Audit Trails

Geoff and Alison are spending Bank Holiday Saturday trying to work out why the marks for Foundations of Biology are so weird.


She thought for a minute. “The assignment brief should be on the shared drive somewhere. They’re supposed to be all together.”

Geoff waved at the keyboard. “Be my guest.”

“You can get into the shared drive, can’t you? Go to My Computer, then the Z drive, then….”

Eventually they got to the right place. General BSc Biology courses/Year 1/Handbooks.

They looked at the folder. Geoff read out the file names. “Cell biology. Inverterbrates.” He paused. “Do we only have two modules in year 1, then?”

Alison ignored his heavy sarcasm. She straightened up. “I don’t think that’s going to help us, Geoff. I don’t know why the handbooks aren’t there. Everyone has access to the drive. Maybe someone has accidentally deleted them?”

That may or may not have been a reference to a disastrous occasion a couple of years previously, when Geoff had emptied the entire contents of a crucial exam board folder by mistake. Only administrative staff now had access to those files. In any case, Geoff subsided.

“I’ll have a copy in my mailbox.” said Alison, more briskly. “Probably quicker if I load it up on here.” She took her laptop out and opened the lid.

They drank their dismal beverages in silence as they waited for the laptop to boot up in its turn. Eventually, Alison had her email open and was searching for emails from Jan. Eventually she located the handbook for Foundations of Biology. She skimmed through to the assignment briefs.

“Hmm. Portfolio. I wouldn’t have thought that would give rise to a narrow middle band.”

Geoff mimed the words. “Narrow. Middle. Band. What. The. Fuck?”

If Alison noticed his lips moving, she didn’t give any sign of it. She continued talking to herself. “Portfolio. What’s in the portfolio? It doesn’t seem to say. That’s odd.” She frowned.

“I thought you would have checked this, Alison?”

“Well, a portfolio is a perfectly legitimate type of assessment, Geoff. I’ve never had any cause to worry about Jan’s work before this year, so I probably didn’t think about it too much. I was pretty busy at the start of the year, if you remember, covering Cell Biology after poor Gareth, um, left us so suddenly, and what have you. And this isn’t helping much. We’re going to have to look at some student work.”

“I’ll log on to Burst-E”

She shook her head. “Jan doesn’t use it.”

“She doesn’t use it? But there’s a requirement.”

“Well, not for assignments, anyway.” Probably not for anything. “I did tell you last year about that, Geoff. There’s only so much the course leader can do. Sometimes the line manager needs to take action.”

They looked at each other. Geoff sighed. “OK. Where can we find the assignments?”

Alison shrugged. “They should have been returned to the students long ago. Maybe they haven’t all been picked up, though.”

She stood up. “Have you got a key to the departmental office?”

Geoff opened a drawer. “Should have. No, not here. Maybe this one. Ah, yes, here we go. Master key.” He held it up.

Alison put out her hand.

“It’s OK, I’d better hang on to it.” He stood up.

The departmental office seemed abandoned. Hard to believe it was full of people, noise, and general busy-ness all through the week.

“Right. Where would the work to be returned be?”

“Over there.” Alison pointed to the desk over by the small hatch that students used to make enquiries. It was piled with boxes, each bearing the name of a module.

Geoff went over and looked at the boxes. “Bloody hell. You’d need to be an archaeologist.” He seemed to have brightened up a bit. “Why haven’t students come to collect it?”

Alison shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe they don’t care about the feedback?”

Geoff snorted. “Or maybe it’s all crap and not worth collecting. You need to add that to your list of jobs. Sort out the feedback.”

Alison bit her lip. She wasn’t adding anything to her list of jobs. She closed her eyes for a moment and thought about where she would be in five months’ time. On the beach, looking for specimens of Martin’s Ramping Fumitory. No feeble heads of department, no irritating colleagues, no demanding students. Never again. Pity the beach was in the Isle of Wight and not the Caribbean, but you couldn’t have everything.

“There’s nothing here from Foundations of Biology.” Geoff had upturned most of the boxes and there were assignments spread everywhere. A loose sheet of paper fluttered to the floor.

“Jesus, Geoff, they were all sorted out by module. What have you done?”

“Nobody’s ever coming to collect these. Not surprised, either.” He picked an assignment from the floor and read from the cover sheet. “ ‘Could do better. Try harder next time.’ What use is that? Bloody hell, Alison, that’s not useful feedback. Even I know that. You’re all always complaining how long it takes to do the marking and give feedback. Can’t have taken long to do that. Don’t you check what your module leaders are doing? You know, audit the feedback or something?”

