Mark Bennett: Rose-Hulman's Julia Williams to compete with professors from across U.S. on 'Jeopardy!'

·5 min read

Dec. 3—"Jeopardy!" seems custom-made for college professors.

Categories like "Opera Zingers" and "National Maritime Sanctuaries" can leave many of the syndicated TV game show's loyal viewers baffled in their living rooms, yet intrigued by the contestants who respond correctly. Meanwhile, college profs possess deep wells of the historical, cultural, societal and economic knowledge necessary to be a "Jeopardy!" champion.

It's still not easy for anybody to be a "Jeopardy!" contestant, though.

Once the makeup is applied and the lights of Sony Pictures Studio come on, the game show unfolds fast.

"There are so many things going on at the same time when you're in the studio," Julia Williams said Monday, sitting inside Hatfield Hall on the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology campus.

Contestants must press their handheld buzzers before the other two competitors, wait to be called on by the host, then frame their responses in the form of a question to the answer provided. It's a daunting task, even for a college professor.

Williams, an English professor at the acclaimed Terre Haute engineering college, participated in the inaugural "Jeopardy!" Professors Tournament this fall. Williams and 14 other professors from colleges and universities across America competed for the $100,000 grand prize in episodes filmed in late October. The tournament will air Dec. 6 to 17 on television stations that carry the show. The segment featuring Williams will be broadcast Dec. 9. She can't divulge the outcome until it airs, but freely attests to the game show's intellectual rigors.

"Jeopardy!" contestants, including the winners, have Williams' admiration.

"I have a lot of respect for the champion who's on there now," she said of Amy Schneider, who'd won $380,200 with 10 victories through Tuesday. She said the same for recent champion Matt Amodio, whose 38-game winning streak amassed him $1,518,601 in prize money, according to USA Today.

Successful as Schneider and Amodio were, those two champs weren't part of the new Professors Tournament. In that event, Williams took on two fellow academics — Ramon Guerra, associate professor of English, literature and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and Ed Hashima, history professor at American River College in Sacramento, California.

Other instructors who qualified for the tournament came from Penn State, the University of San Francisco, the Naval Postgraduate School, Hofstra, Vanderbilt University Law School, Howard, Roanoke College, Northern Arizona, Warren Wilson College, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Cal State Fullerton and the University of Delaware. Those professors represent quite a variety of private and public, two- and four-year, main and satellite campuses — coast to coast.

It was a "very dynamic, very diverse" group, exemplifying American higher education. The host of the "Jeopardy!" Professors Tournament, former "Big Bang Theory" co-star Mayim Bialik, was impressed.

"It was an unbelievable thrill to see so many brilliant professors from all kinds of schools and backgrounds come together on the 'Jeopardy!' stage," Bialik said in a statement released by the game show. "There was a sense of kinship and academic camaraderie among the group, along with a healthy dose of competitiveness. That energy made this inaugural Professors Tournament incredibly special."

In her appearance, Williams hoped she'd see categories involving literature or opera appear on the "Jeopardy!" gameboard. Those choices didn't come up, but her background is wide-ranging. She's taught multiple courses in Rose-Hulman's humanities department. She's guided students through classes in composition, poetry, the Bible as literature, the literature of war and the theater of violence, earning numerous awards since moving to Terre Haute in 1992 and joining the Rose faculty.

And, she's watched plenty of "Jeopardy!" episodes. Williams didn't watch the show much as a young girl growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Now 61, she developed her interest in the game show through her husband, Nick Williams, an English professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and a longtime "Jeopardy!" fan. The show draws viewers for different reasons. Kids have watched alongside their grandparents. Immigrants have learned English by watching.

"There are so many ways that 'Jeopardy!' has created a memory for people," Williams said.

She and her husband both spent years trying to land a spot on the show.

Julia broke through after a decade, taking the show's online test during her sabbatical last winter through the COVID-19 pandemic. She then took another test on Zoom, played a virtual game against two competitors and got formally invited in September. She traveled in October to the show's studios in Culver City, California, and joined the other professors in competition.

"It's been surreal," she said.

Like the other profs, Williams wondered whether the host would be Bialik or Ken Jennings, the show's all-time winningest champion. Bialik and Jennings have emerged as the top candidates to permanently replace Alex Trebek, who died in November 2020 after 36 years as the "Jeopardy!" host. Bialik had a unique bond with the competing professors, having earned a doctoral degree in neuroscience at UCLA.

"She's very, very sharp," Williams said. "She gives her clues very professionally. Her training as an actor, I'm sure, has a lot to do with that."

Plus, Bialik "is very engaging as a personality," Williams added.

Bialik and Jennings are part of the show's long history, dating back to its debut on NBC in 1964 with original host Art Fleming. Trebek stepped in when a revival of "Jeopardy!" debuted in 1984 and continued until his death. Williams learned that most of the Trebek-era crew remains on duty.

"They all knew Alex and speak about him with such fondness," Williams said. "It's great, all the history that show has, and how beloved Alex is, too."

Williams hopes the first Professors Tournament illuminates the value of a college education, especially in an era when that achievement's importance is being questioned.

"I'm hoping that we'll elevate college and have people say, 'Yes, this is important,'" Williams said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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