Jeopardy II: Audiences — à la Goffman and ABC-TV

January 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Montclair professor who saw yesterday’s post about my having been on Jeopardy asked me how we could have known each other for decades without her knowing this about me. My answer is that it’s not the sort of thing you bring up. You don’t meet someone and say, “Hi, I’m Jay Livingston, and I was on Jeopardy.” It wasn’t a peg to hang even a small part of my identity on. I wasn’t even particularly proud of it. In Goffman’s terms, it was not a piece of “information” that was part of my “presentation of self” for the Montclair “audience.” Besides, that was a long time ago. I had a beard. I had hair. I had a suit with very wide lapels.

Here I am, between Mary, the woman from Virginia, and Pam, from Bloomfield, NJ. Italian American, mother of five. Poor Pam — already $40 in the hole at this early stage.  She finished in the red, and at Final Jeopardy was represented by an empty desk.

Even at the time, I didn’t tell people at work that I had been on the show. As I said when the host Art Fleming asked if I’d told my students, “No, but I expect word will get out.” But after the episodes were broadcast, nobody at the college said anything to me.

Fast forward eight years. The first day of the school year, a warm day in early September. I do my usual first-day routine — have students fill out 3" x 5" index cards (name, phone, major, etc.), go over the syllabus, talk about grading, including my standard pitch about class participation. It doesn’t count towards your grade, I say, but if I’m the only one here who talks, it’s going to be a very long semester.

And don’t be reluctant to ask a question, I add emphatically. In fact, here’s your first lesson in sociology. We think of our thoughts and feelings as internal and individual. But we’re less unique than we think. Our reactions are also social; they’re part of the situation. You all share the same situation — this class — so if there’s something you didn’t get or aren’t sure of, I guarantee that there are others here sharing this same situation who had the same reaction. And they’ll be very grateful if you ask about it.

Class ends. I’m putting my papers together. A girl comes up. She is short, with black hair. In those days, the ethnic make-up of Montclair was a bit different from today. Or as I used to say, half the girls were named Cathy. The K-Kathy’s were Irish, the C-Cathy’s were Italian. This was a C-Cathy.

 “Can I ask you a question?”

Goddamit, girl. Why the hell didn’t you ask during class? Didn’t you hear what I just said about asking questions? That if it’s not clear to you, then several other people also didn’t get it? Now I’m going to have to answer it for you and then, if I remember, answer it for the whole class next time.

That’s what I was thinking. What I said was, “Sure.”

“Were you on Jeopardy once?”

I was stunned. How had she discovered this fact that nobody else at Montclair knew? “Yes,” I say, “but that was years ago. How did you know?”

“My mom was on that show.”

I looked at her again and remembered — the woman from Bloomfield, the next town over from Montclair. “Oh, that’s right,” I said and added sympathetically. “She didn’t do very well, did she?”

Sometimes a student’s question is unique. And sometimes, we cannot control which audience sees which performance . . . and remembers it.

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