Rowan professor Melissa Klapper reflects on “Jeopardy!” appearance and success

Ken Jennings (left) and Melissa Klapper (right). - Photo via Sony Pictures Studio

Rowan history professor Melissa Klapper has caught the attention of the university due to her surprise “Jeopardy!” appearance and win streak last week. 

With her first win airing last Monday, March 20, her three-day run of victory saw her total earnings top $60,000 before taxes. Following the broadcast of her performance, Klapper was startled by the attention.

“There’s been more media buzz about this in every way than I would have guessed,” Klapper said. “I think just a lot of people watch ‘Jeopardy!’ and I’m easy to find. I really appreciated the good wishes from the random strangers, that was nice.”

Due to “Jeopardy!” rules, it is prohibited to promote any organization as a contestant, even a place of employment, which is why Klapper was never mentioned on the show as a Rowan professor. This did not stop the social media frenzy that followed her appearance.

Having been a history professor at Rowan for 22 years, Klapper also acts as the coordinator for the university’s Women’s and Gender Studies program. Since history is an extensive subject, Klapper used it to help study for the renowned trivia show. 

“Everything has a history, all topics have histories, so that’s helpful. So is the fact I like to read, that I’ve always loved to read. And I read very widely about all kinds of things, and that, I think, is the best kind of preparation,” Klapper said.

Even with all the studying in the world, “Jeopardy!” is infamously known for its buzzer system. Klapper explained that a contestant’s buzzer will be locked if they are to press it before the host finishes the question completely and a set of indicator lights above the big board flashes. 

For Klapper, her first experience with the buzzer may have been the most stressful part of the streak. Citing numbers from a “Jeopardy!” statistics website, she explained how her “buzzer rate” was average at best. 

“Everyone there is smart and knows stuff,” Klapper said. ”But [the buzzer] is one of those things that, if you don’t have good hand-eye coordination, which I do not, there’s not much you can do to make up for it in the moment.”

Klapper explained how the person she lost to during her fourth game, which aired March 23, had a significantly better buzzer rate than her. Doing some more digging, she has a theory on buzzer success.

“I do think, based on talking to contestants who were there that day, the people who are gamers have an advantage,” Klapper said. “Most of us were not gamers, but he was and so was one of the other contestants who did really well.”

Gamer or not, the process to reach the “Jeopardy!” stage is arduous. The first hurdle is called the “Anytime Test” which, as it sounds, can be taken by any adult at any time on the “Jeopardy!” website. They will not receive a score, but they may receive an auspicious invitation to the next online test. This test follows the same protocol as the first, and then the next invitation one might receive is for a group audition-style interview via video conference to test a prospect’s public speaking. If they do well on this, then they will be added to the contestant pool. This is where a contestant will wait up to eighteen months for a possible call that they’ve been cast. 

This entire process may also need to be repeated multiple times, as was the case with Klapper, and even 2022’s “Jeopardy!” phenom Amy Schneider. 

Klapper got the elusive phone call last December and was cast for shooting in early January. With only about a month to study, she had to hone in on a few subjects. She chose science and geography but ultimately read an immense amount of information on a variety of topics — except for one.

“I did not bother with sports, because a lifetime deficit was too much to make up,” she said jokingly. 

As Professor Klapper settles back into the semester, she plans to continue talking about “Jeopardy!” as it relates to the material she teaches in class. Referring to questions on the show was a common practice for her before she became a contestant, but now she will be doing so as a three-day champion.

“I’m a big trivia nerd,” Klapper said. “And it was nice to spend time with other people who share those interests.”

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