Your starter for tenure on merits of quiz nerds

November 17, 2006

All the qualities of a top academic are found in a good University Challenge contestant, believes Paul Brownsey.

It wasn't until after I got my academic job that I revealed a dark secret to my new boss: as a student at Keele University, I had been part of the champion University Challenge team of 1968.

I had omitted this information from my CV. It was bound, I thought, to give a bad impression. I imagined the disapproving thoughts of the appointing committee: "Hmm, trying to throw dust in our eyes by parading his glittery showbiz experience of a mere television quiz show. Must be trying to divert our attention from his academic deficiencies."

But Robin Downie demurred. If I'd mentioned it, he told me, it would have been seen as a strength because lecturing to a class of 300 undergraduates needs showbiz technique. It would have been evidence, too, that my brain didn't freeze up in front of a big audience. Of course, concern that appointees should be able to communicate to big classes sounds quaintly old-fashioned now that we have the research assessment exercise to focus our staffing needs.

Anyhow, many academics will say that the parade of obscure facts on UC has nothing to do with real academic work. But is that true? With the release of Starter for Ten , a film centred on a UC team, it seems an appropriate moment to ask what else I might have said to the committee to persuade them that a successful UC nerd has what it takes to be competent academic.

First, let's not badmouth facts. They are a necessary condition of fertile academic work. Your seminal theory about the influence of David Hume on Rene Descartes will come a cropper over the fact that Descartes died before Hume was born.

Furthermore, any academic who supports objective-test exams is in no position to object that answering UC questions has nothing to do with the way things are done at university.

Chair of appointing committee: "But the facts you needed on University Challenge have nothing to do with academic study."

Wrong! A lot of the facts the public loves to see contestants trot out are the meat of academic work. I rightly named a decisive battle of the ancient world as Carchemish after the other side had wrongly interrupted with Megiddo.

Chair of appointing committee: "But what about those questions about footballers and pop music? Not much academic expertise needed there."

Dumbing down is a function of how something is studied, not what is studied. Anyway, such questions perform a useful public function: academics who can identify all the members of Take That reveal that they are made of human flesh. The ordinary Joe or Jenny who can name everyone who has ever played for Celtic need not, on that point alone, regard themselves as excluded from academe. UC thus fosters inclusivity.

Chair of appointing committee: "But academic work involves so much more than reeling off facts. It requires powers of reasoning and judgment, cunning inferences, associative fertility, imaginative leaps, a powerful sense of relevance and numerous other intellectual virtues that Aristotle forgot to mention. You don't get them on University Challenge ."

But you do. Think of the skills involved in guessing an answer if you don't know it: you need a sense of what the answer could be, you need to play upon associations of ideas and weed out the ones that couldn't fit, all the time bearing in mind background assumptions such as a quotation in pithy, elegant English is more than likely to be from Oscar Wilde or Samuel Johnson.

And such skills need to be even more highly cultivated if you're to be successful in the crucial UC art of interrupting; of plunging in when only a few words of the question have been uttered. Once, when the question began, "What was founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir...", I interrupted with: "Existentialism." I was wrong, of course (the answer was the journal Le Temps Moderne ). As a philosopher, I had been over-anxious, for the sake of saving face, to answer any philosophical question. I thus showed an inability to subordinate self-regarding emotion to the quest for truth, a quality all academics require (don't they?). More than that, though, my judgment was askew. A UC question couldn't have been that easy.

Although I should have, I didn't mention UC when job-hunting. But I did mention my experience as a country-dance caller - I thought that talking people through a complicated dance had a lot in common with talking them through a complicated argument. I'll write about that when they remake Dirty Dancing .

Paul Brownsey is lecturer in philosophy at Glasgow University.

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