In this episode of the Western Wayne News podcast, Kate talks with Max Paule, associate professor of ancient and classical studies at Earlham College and self-described “elder millennial desperately just trying to keep up.” Max discusses how he and his wife came to call Wayne County home, how his viral TikTok channel first started and evolved into an educational tool, and how connecting with his students to find out what’s meaningful and relevant to them is at the core of his approach to teaching. Enjoy!
Kate Jetmore: My guest today is Max Paule. By day, he teaches a wide range of courses in the classics department at Earlham College, but off the clock, he has an impressive TikTok following where you can hear him talking about Ancient Greece and Rome or what it’s like to be a professor. And he’s a self-described big old nerd. On that note, Max, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining me today.
Max Paule: Absolutely.
Kate Jetmore: Wonderful. Well, you do get the distinction I have to inform you of being the very first Earlhamite on the Western Wayne News Podcast. So welcome.
Max Paule: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.
Kate Jetmore: What is it about Earlham, speaking about Earlham and Earlhamites, what is it about Earlham and the Earlham community that’s kept you in Richmond for more than a decade now?
Max Paule: Yeah, it’s kind of delightful, right? It is this gem of a community buried in Richmond, and you might not expect to find such a welcoming, positive, diverse group of folks here. But yeah, it is a true delight to be here. It is the people that have kept us here. So my spouse, Sara, and I both work at Earlham, and it’s very much this delightful, blossoming community of like-minded folks. I can’t go to the farmer’s market without running into a number of Earlhamites. You get to see them, and we’ve been here long enough that you get to watch their kids grow up. So it’s not just like coworkers. This really is a community of friends and colleagues. It’s great.
Kate Jetmore: And what about the community of Earlham within the community of Richmond? You just mentioned the farmer’s market, for example, which is something that’s part of the Richmond community. It’s outside of the Earlham campus.
Max Paule: Absolutely.
Kate Jetmore: What are some of the other things in the community of Richmond that make being at Earlham such a joy?
Max Paule: Sure. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my second office, Roscoe’s Coffee Shop. Yeah, 100%. Roscoe’s Coffee Bar and Tap Room is one of my favorite places in the entire town. Both for its just very chill vibes. It’s a great place to just sit and do work. I will also run into, again, I don’t think I have been in there and not seen someone from Earlham, which is both a pro and a con. But there’s just, they run a really great place where you can get a wide selection of delicious coffee, but also craft beer if you feel like day drinking and doing class prep, which I would never do, never. There’s also… oh, I wish I could remember the name. There’s this new retro arcade, which is-
Kate Jetmore: Oh, yeah. Kind of around 9th Street or 8th Street, something like that.
Max Paule: Yes, absolutely. Tucked away, unfortunately, easy to miss because it’s really cool someone has just decided to stock a basement full of old arcade games, but also sell pizza by the slice.
Kate Jetmore: Brilliant.
Max Paule: It’s great. I feel like if I were 17, I would never leave.
Kate Jetmore: It sounds like there’s a little bit of danger there now, even though you’re not 17 anymore.
Max Paule: Maybe just a little bit. Yeah, yeah. So those spots are awesome. Also the Richmond Civic Theater. There’s so many cool places around town. Yeah, it’s a surprising delight.
Kate Jetmore: Why do you think Richmond and Earlham are such well-kept secrets?
Max Paule: That’s a really good question. So I went to graduate school two hours away in Columbus, and I did not know about Earlham. I also went to a small liberal arts college also in Ohio, and didn’t know about Earlham. Until I started looking for jobs, and I was like, “Ooh, this is fun.”
I wish I knew better, sort of water cooler talk is that for a while, Earlham had not been great about self-promotion out of a sense of sort of humbleness and not wanting to brag, but I think we should, right? There are a lot of great things going on here, and there’s nothing wrong with sharing those accomplishments with the broader world.
