How to expand the canon

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How to expand the canon

Post by theMoMA »

I'd like to take this opportunity to write a tract on canon expansion, a topic that Jerry touched on but didn't explicitly mention in his fantastic tutorial. I'm far from a prolific writer, but I have some thoughts on this topic that I think are worth sharing.

0. There is no canon.
At times I'm going to make it seem like 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. And since members of this forum are often the ones whose decisions make the canon what it is, hopefully this guide will help set some rough norms of canon expansion with the hope of improving the game in the future.

1. Know the difficulty level you're writing for, and know the levels around it.
Canon expansion occurs at every level, whether it's a topic that's never come up in quizbowl before becoming an early clue at ACF nationals, or a topic traditionally covered in ACF Fall becoming a question at the high school level. Consequently, you need to know what difficulty you're writing for, and have a good familiarity with the levels above and below that. It's important that you're not expanding Nationals difficulty to a Junior Bird tournament.

2. The Great Chain of Being.
At any given level of play, topics should progress in roughly this order:
A. A new topic at any given level should become an early clue.
B. A common early clue should become a third bonus part.
C. A common third bonus part should become a middle clue.
D. A common middle clue should become a second bonus part.
E. A common second bonus part should become a first bonus part and a giveaway.
F. A common first bonus part or giveaway should become a tossup answer or the theme to a bonus.
G. Once the topic has reached middle-clue status, I believe the process can begin anew at the next level down if the topic is appropriate for that level.

There are obviously fast tracks through this chain, as some topics lend themselves particularly well to tossups, or are particularly well-liked enough to become more popular faster. There are also exceptions to the chain, as there are topics out there at every difficulty that are well-known enough in-depth enough to warrant becoming a tossup right away. It can't be overstressed that these are very rare, and importantly that topics which are superficially well-known, but about which little is known in-depth become answers to poor tossups with steep difficulty cliffs that create buzzer races.

There are also topics that do not lend themselves well to moving down the chain; it is up to the individual question writers to be responsible with the topics they select to move down the chain.

3. When is a bonus part/clue/giveaway common?
Some champion the rule that once something comes up in a bonus three times, it's worthy of a tossup. I do not believe that the answer to this question is so easy or quantifiable. I believe a particular third bonus part is common when it is easier to the field than the hardest comparable common second bonus part, a leadin is common when it is easier to the field than the hardest comparable middle clue, and so on. This is not easily quantifiable, so it must be done by feel. Because of this, those with more experience are going to be better at canon expansion; I'm not going to claim that I have a good feel for when canon expansion is justifiable in an abstract sense, which is why I hesitate to do it.

4. What will players at a particular level actually know?
There are certain topics that come up in higher difficulties that will never make good lower-level questions simply because of the level of education necessary to attain the knowledge. I believe that in nearly all cases, we must define the canon as what people will know, not just what has come up in quizbowl before. This seems to contradict the chain of being, but it does not. Because we often don't know what people know, we have to use a reasonable substitute. In most cases, what has come up before is generally a good approximation of what people know. But because it is a substitute only, we have to make sure we are cognizant of that minority of cases when a topic is not appropriate for lower levels and act accordingly.

5. The two types of canon expansion for tossups.
-External canon expansion: Going outside the canon to find a new tossup answer. An example would be writing a tossup on a work of George Washington Cable.
-Internal canon expansion: Looking within the existing canon for new tossup answers. An example would be writing a question on Phoebe Caulfield instead of Catcher in the Rye.

Internal canon expansion is far superior to external. In the abstract, it conforms to the ideal chain of being; a giveaway like Phoebe Caulfield is becoming a new tossup answer. And rationally, it clearly rewards deeper knowledge of important topics instead of arbitrarily introducing new important topics.

Too often people rush to expand the tossup answer canon with things they view as important or interesting. Doing so circumvents the ideal order of clue progression, which creates precipitous difficulty cliffs, buzzer races, or worse yet, dead tossups.

A quick recap:
1. Know who you’re writing for, and be familiar with what comes up in the difficulties surrounding that level.
2. At any given difficulty, topics should progress (when appropriate) from early clues to tossup answers in a responsible, steady, and fairly set manner: the chain of being.
3. A topic should move down the chain of being when it has become easier than the hardest comparable topic on the next link down. This is done by feel as it is hard to quantify.
4. The canon should be what people actually know, not what has come up before. However, what has come up before is, in most cases, a reasonable approximation of what people know. The writer must be able to distinguish exceptions and write accordingly.
5. For tossup answers, internal canon expansion is much preferable to external canon expansion.

Why it is important to have norms on canon expansion.
I’ve talked about this a few times before, but I believe that responsible expanding of the canon in the college game is crucial for optimizing the amount of good high school players who are dedicated in college, and consequently, for optimizing competition. It’s important to have a mechanism for maintaining equilibrium between the high school and college games, and between the lower-level and the higher-level college competition so that new players to any given level do not get discouraged. This means we have to have internalized, loose norms as individuals for how to progress clues through a level of competition, as well as how to progress question topics from level to level.

I hope I’m not being too pretentious by writing this given my obscurity as a question writer. Just because I know what should be done doesn’t mean I have any concept of or experience with implementing it.
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Post by grapesmoker »

I just want to say that I think this is a very good primer on how to go about enlarging the canon in standard tournaments (I say "standard" to exempt crazy singles events written by people like me, or tournaments like Manu). The part on the "Great Chain of Being" is particularly good and summarizes elegantly everything that I wanted to say about this topic in my other thread. If you follow these rules, you may sometimes write a slightly easier question, but chances are that you will almost never write something impossible.
Jerry Vinokurov
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Post by cvdwightw »

I agree that this is an excellent primer on expanding the canon; I think that both this and Jerry's treatise on question writing should go on the wiki.