Magazine article Times Higher Education

Everyday Revelations

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Everyday Revelations

Article excerpt

Shahidha Bari on the porous border between private and professional lives

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, 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. …

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