By Julia Merican
Durham’s hugely popular new building, the Teaching & Learning Centre, is, by almost all accounts, a raging success.
Already fondly abbreviated to its somewhat ironic acronym, the TLC has deposed the once-indomitable CLC and aspiring PCL as the university’s bustling hilltop hub. You can study, eat, and talk to your friends on all floors, and dine on expensive health foods and canned water at the environmentally ethical café.
The smug reign of the Calman, it would seem, is being challenged at last, and by a thoroughly worthy competitor.
One complaint presides, however. The sole stain on the TLC’s resounding success seems worth mentioning: a mild inconvenience to some; to others, it’s a deal breaker.
What’s up with the lack of reflective surfaces on the TLC’s pristine bathroom walls?
When I came into the bathroom the other day to wash my hands, I knew I wasn’t the only one surprised not to see any mirrors by the sinks. The girl next to me actually walked back to the cubicles to check if there was one that she’d missed, around the corner.
Later on, I saw a post on Facebook that confirmed that we weren’t the only two people who’d been confused.
“I can’t be the only one annoyed by the fact that there are no mirrors in the toilets of the Teaching and Learning Centre. Being able to check my appearances is essential.”
Having received a relatively good response – 160 reactions, 43 comments – I swiftly gathered that what people were bonding over was not actually concern about the wellbeing of the post’s author. Was the plurality of the word “appearances” a typo, or did it relate to something darker and infinitely more worrying? Overall, the consensus was with what the writer was saying.
Why aren’t there mirrors in the TLC? Call it what you want: bathroom feature; practical necessity; a fundamental human right – a mirror in a public lavatory is one of those things you don’t really consider or realise you’ve taken for granted until it just isn’t there.
It’s almost a shock to the system: after all, aren’t we entitled to the opportunity to appraise ourselves in the dim glare of a bathroom mirror, against the comforting ambiance of running tap-water and obnoxiously loud hand-dryers?
And there it was – or, in this case, wasn’t – our expected moment of reflection, snatched away.
I get it. I was just as shocked as everyone else. But then I started thinking about it. Not including mirrors in the bathrooms of a £40 million educational facility couldn’t just be some gross oversight: it looked suspiciously like a conscious decision. What could have prompted it?
Maybe it was for efficiency. Fixing your hair can actually take a surprising amount of time that could, as the TLC’s full name suggests, instead be spent on learning. Less time looking at yourself, more time working on yourself, perhaps. Having no mirrors would probably cull bathroom queues: people would take fewer toilet breaks as a means of procrastination or would just learn to nip in and out.
A somewhat authoritarian approach, but perhaps not entirely uncalled for in what has often been called the age of narcissism (a whole other debate on its own).
Perhaps it was an act of wokeness on the university’s part, a cutting-edge decision not to facilitate the innate human desire to physically compare oneself to others. And it seems especially topical in an environment already fraught with the kind of competition that can be expected when a conglomerate of overachievers is thrown together at arguably the most stressful time of their lives.
This is not entirely implausible as a theory, given the overall wokeness of the TLC as an institution – if the disappointingly sugar-free cafe snacks aren’t testament enough to this fact, let’s just think about the self-caring connotations of its acronym. Our administration’s veiled attempt to advise us to look after ourselves and not to go chasing waterfalls? Maybe.
Or what if it was an act of sympathy? Let’s be completely honest: at times like these, when the glow of returning to or starting university has waned, when formatives are piling up, and when the weather is only getting colder and more depressing, we aren’t all looking our best.
We know it, our parents on FaceTime know it, merciless club photographers know it (and capitalise on it); apparently, this fact hasn’t escaped university administrators, either. This choice might have been one of misguided kindness.
What are the consequences of this controversial decision? Is this the end for mirrors as a conventional bathroom fixture? Will this fad go on to invade private bathrooms as well, or – dare I say it – become an implemented law in all student houses? Only time will tell.
The conclusion about whether or not this decision has been a good one is still up for debate. I can’t make my mind up about it, and the differing opinions are rampant. Is it a good thing that we don’t have to see our tired selves staring sadly back at us every time we need to go to the loo? Conversely, is it a bad thing that we don’t have the option to if we wanted to?
Is this a practical way to curb vanity and procrastination, or is it just a downright nuisance for students who need a mirror to, say, change their contact lenses, or pick stray tendrils of kale out of their teeth?
Does the TLC’s eradication of mirrors have a liberating effect, providing a safe haven that momentarily frees students from their insecurities and societal standards of attractiveness, and perhaps equips us with an education of a more inwardly reflective kind? Or does it instead make students feel robbed of our individuality, unable to distinguish ourselves from all the other cogs in the big institutional wheel?
These are all just speculations. We may never know what prompted this decision; it could be one of the many mysteries that Durham keeps. Perhaps we just have to leave the TLC to its nonreflective secrets.
Whatever the consensus, though, I think it can probably be agreed on that the Teaching & Learning Centre definitely lives up to its name, providing all kinds of food for thought, not just of the café variety packaged in 100% recycled paper. The mirror debate – with all its theories, pros, cons, and nuances – is something thought-provoking and gluten-free for us as Durham students to chew on, uncanned, and at no additional cost.
Photograph: Tony Webster via Flickr