Advent Episode 12: Collegiality

Sheila returned from her nine o’clock seminar feeling pretty pleased with herself. It wasn’t easy to get students to understand ratio. She thought she’d done really well to get a group of them to stand at the front and then to sift them out according to different principles, with less obvious ones being used each time. And it had been a master stroke to get them to imagine a pompous judge sitting at the bench and querying some of the more outlandish criteria. Earring in left ear. Hole in jeans. Shoelaces or slip-ons.

She’d worry about the stereotyping of the judge later on; in fact it was a good plan to build up an image of a male, late-middle-aged white judge now and then to challenge it later in the term. She made a note in the front of her new Moleskine notebook. It had gone much better than her old lecture, when she’d just read out the explanation and asked if anyone had any questions. She was on fire this year! Still smiling, she turned the notebook over and looked at the back pages.

1)    Gareth

2)    Lilian

3)    Bill

Her smile slipped a little. If anyone asked her, she’d be able to say it was just a note to remind her to contact them. And the other stuff in the back was for a lecture on academic writing. Avoiding clichés.

Ping! Email notification.

To: Sheila

From: Lilian

Subject: next week’s session for Criminal Law

Hope it’s alright Sheila, I noticed that you hadn’t ‘revealed’ the notes for next week’s session on corporate liability, so I’ve done it. Save you a job :-).



Sheila glowered at her computer screen. Of course it wasn’t alright. Those were last year’s notes which had been automatically copied across, and she hadn’t found time to go through them and update them yet, so she’d left everything hidden.  Now, the out-of-date ones were visible to the students.

She supposed that Lilian would accuse her of being unprofessional by not releasing the notes seven days in advance, as they’d all agreed to do. But she would have preferred that to the students thinking her unprofessional by having out of date notes. Plus, as Lilian well knew, she’d been off sick and it took time to catch up.

Her lip raised in a curl, she navigated to the university’s virtual learning environment. Her foot was tapping impatiently. Username, password, long, long list of modules…eventually she found her way to the Criminal Law module. Change status to ‘editor’. Page reloads. By now her foot was doing the Edinburgh tattoo.

Eventually, she got to the relevant page for the following week’s work. She clicked ‘hide’ next to the notes. Then she clicked through to the ‘tracking’ section to see if any students had actually looked at the notes since Lilian had revealed them. No. Good.

God. In the time she’d spent doing that, she could probably have updated the notes, she thought with a certain amount of exaggeration, and now there wasn’t time, she had to get to the staff meeting. No time to reply to Lilian either. That was probably just as well. She looked at the back pages of the notebook again.  “Revenge is a dish best served cold. Revenge is a dish..” she repeated desperately to herself. She picked up her laptop and notebook and set off down the corridor, still fuming.

Unconsciously, she twisted her face into an approximation of a fake simper and mouthed “Hope it’s alright. Save you a job” with a sneer and a sarcastic roll of the eyes.

Pete rounded the corner at that moment and looked at her warily. He was probably wondering if she was going to flip again.

“Hello, Sheila” he said, heartily. “Going to the staff meeting?”

Sheila took a deep breath. She was far too wound up for normal conversation. “Hi, Pete. Yes, sure, just popping to the Ladies first. See you in a minute. Save me a coffee!” she hurried off towards the loos, muttering to herself “breathe, breathe, breathe…”

Once safely in the Ladies, she locked herself in a cubicle and put down the seat, then sat down and took out her notebook, flipping it over and looking at the maxim pasted inside the back cover.“You can’t change them, but you can change the way that you react to them.”

She repeated it to herself several times. Then she closed her eyes briefly, inhaled deeply, and then stood up. She forced herself to smile. Ready to face the world. Or at least, ready to face a staff meeting.

When she got into the room, everyone else was still milling around the refreshments. Pete had been buttonholed by Lilian and was looking around with a slightly desperate air. “Sheila!” he called over to her. “I’ve got you a coffee!”

Her mouth felt dry. Bloody hell, wasn’t there anyone else he could have been talking to? Pete and Lilian stared at her as she walked towards them. Did she look strange? The walk across the room seemed to take an age, but in fact, within ten seconds she was standing next to Pete and Lilian, and raising a coffee cup to her mouth as though everything was normal.

“Thanks, Pete” she nodded to him. Lilian was carrying one of the new tablet computers which had been distributed to a select range of staff. She wondered why Lilian had been chosen to get one.

“Did you get my email, Sheila?” purred Lilian. Sheila marked a pause. “which one, Lilian?”

She’d learned to do passive-aggressive as well.

“The one about next week’s notes”.

“Oh yes, of course. Thank you SO much for the reminder, Lilian, I would have got very behind if you hadn’t told me”. Sheila looked and sounded angelic.

Lilian looked suspicious, and added “You do remember that we’d agreed to release all of the notes a week in advance, to allow students to prepare?”

“Of course I do.” Sheila replied “Such a good idea, and so helpful to those with disabilities who need the help of a screen reader or to have them printed on special paper. I was just running a bit behind still, you know, after been off sick for such a long time.” she pouted slightly and flapped her eyelashes unconvincingly at Pete.

He recoiled very slightly, but gamely joined the conversation “Yes!” He tried for a hearty tone. “It’s hard enough keeping up when you’re fit and well, but when you’re…”  He tailed off.

