MEDIA EXPOSURE AND THE OSBCURE PROFESSOR IN THE AGE OF THE YOUTUBER

I am mystified by the expression ‘an obscure professor’. Since ‘obscure’ is so close to Spanish ‘oscuro’ (meaning, of course, ‘dark’) I tend to think of people like Professor Snape, who teaches ‘Defence against the Dark Arts’ at Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts as an ‘obscure professor’. ‘Obscure’ has diverse meanings, according to the Oxford Dictionary, such as ‘not discovered or known about’, ‘uncertain’, ‘not clearly expressed’, ‘vague’; other dictionaries add ‘unclear’, ‘abstruse’. Yet in the phrase ‘an obscure professor’ the accent falls on ‘not important or well known’, ‘inconspicuous’, ‘unimportant’. Not Snape-like.

I am not sure what the opposite of ‘obscure’ is in this context, I hesitate between ‘distinguished’ and ‘famous’, as they seem to be such different concepts. What seems clear to me is that ‘obscure’ appears to be a reproach and an insult against those university teachers who never manage to leave their dark corner and make it into the spotlight. Indeed, spurred by being labelled ‘an obscure professor’ by an unkind journalist, Prof. Paul Boller called his successful autobiographical volume Memoirs of an Obscure Professor (1992).

Last week I stopped being an obscure professor for a few days–and it was fun. The Spanish translation of John Thorne’s play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a text supervised by JK Rowling but not written by her, was published on Monday 26. The internet helped journalists to decide that I am a Harry Potter expert because they found information about my elective course of two years ago and the related publications. And, so, I got invitations to express my (critical) opinion in El Periódico and on Catalunya Ràdio. That was on Tuesday 27. On Wednesday 28 I joined the translator and one of my students for a talk at bookshop Gigamesh with fans. As I waited for the act to begin, a young woman approached me mike in hand, placed me before a camera and started asking me questions. The Gigamesh talk is now online and what the young woman filmed appeared in the national news, TVE’s Telediario, that evening–five seconds, no more.

I informed my Department colleagues about the radio talk (with the Potter.Con organizers) and sent the podcast. Not the Telediario link as I was horrified to have been caught looking exhausted at the end of a long day, nursing a headache and talking so fast that it seemed someone was threatening me with a gun. Yet, some colleagues did see me, also my mum, and, as I found out today, even some neighbours. Here’s a constant in everyone’s reactions: all have congratulated me. So, really the theme of this post is why I was congratulated and on what.

I asked one of my colleagues, we had a good laugh about it and she speculated that, somehow, ‘congratulations’ means in this case ‘you have managed to become visible beyond the Department walls’. I don’t know whether any of my colleagues participates in the media regularly and I can only recall a TV appearance by one of them: Josep Cuní, then heading Catalan TV3’s evening news, called Prof. Aránzazu Usandizaga to comment on the death of Graham Greene. This was 1991, 25 years ago. I recall her complaining that she knew nothing about Greene, annoyed that journalists believe that experts are always at their beck and call to fill in news time. Well, that’s another matter. My point is that being on the media is so exceptional among my colleagues that I have found myself celebrated not quite for my particular intervention but, somehow, for making all of us visible. To my amusement, my 5-minutes of glory (not even 15!) is something we can use for the Department’s report on our collective transfer of knowledge to society.

If you think about it, there are many levels of obscurity. Some teachers manage to be invisible not only beyond the Department walls but even within them (which colleague are you thinking of now?). Other teachers are popular among students and staff but perfectly unknown outside the Department, or the university in question. For those of us operating within the campus territory the life of the media-savvy teacher is a mystery. We read their newspaper columns, see them in the many talk-shows Spanish style (I mean ‘tertulias’), follow them on Twitter or YouTube… I am really curious to know how one becomes that kind of non-obscure professor, not at all because I want to break out of my dark corner (very cosy here…) but simply because I want to satisfy a natural curiosity. I wonder, above all, whether this media exposure is satisfactory personally and professionally. And no, this blog is not at all part of that for I write it as if it were a private diary with a few onlookers rather than to make a splash of any kind.

I would not mind, of course, being paid to write a newspaper column–but then when I read the readers’ comments I only feel dismay… And I write this blog, yes. Yet, other forms of public exposure are beyond me. I have quite a hard time every day in class, like any other (female) teacher ageing in front of students who look younger and younger. They might think that I don’t care what they think of me but, to be honest, facing students requires overcoming a number of personal insecurities that never really disappear. I have been a teacher now for 25 years and I certainly feel more secure about what I say but less and less secure about what I look like. The idea, then, of seeing myself on TV is not gratifying but, rather, a source of anxiety. I marvel at the myriad YouTubers who have no problem filming themselves. I can’t even look at my own photos, much less see a few minutes of me on the screen. How embarrassing…

This is, however, the way we are all going. My university emailed all of us this week a booklet with many pages of instructions covering all possible cases of media exposure, particularly in social networks (also YouTube). The traditional media matter less and less and my university has realized that what each of us contributes to the new media reflects on the whole institution. Hence the minute instructions. I only missed some words about personal appearance but I believe this was implicit… Our traditional ‘tree professors’ (male teachers wearing brown corduroy trousers and green jumpers, both baggy) might damage our public image…

My university’s interest in the new media has, ironically, brought back fond memories of a TV programme I used to enjoy as a young girl: José Luis Balbín’s La Clave. This show consisted of a most civilized debate with the participation of absolutely first-rank figures, preceded by an art-house film. The opening credits, with the intriguing musical theme by Carmelo Bernaola are part of my generation’s awakening to intellectual curiosity. As usual, it is complicated for me to fix the dates but La Clave was on between 1976 and 1985 (on TVE’s second channel, then called UHF, now La2), and later between 1990 and 1993 (on Antena 3). It transpires that Felipe González’s socialist Government dismissed Balbín, fearing La Clave might negatively affect political decisions such as Spain’s entrance into NATO. By the time Antena 3 brought Balbín’s show back, private TV was beginning to erode the monopoly of national TVE and relying on banality as the main crowd-pleaser. Also, the internet was looming on the horizon. And, so, intellectuals disappeared from TV.

You can watch endless TED talks on YouTube but this has nothing to do with what Balbín and La Clave did: bring to many Spanish homes a taste of the best in current ideas. The film ploy was very clever for many viewers who would not have seen the intellectual debate stayed on–of course, channel hopping was no temptation as TV1 was the only other option. This kind of TV is gone for ever, replaced by endless triviality, despite the efforts of LaSexta to provide us with more or less solid political debate.

Waxing really, really nostalgic what I am trying to say is that I would have love breaking out of my obscurity to be a guest at Balbín’s La Clave. That would have been a matter for congratulations…

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