Quinquennial Review

Alison looked at her watch and sighed. She picked up the lever-arch file  and left the office. Sally was heading in the same direction and they fell into step.

“I can’t believe it’s only five years since we last did this.” offered Sally.

“No, me neither. Well, I suppose it’s only four, really. The review isn’t due till next academic year.”

“So why are we starting now?”

Alison smiled. “That’s how long it takes, Sal. Strategic approval, development plan, documentation, external panel, prospectus update, timetabling. You probably only had to get involved with the module reviews last time. There’s quite a bit more needed for the paperwork.”

“Are we going to make that many changes?”

“Probably not.”

“Does it really take that long? How?”

Alison simply shrugged.

They continued in silence.

In Geoff’s office, Phil was already sitting at the small round table. Alison and Sally sat down next to him. Geoff was still at his desk. He lifted his head.

“Hi, folks. Just waiting for, er,” he looked down at his notebook, “er, Jay, and then we’ll get started. Exciting times, eh? Course review?”  He grinned at them.

Alison was the only one to grin back. Sally lost a little more colour from her face. It would have been difficult for Phil to look more disdainful. Geoff had turned back to his computer without waiting for a reply.

“Who’s Jay?” Sally whispered to Alison.

“No idea. Someone from the Quality Office?”

Geoff looked up again. “The Quality Office! I’d forgotten about them. I haven’t invited them. Bugger. We’ll have to do that next time.”

Alison shook her head. “I wonder if they can send someone up? There are bound to be differences in procedures since last time we did this. We could end up wasting a lot of time.”

Phil snorted. “It was only four years ago. They work on a glacial time scale. It’ll be exactly the same.”

Geoff sighed. “You might think so, Phil, but Alison’s probably right. The forms will all be different, and maybe the process, too. I suppose it’s worth giving them a call. Although I suppose I’ll get an earful. Who’s our contact again? I don’t want to confess to Jean that we forgot to invite them.”

Alison nodded in assent, and grimaced. “No, I wouldn’t tell Jean, either. It’s Priya Balan.”

He checked the online directory and picked up the phone.


“It’s Geoff Sanders, Head of Biology.”

“Fine, thank you. And you?”

“Very good. Priya, as you know, the biology courses are up for review, and we’ve decided to have a quick, er, impromptu, meeting about the process. I don’t suppose you’re free for an hour now, are you?”

Geoff winced and leaned his body unconsciously away from the receiver, although it was still clamped to his ear.

“Of course I realise how busy you are. We just thought we’d benefit from some of your input on the processes. We’re at very early stages, so I didn’t think to ask you earlier.”

“Not to worry. Shall we make an appointment, then?”

“OK. I’ll see what my colleagues can do.” Geoff jotted something down on his notepad.

“Thanks, Priya. Sorry to have disturbed you. Bye.”

He looked at the others. “She can’t make it. She’s suggested a date in a couple of weeks. Should be all right, shouldn’t it?”

“As long as it doesn’t clash with exam boards.” Sally pointed out.

“OK, I’ll have to check. I’ll send it round to your Outlook calendars.”

They nodded.

There was a timid knock. They looked up to see one of their second year students hovering in the doorway. They all stared at him.

Geoff was impatient. “What can I do for you? I’ve got a meeting now, but if you want to make an appointment…”

Jay looked worried. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said to come at ten o’clock.”

Geoff looked blank.

“About the course development? I’m, like, the second year rep?”

Light dawned on Geoff. “Of course. Sorry. Just had a bit of confusion over procedures. Come and sit down, er” he checked his notebook again, “er, Jay.”

He got up himself, picking up a huge folder of papers, and ushered Jay over to the table.

“Great. We’re all here. I’d offer you a coffee, but perhaps we’d better get on.”

Phil rolled his eyes.

“Now, I think we all know each other.”


Phil cleared his throat. “We do all know each other, Geoff, but charming though it is to see Jay here, especially as I’ve just marked his exam paper –“

Jay looked as though he’d managed to forget such an item had ever existed, and had been only too pleased to remain in that state.

“ – I’m just wondering whether I’m at the right meeting. I thought we were here to discuss the course review? Have I got it wrong? Is this meeting something to do with students, instead?”

They all looked expectantly at Geoff.

He managed what could only be described as a hearty chuckle. “Ha, ha. Phil. Are you saying that courses have nothing to do with students, then?” He rattled this off smoothly. Possibly it was a rejoinder he’d received himself in response to a similar question.

