Houghton Mifflin HarcourtHistory Channel

The following is a guide to how NHBB writes its cultural history questions. It’s presented to NHBB writers as a means of explaining the job, and is presented to players more for “how to prepare for NHBB competition” purposes than any sort of real writing lesson.

Somewhere between 15 and 25% of each NHBB packet is cultural history. Our full list of cultural history topics is Science & Technology, Sports & Pop Culture, Visual Art, Auditory Art, Religion & Mythology, Philosophy & Social Science, Literature, Recent History, US Geography, and World Geography; each topic will get one tossup in each packet.

The “extra” consideration in writing NHBB cultural history, as opposed to regular all-subject quizbowl questions in the same categories, is that the NHBB question must involve something historically significant in its own right. Simply being famous within the study is not enough to make it NHBB material. Instead, the tossup must do one of two things: either tie those primary clues in to the broader historical significance outside the work, or use primary clues that themselves are derived from history. An example of the former would be a tossup that describes Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s impact on abolitionism, possibly including the clue that Abe Lincoln apocryphally called Harriet Beecher Stowe the “little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” An example of the latter would be that, in his late career, Mark Twain wrote a biography of Joan of Arc.

Sports provides another good set of examples for “historical significance.” A tossup on Jackie Robinson describing his breaking baseball’s color barrier is obviously OK — that had broad social ramification. Any additional clues could be directly historical or not, as desired by the writer. On the other hand, a tossup on Babe Ruth that only describes his batting statistics is not OK, even if it says “hit a then-record 714 home runs.” Those stats may be highly famous within baseball, but the numbers themselves are not historically significant — it’s up to the writer to tell the quizbowl player why they matter outside of baseball. (And if they don’t, then the writer either needs to find something that does or scrap the tossup.)

 

The following is a brief description of how we approach writing a “historical” tossup in each subcategory. The examples are drawn from clues that are highly famous in quizbowl already; don’t take them as guarantees that they will or won’t come up in future NHBB questions!

Literature
The requirement for “historical content” is quite probably most onerous in literature. A good literature quizbowl question usually focuses entirely on plot elements of the work; that often won’t fly for NHBB, if the work in question is entirely fictional.

My preferred method for literature questions is for the subject of the question to already have some sort of direct tie to historical events. Some common examples: a tossup on Kurt Vonnegut that uses the firebombing of Dresden as a Slaughterhouse Five clue; a tossup on Robinson Crusoe that uses the Alexander Selkirk marooning clue; a tossup on Keats that uses the “‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ claimed Cortez saw the Pacific, but that’s wrong, oops!” clue.

It is also possible to write a tossup that mentions how the work influenced history; the Harriet Beecher Stowe example above works along those lines. You could also write a tossup on the Harlem Renaissance using works and authors as well as other historical clues; quizbowl might have debates on whether that tossup would fit in the literature or history category, but NHBB gets to call it historical literature and move on.

What you should never, EVER do is mine an author’s biography for a “historical” clue. Knowledge of the literature is what we’re testing, not trivia about the authors. If a fact from the author’s life is broadly important and directly impacts their literature (for example, Vonnegut surviving Dresden), it’s OK, but only because the literary work itself describes Dresden, making it fall in the previous paragraph’s domain.

Religion and Mythology
There are three primary ways to write RM questions: asking about a system’s beliefs, practices, and general history. The third option is obviously fair game for us. The second option is easy for us to incorporate – think of a tossup on Passover that uses clues from the seder as well as the historical inspiration for the holiday. The first option is somewhat dicier; clues on beliefs are often derived from primary literary sources. We can’t toss up Athena based on just textual clues from The Iliad or Adam and Eve off of just clues from Genesis. Like in literature, focusing on primary sources is important, but NHBB questions need to explicitly tie in those primary sources to their historical context. The good news is there’s usually no shortage of interesting history about how people worship and express their beliefs, so you can (and should!) incorporate belief clues with history clues.

Visual Art & Auditory Art
Use similar judgment in these two categories as with literature. A tossup on Beethoven’s fifth symphony can use the “signaled victory in World War 2” clue. A tossup on Handel can use any number of clues describing his work for King George 1, but can get by with as little as one historical clue and the rest musical. A tossup on the Mona Lisa that only describes visual aspects of the painting does not work; describing its 1911 theft would help.

Philosophy and Social Science
Use similar judgment here as with literature and arts. These categories are naturally inclined to have close relations to history, so writers often won’t have to “stretch” nearly as hard to make an otherwise-good question historical. You won’t be able to write a tossup on The Interpretation of Dreams by just grabbing random concepts from the book, but you can do things like tossing up Heidegger using Nazi references and tossing up Samoa using Margaret Mead and other clues.

Science and Technology
This is, in my opinion, the second hardest category for applying historical content. Good science quizbowl questions usually focus on the concepts and how they work. On occasion, they describe the historical development of the concepts; for example, a tossup on the nucleus based on the various models that have been proposed explaining it. The latter falls right in our wheelhouse and is by far the most “normal” way to pull this off, but under no circumstances should writers forget that the former is vastly more important. My preferred method for science questions is to incorporate one or two clues about the history of the concept while using explanations of the science itself everywhere else.

Geography & Recent History
Writing good current events or geography questions isn’t terribly difficult, and incorporating historical context is not onerous either; the problem is that it’s really easy to write boring current events or geography questions. This hsquizbowl thread is too brief, but it starts a good discussion about writing good current events. I’ll add that our Recent History category encompasses everything since the year 2000, making it less reliant on “what happened in the last 6 months” than normal quizbowl questions. Geography got a very nice discussion here.

As far as the historical necessity goes, if you write a good CE or geography question, it will almost automatically have enough historical context to work. If you write a bad CE or geography question, it will get rejected by the editor. The upshot here is that I don’t have much to go into detail here — the lesson I would have is encompassed in those links.

Pop Culture and Sports
Pop culture and sports questions (often known as trash questions) often don’t have a “primary source” to rely on. Writers of these questions must focus on the discussion about “internal vs. external importance” from the start — we can’t just ask for a famous singer, we have to ask about a singer’s broadly, historically important impact (think Whitney Houston’s legendary “Star Spangled Banner” performance circa the Gulf War) or about a singer’s discussion of historical topics (think U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”). A tossup on Abbey Road that talks about how they made the cover art is historically famous within pop culture, but it didn’t draw on any history or have any broad historical impact, so it wouldn’t work well. The Sgt. Pepper’s album cover does make use of historical figures, so a tossup on that could work.

 

To wrap up this discussion, a note. Cultural history questions, and especially trash questions, require a fair bit of finesse to pull off for a particularly unfair reason. Whether it’s a trash question in any academic quizbowl, or a non-history question in NHBB, these questions are a diversion from the normal content, which means they have to be really creative and entertaining to be worth the space. If you write a boring question on the Chicago Cubs, it doesn’t just “exist” in the game and get forgotten; Cubs fans get angry that you apparently don’t understand their team, and everyone else gets annoyed that their quizbowl game was interrupted for something dumb. The audience for this tossup isn’t there to show off their knowledge of the Cubs; they’re there to play history questions. We have to work hard to make sure the question is worth listening to by both fans and non-fans.

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