Ryan Ball was typically a minute or two late for review sessions in his master’s-level accounting course at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. But for a recent class Ball, an accounting professor, was 10 minutes early — with a surprise in store for his Zoom-weary students.
From his office, Ball logged into Zoom, downloaded a few pictures, and found the perfect music. As the two-hour review session for the class began, Ball cued the “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” soundtrack — then appeared on screen with a “potato filter,” with a party hat and a sparkler in each hand.
“It was a review session at the end of the day, and they’re all stressed about their exams,” says Ball of his prank.
GOING VIRAL AS A SPUD
But the fun was just beginning. One of Ball’s students, Amelia Charamand-Quelas, 20, filmed snippets of the class. After getting permission from her professor, she posted a clip on TikTok — and it went viral, racking up more than 18 million views and 4.4 million likes through Wednesday (August 18).
Even after the initial shock — and hilarity — wore off, Ball continued the review session with the filter on. “To be honest, once you are a potato, you can’t get it off without leaving Zoom,” he says.
Charamand-Quelas later posted a second video — in which Ball tells the class at one point that he needed to check on his family, prompting a background screen of baked potatoes to appear — did even better than the first, with 5.7 million likes.
Ball thinks the videos were well-received because they weren’t completely planned out.
“Students place a high value on being genuine and being yourself,” he tells Poets&Quants.
A LONG-TIME POPULAR PROF
Word spread quickly of Ball’s spudly antics. Lindsey Gallo, an assistant professor of accounting, changed Ball’s name plate outside his office to “Po Tato” — which Ball didn’t notice. “Students noticed it when they were walking in,” he says.
Ball, 47, is the Coopers and Lybrand, Norman E. Auerbach assistant professor of accounting and a 2017 P&Q Favorite Professor of Top MBAs. He started his teaching career at the University of Michigan in 2012. He got his bachelor’s in civil engineering and master’s in structural engineering from Ohio University; later he earned a second master’s in business administration and a Ph.D. in accounting from the University of North Carolina. His potato-centric accounting class, Accounting 557: Evaluating Financial Performance, is one of a few he teaches at the Ross School. Others include Corporate Financial Reporting, an MBA elective, and Intermediate Financial Accounting, a BBA elective.
Ball says his teaching philosophy is simple: Instead of a car that accelerates from 0 mph to 200 mph, where you feel the acceleration in the first five minutes and fall asleep in the passenger’s seat for the rest, he prefers something different.
“I like to take a drive on a twisting coast of California, accelerate and decelerate, changing gears at all times. The potato is just one thing,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be potatoes, it can just be telling a random story.”
CHALLENGES IN VIRTUAL TEACHING
Teaching over Zoom has made it harder to connect to students, Ball says. “The frustrating thing about virtual teaching is it made me realize how much I read facial expressions, body language in class,” he says.
He relates it to losing a limb, but feeling like it’s still there.
“It feels like somebody took away one of my senses and so, it’s just been adapting to it.” Any ordinary semester, Ball would associate students with where they sat in class. “It’s hard for me to recognize people. I’ve been surprised by how tall the students are.” The excessive screen time is another hindrance. Even so, Ball believes that with the most adverse situations, there is opportunity.
“What I love about students is they are a huge resource. Yes, I know a lot more about accounting, but they know so much,” he says. When he first went viral, he had no grasp of what that meant. “I asked my students, ‘what’s TikTok? Is it a verb or an adjective? Are 15 million views good?’ That’s how naïve I was.”
Charamand-Quelas proposed an entire marketing plan to take Ball’s fame to the next level, such as posting from his own TikTok account. But growing a TikTok following isn’t on Ball’s mind.
“There is too much of a good thing, right? I think the beauty of it was that it wasn’t done for TikTok.”
MAKING ACCOUNTABLE RELATABLE THROUGH HUMOR
His teaching style has always been eccentric, but he made adjustments when Covid-19 coincided with the development of a new online MBA program at the Ross School. Ball thought: “How can I tell my stories that I normally tell in classes?” This led to a series of YouTube videos.
Income Taxes: The Fluffy Truth, from 2020 explains income taxes through alpacas. The b-roll footage of Ball running around with these sweet creatures is worth the watch itself. In another video, he bought a thousand breadsticks from Olive Garden to explain mergers and acquisitions in accounting. Since his potato video went viral, his YouTube channel has been spammed by comments, some raving about his sense of humor, others wishing he was their professor.
“Nobody comes to get an MBA, or even a master’s in management, because they want to become accountants,” says Ball. “This stuff shows up in every job. So, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep their attention.”
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