Alison and Sally smirked, although Phil had probably only voiced their own thoughts.

Geoff continued. “No, Phil. One of the new elements of the quinquennial review procedure is going to be better student engagement in the process. So Jay is here. To help us. And we’re very grateful to him, giving up his time for us like this. Especially as he won’t be here when the new course starts. Very altruistic.”

‘Rabbit in the headlights’ was probably the best description of Jay’s expression.

Phil rolled his eyes again. “I think I need coffee, Geoff. Shall I make it?”

“Be my guest, Phil.” Geoff waved over at the kettle. “Meanwhile, I’ll start giving out some of this paperwork.” He opened the huge folder.

To be continued.

See also Them and Us.


Them and us

Sheila and Bob are still beavering away on their special project for the Vice Chancellor, but Sheila is about to pop back into that collegial setting, the Law Department.

Sheila got up and edged around the desk. It was even more cramped in their basement cubbyhole now that Stefan had joined them.

Bob looked up. “Going to get a coffee?” he asked, hopefully.

“No, I’m going to pop into the Law Department meeting. Just doing a bit of fact-finding, really. There was something on the agenda that caught my eye.”

Bob knew better than to ask her what it was. He was getting to know Sheila pretty well. She liked to process ideas and information on her own, and would share when she was ready, if there was anything to share.

“Will Lilian be there?” he asked, casually.

Sheila smiled at him. “Probably. But don’t worry, I won’t let her bother me. If I need to, I’ll just think about her and D I Bones.” They both smiled at the memory. Stefan looked quizzically at them, but neither of them bothered with an explanation. He turned back to his spreadsheets.

“OK, see you later.” said Bob. “Do you want a rescue call at any point?”

Sheila shook her head. “I think I’ll survive.”

She took the lift up to the fifth floor and joined some stragglers in the corridor heading towards the meeting.

“Hello stranger!” Pete’s false bonhomie hadn’t changed. “Slumming it, are we?”

Sheila smiled at him. “I’m only on secondment, Pete. I’m still a member of the department. Thought I’d come and catch up with things.”

“God, you’re mad. I wouldn’t come if I didn’t have to.” Pete’s shoulders slumped. “Worst afternoon of the term. Think of all the research I could be getting done instead.”

Sheila smiled to herself this time. Quite a few of her colleagues laboured under the delusion that they were international researchers trapped in the bodies of put-upon administrative slaves. “Indeed. But it’s always useful to find out what’s going on, isn’t it?”

Pete shrugged as they went into the room. “At least Owen gives us refreshments now, I suppose.” He accelerated towards the complimentary FairTrade tea and coffee at the end of the room.

Ignoring the melee around the coffee table, Sheila picked a seat on the same side of the table as the door. She put down her iPad and went over to Owen. “Hi, Owen. I presume it’s ok for me to join the meeting? I don’t want to get too far behind with departmental issues while I’m on secondment.”

Owen looked at her as though he couldn’t quite remember who she was, or perhaps as if he’d forgotten she was on secondment. “Of course, Sheila. I didn’t realise you were back at work. Always welcome.”

Sheila went back to her seat, shaking her head slightly. Idiot.

Pete came and sat next to her and put down his cup with great care. An unfeasibly large number of packaged biscuits was artfully arranged on the saucer. He removed them and stacked them up on the table. “So. Sheila. How’re things in the Special Projects office?”

“Oh, you know, pretty routine.” Sheila’s years as a solicitor had left her with considerable skills in stonewalling.

“Must make a nice change from here, though.” Pete looked around the table dejectedly. “Has anyone told you about Lilian’s – “ he was interrupted by Owen.

“Right, everyone, shall we make a start? As usual, we’ve got a very full agenda.”

The chatter around the tea and coffee subsided and the rest of the department moved over to the table. Sheila made a mental note to find out later about Lilian.

Owen waited for everyone to be finally settled. “Right, everyone. Thanks for coming. We’ve got a full agenda, so let’s crack on.” An air of gloom settled over the room as they bent to their papers and electronic devices.

There was an interminable item about marking. The departmental exams officer had put in a plea for colleagues to avoid using marks which ended in ‘9’. Despite a good presentation which concisely summarised the evidence for avoiding this, a clear explanation of the false sense of precision generated by the use of percentage marks and the irrelevance of averaging when grade bands were not of equal size, a predictable outrage had been unleashed in the room.

