Sub-Z-List Celebrity Status
Being a University professor seems to qualify me for sub-Z-list celebrity status within a very specific and narrow national and international circle; somewhere slightly below, and less geographically grounded than, characters like the ‘Reading Elvis’ the character from my home-town, or the Bradford Jesus Man.Certainly below unquestionable Z-list celebrities like local MPs, X-Factor rejects and contestants on The Chase. As such, I find it intriguing to hear how I am gossiped and how anecdotes are spun about me, often with fondness and respect.
Most of my students have Howard anecdotes that in no way typify my behaviour, but exemplify my more eccentric and humorous events in lecturing, on fieldtrips and during fieldwork. All archaeology lecturers get these, some more than others. Some lecturers, a minority, through years of lecturing, accumulate famous and infamous stories – some that may have happened, most that probably didn’t – that are told by generation after generation of archaeologists.
Mine are not that exciting and are quite humble. For example, there is the slight traffic ‘incident’ (incident, not accident) when I ‘rested’ a minibus into a wall near Llangollen at 2mph. The classic failed fieldtrip stories, such as the fieldtrip to Sandbach market square to view the famous Anglo-Saxon crosses only to find the whole market square was closed for re-cobbling and the crosses surrounded by mdf boards.
Like politicians, you can’t control the story. I wish I could. In my mind, i am humorous, really I am. I wish the students did understand my jokes. My failed attempts at humour are manifold, such as when I explained to a third-year class in Vikings that I would open my thermos flask if they didn’t contribute to the seminar and those unwilling to talk will be attacked by the miniature Viking warriors therein. I wish these were turned into gossip but they usually just die the death. If they weren’t funny at the time, they certainly aren’t funny upon re-telling.
I have occasionally lost my temper, usually once a year, with a minority of students and for the benefit of the rest. For example, students remember when I told two loud-mouths in the group shouting at each other while I was trying to talk to the group during a fieldtrip to ‘be quiet good fellows’ (or some words to this effect) at Chester amphitheatre. Or the time I was berated by an elderly female Cestrian for being ‘another person talking in the street about history’. True I guess.
My ‘sub-Z-list’ celebrity status has even meant that students have been known to invent gossip about me based on things they thought I said. The best one was when I bought some chips in the mid-way break in a two hour lecture session and gorged on the chips in front of the class. I made a joke about the fact that I was on a diet and confided in my students that I really should eat chips and ‘don’t tell the wife’. A year later, I was scoffing chips again and a student said ‘I hope your wife doesn’t find out your secret’. I had completely forgotten my comment and was startled and confused until I worked out what they were talking about.
Teachers and lecturers get these sub-Z-list celebrity moments quite a lot in the street and in shops when I meet students. I remember one particular group of students passing me in the street and hearing them saying ‘look there’s Howard, he must live near here. Let’s follow him and find out where he lives’. Borderline stalkers? Not, not really, they were joking of course, playing tongue-in-cheek with the idea of sub-Z-list celebrity status.
In most cases it is harmless and comes with the territory. Students have great respect for me and anecdotes are an outlet for this respect, not anything disrespectful at all. Unfortunately Chinese whispers can transform stories told in jest and fond respect quite negative simply through successive re-telling. This can be unfortunate. Still, this year I have experienced two different , negative experiences of gossip, that I take moderately seriously because they didn’t come from students, but from fellow professionals (meant in the broadest possible sense of course).
Early medieval conference comes to Chester. I attend, go for drinks with students and then go home. Later I learn that an archaeologist I have never even met but who happened to be in the same pub as the delegates, approached them and complained in a drunken state that he wasn’t invited to the conference and then relays to the amassed audience of postgraduate students how I have no idea what I am talking about with the classic phrase ‘don’t talk to me about Howard Williams’. Apparently I haven’t dug enough graves to be a burial archaeologist. Probably true: most of the graves I dig produce nothing because of taphonomy or grave-robbing….
Family hear gossip before I do
The second incident concerns an archaeologist who I apparently knew when I was a postgraduate. I don’t have any recollection of this person and they are so lowly in the archaeological firmament that they don’t seem to have any publications or even a web presence. If I ever had talked to them, it certainly isn’t in over a decade. Still, this individual is apparently has expert knowledge of my life and is happy to tell anyone and everyone about it. Someone like this is sad and pathetic but becomes a malicious pest when this gossip filters to family before I hear about it… If only their colourful stories were true but sadly they are not.
Being an academic gives you a public profile, but that profile comes at a cost. Particularly female academics get online and personal sexual harassment as a result. Racial slurs are aimed at others. For me, as a now middle-aged white academic, I am not immune either. What is good is that my students – from Chester and from my previous three academic positions – seem to be fond supporters, a blessing that comes with my sub-z-list celebrity status. What is sad is that it is ‘professionals’ that, admittedly very rarely, do spread more harmful slurs.