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Profile: OxStu meets the 2017 University Challenge winners

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Oxford’s Balliol college team (Freddy Potts, Jacob Lloyd, Joey Goldman and Benjamin Pope) stormed to win this year’s University Challenge and take home the coveted trophy, presented by none other than Stephen Hawking. With a stylish 50 point win against the Wolfson College Cambridge team, led by the popular Eric Monkman, the team smashed a three-year losing streak to The Other Place and brought glory once again back to the dreaming spires. A few weeks on, after the dust from the chaos of their win has settled, the Balliol team take the time to very thoughtfully answer some of my questions about their experiences – from meme culture to the lack of diversity amongst University Challenge.

When did you decide you wanted to compete?

LLOYD: I watched the show as a teenager and always wanted to compete on it. I tried out twice as an undergraduate (I was at Jesus). I made the team once, but we didn’t get on to the show. Last year, I was on the Balliol team with Joey and Henry Edwards (who captained SOAS this year), but, again, we did not get selected. It was third time lucky for me.

POTTS: I’ve been watching the show for a few years now and hoped to get on the team of wherever I ended up at uni.

POPE: I first thought about it when my mate and fellow exoplanet hunter Hugh Osborn was on UC for Warwick, and the only episodes of UC I had watched before going on the show were Hugh’s. I thought it might be nice to see if I could at least get as far as he did!

GOLDMAN: I’ve known for years I wanted to go on University Challenge. I was actually put on the Balliol team when I was a fresher, but I decided to turn down the place as I thought I should give myself more time to learn and grow intellectually before taking my shot on the show.

“[Paxman is] intimidating on the set, but absolutely charming over a drink afterwards.”

What is Jeremy Paxman like in person?

LLOYD: He’s pretty approachable, really. The stern interrogator appears when the cameras are rolling.

POTTS: He’s definitely less intimidating offscreen than on it

POPE: Intimidating on the set, but absolutely charming over a drink afterwards.

 What was it like to meet Stephen Hawking?

LLOYD: A huge honour. The atmosphere in the room was just incredible. We all have such great admiration for him. It’s hard to think of anyone we would rather have received the trophy from.

POTTS: Surreal and wonderful, really – for him to go from someone you see and hear on the TV to someone playing a message about you, right in front of you, is pretty remarkable

POPE: Absolutely wonderful. I’d seen him once or twice around Cambridge before, but walking into Caius SCR to meet him was a very different and special feeling. We were thrilled that he would take the time to meet us and had such kind words to say about us. It was perhaps a bit odd to be compared to bacteria, but I can certainly see that from his perspective!

GOLDMAN: I cannot think of anyone that it would be more of an honour to be in the presence of. I’d long imagined meeting him and to get the chance to do so in this way was unbelievable fortunate.

“The Daily Mail has a long history of racism, sexism and outright fascism, and we want to have nothing to do with them.”

What did it feel like to win?

LLOYD: At first, it was mainly just relief. It’s very difficult to know how long there is left in the match, during filming: you just lose all sense of time. Even though we were 50 points ahead, I felt like there was still time for Wolfson to come back, so when the final gong sounded, it was a surprise. I felt drained immediately afterwards. That night was good, but the win really sank in the next day. Since we had to keep it secret, we would whisper to each other ‘We won University Challenge!’

POTTS: Surreal and wonderful, really – for him to go from someone you see and hear on the TV to someone playing a message about you, right in front of you, is pretty remarkable

POPE: Relief. We were only fifty points ahead and that can change in two questions on UC – and you’re totally in the moment and even though you know you must be near the end of the match, it’s hard to really know how long you have left. After half an hour of that tension when the final buzzer cut in and Paxo announced we’d won I practically collapsed into my chair, laughed from the release of terror and clapped Joey on the back. We had a pretty big karaoke night afterwards and subjected innocent victims to renditions of American Pie and Love Cats.

GOLDMAN: The primarily feeling was one of relief. Unlike most of the other quizzes I’ve competed in, one only gets a single chance at University Challenge glory, so the joy was secondary to the relief of not having blown it.

 Your comments about ‘The Daily Mail’ comment blew up – were you expecting this? What’s that been like, and is there anything else you’d like to mention or clarify about the team’s refusal for interview?

LLOYD: I don’t think we could have expected it: even paid professionals can’t be certain of what the response to a news story will be. Something going viral seems to happen more often by luck than by design.

A lot of my friends have been prouder of me for refusing to talk to them than for winning the show. The response has been very pleasing because it’s allowed people to see us a bit as we are and to understand our values, rather than making assumptions about us based on how we come across on TV.

While Ben and Freddy were the ones contacted, the decision not to speak to them was one we made collectively. None of us had the slightest interest in helping them sell papers or gain internet traffic.

