From QBWiki
Revision as of 03:52, 8 January 2023 by Matt Weiner (talk | contribs)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Categorical Imperative
This article discusses "trash," a commonly used term for popular culture in Quiz Bowl. For information regarding Testing Recall About Strange Happenings, the organization also known as TRASH, see TRASH.

Trash is the common name for popular culture (sports, movies, TV, video games, non-classical music, comic books, etc) in quizbowl.

In mainstream academic quizbowl tournaments, trash usually takes up between 0 and 5 percent of the distribution. There are no exclusively trash questions at all at ACF Nationals, the PACE NSC, or NASAT (see below note on crossover categories), though ACF Fall and most high-school level regular-season events, including the former HSAPQ Tournament Sets, have 1 to 2 trash questions per round.

Tournaments with no specific set-aside for trash/popular culture content tend to be more willing to allow "borderline" topics in academic categories, so that popular culture with some reasonable claim on being academic-adjacent has a place in the set.

NAQT has somewhat more trash (6.6% in their high school sets when pop culture and sports are treated as a unit [1]). In small amounts, trash questions can help keep rounds lively and increase retention of new players, but a preponderance of trash in an otherwise-academic tournament is considered bad quizbowl.


Since 2021 there has been a movement to avoid using the term "trash" and use other terminology such as "popular culture" in order to avoid giving a false impression of combativeness regarding the category to those who are not familiar with the term.

Though probably a derogatory term when it was first coined, the term was ultimately embraced by the most vocal supporters of popular culture content in quizbowl, and no longer contains any value judgment when used by insiders.

The exact time and circumstances of the first usage of "trash" to mean "popular culture" questions or similar is not known. "Trash" was an understood reference in quizbowl communications fora no later than July 1993, when it was casually used in this post without any need for explanation: By the late 1990s, it was a common term among nearly all experienced college and high school players, even those outside the core of extremely online college participants.

In the 1990s, "trash" sometimes meant "any category not prominently featured in ACF at the time," which included not only popular culture and sports but also current events, contemporary literature, etc. By 2000 it was understood to mean "popular culture and sports" only.

NAQT has always separated "popular culture" and "sports" in its distribution. All-trash tournaments generally include a sports distribution. It is ambiguous whether the new term "popular culture" includes sports by default or not.

In 1997 the Testing Recall About Strange Happenings organization was founded to centralize the running of regional and national trash tournaments. Inevitably, this forced backronym proved problematic for two reasons:

  • No definition of "trash" content in quizbowl has ever meaningfully corresponded to "strange happenings."
  • By the mid-2000s, many people who were unaware of the TRASH organization began to assume that "trash" was simply a generic term spelled in all-caps for no reason. TRASH went defunct in 2010, and to this day there are still "TRASH tournaments" announced by hosts who may be unaware that such a group ever existed and cannot explain why they believe that the word is capitalized.

Crossover categories

Certain subcategories are traditionally asked in both purely academic distributions and in trash tournaments. These non-exhaustively include:

  • films of artistic merit
  • popular music forms of the pre-rock-and-roll era such as jazz
  • sports and entertainment events of obvious social impact such as the integration of Major League Baseball or the murder of John Lennon
  • contemporary literature
  • graphic novels of literary merit
  • "true crime" type current events (this category has dwindled in popularity to essentially zero in recent years, but was askable in the 1990s and 2000s in both academic and trash tournaments)
  • high fashion, cuisine, and other extensions of the "other arts" category to areas formerly considered exclusively part of the popular culture distribution

Trash tournaments

Trash tournaments are tournaments involving questions exclusively on trash.

In the peak trash tournament era of the mid-00s, there were many teams that devoted the majority of their time and money to trash. Clubs such as NYU, Villanova and Boston College played exclusively in trash tournaments for many years in the late 2000s. This phenomenon of trash capture has become markedly less pronounced since the demise of in-season trash tournament.

The number of trash tournaments has declined significantly since the late 2000s, while participation at academic events has remained constant or increased. From spring 2011 to fall 2013, there were only four full-length, standalone trash tournaments held, all of which took place in the summer.

The decline in the popularity of trash can mostly be explained by the fact that trash was invented and played by a pre-existing social group of 1990s quizbowlers, and once that group moved on to other things in life, the true level of interest in trash at about one tournament every six months has emerged. There was constant tension not only over trash's deleterious effect on academic participation but also about its negative influence on question quality, as trash tournaments tended to be very rough in question structure and self-indulgent in answer selection.

The trash paradox and its converse

Teams and players who are extremely enthusiastic about playing trash to the exclusion of playing academic questions are, generally, not very good at trash.

The skills to succeed at properly written quizbowl tournaments are largely the same at academic and at trash; while naturally some people have a bias in their knowledge base in one direction or another, it is rare to find someone who is good at academic and wholly incompetent at trash (or vice versa). Being able to understand the structure of questions, interpret them on the fly, make educated guesses, have the confidence to buzz, work well in a team environment, etc. are subject matter-independent skills, and someone who has mastered them enough to be noticeably good at either academic or trash quizbowl is very likely to be able to leverage their external-to-quizbowl store of knowledge, which everyone has to some degree, effectively at the other format.

Trash teams

While trash was, like academic quizbowl, largely organized through campus clubs and played by teams representing a particular college, its open nature meant that dedicated teams of people well past their college days could remain together as a playing unit indefinitely. Long-term trash squads included:

Great trash players

People who have been dubbed "the greatest trash player ever" by someone other than themselves include James Dinan and Dwight Kidder. Trash was, generally speaking, a format that required a balanced team to succeed at high levels, due to its elevated difficulty and the unlikelihood of one person being an expert at both, e.g., video games and hip-hop music, combined with the fact that few people were willing to study to become better at trash, so teams needed to be formed from the natural interests of individuals.

Elevated trash, "historically significant trash," and other attempted distinctions

Sometimes, proposals to limit the popular culture distribution in some way that aligns with the canon of academic quizbowl are floated. These have generally proven unworkable in practice for several reasons. (A list of these arguments, cited to who first put them forth, would be good here).

Historical trash tournaments