Teaching as (Viral) Content Development?

On a recent episode of NPR’s How I Built This, Jonah Peretti compared teaching and viral content development. He discussed his early career as a teacher and how it inspired and informed to his later success as co-founder of Huffington Post and Buzzfeed:
“I was thinking about how to connect with my students. And to get them to learn things and get them excited. And that is something that has heavily influenced the way I think about content. Because I think if you think about content from, at the time, print and broadcast, you think about making something that you push out to this giant audience. But if you’re in a classroom teaching you know 25 kids that are in front of you, you quickly start to learn that the really good teachers are shaping the curriculum based on the feedback they’re getting from the students. They’re trying to to read the room and read the audience and get them more engaged.” – Jonah Peretti
I find this intriguing for several reasons. Anyone who has taught undergraduates can relate to the idea of feeling like a ringmaster facing a crowd of blank stares, some of them borderline hostile. Is it possible to be hostile while bored? I think my undergrads have mastered it.

So what are teachers to do to keep students engaged? Jonah Peretti’s comparison views students as a voluntary audience to be won over rather than a captive group required to receive instruction. Too often, as instructors in higher education, we gravitate toward the latter approach.

I have found as an instructor in higher education — at least at the research universities at which I have taught — a strong emphasis on instructors upholding grading and attendance policies while also delivering rigorous course content based in research. However, there is less emphasis on student engagement in the classroom — things like student motivation and student goal attainment beyond grades.

Some may criticize Jonah Peretti’s comparison of teaching and content development by assuming it could lead to shallow or trivial teaching that merely distracts students with shiny objects, especially since we are in an age of commercialization of higher education. Perhaps, however, we can learn from this perspective. Considering students an audience to be won over demands high quality instruction and engaging students in new ways.

Ultimately, Jonah Peretti emphasizes the importance of incorporating feedback from students. After all, “read your audience” is the stuff of nearly every basic communication course ever taught.

Some days as an instructor you feel that no matter having doing your darnedest to make the course content relevant, interesting, and uesful, it’s just not cutting through the blank stares. Still, as this fall semester unfolds, I’ll be taking inspiration from this interview by integrating more feedback from my audience of students to engage them in new ways.


2 thoughts on “Teaching as (Viral) Content Development?

  • August 2, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    A well-written, interesting perspective. Kudos, Tara!

    • August 2, 2017 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks for reading, Karen!


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