Tuesday, 24 February 2009


There is a scene in Joyce Carol Oates' novel THEM where a young girl, a mathematical genius, performs her idiot-savant skills while her parents feed her sweets as encouragement. I was reminded of it last night, watching the final of University Challenge, as Gail Trimble of Corpus Christi Oxford swayed back and forth, smashing the buzzer in front of her as she rallied her team to victory. Which led me to a thought I'd had before watching the programme: why were all the questions down the stretch about literary topics, Trimble's specialty? Is University Challenge fixed?

I've watched matches where questions seemed aimed at one team's specialties before, or which capitalised on a lack of knowledge in certain areas by another team. I used to think Bamber Gascoigne would slow down when the university he preferred was in the lead, and speed up when they were behind. Paxman is notoriously fickle in which answers he will accept and which he will not.

Not that UI is infallible. When dealing with general matters I'm familar with, including sports (the Rose Bowl is not the college championship game, the Connecticut River does not empty into Long Island Sound at New Haven, etc) the prgramme has been wrong an amazing number of times, and their pronounciation of anything non-English is often eccentric at best. But stacking the deck to ensure one college, or indeed, one person who's attracted a huge amount of media attention, wins just would not be, uh, cricket would it. Or at least it would not have been before we found out cricket matches are fixed too.

Trimble appears to have divided the nation. She certainly divided the Observer on Sunday, who devoted a full page to her but couldn't decide if it was unusual that a woman should have brains, or that a woman as attractive as Trimble should have brains, or if a woman as unattractive as Trimble better have brains, or if she were attractive/unattractive because she did have brains/couldn't think at all just answer questions on cue. This was all in the same 'analysis'. Are smart women still that much of a problem? If a male student had dominated his team (and believe me, some did) would he have attracted any attention?

As I said, Trimble struck me as the kind of person who performs, and exudes the sort of smugness on each right answer that has characterised teachers pets and swots since school time began. It was instructive to watch her face early in the match, frozen into disbelief when she was wrong, and even moreso to catch the look she gave the poor schmuck on her far right, recruited for the science questions, when he got one wrong. Meanwhile, immediately on her right, the American girl was having a nervous breakdown with every answer.

It was theatre of the academic absurd at its finest. And, Trimble is a ringer: a PHD student, because UC, like the Boat Race or the Varsity Match, allows anyone studying at the college to participate. This never happened in America, where it was undergrads only.

Brits never believe me when I tell them that UC was a direct copy of the GE College Bowl, a show I used to watch when I was young and exactly the kind of know-it-all who stills shouts the answers before these kids today can get the answers wrong. By the time I got to college however, my academic reflexes had been dulled by, uh, college, and I wasnt even aware that Wesleyan fielded a UC team in 1969 until I saw them on TV. They lost by the narrowest of margins, 5 points, to Goucher College, but had been denied points for an answer that was correct, but no one told the host so. When they were brought back, against Davidson, the questions were so obviously slanted in Davidson's favour, Wesleyan was comprehensively humiliated. The college hasn't been the same since.

Gail Trimble, the Fred Housego of her generation, is unlikely to meet the same fate, though she is likely to find that an ability to recall all sorts of hoitsy toitsy facts isn't much use unless she can get into Millionaire or the US version of Jeopardy, where my college friends Steve Berman and Seth Davis have both been champs and argue incessantly over who is superior (I should note that I beat Berms at his Jeopardy board game soon after arriving in LA and being made to watch tapes of each of his appearances--I told you I could identify with Gail Trimble).


Mark said...

I think we all see what we want to see. My memory of the programme, for instance, bears little resemblance to your description in the fifth paragraph. Her smugness I saw as a nervous, self-awareness of her own mouth which she tried to hide behind closed lips when happy. And I didn't quite see the same breakdown from her American partner; just a characteristic, straight-backed caution.

With respect to the questions leaning her way: well, UC has been heavy on the classics for as long as I can remember. That a team would win with an expert in the most often-used question topic is either simply fortuitous or good planning. Now, I might be wrong; a typical UC show might be more evenly spread among topics than I'm recalling but I'd need to see stats to back that up. In lieu of them, though, our personal opinions and biases have a way of colouring our impressions of things.

Michael Carlson said...

As a regular watcher that smug expression, which admittedly doesnt have to be smugness, was there from the start of the series....but the idea of statting up the UC questions is a good one! Thanks!