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:

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.

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