Audio Quizbowl Studying

Author: Mike Bentley

Level: Beginner

This article was originally published through PACE’s now-defunct Freelance Quizbowl University program.

Introduction

There are many ways to study and improve at quizbowl. One of the most effective tools I’ve found for getting extra study time out of my day is through listening to audio resources such as audiobooks, audio lectures, podcasts, and more. I’ve been able to “read” a lot more in the past few years than I used to by listening to audiobooks while walking to classes, while driving, at the gym, at work, etc.

This guide will give an overview of:

  • where to find audio resources
  • how to put them on to the device of your choosing
  • how to best employ them for quizbowl

Listening Devices

The most basic tool required in using audio material to study for quizbowl is having a device to play these audio resources on.

CD Player

The simplest way to do this is with a CD player. Any CD player, including the one in your car, should do the job adequately. Ideally you’ll want to obtain a CD player that has decent support for resuming where you last left off. Most cars do this automatically. There are also a small number of audiobooks available as MP3 CDs (these are CDs that are filled with compressed MP3 files to hold more information than a regular CD), so it might be worthwhile to find a CD player that can play these.

MP3 Player

An MP3 player like an iPod can also be used to great effect, although it usually takes a bit more effort. Unless you’re downloading material online, you’ll probably need to rip the CD or DVD to a format your MP3 player can read (specifics on how to do this are covered in a later section). One thing to keep in mind when choosing an MP3 player for listening to audio studying material is that you’ll want to pick a player that has a good “pick up where you left off” feature. For instance, if you’re switching between books and music, is it easy to get back to where you last left off in the book?

Tip for using iPods

If you’re using an iPod, chances are you’ll lose your place if the plug the iPod into the computer or switch what you’re listening to. In order to figure out what you last listened to, plug the iPod into your computer and in iTunes look at the “play count” field for the playlist you’re listening to. The last track you completely listened to should have a “1” next to it. Annoyingly, there’s no way to get this information from the iPod itself.

Tape Player

While the cassette tape hasn’t been a viable medium for commercially released music in well over a decade, many audiobooks are still released on cassette and chances are your local library will only have some of the material you want in this format. There’s also not a very good way of putting the contents of a cassette onto an MP3 player like there is with a CD or DVD. Thus, I suggest trying to find an old Walkman or a stereo system that still plays cassettes. In some ways cassettes are more convenient than CDs or even MP3s, as you’ll always be able to stop and pick up at the exact point you left off later.

DVD Player

Finally, a DVD player can be useful for watching things like the Art Lectures provided by the Teaching Company on DVD. To get the most out of these courses, I find it helpful to take notes like I would if I was in an actual class.

Getting Resources on Your Listening Device

If you’re just using a CD player, then this section is pretty straightforward: just put the CDs in the device! However, if you’re listening with an MP3 player, or want to listen to resources that aren’t available on CD, this is a little more complicated.

Ripping CDs to an MP3 Player

There are lots of programs available that can do this for you. Pretty much any music player (Windows Media Player, iTunes, etc.) has the ability to do this for you. My favorite ripping software is a tool call dBpoweramp, although you have to pay for it. This software lets you burn to MP3s (many other programs only let you burn to proprietary formats), is really fast, and if you also rip a lot of music it has good resources for looking up track information. However, I believe it’s only available on PCs.

What not to do: Automatic Tagging

One thing to take note of when ripping CDs is that it’s quite common for the identifying information for the files you’re ripping to be inaccurate, inconsistent or non-existent. For example, say you’re ripping 20 discs of Moby Dick. It’s quite common for Disc 1 to format all of its tracks with the following title: “Moby Dick – Herman Melville”. Disc 2, meanwhile, might format the tracks like: “Moby Dick – Disc 2 – Track 001”. Disc 3 might have its tracks formatted like “Unknown Artist – Unknown Track”. Thus, if you use the suggested tag information, it will become very hard to find what you’re looking for later and may result in the tracks being played out of order. I suggest that, instead, you turn off all automatic tagging and manually name the files something like “Moby Dick – Disc 01”.

Once you’ve ripped the files to your computer, simply add them to your MP3 player and start listening.

