Academic Competition Federation

Interview: Susan Ferrari

Posted: September 20, 2019

Susan Ferrari is an alumna of the University of Chicago. A two-time ACF Nationals champion who has been involved with quizbowl since 1999, she now works as Assistant Dean and Director of Corporate, Foundation, and Government Relations at Grinnell College. ACF representative Olivia Lamberti spoke with her about how quizbowl and her relationship with the game have evolved over the years.

OL: You’ve been a part of the quizbowl community for a long time. What’s changed? What’s stayed the same?

SF: I think there was a sort of nastiness to the early aughts culture that I don’t see as much of anymore. People are more cognizant of the impact this has on recruiting and on making new teams feel welcome in the community. It’s become less insular. Of course, it does seem like online communities can break down those divisions, but also reinforce them. What happens in group chats now used to happen in private IRC channels before. The technology changes, but some of the potential issues remain the same.

OL: Was being a woman in quizbowl a different experience in the 2000s?

SF: When I was a player, things were more overt. There were more people grabbing you or saying gross stuff directly to your face. And I was in quizbowl in a fairly powerful position. I was on a team that had a lot of women, and had always had a lot of women, and even when I was on it, it had always felt like it had a lot of women. It was a good team, but also a team that was socially well-entrenched. And even then, my teammates and I didn’t feel like we could speak up about aspects of the community that have made quizbowl an unwelcoming place for women. And if we didn’t feel like we could do that, who could?

I do think the work Alex [Damisch] and others have done with the misconduct form, and the work Chloe [Levine] has done to talk about these issues in a more systematic way, have been really helpful.

OL: What are your thoughts on current work supporting women in quizbowl?

SF: I do think the work Alex [Damisch] and others have done with the misconduct form, and the work Chloe [Levine] has done to talk about these issues in a more systematic way, have been really helpful. It’s been interesting to see how the discourse has gone. When the conversation opened up more, though, it was a little bittersweet. It was wonderful to see these conversations happening, but for me, and I suspect for other women who were active at the time, it was sort of like ‘man, these are the things we should have been doing.’

OL: Where do you think work supporting women in quizbowl can continue to improve?

SF: I hope quizbowl continues to be more attentive to the needs of underrepresented groups. There’s been more attention on women, and that’s great, but I see more people asking whether we’ve thought about people of color, or low-income students, for example. What doesn’t always happen at universities is providing holistic support that helps low-income students have the same sort of college experience as other students, and I’ve seen that come into quizbowl; the assumptions we make about who can float something on a credit card, and who can pay for meals off campus are still there. I think we can be more attentive to that.

[A] lot of what I do is edit writing that’s very information-dense and written in a specific formal style that has to be clear to a variety of audiences. Nothing I’ve ever done in academic writing has held me to that quizbowl standard of sentence level clarity in my prose, and I’ve found that very useful in my job, and in most writing that I do.

OL: You’re a working adult. Did quizbowl aid your job search?

SF: I don’t know if this is a widely recommended practice, but I used quizbowl a lot when I was applying for jobs. I would draw upon things I had learned from quizbowl— things like planning or managing big events, writing and editing other people’s writing, working to deadline, mastering new areas of knowledge. This helped me get a lot of interviews.

OL: And do quizbowl skills play a role in your current position?

SF: The job I ended up getting was directing the grants office at Grinnell. In that job, a lot of what I do is edit writing that’s very information-dense and written in a specific formal style that has to be clear to a variety of audiences. Nothing I’ve ever done in academic writing has held me to that quizbowl standard of sentence level clarity in my prose, and I’ve found that very useful in my job, and in most writing that I do. And, of course, in the grants office of a small college, I’m not just dealing with, say, a College of Natural Sciences— I’m dealing with everything. This week, I met with a visual artist, a computer scientist, a special collections librarian, a creative writer, and an anthropologist. The breadth of what I do is huge, and the baseline, cocktail party level knowledge I have of different fields from quizbowl is invaluable. There are a lot of transferable skills here.

Christian…arrived three hours late to the tournament with a map of every form of public transportation in Chicago. I’m not even sure how he got on all of them.

OL: Do you have any favorite memories with people you met through quizbowl?

SF: One of my teammates and exact contemporaries at Chicago was Christian Kammerer. He’s a paleontology curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Christian knew everything in the world about dinosaurs and the Simpsons. He was just delightful to be around. But he was extremely bad at travel – there was one year where the ICT was at Northwestern, which is a place you can get to from UChicago using public transportation pretty straightforwardly. Unless, of course, you’re Christian, who arrived three hours late to the tournament with a map of every form of public transportation in Chicago. I’m not even sure how he got on all of them. It had been a rough morning, clearly.

OL: You’ve met some personalities, clearly! How have the social and community aspects of quizbowl impacted you?

SF: Quizbowl wasn’t even my primary activity my first year of college, and I wasn’t playing on A teams from the get-go, but it was a really friendly and welcoming social space. I married one of my teammates and had a wedding where half of our wedding party was from quizbowl. Obviously, we liked each other okay. The people I’m still in touch with from college are still overwhelmingly former teammates. And I’m really glad to see it seems like there’s a strong social aspect to the Chicago team still.

OL: Do you think the community has been a positive presence in your life?

SF: It’s been a joy to be involved with the community this long, and stay involved, and to see it grow and flourish. If you look back into the dusty archives of hsquizbowl, you see that fourteen years ago people had concerns about quizbowl’s long term viability. I’ve never been more happy for a friend to be proven wrong.