The rise of celebrity-based courses

There’s a course started and being taught by Yassin Alsalman (probably better known as recording artist Narcy) at Concordia University entitled, “Kanye vs. Ye: Genius by Design.” It’s the latest in a continuum of popular music studies. From a brief search there is a: 

My search ended with Madonna studies, though I’m sure there’s a lot more. Pop culture has evolved into something far more immersive than what mainstream audiences have known it for in the past. 

For example, celebrities are becoming occasions and opportunities to teach people what they want to know. I learned a fair amount of what I know about the creative process from being a fan of Ye, watching the interviews, and reading up on the people he references—Steve Jobs, Picasso, Da Vinci, amongst many others. 

While creativity is constantly listed as an incredibly important soft skill (worth acknowledging I have very mixed feelings on the usefulness of these lists), there wasn’t a creative production program when I went to school. I had to learn how to find the market and business cases for it myself, and I definitely wasn’t taught it at a course in school—I learned how to be creative outside of school and frankly in spite of it. (I wrote the book I wish I had!)

The product of industrial education has not fit the market of students in a long, long, time. This is one way where it fits back in—where teachers are genuinely passionate about the subject, have done the analysis to share something original, and connect with students through a subject of mutual interest and a subject that they already have a relationship with. Teaching and world-building is colliding.

This has happened in books as well, and occasionally expands beyond celebrities, into what could be called Universe-based courses: The World According to Star Wars, Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, Adam Smith can Change Your Life, and Monster Loyalty are all examples of authors using fan culture and their own personal interests, connecting it with a community, and teaching useful skills and perspectives through mutually interesting topics and “universes” they are familiar with. 

In 2013, I worked with Ryan Leslie when he took his music off platforms to build his own audience. It was a great chance to learn, and I’d taken it into my own approach as an author. I saw Ye doing something similar, at a much larger scale, recently so I wrote up a short blog post on what Ye was doing with the Stem Player to Twitter. I was shocked. 

The thread got over 5 million impressions. I got to share what fascinated me, and (hopefully!) get people thinking about how to connect directly with their fans. I’d written about the topic before, to little interest. Looking back, I sounded too much like professors writing the textbooks I’d never wanted to buy!

The best celebrities and creators don’t just merely make art; they create missions and causes, enable fans to participate, and eventually develop their movements into modern gospels. (Check out the Jedi census phenomenon.) Some of them can make billions of dollars with this influence

I believe while this trend has experienced limited traction in the formal higher education circle, the rise of platforms and cohort-based courses will make this really blow up. Some teachers will bring their own audiences, others will create courses tailored to a celebrity with a huge audience.

The celebrity is the start, and education is the goal. I love how associate professor Jeffrey McCune frames the focus: “The question isn’t ‘Why teach Kanye West. The question is, ‘What does Kanye teach us?’”

Similarly, biographer Robert Caro has always thought of his thousands of pages on Lyndon B. Johnson not as a story of a person, but as the story of a generation and specific time told through a person. In these courses, the celebrity is a magnet, vessel, and occasion to start asking bigger, more challenging, questions. The celebrity can also be a model to learn a specific skillset, like Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead or Monster Loyalty.

This is how all of us have been learning for years. We’re only starting to get more deliberate about it now.

P.S., On a related note, another weak signal: people learning how to run businesses through games. First example is Shopify allowing employees to expense Factorio, which has caught on at a startup named immi (see also the Factorio mindset). In 2015 I wrote a piece for Lifehacker about how board games improved my real life.

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