“Ready for the funny farm?” completed Sheila silently. At least, she hoped it was silently. You never knew, when you’d been ready for the funny farm.

Lilian looked puzzled. “Great, well, thanks” she said, tailing off. She wasn’t used to people being compliant. Sheila hoped that she was now wondering how to challenge poor, sick, brave Sheila any further on the issue.

Sheila had to stop herself giggling. She wondered if Lilian would bother to recheck the online learning site now, and if she did, what she would say when she discovered that Sheila had hidden the notes again.

This was actually fun. If only she’d thought of it before. After all of these years of being manipulated, she was now messing with people’s heads all on her own. LOL, as her nieces and nephews had forbidden her to say.

Pete was staring at her. Maybe she’d grinned openly. She flapped her eyelashes again and he looked away hastily.

Bill had been sitting at the head of the big table, shuffling papers and making throat-clearing noises for some time and now said quietly “Right then, ladies and gentlemen.”

Most of the women winced at this. Bill noticed and flushed slightly. “Er, colleagues.” he continued. “Shall we make a start?” he added, a little more loudly.

Dutifully, his team started to drift away from the flasks of hot water and sachets of FairTrade tea and coffee and take their places at the table. One or two took the opportunity to rush for a refill, as though this was the last opportunity for refreshments before a long expedition, rather than an admittedly tedious two, or possibly three, hour meeting.

When everyone was settled, Bill cleared his throat again. “Right then, everyone. Thanks for coming. We’ve got a full agenda this afternoon as usual, but I’ll try to be quick and get you out of here by three thirty.”

Eyes were rolled around the table. James and Gary ran a permanent sweepstake on the actual time that the meeting would end. Pete was in for 16:45. He could never decide whether it was worth the £10 he would win if it did drag on for that long. Bill got started on the agenda.

Sheila wasn’t listening, although she was tapping away on her laptop, hoping that the angle of the screen meant that her neighbours on either side wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t really taking notes from the meeting. In fact, she was updating the notes for the Criminal Law module.

She finished the edits and was waiting for them to upload to the online module area, when she noticed that there was silence. She looked up to find expectant eyes upon her and realised that Bill had spoken directly to her.

“Sorry, Bill, I was just capturing the last important point” she said brightly, “I didn’t catch that.”

“We were talking about Mitigating Factors.” he said, very gently “We wondered if you had a view on special arrangements for students with mental health issues”.

Sheila looked blankly at him. “Me? Well, not particularly” she started to say, then stopped. She realised with horror that he was asking her because she’d been off sick with stress for so long. Everyone round the table was looking at her, apparently waiting expectantly for the view of an expert on the topic.

Her mouth felt dry. “Er. Er.I don’t know enough about the issues, I’m afraid.”

Bill looked slightly surprised by this. She wondered if he was going to suggest that she stop being modest and share her expertise. He was still waiting for her to add something

“Don’t gabble. Don’t gabble. Don’t gabble” she repeated to herself. Hopefully silently. She stared beatifically back at Bill, and added a smile. “Perhaps you should ask the Student Services people who deal with disabled students?” she suggested.

One or two other people broke in at this point, perhaps trying to cover up Bill’s appalling faux pas with some loud alternative suggestions to address the issue. Sheila sat immobile, retaining her fixed grin and trying not to think about what had just happened. Now, at least, nobody was looking at her. In fact, they all seemed to be trying very hard not to.

The rest of the meeting passed in a bit of a blur. Eventually she was aware of the shuffling of papers and scraping of chairs. She bent her head, picked up her laptop and notebook, and forced herself to stand with everyone else.  She looked round. Everyone was heading for the door. They were still trying not to look at her.

Bill had scuttled first towards the door and was already almost out. He didn’t look round. Pete was not far behind him, almost at the door. There was a bit of a snarl-up as everyone tried to leave at once. Pete looked round and caught Sheila’s eye. A look of slight panic crossed his face, but he slowed and stepped to one side of the door, waiting for her to come over.

Sheila walked slowly over, dreading any further attention being drawn to her previous illness. “What did you think of that?” Pete started “I thought it was absolutely shocking.

Sheila looked at him “Well, it was a bit of a surprise.” she said “I suppose we should expect that kind of thing” she added, bravely “it can take time for people to catch up with the latest thinking.”

Pete didn’t seem to register this “I mean, how are we supposed to get to work if there aren’t enough car parking spaces?” he continued. “Another erosion of academic life.” he sighed heavily.

“mmm”  said Sheila, realising that Pete had no intention of mentioning the mental health issue. “Well, Pete, I’d better be getting on.” She nodded at him and walked purposefully towards the door. One foot in front of the other, that was the way. She kept going. Not much further to her office. She kept going.

When Sheila got to her office, she shut the door carefully and quietly turned the lock. She sat at her desk and opened up the notebook from the back.

1)    Gareth
2)    Lilian
3)    Bill

She took out her pen and added a double headed arrow, curving between ‘Lilian’ and ‘Bill’. Then she reached for the phone. She needed to book an urgent appointment with her counsellor.

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One thought on “Advent Episode 12: Collegiality

  1. Pingback: Advent Episode 11: Known Unknowns | Wading through Treacle

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