Likewise, Richmond, I’m not sure why more folks don’t know about it. I will say for a while, my spouse and I ran an Airbnb out of our house. We’ve got a spare bedroom and great, folks want to stay here, essentially chump change to stay the evening, because just a spare bed and bath. But we would get lots of people coming through who were road trippers. So if you’re going between Columbus and Indianapolis on 70, there’s basically nothing except for Richmond. And so people would stop and then they’re like, “This is kind of a cool town.” We’re like, “Yeah, it is kind of a cool town.” We are more than just a stop between Dayton and Indy. Have a look. Yeah, absolutely.
Kate Jetmore: Interesting. You used the word humble. I wonder if you could even slot in the word Quaker there. Do you think some of it is the Quakerness?
Max Paule: I mean, yes, 100%. Yes, without a doubt. Yes. Those sort of Quaker ethics of not self-promoting.
Kate Jetmore: Not bragging.
Max Paule: Yeah. Very much got in our way, unfortunately. It is great to be humble, but it can be a detriment if it prevents people from knowing you exist.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah. Well, it sounds like both Richmond and Earlham are taking steps in the right direction when it comes to getting the word out. I love your voice, I have to say.
Max Paule: Thank you.
Kate Jetmore: I think this will be a great segue to talking about your platform on TikTok.
Max Paule: Oh, sure.
Kate Jetmore: Obviously TikTok is both audio and video, but oh my gosh, you have such a great voice. I’m excited. I want to talk about TikTok. It’s not a platform that I’m super familiar with, but I do have to admit that it seems a surprising fit to me. Taking your knowledge about antiquity, about ancient history, the Greeks and the Romans, and putting it out there in bite-size pieces on TikTok. So how did you get started with that?
Max Paule: So my students told me, they’re like, “Max, you got to get on TikTok.” They know that I have been sort of involved in social media. I am an elder millennial, so I’ve grown up being on the internet. So social media is not a new thing to me, and I’ve pivoted from platform to platform as things have grown, thrived, and died, like the cycle of the internet.
And they’re like, “You should look at TikTok.” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” Eventually I got an account and started looking at things, and I think a lot of folks weren’t aware of the platform were like, is this just teens dancing? Why? What is this? And that is a gross misunderstanding of the platform. It is essentially 60 second video clips, obviously one can go longer. But yeah, videos of about a minute of anything, whatever you want to do. And there was a sort of growing area for education. One of the pioneers here, I really have to leave this to Hank and John Green, the vlog brothers who were a pair of brothers who really sort of pioneered education video stuff on YouTube. Once they got on TikTok, the gates were open for other educators to come in and start doing their thing.
Kate Jetmore: And when did you come in and start doing your thing?
Max Paule: This would’ve been just, I want to say 2020.
Kate Jetmore: Okay.
Max Paule: Maybe it was late 2019. I cannot quite remember when. Yeah, definitely, things started taking off before the pandemic. So this would’ve been early 2020, I want to say January, 2020.
Kate Jetmore: Okay. And was part of your success, shall we say, the lockdown? Did you suddenly start finding yourself with, I don’t know, extra time, extra creative energy that you needed to channel into something?
Max Paule: It certainly helped, but I don’t think that was it. And this is not to brag, but things like my videos were surprisingly successful. Early on. I remember I made just sort of a throwaway video about a rather risque statue, and it got something like 300,000 views, and I was like, what is happening? It was a fine video, but to my mind it was like, I don’t understand why this has such traction, but all right, here we are.
Kate Jetmore: Wow. It’s really fascinating. You’ve just shared with us your reaction to those 300,000 views. Have you sort of unlocked the mystery yet? Have you discovered why? What is it people are finding when they come on your channel?
Max Paule: So there’s a broad variety of things. Generally, if folks want to hear a 39-year-old white guy talk about classics, they’re already nerds. So they’re here, they want to learn more about Greek and Roman antiquity. Awesome. I do try to be aware of my audience. I try to be aware of how much time they’ve got. So I’ve got plenty of amazing colleagues, both at Earlham and the broader field that would not be as successful in this work, simply because it’s very hard to take knowledge about a thing and just boil it down into the kernel. A lot of my colleagues flourish in 20 to 40 minute lectures. They’ll keep you wrapped for that long, but there’s buildup, there’s give and take. It’s just a different genre, and that style of presentation doesn’t work as well in one to three minute clips.
