A CU Boulder history professor made an appearance this week on Jeopardy! as part of the show’s first-ever professors tournament.
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, an assistant professor of U.S. and African American history, took third place behind an operations research professor from the Naval Postgraduate School, who took first, and a writing studies professor from Hofstra University, who placed second.
Lawrence-Sanders was one of 15 educators from colleges and universities across the country competing for a $100,000 grand prize and a spot in the show’s upcoming tournament of champions.
“I feel like I’ve joined another type of cohort of folks who have done this––it's hard to really understand what it's like until you do it,” Lawrence-Sanders said. “It was exciting and a fulfillment of a life-long dream.”
Going into the Final Jeopardy! round, Lawrence-Sanders was in third place with $3,200. She made a bold wager on the final clue: “General McArthur said this man’s death by violence is one of those bitter anachronisms that seems to refute all logic.” She answered: “Who is John F. Kennedy?” The correct response: “Who is Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi?” None of the contestants answered correctly.
But for Lawrence-Sanders, who has watched Jeopardy! since she was six years old, the experience was fulfilling enough.
“It’s kinda the coolest, nerdiest thing you could do,” she said. “It’s this sort of quintessential American show that translates across generations and backgrounds.”
Tens of thousands of people apply each year to be on Jeopardy!, and only 400 to 500 people become contestants. So Lawrence-Sanders, who had applied at least five times before, was shocked when she heard back from the producers after taking the online test.
“I really wasn’t expecting to hear from them after that,” she said.
Then in September, Lawrence-Sanders received a call from a Jeopardy! producer who invited her to be a part of the show’s first-ever professors tournament.
She prepared for the tournament by re-watching old episodes every night. She realized she was strongest in popular culture, literature, geography and music, but needed brushing up in general science.
“There’s this humility that comes in preparing,” she said. “All the judgment you have towards the people on TV kind of melts away when you realize you're going to be in a position very soon where everybody else is going to be at home judging you.”
Filming took place at the end of October, but Lawrence-Sanders’ matchup aired Wednesday, Dec. 9. CU Boulder’s History Department planned a faculty watch party on Zoom.
“There was lots of applause and congratulations, there were also a lot of great questions,” she said. “I so appreciated the support of my colleagues that night––another reason to be very happy that I am at CU Boulder right now.”
Competition and camaraderie
Unlike the general Jeopardy! show, contestants in the professors tournament are flown to Los Angeles and put up in the historic Culver Hotel for free. But it’s not all fun and games.
The contestants spent three consecutive days in the studio attending rehearsals, filming promotional materials and competing in their respective matchups.
Lawrence-Sanders spoke in depth about the friendships she developed with fellow contestants.
She said it was like a summer camp: The contestants were together almost all day every day and didn’t have access to electronics, so they spent their free moments sharing each other's research, teaching methods and upbringings.
“I was on the younger end of the contestants, or one of the only ones who didn't have tenure,” Lawrence-Sanders said. “I loved taking in that wisdom and hearing from professors in various disciplines about their experiences with grading and students.”
Lawrence-Sanders’ competition included professors from large, small, public and private universities with expertise in a range of fields, from French literature to musicology. One even teaches botany at Warren Wilson College, a “co-op college” where students are required to work on-campus jobs and perform community service.
“There was this sense of camaraderie amongst everyone,” she said. “It was such a great opportunity to meet people in very different positions at very different universities, learn from them and hear their unique perspectives on education.”