Contradictions

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk 
From: Justin Marks, Head of Campus Communications 
Subject: Weekly Newsletter 
We’ve got a bumper issue for you this week! New term message from the Vice Chancellor, an exciting addition to the Employee Benefits programme, research seminar round-up AND a special seminar from the Well-Being team.

Vice Chancellor’s message

Welcome back, everyone! Spring hasn’t quite burst on Burston, but I have a spring in my step as we move towards our new future. This term will see the announcement of some very, very exciting plans which will secure our situation going forward. Drilling down into the detail, I am sure that all of my colleagues will be delighted with the way we’re actioning new delivery methods which will leverage our relationships with stakeholders and partners across the world. Burston Central is going places! Unfortunately we may have to sunset some of our traditional approaches and disciplines as we move to line up our ducks in a row across the piece. More news soon! *

You will have seen the exciting news in yesterday’s Times Higher Education Supplement that we have an upwards trajectory in the Student Experience Survey 2013. We’ve gone up three places. Great news, but there is more to do. Looking forward to 2014!

Message from the Efficiencies Team

In the last staff survey, many people commented unfavourably on the length and frequency of meetings. As part of our response, we’re beginning a rolling programme to remove chairs from meeting rooms. Research shows that this will help to keep meetings shorter (Madeitup & Fads, 1984). In the longer term, seating will also be removed from lecture theatres to improve the focus and pace of lectures – something which our students who complain about ‘boring lecturers reading off the Powerpoint’ will appreciate. Watch this space.

Announcement from the Well-being team

Taking a leaf from our colleagues ‘across the pond’, we’re introducing a series of ‘Brown Bag Lunches’. Every Thursday in May, you can enjoy a useful presentation on a topic important to your well-being. The first session, on 2 May, is ‘Walking and Safety’. Main building, 1-2, room 11-3. Bring your lunch and learn how to stay safe wherever you walk with our Emergency Management Coordinator!**

Employee Benefits Programme

We’re delighted to announce that we’ve just signed up another retailer to our fantastic discount scheme: Primark will now be offering 10% off all purchases; show your staff card at the checkout.

Research seminar programme

Ethical Sourcing in the Fashion Industry’. Wednesday, 1 May, 4pm, New Lecture Theatre. All welcome.


*See The Guardian, 25/04/13 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/25/top-10-worst-management-speak

**I didn’t make this up. This is a real seminar being held at a US University next week. Thank you to my source…you know who you are!


Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the‘About’ page.

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Awards

Goodness me! Another meeting at Burston Central. How does anyone ever get any real work done?


“Agenda item 13.5.14. Student Business. What we’re all here for.” Geoff looked over at the three student reps, who were sitting together at the far corner of the huge table, and managed to force the corners of his mouth up slightly. Alison wondered if it was meant to be encouraging. He looked more as though he’d sat on something spiky, but was too embarrassed to admit it.

Alison had long since lost the thread of the meeting, and was sorting out emails on her iPad. She looked up and nodded occasionally, to maintain the cover that she was taking notes. The Biology department half-termly meetings were a trial. They’d had an admissions report. A progress  report. A student survey report. An equality report. A widening participation report. A learning technology report. A staff development report. They’d received, for information, ten papers from ‘the University’ about various items of regulation. There had been an update on car-parking, during which Geoff had declared triumphantly that Biology staff had been more successful in gaining permits than any other department. Was there some kind of league table for that?

Now, she was aware of a silence. It was just like a seminar when you asked students about the readings they’d been supposed to prepare. The next stage in that scenario was that you rushed in and gave a mini-lecture, to cover over the lacuna. She expected Geoff to do that. She looked up. Geoff was still smiling fixedly, if lopsidedly – she wondered briefly if he’d had a stroke or something –  but there was a bit of shuffling among the students. Perhaps they were going to speak.

A gangling young man cleared his throat.

“Um. Thanks. We do have some things to mention.”

He looked down at his notebook, and there was another long pause. Alison willed him on. The students rarely said anything at these departmental meetings.

“Um. Well, can I start with some good news? The biology course has been shortlisted for a Students’ Union Teaching award, voted for by students. And so has one of the lecturers.”

There was an anticipatory silence. Every lecturer round the table was secretly hoping to hear their name in the next sentence.

Geoff gave a more genuine smile. That’s great news, er, er” he looked at the committee secretary, sitting next to him. “Jay” she hissed, through her teeth.

