As the huge class of 900 students assembles in the Joseph Smith Building on the Brigham Young University campus, the instructor attaches his cordless microphone to his tie and calls up a student named Roger to be publicly humiliated by a letter from a "secret admirer" named Lisa.
With balloons in the background, Professor Frank Fox then reads the letter, stopping to emphasize key words. "I have long admired your incredible physique." Fox pauses, leans over to Roger and says, "the word incredible is underlined!"He continues. "Please do not reveal my identity or he will get me back in a bad way."
Without hesitation, Fox grabs another microphone and shoves it in front of Roger. "Here, Roger. Get her back in a bad way."
After about 10 minutes of such shenanigans, Frank Fox's highly popular but unorthodox American heritage class is under way. Taught in a cavernous, poorly lit auditorium, it is overflowing with eager, attentive students, several of whom sit on the floor.
Even though attendance is not taken, they come to class because they can't wait to see what Fox will do next.
He doesn't disappoint them.
Introducing the subject with the aid of transparencies on a huge screen, he explains very briefly the political-economic problem, involving such principles as scarcity and opportunity cost. He talks about them, noting, for instance, that every economic problem results from scarcity, and everyone has less purchasing power than he would like.
Then in a flash, he races up the aisle, all the while suggesting various down-to-earth examples of his theme, punctuated with one liners. About scarcity he says, "Not even Donald Trump can have it all!"
Talking about the students' choice to attend college, he explains opportunity cost.
"All of us want many things. To purchase one thing we must sacrifice the opportunity to buy others. When we buy things in a store, we give up money. But in a deeper sense we give up other things we could obtain with that money. The higher the price for any one thing, the more of others that must be sacrificed to get it, that is, the greater is its opportunity cost."
Then Fox adds, "You could be home watching Geraldo."
Using numerous figures, Fox applies the principle of opportunity cost to the course in American heritage, adding up among other things the cost of tuition, the American heritage book and the time given up to sit in the class - and concludes that the opportunity cost of the class amounts to $2,354,400 - the amount of money students have given up to take American heritage.
The students laugh. He tells them that the BYU administration laughs too when he uses that figure to ask for more money for the course.
But it's true.
Then he asks for volunteers from the audience and easily gets 40 hands but accepts only five. When they are up front Fox suddenly is transformed into a game show host and promises "giveaways" for three of the five people. Using the simplistic system of wing, wang, wo, he quickly eliminates two people.
"It's crummy that only three people get gifts - but LIFE is crummy!"
The remaining three get to choose among "The Far Side" by Gary Larson, a Hershey's Symphony candy bar ("12,000 calories and 500 zits") or a movie ticket. When a young woman picks "The Far Side," Fox berates her, saying that she most certainly would have "met some hunk at the movie" who would have changed her life.
The principle taught is scarcity.
Fox then shows a brief film on the big screen depicting in a humorous way the difficulty of getting a parking place. Afterward, he tells a story about a young man who races an elderly woman to a parking place and wins. She screams at him, saying, "You can't do that!" He says, "Oh yes I can - and the reason is that I'm young and I'm fast!" She proceeds to ram his car over and over again until it is destroyed. He says, "You can't do that!" "Oh, yes I can," she says. "I'm old and I'm rich!"
Then Fox races up the aisle again bearing a bag of dollar bills folded into the shape of paper airplanes. Like a TV host gone berserk, Fox hurls the airplanes into various corners of the audience. Students fall all over themselves in mostly futile efforts to get them. When Fox is safely back up front he asks demurely, "Who got the 50?" No hand goes up.
"People in the face of scarcity are not virtuous," says Fox.
The class is over and it seems like five minutes instead of 50. I grab several students to question them about it. Without exception they are effusive in their praise of this innovative professor.
"This class is a LOT of fun."
"One of the best teachers I have."
"Humor is his big weapon!"
No one seems to mind that the class is so big. Is it this entertaining every day?
"Absolutely," they all say.Frank Fox, a history professor, has taught this class since 1981, and when he started, he gave a conventional lecture at the podium. It was a disaster. Overnight, he says, the class became legendary for boredom. He ruled out television as a way to teach the course because students don't respond well to television. "You would think it would be different because we're a television generation. But it just doesn't work."
So he and Clayne Pope, an economics professor, decided to plan a course that would generate interest, using the most important facets of history, economics, sociology and government.
He skips over the fundamentals. "I assume that the students know the basics and I concentrate on interpretations."
On Mondays and Wednesdays he teaches 2,700 students in three classes, then has them break into 35-40 smaller labs on Fridays. The pace is breakneck as Fox uses role playing and other gimmicks to hold interest and teach principles."I try everything, including hijinks and clowning around - but I am determined to retain the scholarly content. Everybody can't do this. You have to be willing to fail. You need a flair for exhibitionism, and you always run the risk of media breakdowns."
You also have to be quick on your feet and have an abundance of the gift of gab.
Fox has no problem with either.
Occasionally, he "wings a lecture," just to try out new techniques, then quickly writes a post mortem in order to see in perspective the problems and advantages. But keeping up with such a fast-moving course involves heavy preparation and a staff of teaching assistants and media specialists.
Nevertheless, he enjoys it. "It's fun to teach." It will be even more fun next year when a new lecture building adjacent to the Joseph Smith Building is completed. The building will be equipped with every media tool conducive to Frank Fox's frenetic teaching style.
New building or not - flashy new equipment or not - one thing is certain. As long as Frank Fox teaches American heritage, the students will keep coming back.
Besides, Richard Dawson, Alex Trebek and Bob Barker do not have Ph.D.s.