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.

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  1. Pingback: Quinquennial Review | Wading through Treacle

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