Kate Jetmore: Right. It sounds like what you’re describing is an awareness, that you’re aware of what the platform is, what the platform has to offer, and what it doesn’t, what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.
Max Paule: Yeah. Which can be really limiting. There’s only so much nuance you can go into on a topic, which means there’s some things that you can’t really get into, or you’ll do a follow-up video. But inevitably, the sequel is never as good. And so you might have a thing and people are getting the wrong impression on your first video, and you’re like, “Ooh, I should really clarify this.” And then the clarification video, no one pays attention to. I see how that works.
It’s sort of letters to the editor or something like that.
Yeah, absolutely. No one reads the corrigenda and addenda. It just doesn’t happen.
Kate Jetmore: Well, as I was preparing to speak to you today, I came across a quote of yours online. Don’t mean to scare you, it’s not going to be scary. But I came across a quote of yours, and it reads, “What a writer says about the ancient world generally tells us more about the writer than about antiquity.” And what I’d like to ask you today is what do you think your choice of TikTok as a platform can tell us about you?
Max Paule: Sure, yeah. What an insightful quotation. Up top, I think it tells you that I am an elder millennial, desperately just trying to keep up, right? That’s the immediate takeaways, like, oh, okay, all right, you’re trying to do a thing that youths are also engaged with, which is absolutely true. In the early 2012s, 2013, I ran a Tumblr account, largely so Earlham could be advertising to high schoolers, so you could know what was going on at the Earlham College Classics Department, via social media. And as people have shifted away from Tumblr and moved to TikTok, I’m like, okay, great. This is where people are. If we want folks to know about us, this is what we got to do. If we’re looking at sort of why specifically TikTok as opposed to Instagram or whatnot, I really, really value the democratization that TikTok offers. Were you at all familiar with Vine by any chance?
Kate Jetmore: Kind of. I never used Vine, but it was always something that younger people were doing. Sounds like what you’re saying.
Max Paule: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I never produced content for Vine, but I consumed a reasonable amount of it. These are six second videos. Six second videos. But you could see all sorts of different groups using these things that enabled a visibility and gave voices to folks who are typically not presented in film and media, which tends to be, again, largely cis-het white guys. So TikTok, again, really sort of hands a camera and a mic to so many people that have not traditionally been represented and is giving them quite large platforms. So yeah, it is beautiful to see, and I’m happy to be a part of that, even if it is a very small part of it.
Kate Jetmore: So is what you’re saying that you’re interested in supporting a platform that does give voice to a more diverse group of people?
Max Paule: Yeah. Absolutely. One of the delightful things that the app will let you do is share content from other creators and sort of amplify their traffic, which is a thing I do try to do if I come across other folks whose platforms might not be as large, like great, cool, let me direct you to this thing. It is also sort of the flip side of that is that one of my main missions, in addition to education, is also the combat of misinformation. And boy howdy, there’s a lot of misinformation on TikTok because when you’re dealing with such small videos, 60 to 90 seconds, as I said, not a ton of nuance. And so there’s a lot of accounts out there that will, if not explicitly lie, like maybe massage the truth or sensationalize things and give people really the wrong impression about things and or actively mislead them about things. So a not insignificant amount of my work is trying to counter that.
Kate Jetmore: Tell me more about that. Because it sounds like you’re making an observation about the platform and how it’s sometimes used, but you’re also saying that you make an effort to lean back against that. So how do you do that?
Max Paule: Yeah, so you asked earlier, “Have you cracked the code of how to go viral or what have you?” Obviously, no, there is no formula for that. Being very, very attractive always helps, but that’s not a guarantee, and that ship has sailed, alas. But it is clear that if you are sensational and you want to say, let’s talk about the true location of Atlantis, or did you know the Gladiator sweat was collected and sold as an aphrodisiac to Roman women? Great, I’m in. I’m hooked. There’s no truth behind either of those things, but people will listen, people will click. Conspiracy theories do remarkably well. So then you find yourself as an educator and you’re like, I just saw a video with 3 million views claiming that aliens had to have built the pyramids because there’s no way that copper tools can cut in a straight line. And you’re like, okay, all right. It’s time to talk about what kind of tools were available when and what can they do with rock form. Okay. So it’s where you go.