Ripping DVD Audio or Video to an MP3 Player

In order to get this data from a DVD to your MP3 player, I suggest using tools provided by imToo Software (available on both PC and Mac). For around $30 you can purchase either their DVD -> MP3 ripping software or DVD -> iPod Video ripping software. It’s possible that there are some freeware solutions for doing this, but I haven’t personally tried them and can vouch that imToo works pretty well. Once you rip the files to either MP3 or video, simply add them to your MP3 player.

What not to do: Ripping Before Cataloging

The Teaching Company doesn’t do a very good job of labeling the sections of its DVD, and, unlike in the audio lectures, there’s no audio introduction of each lecture. This means you’ll need to do some annoying manual work to properly name the ripped MP3 files. I suggest that you use the imToo software to preview what each lecture number is before you rip it and write down what filename it corresponds to so you can rename the files later. This will help you avoid hearing lectures out of order.

Putting Podcasts on an MP3 Player

This should be very easy. Almost all software meant for connecting an MP3 Player to a computer (e.g. iTunes, Zune Media Center) will support doing this automatically. Just look for the option to “sync” the podcast to your MP3 player automatically.

Putting Computerized Readings of Packets on an MP3 Player

This is the most complicated operation in this section.

Tools Needed for This Operation
  1. A text-to-speech tool. I know this comes built on Macs and I believe you can now enable this on Windows. I’ve personally used the “Speak” feature available in the right-click menu of the Opera web browser to do this, but there should be multiple programs out there that accomplish this task.
  2. A tool to record the sound playing on your computer. Audacity, which is completely free, is a good tool to do this.
Steps to Record a Computer Reading a Quizbowl Match
  1. Download and install the tools listed above.
  2. Find a packet that you want to record the information for.
  3. Do a search and replace for the following lines of text
    1. Replace “ANSWER:” with “5. 4. 3. 2. 1. ANSWER.” This will give you time to think about the answer before it’s read.
    2. Replace any new lines without any text with “3. 2. 1. Next Question.” (you can do this in Word by searching for “^p^p” and replacing it with”^p3. 2. 1. Next Question.^p”). This will add a more natural pause in between questions.
  4. Copy the packet to a .txt file to get rid of all of the extra formatting that might mess up your text-to-speech program.
  5. Start Audacity and create a new recording. You’ll want to set it up to record for around 45 minutes.
  6. Follow this guide to configure setting up Audacity to record the sound coming from your computer.
  7. Start recording.
  8. Input all of your text into your text-to-speech program and start it speaking.
  9. Stop recording when the packet has finished being read.
  10. Save the file as an MP3 file (see http://audacity.sourceforge.net/help/faq?s=install&item=lame-mp3 for instructions on how to do this).
  11. Add this MP3 file to your MP3 player.

Source Material

Now that we’ve covered how to get resources on to your player of choice, let’s talk about the resources themselves.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks are one of the key resources available for audio quizbowl studying. If you’ve never listened to an audiobook before, they consist of books read aloud, usually (but not always) by professional narrators. Audiobooks come in two forms – abridged and unabridged. For quizbowl purposes you’ll still get a pretty good summary of the work with an abridged edition.

In general, it takes about 4 hours for a narrator to read 100 pages of a book. Thus, some of the longer books in the quizbowl canon can take over a day of continual listening in order to complete.

How to get Audiobooks

I don’t suggest buying any audiobooks. They’re typically much more expensive than regular books, and you’re probably only going to listen to them once.

Instead, head to your local library (note: I’ve found that school libraries, which tend to be more research oriented, usually don’t have very good audiobook resources). Depending on the size and quality of your library, you should have hundreds to thousands of audiobooks readily available, although only a subset of these will be useful for quizbowl purposes. At first I suggest you just go to the library and search through the selection for books that you’re interested in or have heard come up before in quizbowl. You’ll probably have to sift through a lot of mystery audiobooks, but at first there should be enough new material to fill up your queue for several months. Eventually you’ll want to start viewing the card catalog for specific authors and using resources like holds and inter-library loans to get books not available at your own library. I also suggest you occasionally go to other libraries in your county to find a different selection of audiobooks.

