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Trivial Pursuits

York's University Challenge Team talk to Connie Shaw about their experiences on one of the oldest and most prestigious national competitions to be televised on British screens

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[caption id="attachment_116249" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Image: BBC
Image: BBC

After a triumphant performance against Corpus Christi College Cambridge last month, in which the University Challenge team from York saw off their opposition convincingly with 170 points to 135, Connie Shaw caught up with team members Alistair Middleton, Jack Alexander, Joe Crowther and Adam Koper to gain an insight into what it is like to be part of a University Challenge team.

How did you find the match, were you pleased with the performance overall?
Crowther: "We kept getting slightly ahead and then losing that advantage, but we man- aged to pull through in the end, but it was fairly tense"

How did you all meet?
Middleton: "The selection process is for individuals, so we only met by being in the team together. It's selected in three streams, Sciences, Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities, and then the best from each one get a place in the team, while the highest scoring runners up enter a play off."

Three of you study Mathematics suggesting that your collective subject knowledge would be weighted towards the sciences. Do you try and counter-balance this by assigning each other specific areas to revise?
Koper: "I tend to cover the Social Sciences side of things, though my favourite topic is Geography."
Crowther: "We didn't really set ourselves any specific things we were going to try and learn, mainly because most topics, for example literature, are incredibly broad areas which we couldn't revise in a couple of months to any significant depth or breadth."

Do you train together at all?
Middleton: "There were a few of times, just before we were due to go on the show, where we booked out one of the study rooms in the library and spent a couple of hours an evening doing online quizzes. We also watched old episodes of University Challenge and kept our scores."

Were you mentored by the previous team members?
Alexander: "Not last year, however, we are hoping to change that. This year we're all keen to get involved, helping out with the new team."

Adam, you were the only first year in the team last year, what was that like?
Koper: "I didn't really notice it to be honest, they took the micky out of me a few times but that was it really."

How are you conducting your selection process this year?
Alexander: "We are using a very similar process to last year but the proportion of questions we're going to ask will be slightly different. Last year in each of the three streams (Sciences, Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities) 50% of the questions were specific to that area and 50% were general knowledge. This year I want to focus a little bit more on specific subject knowledge so questions will be 70% subject related and 30% general knowledge."

Describe the process of being on television; is it very nerve-racking?
Alexander: "Yeah I certainly thought so. When you get in there there's not a lot of time
between coming into the studio and them starting filming.
Koper: "It was alright because they make the whole thing feel very comfortable, even though Jeremy Paxman was doing his usual thing of being a grump old man, the atmosphere was quite friendly."

Did you meet Paxman? What is he like off camera?
Middleton: "Yes, he comes round before and gets a photo with all the teams. When he came over to get a photo with us he said 'Good Morning'."

How do you find fitting University Challenge around your academic work?
Crowther: "I've never really found it that much of a problem and it didn't feel like a huge commitment because I've wanted to go on the show for years so it was more that I was doing something I enjoyed. I probably did sacrifice my studies a bit more than I should have in preparation for it."
Alexander: "Also it was all filmed back in our second years in March so the work load wasn't as bad."

Do your parents/relatives get quite excited when they see you on TV?
Crowther: "Yes definitely, possibly a bit too much. My mum's twitter was very, very embarrassing to be honest."
Koper: "They do. My grandmother's been telling everyone she knows."

What's the best part about being in a University Challenge team?
Crowther: "Getting to face down Jeremy Paxman."
Middleton: "You get a lot of people tweeting about you."
Koper: "The camaraderie, we go to pub quizzes together regularly and last year I think we won Vbar pub quiz nine or ten times."

Do you ever get recognised?
Middleton: "A couple of people in Willow"

Would you encourage others to try out for the team this year?
Crowther: "You might as well see how much you know, because often people know a lot more than they think they do."

Some people might say having general knowledge is redundant in today's society with the likes of Google and the vast amount of available technology. What would be your response?
Crowther: "Google makes it much easier to have good general knowledge though in some sense, and its just nice knowing stuff I think."
Alexander: "I think a good general knowledge makes conversation more interesting."
Middleton: "I've also just wanted to know things for the sake of knowing things."

Do you have a favourite fact?
Koper: "I learnt something interesting today. There is a cape on the western coast of America called Cape Disappointment."

Despite being knocked out of the competition in the following round by the University of Durham 210 points to 160, Jeremy Paxman said that York were a decidedly "strong team". A new team has now been selected for next year's show.

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