How I Became an Answer on “Jeopardy!”


The first email came at 7:23 on a Monday evening in late February.  Did I know, a Penn colleague asked, that my TB book had been the subject of a question on “Jeopardy!”?  I thought this was bizarre as far as pranks go, but it didn’t make sense.  This was a colleague with whom I had exchanged a couple of friendly emails, but whom I had never met in person.  Why would she, of all people, be playing a practical joke on me?  The second email came just a few minutes later, from a Temple colleague who also didn’t know me well enough to mess with me like this, and who was extremely unlikely to know the first colleague.

Hmmm.  I did next what anyone would do in a similar situation: I went immediately to Facebook.  “Did anyone watch Jeopardy tonight?”  One of the first comments came from a friend on the West Coast, where it hadn’t aired yet.  Later that evening, he had the proof: a still photo and a homemade video of his TV screen.

Needless to say, it was my most Liked status ever.  Even my kids, to whom I am the personification of uncool, appreciated it.  Best of all, it earned me some valuable (if temporary) cred among my students when I showed the clip in class.  (Tuberculosis had been a recurring topic of discussion in my global health course.)  Some even said that being a question on Jeopardy was cooler than being a contestant.  So I’ll take it.

But how did it happen?  I used to watch Jeopardy, and it’s not even a very good question (I mean “answer”) by the standards of the show.  Too many words, awkward phrasing, fairly obvious answer.  (All three contestants tried to buzz in, and the fastest didn’t hesitate: “What is tuberculosis?”)  A few friends speculated that one of my former students might work for the show or the syndication company, but that didn’t sound right to me.

Nothing made sense until someone steered me toward a website that archives all questions and answers from every Jeopardy show since 1984:

This particular episode was Day 1 of the Teachers’ Tournament championship.  All contestants were schoolteachers, and many of the categories were school-themed.  My question was in a category called “Social Studies.”  Every answer involved a book with the word “Social” in the title:  Social Workers, Social Media, Social Revolutions, Social Contract … and Social Disease. 

I wondered how an overworked, underpaid underling on the Jeopardy staff might go about finding suitable questions for that category.  If I had to do it in a rush, I would probably Google “book ‘social media’” or “book ‘social disease.’”  (Try it.)  That last search turns up a bunch of hits related to a novel called “Social Disease”—not much to build a clue around—and, toward the bottom of the first page of results, my book The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France.  (Interestingly, in the months since that episode aired, my book has moved upward on the first page of results for that search.)  While I would love to think that the sheer brilliance and power of my scholarship propelled my book into the pop-culture consciousness, I think a frazzled researcher on Google is a much more likely explanation.

My 15 minutes have expired.  My students quickly moved on to the next shiny object, and my kids are back to ignoring me.  But I’ve got an unusual souvenir, and I figure there are worse ways to get your name on TV. 

David Barnes

University of Pennsylvania