What is Jeopardy Brainwashing?

The first T.V. show I remember watching as a family was Jeopardy.  This was the eighties version of the show, hosted by Alex Trebek.  Today, I am not a fan of quiz games in any form.  I have no interest in the current ones on T.V. and I avoid them at all costs at parties.  However, for some reason this was one of my all-time favorite shows when I was a kid.

The thing that stands out the most in my mind about Jeopardy was the way my parents reacted to it.  My mother, I’m pretty sure had a crush on Alex Trebek.  She always used to say, “He’s a very smart man.  He could answer all the questions on this show himself.”  I’m not sure if that’s true or not, nonetheless, she admired him not because he was handsome, funny, or popular; she admired him because he was smart.  My father, would always try to play the game as the show ran (as many of us all did).  Just watching him strive to live up to this game show’s definition of “smart” I guess somehow let me know that this was an important quality to have.  This, the importance of being intelligent, is what I remember learning most from that show.  Somehow that concept even outweighed the fact that the people on the show were playing for money.  It was more than that; it was prestige.  It was proving to the world on national television who was the smartest.  This proof was in the competition of the show.  The number of right answers and the amounts of money won were evidence as to who was indeed the smartest player of them all.

I feel that evaluating my experience with the Jeopardy show not only may reveal why I’ve striven to go so far in my education—to be someone “smart” who my parents would admire, but also why I may value academic assessment so much.  Yes, standardized tests are awful, they are poor measuring devices, they raise the affective filter and are gatekeepers for the English and socioeconomically challenged…but I’m willing to bet that even the most rabid assessment critic has appreciated a game show at least once in their lives.  And what about the distinct answer form that is unique to this show?  “Questions” are answered with questions.  Answers from contestants are disqualified if they don’t begin with a “what is” or “who is” in their response.  Could this be pinpointed as my first experience with rhetoric and perhaps why my academic endeavors have brought me into a rhetoric program?  (Look—I can’t even stop asking questions and no one’s even asking them!)

In school, my “Jeopardy points” were earned through grades.  Each test, quiz, and homework assignment led to another letter on my grade sheet, affirming that I was worthy or unworthy of moving on to the next round.  Did this show somehow brainwash me into believing that assessing students in such a vicious and cut-and-dry way was perfectly fair?  After all, on Jeopardy, if you don’t give enough right answers in the first round (in comparison to the people you’re playing against), you go home.  The end.  In school, if you don’t score high enough to keep up with that student in the class who’s setting the curve, the end; you’ve got a D.  I remember that my mother revealed a rather heartbreaking fact about the show to me as well: The contestants studied before each game; they weren’t just walking savants.  That was like finding out Santa Claus was really my parents.  As disappointing as this was, however, it made me realize that to play Jeopardy was to work hard.  Maybe this is also why I’ve always believed in studying and have never really been in a situation where I felt that a test was too hard or unfair.  If I did poorly on something it was my own fault; I didn’t study enough.  I never questioned or complained about it.  I just kept playing the game, because those who keep playing continue proving how smart they are.  That’s what education was always about for me: giving regular proof of how smart I was or was not.

I remember at the height of this show’s popularity in the eighties that someone came out with a Jeopardy game you could buy and play as the show was going on.  This was not actually interactive, though.  You’d merely play along with your family or friends and the T.V., keep score, and pretend you were actually playing along with the contestants on the show.  Now they have online Jeopardy games where you can compete with other people.  All you have to do is logon to measure how smart you are with some complete stranger on the other side of the globe any time you want.  Now, technology has even made it possible for regular everyday people to create their own Jeopardy game:  http://jeopardylabs.com/.  On this site, you can create your own categories, questions, and answers.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would have my own Jeopardy game, especially when one considers the challenges of the aesthetic construction of one in digital form—if that were up to me it would never have happened.  This site, however, is a user-friendly visual interface.  If you can read at a basic level (and use the internet) you can use this site.  The one suggestion I would make is that before starting, you should already have questions prepared.  I’m currently using it as a tool in the TOEFL course I am interning in to test/assess things like idioms, vocabulary, grammar, and sentence rules.  (This idea of “testing” and “assessing” was the furthest from my mind when I decided to implement this game in the classroom—it was merely supposed to be a “practice activity,” however, doing this report has shown me that using this game really only does just that: test and assess.)  Ryan and I both regularly develop new questions to play in this class.  We do this more as an individual or group activity instead of branding it as an actual test.  However, it is still a test/a way for he and I to roughly gauge which students are picking up what on a weekly basis without making it actually look like a test.

How interesting this has all been: A T.V. game show that may have subconsciously influenced my behavior and perhaps even my path in school?  And now I’m a graduate student who now sees and understands the flaws in assessment of this kind, yet since Jeopardy is a “game” I feel it is okay to use this camouflaged form of standardized assessment in my own classroom.  Is standardized testing in this form alright if it is done under the guise of a “game” or is it just as problematic as an environment full of scantrons and #2 pencils?  Did this underlying evil of my beloved childhood game show save me in school or blind me from recognizing that some of the methods I use are as wretched as the ones I protest?

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