“Great news, Jay.” Geoff continued. “Which biology course is it?”

Jay looked puzzled. “Biology, it just says here.”

Geoff persisted. “Animal biology? Biology and Physiology? Forensic Biology? I don’t think we have a plain biology course any more, ha, ha, that’s progress for you, isn’t it?”

Jay looked deflated. “I dunno.” He brightened a bit. “Maybe it’s all of them? Anyway, and the lecturer who’s been nominated is Jan Bowman!”

The academic staff sitting round the table forced smiles, and there were some murmurs of “Great news!” “Well done, Jan!”

Geoff’s smile had faded. “Jan Bowman! Well, that’s great news. Congratulations, Jan, and good luck at the ceremony.” To his credit, he almost managed to sound pleased at the news.

Jan was delighted to be the centre of attention. She looked round the table gleefully. You might even have said triumphantly. “Thank you, colleagues. It’s an honour to be nominated.” She bowed her head in mock humility.

Alison shuddered. It was like a scene from the Middle Ages, but with slightly better clothing (looking across the room and under the tables, she could see that the socks and sandals combination was as popular now as it had been then). The honour bestowed upon the chosen one created a flurry of attention and praise, but secretly everyone was plotting to stick the knife in at the earliest opportunity. She wondered whether a failure to be nominated might soon condemn you to the stocks. And she was delighted that someone on her course had been nominated, of course she was, but, but, Jan? Reliable enough, but surely not inspiring, or particularly diligent, even? That little problem with the regulations was still pretty fresh in Alison’s mind. She shuddered again.

Whilst she was visualising this, the student rep gave their report, but she didn’t  really hear any of it. She was bored with these rituals. The students would make their complaints and suggestions. They would all listen gravely, and promise to go away and look into it. The course teams would come back to the next meeting with suggestions. If the same course reps were at the next meeting, they would either accept the suggestions, or reject them. There was never any discussion, or any involvement of students in making the solution. Consequently, the solutions were rarely effective, or if they were, it was a fairly sure thing that the course reps the following year would suggest an improvement which would take them back to the previous situation.

Oh yes, it was time to leave, alright… Martin’s Ramping-fumitory was calling her.


Afterwards, the usual huddles of staff hung around to gossip about the meeting. Alison had been determined not to join one, but somehow she found herself agreeing to go for a coffee with a couple of the others. As she had feared, the only topic they wanted to discuss was the Teaching Awards.

“Jan Bowman. That’s ridiculous. She hasn’t updated her notes for years. And she gives marks for turning up. ”

“Now, come on, Sal. I’m sure she doesn’t. That’s not in the marking scheme.” Alison protested, mildly.

Phil  looked self-righteous. “I don’t know why anyone takes it seriously. It’s just a popularity contest. No objective criteria.”

“Just like your marking criteria.” thought Alison. She sighed. Miserable sods. Although. Jan. God. There really was no justice.

“I think it’s great that one of our colleagues has been nominated.” she said. “And the course, too. Whichever one it is. I’d love to have been nominated.” As she said it, she realised that it was true. All the hours she put in. Planning. Organising. Preparing. Marking. Comforting. Sorting out. Stepping into the breach. She would love to have been nominated. And now, she never would be. To her horror, she felt tears rising. She bent down to her briefcase and pulled out a cleanish tissue.

“Something in my eye.”

The others changed the subject. Probably not to be tactful. More out of panic. Emotions were strictly for students who’d missed a deadline. Phil looked briefly at her, sympathetically. She was pretty sure that he was wondering if she was menopausal.

Alison blew her nose, and contributed in a desultory way to the subsequent dissection of Geoff’s abilities to chair meetings, manage his staff, be fair about timetabling, speak to students, advocate for the team with senior management and so on. But in the back of her mind she was wondering…should she change her mind, and stay, in the hope of getting recognition next time round?


Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebookto be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise. Apart from THES journalists.

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, see the‘About’ page.

Musing and Marking

It was that time of year again. Alison had a system in place, developed and honed over the years. There was a colour-coded chart, showing when work was due in between April and June, including exams, and when it had to be marked and moderated. She cleared off the top of the low bookshelves her room, and lined them with a set of correspondingly-coloured filing trays. Work to be marked went into the appropriate tray just as it was. Marked work went into a folder at the bottom of the same tray, labelled with its future destination (moderation, or distribution).