Many libraries also have subscriptions to Overdrive Audiobooks. These are DRM protected audiobooks that you can download for a few weeks and listen to. They’ve recently added support for the iPod and also support “Plays for Sure” devices, so chances are your MP3 player will work with these files. It’s generally easier for search for quizbowl-friendly works on this site than on your library.

In addition to the library, you should check out http://www.librivox.org. This site offers free audiobooks for works in the public domain. One of the benefits of this site is that almost all of the books on here are useful for quizbowl purposes. Additionally, it tends to have a better non-fiction selection than any other resource. The downside here is that the people making the recordings are amateurs. The sound quality is always going to be worse on a LibriVox recording than a professional recording, sometimes to the point of making them unlistenable. Also, the narrators are usually worse than professional narrators, meaning they’ll stumble more, have more annoying ticks with their diction, etc.

If you are willing to pay for audiobooks, online options are probably your best bet. Sites like Audible and eMusic let you download one audiobook for around $10 a month. These sites will tend to have a better selection than your local library, and will also have the books categorized a lot better (for instance, it’ll be a lot easier to find “classics” on these sites than at your library). Another option is Simply Audiobooks, which is essentially Netflix meets Audiobooks. For around $15 a month you can get one audiobook at a time. This site probably has the best selection around, but is more expensive than the other options.

Studying a Specific Subject Using Audiobooks

The two subjects that are the easiest to study through audiobooks are literature and history. Specifically, you can easily find a host of audio recordings of classic novels, biographies of U.S. Presidents and so forth. It’s a little more difficult to find resources for poetry, drama and short stories, but especially famous examples of these genres are available (e.g. Shakespeare plays, Fitzgerald short stories, etc.).

Other subjects are a little more difficult to find good material for, but if you’re inventive you should be able to find some resources. Here are some starting places for particular subjects of quizbowl interest. Note that this list doesn’t mention Audio Course Lectures (described below), which are probably your best source for studying outside of history and literature.

  • Science
    • Stephen Hawking’s two major books are available in audiobook form.
    • Biographies of famous scientific figures like Einstein and Newton can be easily found.
    • Richard Feynman recorded a series of lectures that cover a broad array of physics topics.
    • Lots of “history of science” works are available.
  • Religion
    • All of the Bible is extensively available on audiobook.
    • You should probably also be able to find commentaries on Judeo-Christian texts.
    • There are several histories of early Islam available.
    • Richard Dawkins has most of his stuff on audiobooks, if you want to count that as religion.
  • Mythology
    • Greco-Roman myth is well covered with audio recordings of books like The Odyssey.
    • It’s also possible to find “fairy tales” that cross-reference things like Norse mythology.
    • You should able to find a lot of books that cover Arthurian myth.
    • You might be able to glean some information from the more academically based fantasy works that are often available on audiobook.
  • Philosophy
    • Many of the more famous Platonic Dialogues are available in audio form.
    • Some Nietzsche works (e.g. Thus Spoke Zarathustra) are available in audio form.
    • Librivox has a better selection than most places when it comes to philosophical works.
    • I personally find philosophy a bit hard to follow in audio form, but your mileage may vary.
  • Social Science
    • Some popular non-fiction (e.g. Guns, Germs and Steel) can be found in audiobook form.
    • Contemporary, popular economic texts are available in audiobook form.
  • Current Events
    • Lots of political works (e.g. The Secret History of the United States, most memoirs of politicians, attacks on either Democrats or Republicans) are available on audiobook.
    • Bob Woodward has several of his “modern history” works available on audio.
  • Geography
    • Works like “My Invented Country” by Isabel Allende (describing the culture of Chile) and “Death in the Afternoon” by Ernest Hemingway (describing the culture of Spain) are available in audio format.
    • It’s probable that travel guides are also available in audio format, but I haven’t looked specifically for these.
  • Arts
    • Biographies of famous figures like Da Vinci and Beethoven are readily available.
    • While they are not necessarily audiobooks, audio recordings of classical music, opera, and jazz can often be found in the same or a nearby section of the library.

Audio Course Lectures

Audio Course Lectures are an ideal way to study quizbowl. The two main sources for audio lectures are courses released by The Teaching Company and The Modern Scholar. In general, lectures from the Teaching Company tend to be more in-depth and they offer a wide range of courses, although there is some interesting stuff in the Modern Scholar. Both of these companies also offer course books which can be useful to review the material. They’re also decent sources to write questions from.

