Physics lecturer turned popular TikTok star is leaving USC

Chris Sutherland became a recognizable USC figure following his social media stardom. But he’s stepping away from traditional academia, calling it “fatally flawed.”

A photo of Professor Chris Sutherland in his signature plum shirt.

Back in October 2020, USC physics lecturer Chris Sutherland published a TikTok of him acting as a sad-looking student and then as a professor returning the student’s failed test while dancing and looking straight at the camera. The TikTok got over 12 million views and 3.4 million likes.

“I thought the dancing would make them feel better,” wrote Sutherland in the comments.

The first time Sutherland went viral looked nothing like that.

It was the Spring 2020 semester. The third TikTok he ever uploaded received over 100,000 views, but that was just the beginning of his TikTok fame. The video received over 1,000 positive comments, and he spent eight straight hours responding to every single one.

“I thought it was kind of crazy,” Sutherland told Annenberg Media. “Once I saw that I was like, ‘Okay, I should keep doing this.’”

Today, Sutherland said he can no longer respond to all his comments. His account has become widely viewed on TikTok, with over 2.1 million followers, to the point where he even gets recognized at In-N-Out Burger.

Although Sutherland draws most of his content from working as a physics lecturer, his jokes resonate with all kinds of students.

On TikTok, Sutherland jokes about insensitive and apathetic professors. His short videos are widely shared and commented on for being relatable and for bringing laughter to a stressful yet common situation, which people find ironic given that he is a college educator satirizing other professors.

“Just graded the tests... did y’all even try?” he asked in a TikTok. In the same video, he added, “Guess who’s not going to medical school?”

Complete with memes and video effects, Sutherland wears his classic plum shirt in almost all of his videos, turning the piece of clothing into his staple.

Sutherland quips about college in general, from the high cost of tuition to the response of universities to the pandemic. Many of the comments on his videos are of students reacting to his humor.

Sutherland has become a popular faculty member at USC. But despite his popularity at the university, Sutherland’s days of lecturing at USC are over, as he will be leaving at the end of the Spring 2021 semester, according to a post he published in February.

Originally from Canada, Sutherland received his Ph.D. in physics from USC in 2018 and started lecturing the same year. Besides TikTok, Sutherland has a following on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. His popularity on TikTok also has made him the subject of several fan accounts.

Sutherland said he decided to be active on social media as a way to make his students’ experience better by being more communicative and relatable.

“Its main usefulness is to let students know that they’re not alone in their struggles with whatever they’re going through,” Sutherland said. “When I post a video, it’s clear from all the comments on it that this is a universal experience. And I think that’s comforting,” he said, referring to the stress college students often feel.

On TikTok, Sutherland also plays a professor that is a student’s worst nightmare: making fun of them, ignoring their questions and struggles and being generally cold. But in reality, he is a very different educator.

Bradley Martin, a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering, registered for his class last fall without realizing Sutherland had such a big social media presence. Now he knows and enjoys both TikTok Chris Sutherland and lecturer Chris Sutherland.

“He’s honestly what you would expect. He’s funny, he cares about us,” Martin said. “The guy’s really smart. And he knows how to get stuff done.”

On TikTok, users in his comment section often joke about Sutherland facing disciplinary action from the university administration because of his content.

At USC, though, students were enthused to take his classes, Physics for Architects and Physics for the Life Sciences. According to Sutherland, prior to registration, the physics department would sometimes get overwhelmed with questions about what classes he would be teaching.

Regardless of his popularity and comedy on TikTok, his classes were mostly uninterrupted by social media and focused on physics.

“I don’t really feel like it affects the class at the lecture part that much. I mean, he’s pretty focused about teaching us physics,” said Kayla Samimi, a junior majoring in global health, who took two of Sutherland’s classes in 2020.

Samimi said that the class would have small breaks where Sutherland would share something about a TikTok to take a break from the demanding concepts.

“It’s really hard to just [sit through a] straight lecture, especially physics, which is just straight math and problem-solving. So it’s actually been a really good addition,” Samimi said.

According to Samimi, it was a regular college class with midterms, homework and finals.

Sutherland said he believes his social media presence allowed students to feel comfortable around him and talk to him more freely.

“I can tell by some of the things they will feel comfortable saying in the chat or to me,” Sutherland said. “I know they wouldn’t be saying those types of things to another professor. But I like that. That’s good.”

According to Sutherland, he was able to better track students’ understanding of the course material because students felt comfortable approaching him. With the aid it provided in his classroom aside, Sutherland said he loves TikTok.

“I feel like it really vibes with my personality,” Sutherland said. “It’s so funny. I can’t get over it sometimes.”

Internet culture has been an important part of his life since he was 10 years old, and he always looked for something to make him laugh. While the great majority of his comments and followers are friendly, he said TikTok does have its share of problems, particularly with how the algorithm presents its content.

“It’s kind of true for all social media these days, where you can just kind of sit within your own comfortable bubble and not have to be exposed to opinions you don’t like or content that might make you think,” Sutherland said.

But despite his social media presence, he has always had a focus on teaching. His favorite part of teaching is when he knows he has made a positive impact on his students.

“I get this email quite a bit. It’s like, ‘I always hated physics. I never thought I was good at it.’ Or even them feeling put down by other STEM professors,” Sutherland said. “I love them. I love hearing that I made an impact in that way.”

In his post where he announced his resignation from USC, Sutherland wrote, “watching a student go from not believing in themselves, failing a midterm, to getting an A on an exam is the most rewarding feeling I’ve ever experienced.”

Although he loves teaching, he does not love the educational system. Specifically, Sutherland feels a sense of antipathy about the high cost of tuition.

“I sometimes feel like a criminal with how high tuition is,” Sutherland said. “I feel like one of the reasons students stress so much about college is you might be going [into] like lifelong debt, and then you’re failing a course. Yeah, that’s stressful.”

The last thing Sutherland wants to give students is additional stress, and he has been known for being lenient when teaching a course. Once, he said he got reprimanded by the chair of his department for giving a “generous” curve in a midterm.

“If it was my ideal, I would just have two grades-- lower grade and higher grade,” said Sutherland. “You either get an A- or an A.”

With those frustrations, he said he tried to provide relief to his students.

“I’m not always perfect, but I’m doing my best to try and make a good experience and to be a positive impact on you [students], on your life,” Sutherland said in an interview.

Almost 10 years ago, Sutherland set a goal of becoming a professor. Now, despite his dedication to his students, he said his days in academia are over.

“In my view, the educational system as it stands is fatally flawed,” Sutherland wrote on his Substack page in February.

But his days of teaching are not over as he is moving to online learning. In that same post, Sutherland announced his new course “Intro to Cryptocurrencies - Crypto 101,” an online course that he will first offer in a beta form, as part of a learning community.

He has also committed to creating more educational content on Youtube and TikTok, indicating a non-traditional approach to education dedicated to accessible learning.

“I am ‘voting with my feet’ and leaving to be part of something that I hope is the beginning of something much better,” wrote Sutherland.