Academic Competition Federation

Interview: Caroline Mao

Caroline Mao is an rising sophomore at Mount Holyoke College. An editor for this year’s ACF Fall, she is a frequent quizbowl writer and staffer. ACF representative Olivia Lamberti spoke with her about becoming an editor and her ideas for community improvement.

OL: You were recently named an editor of the 2019 ACF Fall set. Congratulations! What’s your writing process like?

CM: I overthink writing. It takes me a long time to put together questions. Yesterday, for instance, I spent three hours reading JSTOR articles for one lead-in and then decided it wasn’t working thematically and scrapped it. I obsess a little too much about theme.

OL: Do you have any advice to community members hoping to start editing questions?

CM: The editor selection process has become more transparent. There were open calls for both ACF Fall and ACF Regionals editors this year, along with the PACE Mentorship Program and WORKSHOP. Even if you don’t think you’re qualified for projects like that, you should still go ahead and apply for it. The worst thing they can tell you is “no.”

When I applied for ACF Fall, the only reason I did it was because someone who I had previously written for encouraged me to do so…I think a lot of people can be intimidated by editing but you have to start somewhere.

OL: What inspired you to start editing?

CM: When I applied for ACF Fall, the only reason I did it was because someone who I had previously written for encouraged me to do so. He asked if I had considered applying to edit ACF Fall. I didn’t realize I was good enough at writing and editing to apply. I ended up using him as a reference…I think a lot of people can be intimidated by editing but you have to start somewhere.

OL: You played quizbowl for the American International School of Guangzhou in high school, but have stepped back from playing in college in favor of focusing on writing and staffing commitments like Fall. Why is that?

CM: My high school quizbowl experience was a lot of fun, but it was also intensely stressful, especially because as a junior and senior I was also balancing it with the stress of college apps and trying to figure out my life. I used quizbowl as a form of escapism for a while, but when I got to college I knew I couldn’t worry about it all the time. My writing and staffing commitments so far are still pretty time-consuming, but you don’t have that same kind of pressure that you have to be good or deal with judgment. You still get to meet cool people in a less competitive context.

A lot of the time, quizbowl has been really good for my mental health and gave me motivation and a sense of purpose and encouraged me to be intellectually curious and make friends and things like that, but it can also be damaging, which is part of why I took a step back from playing.

OL: More specifically, some quizbowlers have cited a connection between quizbowl and mental health issues. It sounds like you have some thoughts on this— what’s your experience been like?

CM: I care a lot about quizbowl and mental health. A lot of the time, quizbowl has been really good for my mental health and gave me motivation and a sense of purpose and encouraged me to be intellectually curious and make friends and things like that, but it can also be damaging, which is part of why I took a step back from playing. If other people are thinking about things like that, they should take care of themselves first.

OL: You attend a small liberal arts college. How has that impacted your quizbowl experience?

CM: I would really like to see more liberal arts colleges get into quizbowl. It’s sad— quizbowl tends to be big at really established programs at larger schools. At liberal arts colleges, clubs tend to get propped up by one or two really passionate people and fall apart after they graduate, and not just quizbowl clubs. One thing I would like to see happen is allowing consortiums to play together; for instance the Five College consortium. I know the Claremont colleges play together, and it would be great if we could too.

OL: Your small liberal arts college, specifically, is an all women’s school. You also attended high school in Asia. Have these educational experiences affected your relationship with the quizbowl gender gap?

CM: In the Asia circuit, it’s still very much skewed, but the international circuit has a higher ratio of girls to boys. In college it was kind of startling to me, because I knew to expect there would be more guys around, but actually seeing it in person was different. Everytime I go to Amherst practice, I step off the bus after that thirty minute bus ride and just go “where am I and why are all these random men around?” This was the first year I ran into the “being the only girl at a tournament” problem, which I had never dealt with before.

Of course, you should treat men the same as women and vice versa. But you also need to be mindful of how your actions affect women.

OL: What do you think quizbowl can do to attract and retain female community members?

CM: It’s important to be mindful. Of course, you should treat men the same as women and vice versa. But you also need to be mindful of how your actions affect women. For example, people talk about how a lot of quizbowlers will get aggressive and tease and insult each other, which isn’t inherently wrong, and it’s not like girls never do that, but it does have a gendered connotation to it. And recruiting girls— it’s difficult, because on the one hand I would never want to make a girl feel singled out for her gender, like we only want you to play quizbowl for fake diversity or ally points, but you also need to put in the extra effort to retain women.

OL: How do you personally cope with some of the problematic behaviors mentioned?

CM: Culturally, there’s a lot of problems with the quizbowl community and toxic behavior. Quizbowl has a really big obsession with statistics that I don’t like and fixating on how good you are. Quizbowl lets people get away with being rude or irritating because they’re good at quizbowl. But, for example, being a staffer at HSNCT and NSC was really fun, and getting to hang out in my hotel room with other friends was a great experience. A lot of individuals I’ve met are awesome to be around, and those individuals are the reason I’ve stayed.

OL: What are some of your favorite things about those individuals?

CM: I really like that they’re intellectually curious. I can just go find a quizbowl friend and drag them along to a library or a bookstore or whatever, where I feel like some other people I know might dismiss that as kind of boring. Quizbowlers try really hard to have some awareness of the world we live in, moreso than the average person. They want to know what has happened in our world previously and what’s currently going on in it. I appreciate that they care.