On Tuesday morning, Geoff got into work early. He dialled Jan’s number. He didn’t expect her to be there, but he thought it would be a good idea to leave her an early voice mail.
“Jan, it’s Geoff. Tuesday morning. Can you come down to my office as soon as you get in?”
He replaced the receiver with a heavy sigh. He’d hardly slept since Saturday. How was he going to tackle this? What would he say to Jan? What if there was something wrong with her, and she collapsed or something when he challenged her marking? She’d already been very difficult with him after he’d challenged her over offering extra marks to students who were nice to her, and docking marks from those who were late, or discourteous. Given that one of the students from the module had offered him a bribe, possibly, he had to wonder whether the peak in good marks was entirely natural. And the fact that there hadn’t been any moderation….if the Quality Assurance Agency found out….
He sat at the desk for a while, fretting.
He wondered if it was too early for a nip of whisky. Well, he knew it was too early. But it was an exceptionally difficult day. He kneeled down next to the cupboard and unlocked it. Turning over a glass, he poured a generous shot, downed it in one, then locked the cupboard again.
Leaning heavily on the top of the cupboard, he hauled himself up and flopped back into his executive chair. This was not how he’d imagined the role of Head of Department. He’d thought that the department just ticked away quietly more or less on its own, staffed by autonomous and independent academics. His idea of the role had been to ditch his teaching, carry on with his research, attend senior staff meetings and then just do a bit of admin to join things up a bit. How was it that he’d had no idea about recruitment targets, quality action planning, TRansparent Approach to Costing, audits, or the endless cycle of course reviews? Why was it so difficult to replace and recruit academic staff? And that was without thinking about the discovery that the Dean was a micromanager of epic proportions. Nor the seemingly permanent disputes about car parking, timetabling, photocopiers and small electrical devices. He shuddered.
The door banged open. Geoff started, making the executive chair snap upright. His knees banged hard on the side of his desk. “Ow. Fuck.”
He automatically looked for his whisky glass, but it was already safely out of sight. He wished he’d had another shot.
Jan was standing in front of him. Geoff sighed. “Jan. Thanks for coming in.”
He rubbed his knee. “Sit down, Jan.”
She remained standing. Geoff looked up at her. She looked weird. Was she glaring at him?
“Hello, Jan. Why don’t you sit down for a minute?”
Reluctantly, she pulled the chair slightly further away from the desk and sat down. Knees together, fists curled, back hunched. She looked rather like one of Geoff’s children when they’d been going through their difficult teenage years. He’d never know how to deal with them when they’d been in trouble at school, or had done something else to disappoint their mother.
But Jan was in her late fifties. And had previously been a normal and valued colleague. Reliable. Not much research, but always a reliable teacher. Backbone of the department. He looked at her again. Stroppy. That was definitely the word that was coming into his mind now.
Geoff sighed again. “Jan. Thanks for coming in,” he repeated. “I just wondered if, I just wanted to, would you mind if we….”
Jan still hadn’t spoken. It was unnerving, the staring. He looked away from her and opened the folder he’d made over the weekend. There was only one sheet of paper in it. He lifted it up.
“I was just looking at the marks distribution for Foundations of Biology. You know, ahead of the exam board. Like to be prepared.” This wasn’t true. He usually just looked at all of the printouts as the results administrator passed the sheets to him during the board meetings.
“It’s a bit unusual. Very interesting, in fact.”
He looked up. Jan had raised an eyebrow. He looked back at the paper.
“I’ve never seen one quite like it, so I thought it would, er, be useful to, er,” he hesitated, then had a brainwave. “To, er, find out how you’ve managed to get such startling performances from the students.” He smiled cheerfully at Jan.
She took the bait. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it looks as though some students have performed much better than we would have expected, given their marks on other modules.” He felt ridiculously pleased with himself. Tactful. He’d worry about the poor performers later.
Jan pulled her chair a little closer, so that she could see the paper with the graph on it.
“Hmmm. I hadn’t seen them like that. Interesting.”
“Yes. Usually we’d expect a normal distribution of marks, wouldn’t we?” Geoff traced an imaginary line on top of the paper. “This is very unusual.”
Jan leaned in. “That’s probably because I’ve made an important discovery. I’m glad you’ve noticed.”
Geoff moved back very slightly. “Oh?”
“You’re always telling us we need to focus on employability, aren’t you?” Her tone was certainly assertive. Maybe even bordering on accusatory.
“Well, yes, it’s a strategic objective to…”
She cut him off. “Well, I’ve decided to assess professional values as well as academic performance. Just like you’ve told us to.”
“Told you to? I don’t remember…”
Jan kept going. She sped up. “If that’s how you want things to go, not bothering about how much they know, never mind if they don’t know any biology, as long as they can get a job, I’ve decided to reward their behaviour.”
“I told you, earlier in the year. Punctuality, courteousness, neatness, attention to dress. All that.”
“But. But. But. I thought we’d agreed that wouldn’t….” Geoff felt his heart rate increasing. “Jan. Have the students had their marks back yet?” He knew they probably had, but just in case…
“Of course. You should know that. You’re always reminding us about the marking deadline.”
“And. Er. How have you moderated the marks?”
“No need. I wasn’t basing them on one single piece of work, after all, but over performance across the whole module. And I got peer verification.”
Geoff sighed with relief. “Oh. OK. Great. Why didn’t you say so? Who did it? Phil? Sally?”
Jan frowned. “I said peer verification. You know, asking the students to mark each other?” She spoke slowly, as though explaining a new concept.
“But. But. But. It didn’t say anything about that in the module brief. You have to stick to what’s in the documents, Jan. You know that. What if we had an unexpected audit?”
Jan shook her head. “Don’t be daft. It’s only eighteen months since the last one. We aren’t due one for another four years, and by then, you’ll see the effects of my strategy. Anyway, it’s what you told us to do.”
Geoff forgot about his tactful approach. “I don’t think it is. That’s ridiculous. You’re on your own with this one. I want to see some samples of their work, Jan.”
“They haven’t handed anything in. All done on their performance in class.”
“But. But. But….” Geoff was really struggling to process this. “But there are three hundred in the class. How did you…” Actually, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Jan stood up. “It was bloody hard work. Got to go. Teaching now. Let me know if you want to report back on this at the annual staff development day. I think you’ll see the benefits.”
Geoff barely noticed her departure. He was staring at the graph again. This was far worse than he’d thought. Jan was clearly completely mad. And yet, she seemed to think it was all rational. He’d asked for employability to be embedded in the curriculum. He hadn’t really thought about what that would mean. How could anyone think a biology course should be assessed depending on the student’s neatness? How could he have predicted that? Should he have done?
What was he going to do now? He got down on his knees in front of the cupboard again.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.