Like regular audiobooks, these courses are pretty expensive to buy. Your local library should already have a wide selection of these courses. See the audiobook section for more information on how to obtain materials like this.

There are also several recordings of courses online. I’m generally not a fan of these courses, as they usually weren’t designed to be presented to someone listening on their MP3 player, meaning that the production value is low, there’s extraneous overhead (“remember to study for the test next week”), and the professors are less engaging. If you do want to explore these, MIT offers several courses online, and browsing the “educational” podcasts in a place like the iTunes Podcast Directory are a good place to find them.

If I’m at a computer while listening to course lectures, I find it helpful to take notes. Writing down the details of a lecture can help you remember it more, and also provides you some useful information when writing questions.

The following are some good history courses I’ve listened to:

  1. Byzantine Empire – Modern Scholar
  2. History of the Crusades – The Teaching Company
  3. Famous Greeks – The Teaching Company
  4. Emperors of Rome – The Teaching Company
  5. American Civil War – The Teaching Company
  6. History of the Supreme Court – The Teaching Company
  7. The Supreme Court – Modern Scholar
  8. Americas in the Revolutionary Age – The Teaching Company
  9. From Yao to Mao – The Teaching Company
  10. History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts – The Teaching Company
  11. Victorian Britain – The Teaching Company

I’d suggest avoiding these history courses:

  1. Tocqueville and the American Experiment – The Teaching Company
  2. European History and European Lives – The Teaching Company
  3. Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights – The Teaching Company

Misc. Video Resources

Sometimes a particular source is only available in video format. For instance, most of the art lectures put out through the Teaching Company are only released on DVD. Also, some libraries will have a better selection of regular Teaching Company courses on DVD than on CD. Other resources sometimes only available on video include recordings of plays and operas.

In general, you won’t miss anything in most Teaching Company lectures by only listening to audio. The art lectures are the only ones I’ve found so far where having images is very important.

Podcasts of Quizbowl Games

There are two main sources for podcasts of quizbowl games. NAQT has podcasts of many of the recent HSNCTs and ICTs available at their website at http://www.naqt.com/podcasts/. You can also find a lot of recordings of various collegiate and some high school tournaments at http://www.qbwiki.com/wiki/Quizbowl_Cast.

These podcasts are often fun to listen to, but sometimes it’s difficult to hear things like answers to questions. Additionally, if you’re listening to matches between high level teams, you might not hear enough clues to really learn about a subject.

Computerized Readings of Quizbowl Packets

Having the computer read quizbowl matches can be a very effective way to practice on questions when you don’t have other people around to read them to you. For more details on how to do this, see the section on “Putting Computerized Readings of Packets on an MP3 Player” in the Getting Resources on Your Listening Device section.

These recordings have advantages and disadvantages over actual recordings of quizbowl matches. The main advantage is that you get to hear the entire question. Also, all words will be at a uniform volume. The disadvantage is that the computer isn’t very good at pronouncing some words, so you’ll sometimes miss important clues or won’t be able to decipher an answer.

Conceivably you could also record yourself reading a packet to no one and listen to that later. This would avoid the problem of not being able to figure out what the computer’s saying.

Misc. Audio Resources

Subscribing to various podcasts from NPR and other news organizations can help you stay abreast of current events.

Summary

  • Audio resources are an overlooked and underappreciated way to study for quizbowl, and can be used in many situations where other resources cannot.
  • Almost any listening device can be used to study for quizbowl. Resources in CD form are often the easiest to use, though with some effort it is also possible to use MP3 players, tape players, or DVD players.
  • Audio resources that can be used to study for quizbowl include computer-read packets, audiobooks, recordings of lectures, and recordings of quizbowl games.
  • Making and studying your own audio resources, such as recordings of packets or actual games, can provide great benefit for relatively little effort.

About the Author: Mike Bentley attended the University of Maryland where he got his degree in Computer Science and History. After leaving the Maryland Academic Quiz Team, Mike moved to Seattle where he now helps out with quizbowl teams at the University of Washington and Bellevue College. Mike frequently listens to audiobooks and also records the Quizbowl Cast, a podcast of Quizbowl matches.