It’s not always business as usual when it comes to assistant professor Ryan Ball’s graduate accounting class.
Earlier this month, an anything-but-conventional Zoom review session kicked off with a blaring rendition of Michael Buffer’s “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!” and a stock image of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business on screen. Students, confused yet intrigued, danced along to the music not knowing what exactly was to come.
Then, in an entrance nothing short of spud-tacular, Ball, with the screen name Dr. Po Tato, suddenly emerged as a floating potato with sparklers and a birthday hat, dancing around the Zoom screen.
After watching the entire sequence unfold, Business graduate student Amelia Charamand-Quelas told The Michigan Daily she wanted to share the spectacle with her family in Argentina.
“The primary way (my family and I) communicate because of the time differences is we just send each other WhatsApps, YouTube videos and TikTok videos,” Charamand-Quelas said. “I just posted on (TikTok) for my four followers, who were all pretty much family members, to see.”
The next morning, Charamand-Quelas awoke to find that her video, originally intended for family and friends, became a viral hit on TikTok with hundreds of thousands of views. Not expecting the video to go viral overnight, Charamand-Quelas had not previously asked Ball for permission to post the clip, so she quickly deleted it.
“My initial thought was, ‘Oh, I’m getting kicked out of the (Master of Management program),’” Charamand-Quelas said. “I knew I needed to contact the professor and let him know this happened.”
Despite fearing the worst, Charamand-Quelas said Ball asked her to repost the TikTok for his children to see. Soon after being re-uploaded, the TikTok went viral again, rapidly drawing in 19.4 million views and 4.5 million likes.
As the viral video found its way into nearly every U-M student’s direct messages, For You Page and Facebook group, the entire U-M community shared the joy of watching a professor dance around as a potato.
For Ball, humor plays a key role in his instruction, and he said his potato prank was just another way of keeping his students engaged — especially over Zoom.
“I think with any class, particularly virtually, you reach a certain point where you can just tell people are fatigued,” Ball said. “And I think that that occurs in person as well, but I would do other stuff, tell stories, whatever, just to capture their attention … I don’t plan it. It just feels right.”
When Business junior Alysse Armstrong first saw the TikTok, she said her reaction was like most users’.
“Initially, I was surprised by the whole thing,” Armstrong said. “But I appreciate that professors are making an effort to make Zoom classes more enjoyable and fun even though we’ve all been doing them for so long.”
Brands across the globe even joined in on the fun, with the official Zoom TikTok account commenting, “They just won at Zoom.”
The video’s response was so overwhelmingly positive that Charamand-Quelas worked alongside Ball and posted a follow-up video, which, not to her surprise, outperformed the original with 26.1 million views and 5.9 million likes.
“I had hoped that it would (perform better) just because I knew it was such a good video,” Charamand-Quelas said.
In part two of the spud saga, Dr. Po Tato checks in on his “family members” who, to his absolute horror, have all been baked. Afterward, Ball “gets serious” and moves into his exam review session, still as a floating potato.
Among the most-liked comments on this second video is one from the official account of “The Office” that says, “Truly such Michael Scott energy.”
In spite of the comment’s 489,000 likes, Charamand-Quelas doesn’t find that the comparisons hold true with regard to Ball’s overall teaching style.
“I think Michael Scott can be a problem at times, and Professor Ball has absolutely never been a problem at all,” Charamand-Quelas said. “I think, at that moment, he was tapped into Michael Scott’s goofy side, but overall, I wouldn’t say that they’re too similar.”
Though his accounting course took place virtually, Ball said he found that his setup music alone successfully brought his class to life, replicating the energy and excitement of an in-person classroom.
“It’s not part of the viral video, but I also have a gallery view recording of my students, and everybody’s dancing … it was really fun to see everyone kind of getting into it,” Ball said. “People were either dancing, or they were talking to somebody off-screen and motioning. Next thing you know, somebody else would stick their head in.”
As goofy as Ball comes off to most viewers, Charamand-Quelas said it shows just how far he will go to look out for his students’ well-being and make sure they’re engaged during remote learning.
“(Professor Ball) has been absolutely unreal,” Charamand-Quelas said. “If all professors tackled virtual learning with as much grace and seamlessness as he did, I think virtual would absolutely not be a problem.”
After being online for the past year and a half, Ball has found a silver lining with remote learning: endless possibilities for good-hearted pranks.
“There’s always opportunity,” Ball said. “It’s actually to the point where I think I’m going to miss virtual … you can’t do stuff like the potato in person.”
Though Dr. Po Tato may not exist beyond Zoom’s virtual classroom, Ball said he will continue to find innovative and engaging ways to teach material. These can include visiting an alpaca farm to introduce income taxes or buying thousands of Olive Garden breadsticks to teach merger and acquisition accounting.
As the University transitions back to in-person instruction, Ball’s students can certainly count on his beloved antics to continue.
Daily Staff Reporter Evan DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.