Kate Jetmore: Well, you just referenced TikTok as a tool and you just referred to yourself as an educator. What can we expect to see as the 21st century unfolds when it comes to TikTok, social media, new technologies?
Max Paule: It’s a really good question. Part of it honestly depends on the United States government because every couple months or so, there’s anxiety about it being a Chinese company that might be spying on everyone. And so people are like, “We’re going to lock it down.” So that could shut it down very quickly. We’ll sidestep all of that and just say, if it continues to exist, I think there is room for it to be used in the classroom, but people would have to work very hard to present curated content for their students. I don’t think this is going to be replacing textbooks or YouTube. If you want instructional content, I would not use TikTok for that. I would go to YouTube personally, and I say this as someone who does not produce content for YouTube.
Kate Jetmore: But it sounds like what you’re saying is that you have your role as a professor at a respected university, and you know what you do in the classroom, and then you’ve got this platform on TikTok, and you’re following on TikTok. They’re two different things.
Max Paule: Yes. They are. It is meant for students to find. Absolutely, and I have definitely told students that if they want to take their final project and convert it into a TikTok style presentation, great, that’s a really useful way of learning how to present information differently. But I don’t foresee a lot of my colleagues saying, “Yeah, absolutely. Let’s use TikTok as a way to share our research with the broader public.” I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Kate Jetmore: But what you just said I think is also telling and very interesting, which is being open to your students using this structure for their final project.
Max Paule: 100%.
Kate Jetmore: I don’t think whether it be because of the mindset in higher education or because of what technologies were available, I don’t think that was happening 10, 15 years ago. Was it?
Max Paule: I’m certainly not on TikTok. I think we’ve had folks offer the opportunity to make video projects, certainly. I also suspect that many of my colleagues might not appreciate how hard a video project is. If you have not actively worked on framing shots, editing, sound, light. There’s so many things that can go wrong, and it’s so easy to make bad video content that I think video projects have long been far more difficult than we’ve given them credit for. Whenever I tell students that they can do this, I’m like, “This is not easy. It’s a lot easier just to write a 10 page paper, man.” It’s just you and a screen. That’s it.
Kate Jetmore: Exactly. Exactly. I am really interested in what you have to say about this and how you’re approaching it as a professor, as an educator, because it sounds like what you’re saying is that you’re open to possibilities. You’re open to how things are evolving in the technical sphere, in the classroom. You’ve also referenced a couple times, I mean, to me, you’re young and you’re talking about how your students are young, right? It’s all relative.
Max Paule: Yes.
Kate Jetmore: So it sounds like you’re willing to listen to your students and say, well, what would work for you? Is that true?
Max Paule: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is vitally important for me that I stay, if not on top of at least aware of what’s sort of culturally relevant to them.
Kate Jetmore: Why is that important to you?
Max Paule: If you’re no longer able to connect with things that students care about, it’s just so much harder for them to care about the material you’re presenting to them. For example, I imagine we have all been in conversations in class or not, where someone references the Lone Ranger and you’re like, “Oh, okay, the Cavendish gang. Yeah, that metaphor really didn’t land for me.” And you’re like, cool. That might’ve been a moment for connection, but at this point you’ve just, that was off the air before I was alive. And the only thing that attempt at metaphor did was distance us.
Kate Jetmore: That’s right.
Max Paule: So it is necessary for me if I’m going to engage with students to be able to say, “Okay, great. I at least know of the things you are aware of.” I can’t just keep rehashing the vital points from my youth and expecting that they’re going to follow along.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I also hear a great measure of respect there.
Max Paule: Oh, of course.
Kate Jetmore: That you really respect your students, and it sounds like there’s a mutual respect there.
Max Paule: I hope so. I certainly respect them, and they generally seem to respect me as much as one does their professors. Yeah. Yeah.
Kate Jetmore: Well said. Well, Max, I want to thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed getting to know you and getting to know more about what you do, and I want to wish you and your family all the best.
Max Paule: Thank you so much.