The chart told her what she had to mark each day. No meetings were scheduled on marking days, except for moderation meetings and the inevitable impromptu tearful sessions with students who’d submitted late or failed. The phone was switched to voicemail. The Internet stayed off. The colour-coded chart told her which assignment she needed to mark each day, and how many of them.

The total number of assignments for the day was then divided into five. Once she’d marked 20% of the day’s allocation, she took a break, stretching her legs by walking to the ladies to fill the kettle, and then making a brew, which she drank while checking her email. After 20 minutes, she made a mark on the whiteboard – like a prisoner marking days on the wall of her cell – and then continued with the marking. She was really strict with herself. It was a marathon, not a sprint. It was only fair to the students to give everyone an equal share of her attention, and not to disadvantage anyone by not taking proper breaks. She ate lunch after 40% of the day’s allocation, or sometimes after 60%, if she’d got an early start. At the end of the day, she carefully copied all the marks from her spreadsheet into the student record system, and parcelled up any completed batches for giving to moderators, or for sending back to students. Then, she checked the student record system to see how far the other module leaders had got.

It was a brilliant system. Alison couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t take the same approach. Many of the other module leaders seemed much more slapdash. Some of them seemed surprised when they were notified that their marking was ready for collection, as if they hadn’t set the deadline themselves. Almost all of them left the task till the last possible moment, and then complained about having to sit up for two nights in a row to get it finished in time. Their dependence on going to the wire made things really difficult for Alison, who as programme leader had to adjudicate any disputed marks and get an overview of performance in time for the examination boards.

This year, she had tackled her marking with very mixed feelings. It was the last time she’d have to do it, and to be responsible for co-ordinating, chivvying and scolding her colleagues into finishing their part of the job. It was the last time she’d have to buy extra tissues to offer to distressed students who’d failed to manage their time well enough. It was the last time she’d be disappointed by lack of effort, poor sentence structure, unbalanced equations or graphs with no labels on the axes. It was the last time that the exam board secretary would be stand in Alison’s office, arms folded, leaning against the wall, blocking the exit until Alison finished moderating and checking the last few scripts which had come in from a recalcitrant colleague (‘sorry, Alison, managed to leave this lot on the pub and couldn’t collect them till opening time!’).

On the other hand, there were some things she would miss. Really seeing the progress students could make. The occasional evidence that a struggling student had finally ‘got it’. The satisfaction of seeing those completed rows of student records with full sets of marks.

There was also some guilt mixed into her musings. She was really starting to worry about what would happen to the course after she’d left. Granted, it wasn’t particularly outstanding in terms of the figures. Student satisfaction looked good, at 92% for overall satisfaction. She kept to herself the knowledge that this was only enough to put them in the second decile nationally. Luckily, biology tended to do well nationally, so student satisfaction scores tended to be higher than the average for all subjects.  The VC thought it was an excellent score. Applications were good at 3.8 per place – but again, that was below the national average for the subject. Retention was hovering around the benchmark at 82%. It was all pretty…average.

But she shuddered to think what it would be like if she didn’t put so much effort in. Not many people knew just how important she was to the smooth running of the course. Not many people knew how many extra hours she had to work to keep the show on the road, covering for colleagues who were late for a research deadline, or sick, or just couldn’t be bothered. Not many people knew how many students needed her personal intervention to stop them from leaving early. Not many people knew how many school concerts or parents’ evenings she’d missed, or been late for, making futile attempts to slip in unnoticed when things were already under way. As if her husband and children hadn’t been tuned in to her presence, or absence in a large crowd.

She sighed. She didn’t think her replacement would have the same commitment. If Geoff ever got round to sort out a replacement, of course. So much for succession planning. Every time she asked him about it, he just waved his hand and said he was working on it.

Anyway, she would miss the students. And Tim and Heather, and Don, and their Wednesday therapy nights. And the woman who ran the coffee bar, although Alison had no idea what her name was. And the subject librarian.

She wouldn’t miss the endless meetings about car parking, or petty wrangles about timetable allocations, or sorting out assessment cock-ups. She was really looking forward to getting back to her research, and to doing some part-time teaching with no admin responsibilities. And spending a bit more time with her family. The course would just have to sort itself out. She smiled to herself as she reached for another project report.


Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebookto be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise. Apart from THES journalists.

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, see the‘About’ page.