Researchers have extensively documented the effect of these [stylistic and non-verbal] signals on student evaluations, often contrasting the dominance of classroom “style” over content. One early and well-known investigation into these classroom dynamics used a charismatic, distinguished-looking, and mellifluous actor to play the role of a scholar named “Dr. Fox.”23 The experimenters created a meaningless lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education,” and coached Fox to deliver it “with an excessive use of double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements.”24 At the same time, the researchers encouraged Fox to adopt a lively demeanor, convey warmth toward his audience, and intersperse his nonsensical comments with humor. “In short,” as one of the investigators summarized, Dr. Fox “gave a very enjoyable lecture in which he offered little or nothing of substance.”25
Fox fooled not just one, but three separate audiences of professional and graduate students.26 Despite the emptiness of his lecture, fifty-five psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, graduate students, and other professionals produced evaluations of Dr. Fox that were overwhelmingly positive.27 In addition to awarding him strong numerical scores, audience members praised him for an “[e]xcellent presentation,” “warm manner,” “[g]ood flow,” “[l]ively examples,” “relaxed manner,” and “[g]ood analysis of subject.”28
Fox’s use of warm, enthusiastic, and lively nonverbal behaviors would have been admirable if it had complemented a substantive presentation. Most faculty use stylistic elements to engage student interest and motivate learning. The disturbing feature of the Dr. Fox study, as the experimenters noted, is that Fox’s nonverbal behaviors so completely masked a meaningless, jargon-filled, and confused presentation. If style can trump substance so easily, even in the minds of a trained, professional audience, then what role do nonverbal behaviors play in more routine student evaluations?