Monday, February 23, 2009

University Challenge

I've been a fan of University Challenge for ages. It's something of a Monday night ritual, to try to answer the starter questions before the contestants do, to shout at the students as they struggle to come up with an answer that is, to me, blatantly obvious. But this year's competition has something a little extra. Not since the OU won in 1999, prompting accusations from some quarters that it was unfair, because the OU students were so much more experienced, have I known the programme to get so much press coverage.

The reason is the team from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and their captain, Gail Trimble. There's an article in Sunday's Observer all about her.

And she (and her team) are very good. They trounced Exeter in the quarter-finals 350 points to 15, the lowest losing score since 1972, and a lot of that was down to Trimble answering starter questions (it was also partly due to Exeter panicking towards the end, and interrupting with incorrect answers, thus incurring penalties). After that, I expected them to be series winners without much difficulty. (Though this is a view I've slightly revised - I'll return to this later.)

There are noteworthy things about the press and blog coverage. Leaving aside comments on her attractiveness, which really is neither here nor there, I find it interesting that the Observer article focuses on her cleverness and breadth of knowledge. To me, that's not what makes her such a good University Challenge contestant. It isn't just that she knows the right answer so often. I'm sure others on her team and their opponents also know the right answer (even poor Exeter, who after all had beaten two other teams to get to the quarter-finals). What sets Trimble apart is her self-confidence - she doesn't just know the right answer, she knows that she knows the right answer, and so doesn't hesitate to buzz in. She gets her points not so much through knowing things, but through getting in first. I wonder if the reason this isn't played up is because the media is much happier praising women for their cleverness than for their assertiveness. The comments that focus on the latter quality are the negative ones, the ones that label her as 'cocky' (comments often flavoured with a good old dollop of rampant British anti-intellectualism, also manifested in a piece in The Sun where she failed to know the answers to the sort of questions that Sun journalists think are important, such as who won Celebrity Big Brother or who the 13-year old father splashed all over the tabloids was).

Of course, as a Classicist, I find it intriguing that Trimble is reading for a D.Phil. in Latin literature, and that one of her colleagues, Lauren Schwartzmann, is reading for a D.Phil. in Ancient History. These are people who I'm quite likely to encounter at conferences in the future.*

The Classics angle leads me to mention a comment of Jeremy Paxman's highlighted in the Observer piece. He said at one point in the quarter-final (and I remember it) "You're laughing because they're so easy". In the Observer this is made out to be a general comment on Trimble's cleverness. But the remark was made in the context of a bonus round, and whilst I can't recall the exact topic, I do know that it was Classics-based. Corpus certainly used to have a reputation for being one of the best Oxford Colleges for Classics, and this team, as well as the D.Phil.s, also has an undergraduate doing Ancient and Modern History. If a Corpus team like that can't sail through a Classics-based bonus round, there's something wrong with the world. Trimble was laughing because her team had just been gifted 15 points (as they were in the semi-final where they had to give the meaning of phrases from Horace), and Paxman knew it.

Finally, in all the focus on Trimble, one thing has been overlooked - their opponents in the final, the University of Manchester. Because they are also very good. They went through the first two rounds with scores of 285 to 70, 280 to 80, and if they wobbled against LSE in the quarter-finals, with a score of 210 to 165, they then beat Lincoln College, Oxford 345 to 30. Corpus only managed 260 to St John's Cambridge's score of 160, and Trimble's own performance was a notch less effective in the semis than in the quarter-final. The assumption of some commentators that Corpus are bound to beat Manchester seems, if not wholly unfounded, at least premature.

I think tonight's final could be very close and hard-fought (or could have been - I believe it's pre-recorded, so presumably Trimble and her teammates already know whether they've won or not). I shall certainly be watching. And, because it is, after all, my old institution, I shall be rooting for Manchester. Sorry, Corpus.

* I'm doubly interested, because she's done a paper on Catullus 64 and C.S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which sits close to my own research interests.

Edit at 20:47:Corpus 275, Manchester 190. Well, I think I called that about right. I'd said in a comment I'd left on one of the Guardian web pages that I expected a close and hard-fought contest between two well-matched teams, in which Corpus possibly would have a slight edge. and so it proved. It was much closer than many people had predicted, with Manchester still in the lead until after the second picture round.

And despite the way the Guardian is already spinning it, it wasn't Gail Trimble's single-handed victory. Only once they actually got into the lead, did Trimble, in the last five minutes or so, suddenly start performing the way she had in the previous rounds. Up until then, it was her teammates who were getting the starters, and they as much as she deserve the credit for keeping Corpus in the match and the last-quarter overtaking of Manchester's lead.