POTTS: It’s been intense – even though the vast majority of the feedback has been positive (what was the last thing that Alastair Campbell and Billy Bragg openly agreed on?) I didn’t expect it to go viral to quite the extent it did.

POPE: Well that was a huge thing and it took me completely by surprise how viral it went. We talked as a team and decided that we wouldn’t talk to the nastier tabloids, but that we wouldn’t be aggressive to the journos, so that’s what we said. Some articles have misattributed this to a request after the final – it was a while before and at the time we got a few retweets and some nice comments, but nothing wild. After we won it was a different story and it went absolutely viral – surely an all time high point of my Twitter use was Billy Bragg saying “This is what solidarity looks like”!

The reprisal from the Mail and the rest of the gutter press is unsurprising (though we were certainly not expecting the Mail to suddenly take a feminist line!), and while the feeling of suddenly and unexpectedly being in the crosshairs is pretty unpleasant, we are really grateful for such a remarkable outpouring of support.

I don’t think our statement really needs further clarification – the Daily Mail has a long history of racism, sexism and outright fascism, and we want to have nothing to do with them.

“If you wouldn’t say it to the person’s face, you probably shouldn’t tweet it at a nationally-trending hashtag.”

Any comments or feelings about the lack of women and diversity in general, or ideas about how it could be more encouraged?

LLOYD: It’s a real problem with quizzing in general. We know there are many brilliant women at Balliol who would have been great on the show, but very few of them put themselves forwards for selection. We’re trying to deal with the issue, but progress is slow and not helped by the way female contestants are treated on Twitter and by publications such as the Mail. It’s good that the issue attracts so much attention and media coverage: I hope it will encourage more women to apply to the show and demonstrate how knowledgeable they are.

POTTS: Hannah Rose Woods, the captain of last year’s winning Peterhouse team, wrote a solid piece about this in the New Statesman titled ‘I was on University Challenge – so let me tell you why there aren’t more women on it’, which is more comprehensive and insightful than anything I individually have to contribute.

POPE: I think it goes without saying that there are definitely women in Balliol who are cleverer than me and probably would have done better on the show – it is very disappointing that we were unable to recruit them. I have tried to find out why, and the vibe I have got in response – though this is hardly robust science – is that the sexist and cruel coverage on social media and in the press is a major cause for concern, together with the perception that the competitive quiz scene isn’t a welcoming environment for women.

I think it is very important that we can change this and giving proper opportunities for everyone in our college to shine, and we are currently considering the ways in which we can improve the selection process for future Balliol teams.

How do you feel about the memes which broke out over Twitter and other social media? Any favourites or is the phenomenon a little intimidating and objectifying?

LLOYD: I was apprehensive about appearing on the show because of the fear I would make a fool of myself and be turned into an internet laughing stock. It was definitely a worry during filming, especially during my worst match: the Quarter-Final against Wolfson. Fortunately, I seemed not to attract too much attention compared to the others on the team, probably in part because I’m not on Twitter. I did enjoy a caricature that someone drew of the whole team.

Overall, I think it’s about balance and while there were some nasty comments, it was easy to ignore them because most of those about me were positive, affectionate or amusing.

People should refrain from making insulting comments on Twitter, as they would if they met that person in real life. This is a problem with social media in general, where harassment is common. It is hardly unique to University Challenge.

POTTS: I’m generally pro-meme, really – my favourite me-featuring meme is definitely the one from the final which compares both my outfit and hairstyle to a vintage Delia Smith look, and it’s been interesting to see the extent to which UC has become a social media phenomenon. That said, sometimes people on Twitter seem to take people getting questions wrong as an affront to them personally.

One thing I found quite interesting is that people sometimes tweeted snide remarks and judgements at the #UniversityChallenge hashtag, thinking that they were at a distance from it all, and then immediately wilted and feigned politeness if you started popping up in reply to them. If you wouldn’t say it to the person’s face, you probably shouldn’t tweet it at a nationally-trending hashtag.

POPE: I was mostly amused by this – my (very) open collar and ‘sunny Sydney’ intro gave rise to some good-natured memes, particularly a ‘straight outta Sunny Sydney’ parody video. I did also like the tweet ‘I wish I was enthusiastic about anything as much as Pope is about questions on Hypatia…’ , because it’s true!

What’s next for you now?

LLOYD: Finishing my doctorate (I hope to submit in December) and finding a job.

POTTS: I’m barely half-way through my degree, so I don’t really have any clear idea at this point.”

POPE: Having just submitted my DPhil, I’ll be going back to Sydney for a while before starting at New York University as a NASA Sagan Fellow at the end of the year, which is very exciting!

GOLDMAN: I’m traveling to New York with the Oxford University Quiz Society to play in the American national quiz champions, ACF Nationals, where Oxford is aiming to come in the top 10. After that I’m just getting my nose to the grindstone and think about finals. As for post-university life, that’s all rather up in the air.

 

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