History professor Stephanie Jass loves taking the stage
Stephanie Jass is a history professor, 7 time Jeopardy! champion, and cabaret performer. She tells us about the fun of being a mathlete and an athlete, how she fell in love with history, and asking for what you want.
Fast facts about stephanie
Where she’s from: suburban Chicago
Grew up with: her mom, dad, and older brother and sister
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from Valparaiso University, Master's in history from Bowling Green State University, and PhD in history from Western Michigan University
Where she lives now: Michigan
Growing up she wanted to be: unsure, then a history teacher
Now she’s: Professor of History at Adrian College
How would you describe yourself at 15?
I really was the quintessentially overinvolved Marcia Brady type. So that was me and at the same time totally girly and into doing my hair as well as into reading fun books.
I was pegged as “the smartest of the smart bunch” and I was made to feel by both my parents that that was something I should absolutely be proud of. That smartness and intelligence had no tie to gender, and I should never be embarrassed of knowing things and being interested in knowing things. I always knew I was smart and I valued that gift cause that’s what I’ve got.
It was kind of a shock to me to see other kids, particularly girls, feeling like to be a smart girl somehow that meant you couldn’t be popular and you couldn’t be socially successful and like yeah you can! And yeah you could!
I READ THE LITTLE HOUSE SERIES WHEN I WAS QUITE YOUNG, AND I REMEMBER THINKING, "COULDN’T WE ALL GO BACK AND LIVE THAT WAY?" THAT WAS THE START OF A LIFE OF THINKING ABOUT WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LIVE IN THE PAST AND WHAT THOSE PEOPLE WERE LIKE.
Tell us more about being a reader!
The library was as much a teacher of mine as any of my teachers. I realized early on if I wanted to know about something, there was a book about it and I could just read that book. You can always be learning in so many ways and places. I didn’t know what I liked, and the only way to know what I liked was to read everything to find out what I liked and didn’t like.
I think what started getting me interested in history was I read the Little House series when I was quite young and considering what it was like to live in a different time period. And I remember thinking in the 1970s, couldn’t we all go back and live that way? Couldn’t we do that if we chose to? And that was the start of a life of thinking about what it was like to live in the past and what those people were like.
What else did you do outside of school?
I went to a really small grade school, and I came from a fairly athletic family. There was the expectation that I would play sports. I really loved volleyball and when I got to high school I had to make a decision would I try out for volleyball or try out for tennis because they were both at the same time. I tried out for tennis and played all four years and became a varsity player either my senior or junior year, doubles starting my sophomore year. That was really successful, I had a great partner and we just had a ball.
Did you participate in academic competitions?
When I was in high school they started a quiz bowl team my senior year, and I just jumped all over that. I was actually the captain, the rookie of the year, and the mvp all in that one year. They gave me all 3.
I was the only girl on the team, of course. I was really good friends with all the guys.
How did you decide to focus on history?
In high school, I was good at a lot of things, so it was difficult for me to figure out what I wanted to narrow my talents down to. I was a mathlete, I was just in all the accelerated programs. I really liked to read and I was able to do math and science. I really liked biology.
So it wasn’t until my junior year that I had a history teacher. I in fact had to take “regular” history at my high school because I decided to take AP physics and it was at the same time as AP history.
It was the best thing that ever happened to me because the teacher was amazing. I thought, “I want to be her.” It turned out that that was the first history class I’d ever had, so I thought, “Well, I really actually love this. I really love this.”
My initial thought was to go to college to be a high school teacher. I realized pretty early on that I had a lot of the gifts that were required to be an effective teacher so that has always stayed the same.
You got your bachelors degree and then you went on to get a PhD. Did you go right from undergrad to grad school?
I did. I have been in school continuously since I have been 4 years old. I never left. That’s how much I liked school. I loved learning; I loved the environment, so honestly I never left school in one way or another. I went directly to a master’s program and went directly from a master’s program to a PhD program and went directly from there. I mean I was teaching all throughout both my master’s and my PhD program, and got a job and have been teaching ever since.
You’re now a full professor. What does that mean?
I am now a full professor that means I’ve made it through the highest there’s no more promotions for me. You start out as an assistant. Then when you get tenure you become an associate then when you get your final promotion you become a full professor, which means you no longer have those titles in front.
Reacting to the Past
Stephanie uses an approach called Reacting to the Past in her teaching instead of traditional lectures.
What does that mean?
Reacting to the Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work.
Stephanie is also on the board that governs the project and creates new games!
Can you tell us a little bit about the topics you teach about? What made you interested in them and keeps you interested in them?
I’m the only American historian where I teach, so if there’s an American class, I teach it. Of course I do general surveys for everybody, but when I’m allowed to teach subject stuff of my own, I have a Native American History Class, an African-American history class, a women’s history class. I have a social history class and popular culture and foodways. Those are the ones I really have fun dealing with. (Note: Foodways are the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.)
I love teaching women’s history. I think it’s a fascinating field and there are so many really cool, amazing women. One of the ways I teach my women’s history class is to talk about what cultural expectations for women have been like and how much they’ve changed over the years. In some ways it’s hard to say there’s a biological component to what it is to be a women when we’re culturally defined to be a woman very differently from historical era to historical era. Even if we’d had the same exact genetic capabilities that we have, we’d be different women 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago.
Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about Jeopardy! What was it like to get to be on Jeopardy?
It wasn’t until I started dating my husband that we would watch regularly. We’d be having dinner with the kids, and we’d just turn it on like old folks do. I’d be playing along and he’d say, you’re really good at this, and I’d say, well I’ve always been really good at this, and he’d say, no, good enough to be the people on the show good. And I said nahhhh, that’s crazy, but secretly thinking he was right, and also knowing I would never want to have to prove myself wrong because that would be so embarrassing.
He really, really, really encouraged me. So when I found myself there it was as much a surprise to me as anybody else, because I had never spent years picturing myself on that stage like a lot of people have.
How did you approach being on the show?
I knew I couldn’t ultimately probably do much to control the outcome. I knew I could control whether this was a fun experience or not. I’m pretty good at making sure something’s a fun experience. My goal going into any of the other tournaments was, "Now I know I’m up against some of the best of the best, so my chances have gone down exponentially, so what can I do? Make sure this is one of the experiences of my life.” They were the experiences of my life. And I regret nothing!
One of the biggest surprises to me was how it’s seeped into my life in so many ways. Did you ever expect that to happen?
All of this has been a ridiculously unexpected, delightful surprise. I didn’t know the kind of communities that were already out there. There was this big fandom for Jeopardy fans and people trying to get on the show. I didn’t know about any of that.
The show itself was great and if it had ended there, I would have said, “Wow, what a crazy awesome experience!” It’s all the ancillary things that have really been in some ways the best thing about Jeopardy. You make friends with these really amazingly interesting, smart, curious, thoughtful people. Of course you’d want to be friends with these people. So that has been a total gift.
We haven’t talked about something that I know you spend a fair amount of time doing which is singing and performing. You sing in a couple different capacities, right? Can you tell us a little more about that?
I have been singing in some various form or fashion with some group since I was a little girl. It’s something I just love to do. I am part of a trio; we’re three women called Ear Candy. We do tight three part harmony stuff, each of us on a part. We love performing together. We’ve been doing it about 3 years in some capacity so that’s a semi-regular kind of thing that is a whole lot of fun.
I have my own cabaret show that I’ve put up about 3 or 4 times. I’d love to keep doing that because you can do totally create your own show- whatever you want to sing, whatever stories you want to talk about. I really realized that part of what I’ve always liked about teaching is the performance aspect as much as the learning aspect. I’m trying to find appropriate channels to channel my interest in performing that makes it less about me in the classroom and more about my students.
How did you get your own cabaret act?
I was at the Kiwanis Club and talking about my Jeopardy experience. The woman who runs the local community theater was there and she stood up during question time and said “When are you going to come back to the Croswell and do a show with us?” and I said “When you give me my own darn show!” and she said in front of everyone “Done” She offered me the chance to do my own cabaret show at the Croswell opera house for 4 nights and it was just the most fun. And I just thought, I need to find ways to keep doing this. If I have a vision for my next five years, it’s that’s I’m doing more of that and less grading papers.
sometimes you have to be prepared to buy your own tiara and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want one, go out and get one.
That’s a great story about asking for what you want and getting it.
It’s true. You do. Life doesn’t always give you tiaras. You often have to go out and get your own tiara yourself. I did. I literally bought myself my own tiara because it was not forthcoming. I was feeling like the queen of my world that day [she was a Jeopardy! champ], and I wanted an official crown and there was none in the [contestant gift] bag. That is a good lesson to all you all out there that sometimes you have to be prepared to buy your own tiara and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want one, go out and get one.
Never let your worry about a job convince you that you can’t do the things that you love. It just may not end up being your profession.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a history professor or a performer or Jeopardy champion- who wants to do the things that you do?
Good luck with all of them! If you want to be involved in history, being a professor, it’s a rough job these days. If you want to be a history teacher, by all means, there are a lot of levels at which you can do it.
If you just love history and don’t want to make it your life or your profession, my gosh, you can spend your lifetime learning about history and be as much of an expert as I am, by gosh. And if you love to teach, there’s so many outlets for teachers in so many ways from professional to volunteering. Never let your worry about a job convince you that you can’t do the things that you love. It just may not end up being your profession.
I don’t regret that I didn’t choose performing as a lifestyle or a career. I don’t think it would have been right for me. But I have found ways to make an avocation and it enriches my life in so many ways. It’s totally acceptable and probably expected that at some point in your life you’ll have a job that’s just a job.
It doesn’t mean you can’t still pursue the things that you love outside your job.
Good advice. So my last question is: What advice would you give to a girl who’s a girl like you were?
I would say find one at least one friend who knows who you are understands, gets you, and never expects you to be anybody else because they love you for who you are. Ultimately, you want that for a life partner, but when you’re in grade school or high school all you need is one good friend.
It’s great if you have two or three, but one person who gets you who you never have to pretend with who doesn’t expect you to be anything but yourself and you feel the same way about him or her. No matter who you are, you have qualities that are going to resonate with somebody. I was always lucky enough to have those kinds of people in my life. You gotta find somebody who knows who you are and who loves you for who you are. And keep reading!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out some of Stephanie's favorite books and find out more about her work!