Working as a fellow, one of the most striking things I have seen while working with students is not the verbal material they present, but rather their non-verbal communication and body language. Many times students huddle together behind the lectern, which I have dubbed their “Fortress of Solitude.” Most of those who have a speaking role at given time do so while contracting within themselves, as if they would love nothing better than to dig a hole to hide themselves from the critical eye of the instructor and the rest of the class. I certainly understand that feeling and remember it from days long past as an undergraduate student myself. The question then is never why, but how to fix this. After all, as a fellow, that is my mandate. Given that my training is more in the social psychology side of academia, my solutions have naturally been drawn from that field. More specifically, drawn from Wonder Woman and the research of Dr. Amy Cuddy.
Dr. Cuddy’s research is focused upon how our body language can influence how we feel about ourselves. Developing a “high power” pose can increase testosterone production, which promotes confidence, and inhibit cortisol, which in turn inhibits stress. What is a “high power” pose? According to Dr. Cuddy’s research, most expansive types of body language would be high power poses. Leaning back in your chair with your feet propped up and hands behind your head; leaning forward onto the table with both hands planted on the table surface. Or the one the media has loved most and since labeled the “Wonder Woman” pose: feet apart and planted, hands at your waist, shoulders thrown back and head held high.
Of course, statistically significant peer reviewed research can at times be a hard sell to students. My constant instruction on the useful properties of the Wonder Woman Pose has tended to result in nervous giggles, some of the students perhaps wondering if their fellow has come with a few screws loose. Cue hilarious laughter when I actually adapt the Wonder Woman Pose in class, tossing my head back in a mock gesture to shake back a luscious head of hair. Although I wonder if making it a “Superman Pose” would be any more effective, my adherence to the Edna Mode “No capes!” school of cutting edge superhero fashion would greatly diminish the effect. After all, what would Superman be without his flowing red cape? Batman would hardly be better. Have you heard the guy? The man rarely talks, and when he does he does not enunciate! That and Batman slouches slightly within the dark recesses of his cape. Maybe I could ask them to channel Roy Scheider and shout “It’s showtime, folks!” into the mirror…
In the end, superheroes being of no help, I can only reinforce the message to my students much like how a high school football coach would psych up the team: “Don’t withdraw into yourselves! Walk into your presentation with your back straight, shoulders back, and head held high! You know the material! They don’t!”