Harold raised his hand. Sheila sighed inwardly. She mouthed to herself what he would say. “I’ve been teaching for twenty-two years, and…”

“I’ve been marking for twenty-three years, and…” Sheila winced. A year out in her estimate. It was like being lost in time…

Harold had continued “and I am perfectly capable of marking to a single, even to half, of a percentage point…”

Sheila tuned out. They had the same discussion about once every two years. The exams officer was always a newish member of staff who was pleased to get some responsibility so soon, and had no idea of historical discussions.

Eventually Owen called a halt, with no decision being taken, and no chance of any change in practice.

He looked down at his agenda. “OK, folks. Next item: student business.” All eyes turned to the two student reps.

Charlie reddened slightly. He looked down at this notes. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Charlie Burton and this is Sally Redman. We’re both in second year. We wanted to ask the department if you’d consider getting involved in a new initiative…”

“Tautology” muttered Harold, not sufficiently under his breath

Charlie went slightly redder, but continued bravely. “This initiative involves students and staff working together on course improvements. It’s a pilot project and we’d get help from the Students’ Union and the Centre for Academic Practice.”

Harold snorted loudly, and a few other people sniggered more discreetly. Owen frowned at them.

Charlie carried on reading. “As students are experts in being taught, this project aims to make best use of their expertise to enhance the curriculum.” He paused.

The use of the C word unleashed a torrent of comment.

“Students are here to be taught. How can they know what should be in the curriuclum?”

“Students do already contribute to enhancement. They fill in evaluation forms at the end of the year, and we act on that. They haven’t got time to do other things.”

“What can we learn from students? They’re here to learn from us!”

“I’ve been teaching for twenty-three years, are you saying that you’re an expert on my curriculum?”

Owen sat nodding. He made no effort to stop the outbursts, nor to manage the order in which people contributed. Charlie and Sally shrank down in their chairs. Eventually, the hubbub died down. Sheila raised her hand and waved it slightly.

Owen nodded at her. “Sheila.”

“Charlie. thank you. This does sound interesting. Could you tell us a little more about how it would actually work and what you think the remit of students might be?”

Charlie looked gratefully at her, and then returned to his notes. “We would never get involved in commenting on what is taught.” he read out.

“Should think not.” Harold.

“But we think that we have something to offer in terms of the mode of delivery and assessment structures…”

This time, it was the ‘A’ word which caused upset. Student involvement in assessment? Whatever next?

Sheila sighed. She had been missing the students lately, down in what she and Bob affectionately called the Bunker, but she really did not miss her colleagues very much.

Finally, Owen cleared his throat. “OK, folks. I think we need to move on. Anyone in favour of joining Charlie and Sally’s project, perhaps you can catch up with them after the meeting.”

They continued to the next item.

Charlie and Sally had gathered their papers together and sat through the rest of the meeting looking slightly dazed. At the end of the meeting, they rushed for the door. Sheila hurried after them.

“Charlie, hang on a minute.”

The two students turned round.

“I’m Sheila – I teach on the main law degree, but I’m on secondment at the moment on a special project. Listen, I thought your ideas sounded really interesting. Do you want to come for a coffee with me, and we can chat about it?”

They both looked as though it was the last thing they’d like to do.

“Come on. Sorry about my colleagues.” Sheila added, disloyally. “Sometimes they need some time to think about new ideas.” She looked at her watch. “Maybe a drink would be better? It it’s not too early for you?”

Charlie and Sally looked at each other and shrugged. “OK.”

What can we learn from students? Do leave your tips for the Burston Central academics.

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.

A little problem with the marking

Sami has been to see Geoff to complain about his marks. As Head of Department and Chair of the Exam Board, Geoff feels honour-bound to check the transcripts. This has nothing to do with the money Sami put on the table. Has it?

After Sami had left, Geoff walked over to the door and quietly turned the lock. He leant against the door for a moment, and then crossed back to his desk and sat down heavily in his executive chair. He wiped his forehead again and sat for a moment.

Then he took his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the cupboard next to his desk. He took out a bottle of whisky and a glass and  pushed aside the kettle and mugs on top of the desk to make room to put them down. He poured out a generous portion and took a large mouthful. He closed his eyes. Students. Staff. Parents. He’d had enough of all of them.

He opened his eyes and swivelled to his computer. He logged into the student record system and tried to find the results for ‘Foundations of Biology’. You could only change grades when you were looking at the module view. As chair of the exam board, he had access to everything in his department. But he couldn’t remember how to navigate the system properly. He hardly ever bothered to log in. You couldn’t just search on the module title, only the module code, which of course he didn’t know by heart. He resisted the temptation to call Alison.

