Professor of gossip: Lainey Lui on teaching at Western University
Last fall, when I was invited by Dean Michael Milde, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, to teach a fourth-year capstone course at the School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities, I felt like I had conjured something.
For years on my gossip blog, LaineyGossip.com, I’d been joking about one day becoming the “dean of the faculty of celebrity studies at a liberal arts university somewhere in New England.” Obviously being asked to become a visiting professor is not the same as being dean. But it was a beginning. And London, Ontario is not New England.
But New England was chosen more for its look — and Western University definitely has that look. I pictured myself, like in a movie montage, striding purposefully down a leaf-strewn path towards buildings with spires, the wind in my hair, wearing a gorgeous camel-colour coat or a funky bomber jacket. The outfits always varied in my daydreams but the subject never did: I would be a professor of gossip, exploring its social value, defending its merit as a communication tool, creating a legitimate space for gossip in academia and my students would be gossip’s first crusaders, a new generation of gossip experts interrogating art, politics, business and even science from a gossip’s perspective. Right. But … what if they didn’t like me?
As a gossip columnist and a daytime talk show host, being liked is not my priority. I built a career on talking shit about celebrities on my blog and my role on The Social is the polarizing loudmouth with no kids, a shoe obsession and an aversion to people in general, sitting next to three women who adore their children and liberally give out hugs. It’s been 15 years since I’d had to worry about whether people liked me.
Did I have to start caring now about whether or not my students liked me? Did other professors care if their students liked them? The only professor I knew was Joel Faflak, SASAH’s program director, who’d been guiding me through my preparation for the course. Joel is a lovely, warm person. Everybody likes Joel. I doubted he ever had to worry about being liked.
On the internet, my performance is based on site traffic. It doesn’t matter whether or not I’m liked, it only matters whether or not the information I’m providing is drawing readers. On television, our performance is measured by ratings. If viewers are tuning in, we get to keep broadcasting. I suppose it sort of works like that as a professor in that your “audience” is your students, and if they show up for class, you’re getting your ratings. But, at the same time, as a gossip columnist and as a TV presenter, I don’t get to fail my audience, give them a shitty grade if they don’t come to read my articles or watch my segments. If my students don’t attend class, in theory, it could be reflected in their marks, which means attendance isn’t really an accurate benchmark for whether or not a professor is doing a good job or well-liked. My goal was to impart on my students the importance of gossip as a lens to cultural understanding. And if they didn’t like me, would I risk doing gossip a disservice? How would I even know?
The professor of gossip needed to know if she was being gossiped about. And all anyone has to do if they want to know if they’re being trashed is to go online. What’s the Rotten Tomatoes equivalent of professor-trashing? RateMyProfessor.com. Which I resisted the urge to check until after the semester, as a Christmas gift to myself, as a reward for working hard and completing my first-ever semester of teaching, I’d get to enjoy all the shit my students were talking about me.
It ended up being a few days after Christmas, on December 28th, around 11 p.m., I went to Rate My Professor, hit the search bar, entered my name “Lainey Lui” and … No results. I tried “Elaine Lui.” Also no results. I tried misspelling my name several different ways. No results.
What the fuck? For three months, I planned my outfits for these people, and there wasn’t even one comment about my style?
Irony is one of gossip’s favourite vessels. Oscar Wilde, the patron saint of gossip, wrote in The Picture Of Dorian Gray that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” This is the mantra that informs every celebrity’s career, whether they’ll admit it or not. It’s why I’ve been able to sustain a career as a celebrity gossip columnist, snarking on celebrities, for 15 years. And now, it’s how my students got the drop on me, their professor, exposing me to myself — that the person who gossips and the persons she gossips about may not be all that different after all. My work here is done.
— Lainey Lui, visiting research fellow in Western’s School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities
Elain Lui is a Canadian television personality and self-proclaimed gossip maven. She runs a gossip website, laineygossip.com, is a reporter for CTV’s etalk and is also a co-host on CTV’s daily talk series The Social.