by lifchrs »

I was thinking about the categories of Quizbowl that I dislike the most, and I realized that literature, the category with the greatest number of questions (at least in NAQT packets), doesn't make any sense as a category to me. The reason for this is that for every other category, the answer doesn't have as much depth as many works of literature do. What I mean by "depth" is that each book (I recognize that poetry and plays come up as well) has a lot of information, and the time it takes to read a book is a lot greater than the time it takes to study the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the Battle of Iwo Jima. Not only are works of literature a lot lengthier, but there are hundreds of works of literature to read, forcing literature players (at least the ones I know) to read summaries on SparkNotes and to make as many flashcards of clues as possible. There is also a huge incentive to memorize without appreciating the works because literature makes up such a high percentage of questions.

The issue I see with using SparkNotes is that it makes literature more about memorizing clues than appreciating literature. All categories do have clues, but for literature, it is almost impossible to actually enjoy the works of literature without spending a lot more time than a person would on studying other categories. My other issue with reading SparkNotes is that I don't think it's fair to brand reading SparkNotes as studying "literature." There is a lot more to a book than its plot, and to reduce a book's worth to a plot seems too superficial. This superficial studying of "literature" makes Quizbowl less academic as well because it makes Quizbowl more about memorization than actually reading a book. I'm sure that there are literature players that do actually read the works of literature, but I think that it is unfair to both the game and to the players to give literature such a large canon and such a large percent of questions because it makes Quizbowl lean more towards being a memorization game than being academic.

I'm relatively new to Quizbowl (1.5 years) and this is a major part of Quizbowl that I cannot understand, so I wanted to ask the more experienced Quizbowl players, especially those who specialize in literature, for their opinions on what I have written.
Last edited by lifchrs on Thu Jul 02, 2020 1:12 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by Cheynem »

Could this not be applied to many categories?

I'll take history. You mention the Battle of Iwo Jima. You could read a long book or article on Iwo Jima, which would take as much time as like reading Pride and Prejudice. You could do this for all of World War II or any of the major battles--El Alamein, Stalingrad, Bulge, Berlin, what have you. Probably most people just read some summaries of the battle and remember key names/details. Some who really enjoy the topic read a lot and learn more or deeper clues. This doesn't seem that different to me than choosing to read say Jane Austen's novels or just read Sparknotes summaries. In each instance, assuming you're doing this to study for quizbowl, you are memorizing details (i.e., if you read a quick summary of Iwo Jima and can buzz on clues, are you really able to do an academic discourse on the battle's overall significance?).

In short, I understand what you're saying, but I don't think literature is unique in this way.
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by Auks Ran Ova »

I think Mike's points are generally accurate.

Furthermore, this:
lifchrs wrote: Wed Jan 08, 2020 1:22 pmthe category with the greatest number of questions (at least in NAQT packets)
is not really accurate--as you can see here, "literature" gets a smaller part of the top-level distribution than both history and science/math.
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by cwasims »

Cheynem wrote: Wed Jan 08, 2020 2:37 pm Could this not be applied to many categories?

I'll take history. You mention the Battle of Iwo Jima. You could read a long book or article on Iwo Jima, which would take as much time as like reading Pride and Prejudice. You could do this for all of World War II or any of the major battles--El Alamein, Stalingrad, Bulge, Berlin, what have you. Probably most people just read some summaries of the battle and remember key names/details. Some who really enjoy the topic read a lot and learn more or deeper clues. This doesn't seem that different to me than choosing to read say Jane Austen's novels or just read Sparknotes summaries. In each instance, assuming you're doing this to study for quizbowl, you are memorizing details (i.e., if you read a quick summary of Iwo Jima and can buzz on clues, are you really able to do an academic discourse on the battle's overall significance?).

In short, I understand what you're saying, but I don't think literature is unique in this way.

Right, but there still is a major difference between literature and history: reading that book on the Battle of Iwo Jima (provided it's not ultra-specific) is likely to teach you about lots of things that happened during the Second World War that could conceivably come up in tossups not specifically about the Battle of Iwo Jima. This is not generally true with literature, where reading Pride and Prejudice is of literally zero assistance in a tossup on Sense and Sensibility. Furthermore, a Pride and Prejudice-length book on, say, the Pacific Theatre will probably teach you the vast majority of clues that might appear in HS-level tossups on the Pacific Theatre, which I would think comes up about as much as Jane Austen. But to get the same level of coverage on Jane Austen purely from reading complete books, you would probably have to read at least three novels (and possibly more).