Eventually he looked up Sami Patel, and then worked back from the list of modules linked to his name.  He felt quite pleased with himself when the list finally came up, and treated himself to another slug of whisky. He glanced down at Sami’s transcript, to double check he was on the right module. The transcript contained module titles and numbers. He sighed. Did humans really design this system, or was it all somehow robotically generated?

He looked more closely at the marks for the module. They were sorted by student number, so it was hard to see any pattern, but he thought they looked a bit odd. There was no way of sorting the data any differently in the student record system. Better take a closer look. He’d need to download the results, put them into Excel, and see what was going on. If he could work out how to do that….

Two hours later….

Alison and Derek were having a quiet night in. They were slumped in front of a Bond DVD with the remains of a takeaway on the coffee table.  Emma was out, and Ben was holed up in his bedroom. A faint thumping from his bass speaker could be felt throughout the house.

“I’ll go and get another bottle of wine.” Alison reluctantly lifted Derek’s arm from her shoulders and went out to the kitchen.

Her mobile was ringing in her bag. She took it out. ‘Geoff, Office.’ Office? Geoff? At this time on a Friday night? She’d better answer.

“Geoff. Is everything all right?”

“No, I haven’t. It’s Friday night, Geoff. What’s the problem?”

“OK, OK. Hold on.”

Holding the phone to her ear, she fished the iPad out of her bag with the other hand.

“No, hang on a sec, I just need to…”

She opened the mail application and scrolled down to the most recent message, from Geoff. Subject line ‘Foundations of Biology’.

There was no text in the email, just a graph.

Graph showing strange variation in mark distributions

Alison had had her share of the first bottle of wine, and it took her a moment to see the significance of the graph. Mark distributions were usually bell-shaped, with longer or shorter tails depending on whether it was a science or an arts subject. This one did look rather odd.

She sat down at the kitchen table.


Derek came into the kitchen. “What’s happened to that bottle of…” he broke off. “What’s up? Is it Emma?” She shook her head, and mouthed “work”.

He came and looked over her shoulder. A graph. Who looked upset over a graph? At least it wasn’t another death in the department.

Alison waved her hand at him to indicate she’d explain in a minute, and continued her conversation. Derek took a second bottle of wine from the fridge and wandered out again. “It’s on Pause,” he offered, as he left the room. Alison gave no sign of hearing him.

“I see what you mean, Geoff.”

“Favourites? Really? Although…actually, looks more like non-favourites. Or whatever the opposite is.”

The wine wasn’t helping.

“No, I’m not the internal moderator. I don’t know who it is. Probably Tim. Or Heather. Heather. I think.”

“I don’t know where the scripts are. Jan may still have them.”

“It’s Bank Holiday weekend, Geoff. I’m pretty sure that Jan’s gone to her flat in Anglesey. We can’t do anything till Tuesday.”

“We can’t do that. They should be locked up somewhere anyway.”

“OK, OK. Tomorrow morning.”

“Eight? Come on, Geoff.”

“OK. Ten o’clock outside the main building. But you’ll have to warn security. The building’s all closed up at weekends.”

“OK. See you tomorrow.”

She pressed the red button and put the phone back in her bag. Shit.

She pulled the laptop out of her bag and opened up her master marking and moderation spreadsheet. Weird. ‘Foundations of Biology’, 200 students. Jan was the sole marker, and there was no moderator listed.

Alison felt slightly queasy. Why wasn’t there another marker to share the load? And why no moderator? Dimly, she remembered  there had been some discussion when she’d produced the list in September. Had she put Tim down? And he’d pointed out he was meant to be marking something else at the same time? And she’d crossed him off, and said she’d find someone else…? Surely Jan would have reminded her?

She shook herself. Couldn’t do anything now. Better be practical. On the iPad, she checked the calendar for Saturday. Ben: computer club, 10.30. Emma: volleyball, 10am. She went back into the lounge and sat down heavily.

“At last. Don’t they know it’s Friday?” Derek reached for the remote.

“Hang on” Alison said. “Can you take Ben to computer club at ten-thirty? I’ve got to go into work. Emergency. I’ll drop Emma on the way. She’ll be a bit early, but it won’t kill her. She can get the bus back.”

“But I thought you were doing tomorrow. I was going to …” Derek didn’t bother. He sighed heavily. “OK, whatever.” He shifted slightly on the sofa so that they were no longer touching. Alison poured herself a very large glass of wine.

Was Sami right? Did Jan have favourites? Or were they a particularly odd group that year?

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.