Ian Shin remembered watching “Jeopardy!” on television with his grandparents during his childhood.

“There was something to me that was really important about a show that wasn’t entirely about luck, but rather about how quick you are and how much you know,” said Shin, assistant professor of history and American culture in LSA since 2018. “Growing up, it was really nice for a nerd like me to see a TV show that celebrated knowledge.”

He never seriously considered auditioning until he talked to some of his friends who had been on the show and encouraged him to go for it several years ago.

“I didn’t really know what the audition process was until I met some friends who were on ‘Jeopardy!’ because it always seemed like an abstract process,” he said.

Ian Shin, assistant professor of history and American culture in LSA, is shown with longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek in 2017 when he appeared on the show and finished second.
Ian Shin, assistant professor of history and American culture in LSA, is shown with longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek in 2017 when he appeared on the show and finished second. (Photo courtesy of Ian Shin)

He took the online test in June 2016, was invited to the in-person audition in April 2017 and was called that August to be on the show.

Before the episode, he brushed up on his knowledge of literature, sports and pop culture, paying close attention to past Super Bowl champions and Academy Awards winners. He also looked at the archive of past clues to familiarize himself with how clues could be formatted.

The episode aired in December 2017, and Shin watched it with a group of colleagues and students at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he taught before being appointed at U-M. Shin came in second place, earning $2,000 and leaving with an extraordinary experience.

“It was a lot of fun and something I’ll be able to talk about for the rest of my life,” he said.

Longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 8, 2020, and the final episodes he taped aired the week of Jan. 4. Shin recalls his time with Trebek fondly.

“He meant a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “As a contestant, you don’t actually get to talk to him much, but you can’t help but be in awe of him.”

Shin earned a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied history and American culture before receiving master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University.

Because his family immigrated to the United States when he was 9 years old, Shin was always interested in Asian American history and narratives about immigration.

“As an immigrant, I have always been very curious about the stories that use the past to justify certain policies or decisions or actions. People say, ‘We’ve always done things this way,’ or ‘This is how we’ve always done this.’ I became interested in poking some holes or kicking the tires on some of those stories,” he said.

Outside his research, he co-hosts the New Books Network’s “Asian American Studies” podcast and interviews authors of new books about Asian American studies. While he’s had several amazing conversations, he said his favorite interview was with University of Nevada professor Mark Padoongpatt.

“He wrote the most wonderful book about the history of Thai food in the United States that tells us about the history of immigration and the ways that Thai immigrants created opportunities for themselves and struggled in the face of different forms of racism and bias, but nevertheless found a way to share their culinary traditions with Americans,” Shin said. “That’s a story that’s been really undertold. We all enjoy Pad Thai, but we don’t really know the story behind it.”

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Of the courses he teaches, his favorite is “Introduction to Asian/Pacific American Studies.”

“I get to talk about a lot more than the topics that I usually cover in my history classes,” he said. “I get to engage with some of the popular culture that students are interested in. I try to help them recognize the different messages that are embedded in the popular culture that they consume, and develop the skills to read that popular culture critically.”

As part of the course, Shin interviewed Lynn Davis, known online by her social media handle “CookingwithLynja.” A daughter of Japanese American internees during World War II, Davis has amassed 3 million followers through her irreverent cooking videos on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram. Shin sought to help students examine the often gendered undertones of Asian American culinary culture presented by media figures like “CookingwithLynja.”

“It’s neat to be able to understand how she does or does not consciously or subconsciously contribute to some of these larger cultural conversations that Asian Americans move through, like the model minority myth” he said. “I love being able to bring the ‘real world’ into the class through pop culture and help students understand the things that they see on their phones in a more critical way.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

In winter 2019, I licensed the rights to screen “Allegiance,” a 2015 Broadway musical starring Lea Salonga and George Takei that dramatizes the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. After reading about the musical “Hamilton,” the history majors in my “Doing History” course and I watched “Allegiance” on the big screen in one of the lecture halls in Angell Hall to discuss how musical theater “teaches” history to the public.

What can’t you live without?

Does anyone give an answer to this question that isn’t “my phone?” So instead, I’ll say bubble tea. I’m glad there are multiple options for it within walking distance of my office in Haven Hall.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Nichols Arboretum. My husband, Peter, and I love taking our dog for walks there, and it has been a wonderful outdoor refuge during the COVID-19 pandemic. A close runner-up would be the newly renovated Michigan Union. When I have time, I enjoy reading in the sun-drenched great rooms on the ground floor.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by the passion of the Asian American student activists at U-M with whom I have the honor to work and teach. They continually remind me why my work matters.

What are you currently reading?

For work, I am currently reading “Taste of Control: Food and the Filipino Colonial Mentality under American Rule” by R. Alexander Orquiz Jr., which considers the imperial politics of food by examining how U.S. colonizers controlled what Filipinos ate and how they ate during the first half of the 20th century. For fun, I just started Charles Yu’s National Book Award-winning novel “Interior Chinatown.”

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My undergraduate professors and advisers at Amherst College inspired me toward a career in academia (after a brief detour in the world of management consulting).

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