I am definitely on the side of there being too much literature in Quiz Bowl: my pet theory (of whose accuracy I am unsure) is that literature achieved its large share of the distribution from being (almost certainly) the easiest QB category to write due to the mountain of uniquely-identifying clues and the relative ease of determining pyramidality. I would agree that literature seems like a pretty pointless subject to study in the way that QB encourages, particularly because knowing the details of a plot does not seem inherently important in the way that understanding, say, a the consequences of historical event is. This is not to say that there shouldn't be quite a few literature questions - obviously, lots of people read and engage with literature. But I do think that putting the category on par with history and science seems pretty unjustifiable to me. (I will also anecdotally note that novice players to QB tend to do by far the worst on literature questions of any category in my experience, which I think is at least somewhat relevant to this question insofar as their knowledge base has not yet been skewed by playing/studying for QB.)
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by lifchrs »

Cheynem wrote: Wed Jan 08, 2020 2:37 pm Could this not be applied to many categories?

I'll take history. You mention the Battle of Iwo Jima. You could read a long book or article on Iwo Jima, which would take as much time as like reading Pride and Prejudice. You could do this for all of World War II or any of the major battles--El Alamein, Stalingrad, Bulge, Berlin, what have you. Probably most people just read some summaries of the battle and remember key names/details. Some who really enjoy the topic read a lot and learn more or deeper clues. This doesn't seem that different to me than choosing to read say Jane Austen's novels or just read Sparknotes summaries. In each instance, assuming you're doing this to study for quizbowl, you are memorizing details (i.e., if you read a quick summary of Iwo Jima and can buzz on clues, are you really able to do an academic discourse on the battle's overall significance?).

In short, I understand what you're saying, but I don't think literature is unique in this way.
I'm not a history player but I'll try and address your point. What I think is important about an event in history is understanding the overall significance. One doesn't have to spend more than an hour to get a pretty good understanding of an event's place in history and significance. To be able to engage in academic discourse seems can be important, but I think that the main takeaways from history is its significance. My main point is that people can appreciate history by reading SparkNotes, because SparkNotes would still give information about an event's significance. However, in literature, it cannot be appreciated without reading the actual work of literature. Distilling a book to its plot gets rid of many of the qualities of a book that make it good, like craft, character development, etc.

To put my ideas quite simply, literature doesn't retain any of the qualities of literature when studied on SparkNotes, however many of the important parts of history can be learned from SparkNotes.
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by Cheynem »

If I recall, SparkNotes does a pretty decent job getting at a book's significance (if not SparkNotes, then other sources)--it may not be as easy to determine as a historical event, but any literary summary worth its salt is going to talk about the significance of a work. When I took, for example, American Literature in college, the Norton Anthology contained little introductions to each work and/or author--you got a sense of why the authors or their work were important or significant (for example, "Poodle D. Doo's novel was the first to really explore the life of the working-class in Cleveland, Ohio, using scandalous language that stunned audiences").

If SparkNotes doesn't do that, they certainly contain key quotes and articles about a work's symbolism and themes ("The character of the black-hatted man is used by Poodle D. Doo to represent evil"). Obviously this is not a match for reading the actual work, but I think you can certainly get more than just the facts and plot through these summaries.

I think Christopher is correct that a historical book or summary is going to more obviously connect to other topics. That's not to say that a literary summary or analysis cannot do the same thing, but it requires a few more steps--reading the summary of the work and then reading an analysis or contextual summary. I think Christopher is also right that literature can be particularly challenging for people, especially if they haven't read or studied a whole lot of literature. On the other hand, I'm not totally sure a great deal of quizbowl topics are not challenging for people new to the game--history I think is the most general audience friendly topic and science is perhaps (?) slightly easier to figure out what's being taught at what level, but I do not know if this is enough to suggest that literature should be reduced in the distribution.
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by quizbowllee »

Perhaps I'm a little biased. I was primarily a Lit player/Generalist back in my day. Lit and humanities were definitely my strengths. Science was my biggest weakness.

