Every year without fail, while I was working in the normal university sector, I had a nightmare round about now, in the last weeks before a new academic year began.
It would go like this. It’s the first day of term. I arrive at the university campus and head for my office. But it’s not there. The corridor stops before my office door. Or the corridor is just entirely different – wood panels instead of plaster, and shaped differently. Or the entire building has disappeared. Or, in one wonderful variant, the campus is now a pile of rubble but my office stands up in splendid isolation in this derelict scene. Or my office exists, but it now has no walls; it’s open-plan with one or more other offices. My walls and bookshelves have vanished. I’m forced to share with someone I’ve never even met.
Once, this office nightmare became close to reality. I returned to find that the work being carried out (to move my office door slightly in order to have a new fire door in the corridor) had been done, but all my books were piled up randomly around every possible surface and covered in dust. It was my office – but it wasn’t. This was what it looked like…
In other variations (I’ve been in this game for a long time!) the scene shifted to the first class of term. I would head for the room I’d been timetabled to teach in, but I couldn’t find it. My watch showed the lecture was due to begin but I COULDN’T FIND THE ROOM!!! Or I could find it, but the group in it wasn’t the one I was supposed to be teaching.
The nearest I came to this one in reality was when I found the room, and it was rather small (it seemed to have been assigned on the basis that at least 10% of the class could be relied upon to be off sick). I started the class (lecture 1 of Gender in Antiquity) and it was all fine until the door opened and in walked another lecturer from another department with his class. ‘Er, where do you think you’re going?’ I asked. ‘This is my room!’
‘No it isn’t, it’s mine’.
‘I have the printout here – it’s definitely mine.’
‘No it isn’t. It’s mine. You have to leave now.’
‘Why don’t you go back to your department and check? Or find another room? I’ve already started teaching this group.’
‘No, it’s my room. You leave.’
‘No.’ Pause: my students are exuding vibes supporting me in staying put.
He clearly isn’t used to being challenged. He changes tack. ‘What’s your problem?’ he snarls. ‘Time of the month?’
Indrawn breath. Disbelief. I’ve met what an article in the Guardian recently called the Menstruhater! ‘That’s unlikely,’ I hear myself saying. ‘I no longer have a womb. What’s your problem? Small penis?’
He is horrified. I wonder if I’ve gone too far – but he started it. His eyes shoot fire. ‘You can’t say that. You’ll be hearing more on this.’ He turns and leaves. The door closes. Silence.
And then, applause. We’ve just learned something very important about gender,* and the class has bonded around it.
If you’re wondering, no, I never heard any more on this. At the end of the class, I did telephone the man’s departmental secretary, and apologize if I had been out of order in holding on to the room, and was assured that it was indeed the one allocated to my class. The potential nightmare of a disciplinary hearing never materialized.
*what I think we learned about gender is that it’s supposed to be OK to assume women are driven by their bodies but that men can rise above their bodies. You may have come to a different conclusion!