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The Daily Tar Heel

Meet the UNC law professor who went viral for bringing a doll to his empty lecture

"’s a feel-good story in a feel-bad time."

John Orth
Professor John Orth of the UNC School of Law went viral on Twitter after teaching a video class to an empty room with a doll in the front row. Photo courtesy UNC School of Law.

UNC law professor John Orth decided to use pre-recorded lectures to finish out his law classes remotely for the rest of the semester — and he brought along some company. 

In the front row of the empty lecture hall in Orth's video lecture, a small Pinocchio doll sat upright, appearing to listen attentively. Montana Vaughn, a student at UNC’s School of Law, posted a still frame of the lecture on Twitter. 

More than 1.2 million likes and 185,000 retweets later, Orth has been interviewed internationally by publications such as New York Magazine and The Daily Mail about his small lecture audience — and he's a bit stunned by all the attention.

“It’s a little embarrassing," Orth said. "It’s just doing my job. It’s really undeserved. All I was doing was teaching my class. If it hadn’t been for Pinocchio, it wouldn’t have developed this way.” 

The Daily Tar Heel reporter Anthony Howard spoke with Orth about why he brought the doll to class, what his transition to online class has been like and what it's like to become internet famous. This interview has been edited for content and clarity. 

DTH: Why did you bring the doll with you for your online lecture video? 

John Orth:  When spring break was suddenly extended, I used those five days of the extra spring break to record as many lectures as I could on video. And the first one, I said, "I'm going to be talking to an empty room." So, I brought along this little doll, which my late wife had in her collection, and set it up on the table, and for some reason that really caught the students' attention. And that's how it all began. 

One of them then sent out that tweet, or message, which seems to have gone around the world. I've gotten messages from all over the world.

DTH: Why bring the doll with you? Was it meant to be a joke? Were you trying to have some company?

JO:  Well, it's a little of both. I mean, I've given many video lectures, or review lectures ... There’s always been at least somebody in the room and even though they're recorded and distributed, this would be the first time I’m just going to walk into a totally empty room. I've never been a radio announcer, but this must be what they do. They're just talking to a microphone...

It’s nice to have a little thing sitting there ... Students have remarked that they're nervous about this switch to remote learning and it was an icebreaker ... It seems to have made the transition a lot easier. 

DTH: Have you ever been known to bring dolls into your classroom before? 

JO: No, I am known in the property transfer for bringing in exhibits and copies of documents ... When I first learned that I was going to be doing lectures to an empty room, I said to one of my kids, "I feel like I should take a teddy bear in there." I didn't have a teddy bear and the only doll in my wife's extensive doll collection that was heavily appropriate was a little Pinocchio doll. And it sort of works. 

I make a joke to the students: I say, ‘Look, he says he's understanding everything,' but I look at his nose and I can't tell if it's getting longer or not. And you know, I can't see their noses. And they should send me questions, which they do. And I answer remotely.

DTH: What advice would you give students at this time of online and remote learning?

JO: I have said that my hope is that this means we should actually focus on the main event here, which is learning and not grading. I would like for the first time in my 40-odd years of teaching to be thought of as primarily as an educator and not primarily as an examiner ... If we can relax and just focus on learning, which we're all supposed to be about anyway, I think it would be a healthier environment ... Law students tend to obsess about grades, which has always been unfortunate ... For right now, they should be able to relax. 

DTH: You said you were embarrassed to receive all this attention. Why is that?

JO: I’m just doing my job and giving my lectures. That's what I've done. For all the years I've been here, and this one class goes viral, and apparently more than a million people have seen that image. 

It’s very nice. But it's not, except for the doll, different than what I've been doing. Everybody who's struggling to try to keep the educational wheels turning is deserving of the same sort of attention ... The only reason that you might want to write this up is because it’s a feel-good story in a feel-bad time. 

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