When keeping your cool counts

September 14, 2007

A generational overlap with her students has taken some careful handling, both in person and online, writes

Just another Friday night and a twentysomething binge drinker en route to a party bumps into someone they know, also out on the town. There is nothing unusual about that, although when the twentysomething is a lecturer and the person she bumps into is one of her students, drunken conversations are perhaps to be avoided.

Since becoming a lecturer a few years ago at the age of 26, I have been aware that I am not much older than my students, particularly the postgraduates. Of course, many lecturers face this reality with mature students, but that is usually with just one or two members of the class rather than most of them. As my contemporaries, my students have the same interests as me and hang out in the same places. In some instances, we have mutual acquaintances from school or our social lives, or they have studied for their first degree with one of my friends.

This is not the case all the time. Sometimes I am forcibly reminded what a difference a few years can make, such as in my first term of teaching when I asked a student what "grime" was, grime being the subject of a piece of work he had handed in. The student explained that it was a genre of music that combined garage, hip-hop and drum and bass with a special south-east London edge, and I assumed my students probably concluded I was as much of a grumpy old fart as any other lecturer.

The next week, however, he turned up with a flyer for a club night. "We decided you were cool enough to come and hear some grime for yourself," he said, inviting me along for a night out. I did what any hip young lecturer would do. I refused.

In the beginning, I tried to play down the fact that in different circumstances I might well have been a friend, particularly because I look younger than I am. I fudged the issue when I was asked my age. I always ate in the staff canteen even though the food in the student canteen was nicer. I wore my glasses when I didn't need to in order to appear older. This was despite the fact that if students Google-stalked me they would find huge amounts of information about me littered throughout the confessional articles I have written for newspapers and magazines, nearly all now archived on the web.

When invited out to the pub or to a student house party, I always said no, precisely because I would fit in so well. If I went to a party and behaved as I would at any other party - that is to say, badly - then I felt I would not be able to teach my students or mark their work with confidence.

This was particularly hard as one of the lectures I give is on how life as a freelance journalist works, with an emphasis on networking and being sociable, and how everybody you meet is a potential contact.

However, as my confidence at teaching has grown, my need to avoid being friends with my students has lessened. This confidence has coincided with the rising popularity of social networking websites such as Facebook.

When the first request to be "friends" with someone I taught appeared in my inbox, I was hesitant. People who are your "friends" on Facebook have access to a huge catalogue of information about you. Not only can they see who your other friends are but they can also look at photographs and read communal messages.

If a student wished to find out who I was dating, what I looked like when drunk or how my friends regarded me, they had only to poke about a bit on my Facebook page. But I felt rude declining friendship requests, and I didn't want to curtail my use of the site. So, with trepidation, I accepted.

I now have former and current students as my friends on Facebook. I do not solicit their friendship, but when they solicit mine I do not decline it either.

So when I bumped into a student while out on the town the other night and, in response to her questions, drunkenly blathered on about the party I was going to, what I had been drinking and how I hoped the night would pan out, I didn't worry as much as I did the first time an offer of friendship was extended by someone from one of my classes.

My students, I have come to learn, seem to enjoy knowing I have a life and that it is not too different from their own. Nevertheless, I am rather pleased that it was towards the beginning of the night that the student met me and not at 2am as I stumbled home, not exactly alone.

Ellie Levenson is a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a freelance journalist.

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