That said, I look at this from a completely different angle. I actually learned a lot through studying literature. Of course I was an avid reader. But, there's no way to read every book that comes up in the Literature canon in quiz bowl. So, I did a lot of the things you mention. I studied lists of authors and their works. I read packets and studied what are now known as "stock clues" (back in my day, we just called these "stuff that comes up a lot"). But, I learned about other subjects by doing this. I acquired residual knowledge through studying for Quiz Bowl Lit. For example, just reading a plot summary of Slaughterhouse-Five will teach you about the Firebombing of Dresden. I've powered many tossups on The Salem Witch trials from having learned the main characters in The Crucible. I know there was a Great Lisbon Earthquake because of Candide. The list goes on....

You implied that studying for Literature in Quiz Bowl requires rote memorization of characters, authors, etc., which doesn't promote "appreciation" of the works. You contrasted this with studying for other subjects. But, that's exactly how I felt when studying for science and other subjects that don't interest me or that I struggle to truly understand or "appreciate." My teams depended on me to carry most of the load, so I had to at least be passable in my weak areas. So, I learned a lot of "If I say "X" when they say "Y," they give me points." Do I UNDERSTAND Hooke's Law? Nope. But, if I heard "spring," I buzzed in and said it. And they gave me points. Do I comprehend what an aromatic hydrocarbon is? Not really. But, I know that if I buzz in and say "Benzene," I will most likely be rewarded. Likewise, I imagine this is how most science players who attempt to learn Literature feel - like it's just a game of buzz words and characters, etc.

I guess that's one of the things I love about Quiz Bowl: it's a GAME. I get frustrated at players and coaches who look down condescendingly at people who are good at Quiz Bowl but who maybe don't comprehend every answer line. Terms like "frauding" and "fake knowledge" and "stock clues" bug me. It's a game. And people like to win games. I don't think that a player who has read The Great Gatsby should be beaten to a tossup on it by someone who simply memorized some clues through reading packets. But, I also don't begrudge the player who wins that way. But, I'm going off on a tangent that may best be left for another day (or another thread).

Finally, in direct contrast to your original post, I decry what appears to be a decrease in Literature questions in Quiz Bowl - especially in the latest NAQT packets. It's hard for me to imagine Quiz Bowl without Literature. It's the backbone of the game to me. And I'm sure there are many others who feel the same. On the other hand, I'd LOVE to see far less science. :wink:
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by jonathanshauf »

I am also a literature player, but for a long time lit was my weakest category. I have actually had the opposite experience you describe; I have learned more about lit than any other category through quiz bowl, as I have gone from not caring for the subject at all to potentially considering it for a major. Even when I just read Wikipedia summaries, I find my curiosity in the author and the meaning of the work piqued. Of course, one can just acquire fake knowledge, and I might concede that this is easier to acquire for lit than other subjects. But ultimately, it has to be up to the player to actually gain a deep appreciation for the subject they study. Quiz Bowl can't make anyone actually care about the subjects they study. If a person just memorizes stuff to get lit for quiz bowl, I think that they are missing out, but it wouldn't make much sense to tone down lit in the distro just because it's possible to acquire fake knowledge about it.
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by Wartortullian »

I personally think that the inclusion of literature has a lot of value, even if people aren't buzzing on works they've necessarily read. A familiarity with the breadth of the literature "canon" (if such a thing can be said to exist) is very useful in understanding both literary and historical trends, and has saved my ass on at least a half dozen English papers. That said, I'd like to push back against some of the arguments in this thread.
quizbowllee wrote: Fri Jan 10, 2020 3:04 pm You implied that studying for Literature in Quiz Bowl requires rote memorization of characters, authors, etc., which doesn't promote "appreciation" of the works. You contrasted this with studying for other subjects. But, that's exactly how I felt when studying for science and other subjects that don't interest me or that I struggle to truly understand or "appreciate." My teams depended on me to carry most of the load, so I had to at least be passable in my weak areas. So, I learned a lot of "If I say "X" when they say "Y," they give me points." Do I UNDERSTAND Hooke's Law? Nope. But, if I heard "spring," I buzzed in and said it. And they gave me points. Do I comprehend what an aromatic hydrocarbon is? Not really. But, I know that if I buzz in and say "Benzene," I will most likely be rewarded. Likewise, I imagine this is how most science players who attempt to learn Literature feel - like it's just a game of buzz words and characters, etc.
I find it telling that the science examples referenced here are giveaways or easy parts at most difficulties. In fact, in the case of the benzene clue, there are other aromatic hydrocarbons (e.g. toluene) that could be higher-difficulty answer-lines or bonus parts. The main difference, in my opinion, is that science is far more interconnected than literature, especially for. The same concepts can show up in far more varied ways. To use an extreme example, the character Meyer Wolfsheim appears only in The Great Gatsby, but I can think of 10 different answerlines that could clue "band gap" in some way. This is why literature common links are so rewarding, both to players and writers, but we must keep in mind that lit distributions will never be free of bread-and-butter work/author/country questions.