Alison looked hard at him. Was he trying to be funny? Every time she suggested developing a more consistent approach to marking and feedback in departmental meetings, Geoff cut the conversation short somewhere around the point where people were starting to talk about Big Brother.

Geoff looked slightly guilty. “Well, anyway, this isn’t getting us anywhere.” He started shoving papers back into boxes.

“Geoff, surely we should make sure these are sorted out …..” Alison gave up. She sighed. “Maybe Jan gives the work back to students directly?”

Geoff crumpled the last feedback sheet back into a box. “Good point. Perhaps they’re in her office.”

“Oh well, we’ll have to wait until Monday, then. No, Tuesday. I forgot about the Bank Holiday.” Alison brightened up a bit. Maybe she’d get home by lunch-time.

Geoff rattled his bunch of keys. “It’s OK. I can get into Jan’s office.”

Alison was appalled. “You can’t do that. You can’t go in someone’s office without permission….” She tailed off. She couldn’t actually think of any reason why Geoff couldn’t do that. There was nothing to stop him. In fact, maybe it was something he made a habit of. All sorts of people had master keys. Maybe they were in and out of the offices all the time. Obviously, cleaners must go in regularly. Probably. Now there weren’t any bins to empty, and most people’s desks were unfindable under piles of paper, she wasn’t sure whether they did. She tried to remember when she’d last seen one.

She was still wondering whether some kind of different office-door-opening etiquette applied outside normal working hours when Geoff tapped her on the arm. “Come on. I want to lock this room up.”

Alison followed him automatically. Outside Jan’s office, Geoff started to try his different master keys. “Geoff. Are you sure this is a good idea? I feel weird, going into Jan’s office without her knowing about it.”

Geoff turned to her. “Stay outside, then. If you can’t stand the heat…”

Alison was taken aback by his tone. She’d known Geoff for almost fifteen years. She’d thought they were, not friends exactly,  but at the very least, close colleagues. He seemed to have changed. Or maybe her impending departure was making her see the real Geoff?

“I’ll come in.” She figured that at least there would be a witness.

Geoff found the right key and opened the door.

They stepped inside.

Whatever Alison had been expecting, it wasn’t this. The office looked completely unused. There were books on the shelf, but they were all textbooks. There was nothing which indicated Jan’s area of interest. There was nothing lying around. No papers on the desk.  No kettle. No personal items. No photocopier-boxes of uncollected assignments.

Geoff walked over to the desk and tried opening the drawers. They were locked. Same for the filing cabinet.

“It looks as though she never comes in.” said Alison. “Does she work from home a lot?”

Geoff looked at her. “How would I know? As if you lot ever tell me what you’re doing.”

Alison shrugged. True. And why should they? She tried to remember when she’d last seen Jan. Must have been at the last departmental meeting. Had she said anything? Possibly not. Most of the discussion had been about kettles and car parking, anyway.

“I wonder if she’s all right.”

“Why d’you say that?” Geoff sounded suspicious. “Do you think there’s something wrong?”

Alison sighed. “I don’t know. This just seems so, so…” She waved her arm around. “So plain. I haven’t been in here for ages, but I’m sure it used to be more, I don’t know, more Jan, somehow. Why would she have cleared it out?”

“I don’t know, but it’s probably none of our business. Nothing wrong with tidying up, is there? Wish a few more people would do it, actually. They’ll have to soon, anyway, when we move to -” Geoff cut himself short.

“Move to…?” Alison sounded innocent. There had been lots of rumours about large scale reorganisations of buildings, but nothing had been announced.

“Move to, er, having regular office hours for students.”

“What? We do that already.”

“Well, you may do, but not everyone does. So, anyway, some people will have to tidy up,” Geoff bluffed. The moving plans were secret.

‘You could start with your own office,’ thought Alison. She gave up on the topic, reminding herself yet again that she wouldn’t be there for much longer. “Well. There’s nothing we can do here. You’ll have to talk to Jan on Tuesday.”

“Yes. I’ve got meetings in the morning. Can you see what you can find first thing for me?”

Alison narrowed her eyes. “No. I think it has to come from you.” She felt pleased with herself. She never usually said ‘No’ to anything.

Geoff sighed. “OK. I’ll try to do it in the afternoon.”

They locked up and retrieved their bags and coats from Geoff’s office.

As they left the building, the security guard gave them a sad little wave.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

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