A few years ago, at the end of a particularly elaborate lecture on existential philosophy, painstakingly fashioned and replete (I flatter myself) with wry observations, charming French puns, and obligatory popular culture references, an enthusiastic student bounded down the theatre, her eyes clearly gleaming with the weight of great intellectual enquiry, to ask me where I had bought my earrings. They were, she reassured me, “really nice”, and she’d seen them on sale in a high street store. I smiled wanly, trying to maintain an aura of mystique, before stuffing my notes in my rucksack and glumly picking my way through the detritus of sadly abandoned handouts and crumpled coffee cups.
There are many ways (too numerous to mention, frankly) in which the life of a university lecturer resembles that of an Oscar nominee. Like them, many of us are also plagued by the anxiety not to be caught out wearing the same outfit as someone else at an international awards ceremony/sparsely attended second-year lecture. Just like Rita Ora and Kim Kardashian, who duked it out over who wore lurid pink latex best at a London nightclub a few weeks ago, I too live in fear of having to come to metaphorical blows over Topshop’s new draped chiffon blouse worn by me and the wretchedly stylish girl in the fifth row on the left. To be fair, these days this happens with increasing infrequency, since my collection of ink-blotted, artfully bobbled knitwear is now older than most of the students I teach. But the point remains: the line between our strictly professional and private lives is perhaps thinner than we might think.
Our students know many things about us that we may or may not have chosen to disclose, like where we live, the children we have or don’t have, the newspapers we read
Our students know many things about us that we may or may not have chosen to disclose, not just where we buy our clothes, but things like where we live, the children we have or don’t have, our excessive proclivities for tea or cigarettes, our tendencies for lateness or moodiness, the newspapers we read, the programmes we watch, our abilities to cut our hair or fingernails in due course, or our willingness to forgo attention to such niceties. Some of this knowledge is probably gleaned from a cunning mixture of osmosis, internet search engines and Ouija boards. Much of it, though, is the stuff born of the natural circumstances of teaching and the curious intimacy-without-intimacy that evolves over the course of a course. This is the idea of teaching as a sharing of minds, conversations and spaces. Perhaps unsurprising, then, that from that experience students seem able to guess at more private things too: our religious beliefs, our party politics, even our sexualities. In my experience, almost all of them have an unerring grasp of our abilities to safely transport coffee from cup to mouth without spillage (in my case, not very well at all).
Perhaps we might airily dismiss the “revelatory” content of such details, and in our plugged-in socially mediated world it may be our own fault if we don’t secure our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages with due diligence. But we cannot police or edit the horror of happenstance, and most of us have had that faintly unsettling experience of being caught out in the real world, off duty and unawares, by the people we teach or work with, in the most unedifying or ordinary of circumstances. These moments strike me as rather curious for a number of reasons, not least because they betray something about the ways in which we “perform” or try to act our part at work with a dignity, confidence and grace that is not always available to us in all other aspects of our lives. You bump into someone you faintly recognise while queuing in a supermarket and try to look nonchalant about the Pink Panther strawberry wafers merrily bobbing around in your shopping basket, atop a mountain of nude tights, ethically sourced tuna and lactose-free milk. You scramble to restore some veneer of quiet authority but in that moment you also recognise that authority as only ever a veneer.
So much of our academic life is preoccupied with the appearance of judiciousness. It’s not that the gas bill you’ve left in the book that you’ve lent your graduate student, or that the baby sick you’ve managed to smear across the essay you have to return, somehow reveals a lack of judiciousness. Rather, in both of those cases a line has been crossed in a way that tells you that such lines exist, that the professional demands a distance from the personal and it’s not always easy to keep them apart, even when we are trying.
The most serious drawing of that line is, of course, in the specifications of staff-student relationships, and the various guidelines that are (and in many, worrying, cases, are not) formalised as institutional policy, defining the borderlands of harassment and abuses of power. In part, the qualities we might try to trade in (formality, authority, judiciousness) are an attempt to shore up the differences between us. At the same time, it seems impossible to teach without giving away the details of our lives, banal and profound, both willingly and unconsciously. Sometimes it is the most private of experiences that seem to inform our most important teaching moments, things that might be impossible to articulate but that linger under the surface of everything we say. And the ways in which our lives brush against each other can be as delightful as they are problematic. An academic friend recently mused: “Would you count it as awkward if your students discovered they lived right opposite you and then hung a banner out of their windows, projecting ‘Good Morning Gerald!’ across the street? It’s been there about a week now, though it’s lost its shape in the wind.” Perhaps we should all just invest in some decent blinds.