This isn't to say that science isn't susceptible to the same sort of binary association as literature. My point is that adopting this strategy for science requires at least some familiarity with the underlying scientific principles, while adopting it for literature requires comparably little knowledge of a work's significance. Furthermore, as difficulty increases, the effectiveness of binary association falls off faster for science than for lit.
I guess that's one of the things I love about Quiz Bowl: it's a GAME. I get frustrated at players and coaches who look down condescendingly at people who are good at Quiz Bowl but who maybe don't comprehend every answer line. Terms like "frauding" and "fake knowledge" and "stock clues" bug me. It's a game. And people like to win games. I don't think that a player who has read The Great Gatsby should be beaten to a tossup on it by someone who simply memorized some clues through reading packets. But, I also don't begrudge the player who wins that way. But, I'm going off on a tangent that may best be left for another day (or another thread).
Yes, quizbowl is a game, but it's somewhat unique in that the community frequently discusses changes to make the game fairer or more rewarding. The "it's a GAME" argument applies equally well to terrible formats like Knowledge Bowl or Science Bowl.
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Re: Understanding Literature as a Category

Post by Banana Stand »

I’m not going to say much about the distribution because I’ve seen these discussions play out a thousand and they usually don’t lead anywhere. Literature is the most “pure” category in terms of fitting the medium of a quizbowl question, and I don’t think there’s much disputing that. I’m sure this is partially why it was cemented as one of the Big 3 over twenty years ago now and has remained there (other reasons being literature’s popularity with people interested in quizbowl, its real world importance in academia and among other intelligentsia, and the ease of shaping a question out of a work of literature).

Now, to the bigger question of summaries and quizbowl’s influence on how often we use them. The first thing I’ll say is this: at the college level, every great lit player has a deep appreciation for literature and has read a ton of works across all genres and time periods. Many are great writers themselves (for example, take the luminary Ted Gioia, whose short fiction you can read in the L.A. Review of Books right now). Of course, all of these great players have also reads hundreds (and thousands) of plot summaries, book reviews, articles about authors, Paris Review interviews, and scholarly essays (and any other secondary source you can imagine). If the only way to achieve success as a literature player in quizbowl were to eschew reading the classics and become a mindless vacuum of Sparknotes summaries, you have to ask yourself why all of the great lit players are avid readers who care deeply about the subject.

Now, let’s say hypothetically you’re right, and literature’s large chunk of the distribution gives an unfair advantage to people who only consume plot summaries. Is there utility in this approach? Yes! There’s a reason vast reference volumes of literature have existed for years, and it’s not because people like me were too lazy to read The Human Comedy and needed a quick primer on the major plot points of Les Chouans and Eugenie Grandet. These summaries can give you a greater understanding of a novel, its author, and the cultural context surrounding its creation. Every single one of the 1,801 Masterplots summaries I have sitting on my bookshelf has a 1-2 page critical evaluation that takes the plot details you just read about and explains why they were important socially, politically, religiously, or how they were part of the development of a certain literary tradition. These reference texts were written because they’re valuable to academics who want knowledge of a work without actually reading the whole thing, which is incidentally what quizbowlers want. I disagree wholeheartedly with Chris that “literature seems like a pretty pointless subject to study in the way that quizbowl encourages” since knowing the plot or other secondary information about a work is valuable, and because quizbowl doesn’t “encourage” any manner of study; it just asks that you engage with literature in some form as much as you can.

I’d go as far as to say that the person reading a summary, a book review, or an essay with a critical eye is gaining much more than somebody who is reading a work of literature in its entirety to learn quizbowl clues (I’d know because I’ve been both of these people). The reality is that in this game, every category can be frauded (yes, even science) and while we can try to make the game as rewarding to those with “real knowledge” as possible, there will always be a degree of efficiency in learning surface-level clues en masse, and this affects every category, not just literature. I understand the concern; I’ve wrestled with it myself, but there’s plenty of value to be had in knowing about works of literature if you know what you’re looking for.
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