Subliminal Authority

Teaching is an inevitably performative experience, so I’m often on the lookout for ways to make classroom presentations more compelling. But sometimes you learn that you have an insurmountable disadvantage–such as an American accent.

In the course of a podcast discussion of his book The Angry Island: Hunting the English, author A.A. Gill observed that a standard English accent is naturally compelling because of its clipped vowels and emphatic consonants. Americans, he suggests, tend to draw out their vowels, unconsciously revealing the emotional states that listeners can process as bias or uncertainty. Apparently vowels are far more expressive than consonants.

That observation reminds me of Rebecca Tushnet’s introduction in a draft of the article Gone in 60 Milliseconds: Trademark Law and Cognitive Science (86 Texas L. Rev.). Reporting on a psych study, she notes that “Students viewing a few seconds of a teacher with the sound turned off produce basically the same ratings of her effectiveness as students who have her for a full semester.”* Like medical or legal advice, teaching can be a bit of a “credence good,” one whose value a “consumer” may not be able to fully evaluate at the time it is received. More than a few students now tell me that administrative law was a pain while they were taking it, but they now find it essential to their practice.

P.S.: The podcast (and two years in England) gave me the impression that Gill’s book may cause quite a stir :

In 16 defiantly abrasive essays, Gill bristles with outrageous originality about cliched topics like England’s class system (‘unfair, cruel, and above all smug’); gardening (‘the great English cultural expression’); British accents (‘a never-ending source of subtle snobbery’); and kindness to animals (‘gives them an excuse to patronize, bully, and be psychologically spiteful to other people’). Elsewhere, he balances droll bombast with surprising outbursts of admiration for the British way.

*That evaluation point is based on Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which cites Nalini Anbady & Robert Rosenthal, Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluation from Thin Sices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness, 64 J. PERSONALITY & SOC. PSYCHOL. 431 (1993)).

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