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Three Whitman College faculty members hunch over a desk in the center of a packed classroom, buzzers clamped in their fists, thumbs poised like game show contestants. 

“He saved the universe in the 2000 season finale of FOX TV’s ‘Futurama’…”

The crowd murmurs as Craig Gunsul, professor emeritus of physics, consults his teammates, Bob Carson, professor of geology and Clare Carson, associate dean of students. 

Question:  What happens when Whitman professors match wits with the students they teach?  

Answer: The profs eventually prevail in a friendly competition that was a whole lot of fun, as an audience full of students and parents found out during a Family Weekend  quiz bowl tournament hosted by the college’s newly formed student quiz bowl team. 

Ian Williams ’12, quiz bowl team president, met Jonathan Spatola-Knoll ’11, the team’s vice president, when their high school knowledge bowl teams played against each other in a southwest Washington regional competition. Knowledge bowl is similar to quiz bowl). When the two met up again at Whitman, they decided to form a college team. Last semester they competed in a quiz bowl contest at Gonzaga University, where both scored highly in individual points. The team, which includes about five regular members, meets every Monday to practice.

 Williams said they got the idea to challenge faculty from games he and Spatolla-Knoll remember playing against their teachers in high school.

The Whitman professors proved themselves tougher opponents:

“For ten points, name this prominent American whose appearance as an animated character struck some as out of character.”

Pause.  Laughter breaks out.  The faculty is stumped. 

Williams and his teammates could have guessed the right answer to that one — former Vice President Al Gore.

But as the questions continue — encompassing everything from Italian colonies to chemistry and Nike to the Strait of Gibraltar — the faculty picks up speed. 

At the end of the hour, Williams’ father, Ken, who helped moderate the game along with Williams’ grandparents (they were visiting campus from Vancouver, Wash.), totals the scores. 

Faculty: 290. Students: 205.

“It was pretty fun to watch,” said Clark Van Horne ’11, who participated in his high school’s quiz bowl team and attended the game with his parents. “I didn’t expect the pop culture questions.” 

Team members also appreciated the spectacle — and the high turnout.  It was standing room only by the final “toss up.”

"On one hand, it was disappointing to see my peers lose,” said Hadley Jolley ’13 after watching the game with her family.  “On the other hand, I’m not at Whitman to get taught by other students."

Gunsul enjoyed the game, pointing out that students were at a disadvantage on historical questions — 21st century cartoons notwithstanding, of course. 

“Many events occurred in our lifetime,” he said, speaking for his teammates.  “Also, the faculty are the kind of people who make up those questions. We ought to be able to answer them.”

Williams and his teammates agreed.

“I think we did respectably,” Spatola-Knoll said. 

For them, quiz bowl’s real draw is the fun they have digesting random bits of trivia, and the thrill of knowing the right answer to a question, the more obscure the better.     

“Ninety percent of these questions would probably never come up in conversation,” said team member Stephen Dubois ’12, who plans to be either a history or classics major. 

Spatolla-Knoll, a music theory major, has a simple explanation for his love of little-known facts.

“I’m a geek,” he said, unabashed. 

Williams, also a history major, hopes the success of the matchup against faculty will help recruit more members to the fledgling team. 

Final answer? 

“It was a good game,” he said.