Aaron Dinin: Why TikTok Matters as Much as Walt Whitman

I&E lecturing fellow teaches students about personal branding via social media

Aaron Dinin stands at the front of a classroom with TikTok on a screen behind him.  In the foreground a student is raising their hand.

His unconventional take on what passes for literature has helped him teach students about how to use social media to their advantage. He also wants to prepare students for a safe and gaffe-free presence online, in which a regrettable tweet or post can derail their young careers.

“I tell leadership we have to be where the kids are if we want the best to come to Duke, and they are on TikTok,” says Dinin, who has 21,700 followers on the platform.

To help students, Dinin teaches full-credit courses on content creation, including “Learning to Fail” and “Social Marketing: From Literary Celebrities to Instagram Influencers.”

Duke senior Benjamin Chipman has taken two Dinin full-credit courses – “Building Global Audiences” and “New Venture Discovery.” Chipman’s creating his own global marketing curriculum with the goal of becoming a media host on TV, podcasts, etc.

“I took ‘Building Global Audiences,’ lovingly referred to as the TikTok class, because when I was applying to any marketing and brand development jobs/internships, they would ask for a portfolio of work. In my head, that's why I was applying to the internships in the first place -- to get experience,” says Chipman, a Norfolk, Massachusetts, native.

“However, that's not how the job market really functions anymore, and by lacking media experience in the form of viral videos, brand loyalty, demonstrated audience growth, etc., I was behind in a career that I wouldn't even formally begin for the next few years. This class provided me the structure and support to take content creation seriously and make up for the time that I was behind for any marketing/advertising/brand-related role.”

Adds Chipman: “Dinin's classes are practicums and they throw you into what it means to be doing the work as a professional and offer the support of a classroom. It's been one of the best learning tools I've had the privilege to access other than actual internships.”

Video file

Bloomberg featured Dinin in a story this past May, with the headline: “Colleges Are Launching TikTok Classes for Influencers Making $5,000 a Post.”

The story noted that Dinin’s class had collectively added 145,000 followers and generated 80 million views for the videos they produced.

Dinin addressed the article (which is behind a paywall) in a post on Medium a few months later.

I can summarize the theme of that Bloomberg article as: ‘Can you believe colleges and universities are teaching people to be content creators?’
Umm … yes … I can believe it. Why wouldn’t they? Some of the most influential and impactful people in the modern world are social media content creators. Ignoring that reality seems like a gross violation of academic responsibility,

Aaron Dinin

Ed Balleisen, Duke vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, is also a history professor who studies the historical intersections among law, business, politics and policy. He sees value in Dinin’s courses.

“The students in these courses learn a great deal about the historical antecedents of today’s influencers,” Balleisen says. “They then organize themselves into teams and undertake extensive research to inform their strategies for reaching audiences. Everyone learns powerful lessons about failure, even if some groups eventually craft messages that resonate.” 

Junior Natalia Hauser took Dinin’s “Building Global Audiences” in spring 2022, and now works as a teacher’s assistant in that class. Combined, the Hollywood, Florida, native has more than 220,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram, where she largely posts about fashion.

She credits much of her success on what she learned in Dinin’s class.

“We worked a lot on building a personal brand,” says Hauser, a sociology major who plans to become a marketing executive. “It is a crucial learning in life and is especially helpful throughout the job-search process. I learned to establish an authentic personal narrative, provide consistency across my digital platforms, create a loyal community, and develop a robust online identity while taking ‘Building Global Audiences.’”

Video file

Dinin’s own posts on TikTok are often humorous slices of life in his classroom. (Check out this post from March 1, 2022, which generated more than 17 million views, 5,495 comments and 2.2 million likes.)

But he isn’t just a word guy. Dinin is also a tech entrepreneur and runs a podcast on the topic called Web Masters. Major movers like Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, are among his previous guests.

I Was a Terrible Grad Student

After earning his bachelor’s degree from Duke in 2005, Dinin continued studying English at the University of Maryland, where he earned a Ph.D. in the subject.

Again, he broke the mold.

I was a terrible grad student. I like to say they kicked me out with a Ph.D. and basically said, ‘You don't belong in academia. Don't do this. It's not gonna be good for you.’

Aaron Dinin

Dinin believes academics should share their research on social media, where the potential audience reach can outdo an academic journal by the thousands, even hundreds of thousands.

Besides, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman promoted themselves, too, he says.

“If you actually went back into the time, I’m pretty confident they would not think of themselves as creating great art necessarily. They were the YouTubers of their day. They were creators, and they were entrepreneurs. Whitman, who is my favorite, he's the pinnacle of an entrepreneur. In that day it was around poetry and editorials and novels.

“He was creating content, but his goal was to monetize that content and build a personality and a brand around himself. These ideas of celebrity culture that we think of as kind of new and modern, actually a lot of them have their roots in the 1900s, especially around the kind of the British romantic poets. And so again, we look back and we decide that Walt Whitman is a great artist in his day.”

Adds Dinin: “And he was a creator -- just like my students are.”