Advent Episode 3: Fighting Back

Sheila Thompson jumped as the phone rang. A moment of pure panic assailed her. She took a deep breath and forced a smile onto her face. It was a technique her counsellor had taught her to help her to deal positively with whatever might be sprung on her when the phone rang. If nothing else, he liked to say, you can’t grind your teeth when you’re smiling.

She lifted the receiver. “Hello, Sheila speaking.” Her voice sounded bright, but completely fake.

“Sheila! It’s Lilian!” Without letting the smile slip, although it froze slightly, Sheila held the receiver away from her ear, reached carefully over her desk and pressed a small red button. The sound of a police siren could be heard approaching, passing the office, and then receding into the distance.

Smiling more genuinely now, she put the receiver back to her ear “Lilian! How lovely to hear from you! Sorry I didn’t hear any of that, there was a siren going off”.

Lilian was cut off in mid-rant. “Would you mind very much starting that again?” Sheila asked, sweetly. She smirked.

Lilian paused for breath, then started again. “I just wanted to ask you if it was true that you have been handing work back to students on module POL3923 already? Sally says you have but you mustn’t do that because not everyone has finished marking for their modules yet and it’s not fair on the rest of us if you are giving things back to your students and the others are expecting the same thing and we just don’t have time to get things back to them and it’s really unfair. I had three students in this morning and I did tell them that if they keep coming and asking me for the marks I’m never going to get time to finish the marking but they all said their friends had had their work back and it’s just not fair on the rest of us.”

With her grin slightly rictus again, Sheila chose her most assertive tone – something she had also practised with her counsellor .

“Lilian, it sounds as though you are very angry with me. Just let me check that I’ve got this straight. Are you suggesting that I shouldn’t be returning marked work to students when it’s finished, moderated and checked by the administrators? Is there a new policy that I don’t know about which says we shouldn’t return work until everyone has finished their marking? I thought we just had to get work back before a certain date. I didn’t know we had to wait for that date. Did I miss that meeting?”

She smirked again.  Actually, she’d missed quite a few meetings while she’d been off sick, so it was a perfect excuse if needed, but she was pretty sure she was on safe ground with this one. Plus, she hadn’t apologised yet – the counsellor would be proud of her.

The slightly incoherent sounds coming from the other end of the phone suggested that Lilian wasn’t too happy about this approach. “It’s not fair, Sheila,” she atttempted, “we all need to work in the same way.”

Sheila interrupted her. “Oh dear,” she purred, “it sounds as though we need to think about a departmental policy of some kind. Shall I ask Bill to put it on the agenda for the next departmental meeting? Oh dear, we’ve got one tomorrow. It will be too late to get it on the agenda for that one, won’t it?” she sounded devastated at this missed opportunity “Let’s see…. we’ve got another one due at the beginning of next term, haven’t we? That’s only two months away; I expect we can muddle through until then. What do you think?” she finished, trying hard to sound brave in the face of extreme disappointment.

Lilian was making incoherent noises again. “Are you going to stop giving students their marks back?”

“Stop giving students their marks back? Ha! Ha! Lilian, what an interesting idea.  I wonder what the ‘quality police’ would think of that idea! I think I’d better wait to see what the policy is before I take such a drastic step.”

Despite her apparent confidence, Sheila felt herself starting to waver…any minute now she was going to apologise, admit defeat, agree, slink away…

She leaned over and pressed a second red button. A mobile phone started to ring shrilly. She said “Oh sorry Lilian, that’s my mobile. Oh, it’s Bill, I’d better take it. Thanks for ringing, I’ll sort out that agenda item for next term’s meeting. See you later!” She replaced the receiver and took a series of deep breaths, then punched the air. Weakly, but it was still a punch. Bloody bully.

She smirked about the ‘that’s Bill’ touch. Now Lilian would be wondering why the Head of Department was phoning her, and on her mobile, too. With any luck, she’d forget about the marking issue for a while. Which would give Sheila time to make a plan.

She would need to prepare a killer agenda item which would make it clear that being consistent with giving marks back didn’t mean that everyone had to be as slow as the slowest marker in the department. Lilian would probably have a lot of support with her ‘not fair’ approach, which would no doubt be translated to ‘we mustn’t raise expectations too much, because then students will give us low scores on surveys if we don’t deliver’.

Sheila would have to be craftier – she would have to phrase it so that it seemed very strange not to give students their work back when it was ready. She opened her notebook and wrote ‘Feedback agenda item. Student-centred. Effectiveness of prompt feedback. Research evidence?’.

She stood up. She needed some fresh air. She’d go for a short walk across the park, to clear her mind of residual anger and stress from the phone call. She hid the box with the red buttons carefully in her desk drawer before leaving the office. It was best to keep some tricks to yourself.


This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: Not as anonymous as he thought

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