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Up close and personal: Beware our litigious society

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Thursday, 7 October 2004

How personal should lecturers get? As readers of my columns know, I regularly plunder the personal. But in our tightly managed universities, what weight should we give to the personal?

That these two points are very different raises the diversity of what the personal means and entails. It’s one thing to use and promote critical reflection on lived experiences in the classroom or in writing, and another to question the status of the personal in our workplace. In terms of the latter, we could ask whether there’s room in quality assessment programs to reward those who balance family and career obligations. As "Performance, Management and Development" is practised at my university, there’s nowhere on the official form where you could say that your objectives for the year are to successfully meet both family and academic expectations.

I’ll return to this aspect of the personal, but first I want to talk about a recent situation involving the personal that has been bothering me.


As part of my research, which bleeds into my undergraduate teaching, I’ve had a longstanding interest in anorexia. In my classes on bodies and power I often use my first academic publication, The Anorexic Body, which was based on my 1986 master’s thesis. It’s not to promote myself but to offer students one model of thinking about anorexia. In the article, I go through dominant arguments and very briefly use my own experience of being a young anorexic as a personal counterbalance to the objective theories.

By and large students get the point: anorexia is a complicated condition, which demands more complex thinking than the ever-present theme of media bashing. And over the years, as an academic exercise many students have reflected on their own or a friend’s experience of anorexia.

As someone working in gender studies, I’m used to students coming to me with all manner of problems - family situations, grappling with sexuality, as well as the more normal ones about university life. Part of the reason they seek me out is that I often use anecdotes in class from my own life to illustrate the relevance of different theoretical perspectives. My teaching practice is to give students different critical tools with which to analyse lived cultural practices.

When a student of mine came to me worried about her sister’s eating disorder, I wasn’t surprised. I suggested some readings, and strongly advised that the sister get counselling. Her reply was that her sister would not see professionals but that she would talk to me. I was less than enthusiastic - the sister is 15 and I am not trained as a counsellor, and I was very busy. I somewhat reluctantly agreed to see her, touched by my student’s dilemma and worn down by her insistence.

Her sister came along to my office and we chatted for half an hour. I told her how I remember how lonely anorexia was, to which she agreed. The usual family dynamics were in play and I said that when she was better, she’d appreciate her family’s concern. I mentioned that I still felt very bad that my mum had had to endure my shenanigans.

She left agreeing that it was really important that she eat lots of protein because her performance at school was dropping, and I could see that it bothered her. Personally I think and hope that she’ll be OK, and that her eating disorder isn’t too far advanced.


I felt that perhaps I’d opened a tiny window, and when I went home I recounted the situation to my partner. I was surprised at her reaction: You did what? What if the parents sue you?

But I was only trying to help, I responded miserably. I spent the weekend dreading a phone call from the parents. None came and apparently the mother was thankful for my intervention.

I’m relieved but the predicament lingers. While I’m not a trained psychologist, I do have years of research to go on. And in any case, all I’d done was to tell her about my own personal experience of what she was going through. How bad could that be? Well had anything gone wrong it would have been mighty bad. And my defence of just wanting to help would have been useless.

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First published in The Australian  September 29, 2004.

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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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