Moral Panic

Spring was definitely in the air at Burston Central.

Ajay walked across the park. He felt that he was starting to get the hang of things a bit. That lecture had started and finished on time.  Everyone seemed to have taken part in the activity he’d included to break up the rhythm a bit, and four different students had answered questions. He’d had time to include reference to the exam and how what they’d covered that session might be related to it. He’d made an appointment to sit down with the lecturer he was replacing, Bob, to discuss the exam and the marking schemes. He smiled to himself.

“Mr Metha! Mr Mehta!”

Ajay took a moment to realise that someone must be calling him. Nobody ever called him that. He turned round.

A young woman was trotting towards him. She caught up with him and took a deep breath. “Mr Mehta. Have you got a minute?”

Ajay didn’t recognise her, but he presumed she was from the Corporate Accounting lecture which had just finished. There were three hundred students in the group. He hadn’t made any attempt to remember faces, let alone names. “Sure.”

He waited.

“Could we go and get a coffee?”

Ajay thought for a second. He’d finished teaching for the day, but he had some preparation to do for his PGC session that evening. It shouldn’t take too long. He was good at speed-reading, and nobody really checked up whether they’d done it or not.

“Well. OK.” As he said it, he wondered if he was actually allowed to go for coffee with a student. Nobody had said anything about it, but he couldn’t remember anything like that ever happening when he’d been an undergraduate. “I haven’t got too long. What’s it about?”

The woman smiled. “I’ll tell you in a minute.”

They fell into step. At the exit to the park, Ajay turned slightly to the left, towards the main building. There was a coffee shop on the ground floor.

“Oh, let’s go somewhere else,” said the woman. “I know a nice little place just down here.” She touched Ajay lightly on the arm and set off down Challoner Street.

Ajay followed her. He was about half a pace behind. His cheerful mood had dissipated and he felt very anxious. He looked round to see if he could see anyone he knew. He wasn’t sure if that would be a good thing, or a bad thing.

He was just trying to think of an excuse for leaving when the woman turned into a run-down looking café.

“Coffee’s not great, but it’s quiet,” she offered.

Ajay inhaled deeply. He was probably jumping to all of the wrong conclusions.

They stood at the counter. There was a laminated price list printed in tiny font, propped up against some sauce bottles.

Tea £1

Coffee £1.20

Hot choc €1.50

‘Euros?’ thought Ajay. ‘Euros?’

The woman behind the counter cleared her throat.

“Um. Do you have any herbal tea?” As soon as he’d said it, he knew what the answer would be.

“From the university, are you?”

He nodded.

“Never mind, ducks. PG all right?”

“Of course, of course. And, er, er, what are you having?” He turned to the student.

“Coffee. Black, no sugar.”

“Cups or mugs?”

Ajay stared at the waitress. “Er. I don’t know. Mugs?”

“Two-twenty, duck.”

He paid for the drinks. He was still wondering what the difference between cups and mugs was was when they sat down at a sticky table in the corner.

“Cups are paper.” said the woman.

“Sorry?”

“You asked what the difference was. Cups are paper, mugs are, whatever these are.”

“China.” Ajay completed the sentence automatically. “Did I?

“Did you what?”

“Did I say that out loud?”

“Say what?”

“Never mind. Anyway, er, er, what was it you said I could help you with?”

“I didn’t say you could help me, did I? I just asked you if you had a minute.” She winked at him.

Ajay felt a deep blush forming. He picked up his mug and held it in front of his face. The student leaned over the table towards him.

Ajay was as far back towards the wall as he could manage. He sat rigidly, holding the mug up and slightly away from him. His mind was completely blank. What was he doing there?

The student smiled. She leaned back in her seat. “Don’t worry, Prof, I don’t have any evil intentions.” She paused.  “Although….”

She burst out laughing. “You should see your face, Prof.”

Ajay tried to look as though he didn’t know what she was talking about. “I’m sorry. Have I missed something?” He wished he knew her name. He felt at a complete disadvantage.

“Well. I’m the course rep for Accountancy. A few of us, we’ve got something we want to bring up, but it’s, er, a bit delicate. So we thought we’d try to get some advice.”

Ajay must have continued to look as though he hadn’t a clue what was going on. Which was now true. “Advice,” she went on. “From you.”

“From me? Advice?”

Ajay couldn’t imagine why anyone in the university would ask him for advice.

“It’s about Martin.”

Ajay felt really lost. “Martin?”

“Yeah. You know, Martin, another lecturer in Accountancy?”

Dimly, Ajay made the connection with his office-mate.

“Martin. What about him?”

“We want to make a complaint.”

“Complaint. Complaint. Complaint?” Ajay had never heard of students making a complaint. Large-scale grumbling, yes. He’d done plenty of it himself when he was a student. Shafting the department  anonymously in the National Student Survey, yes. You only had to look at the figures. But a complaint sounded much more serious.

“Yes, Prof. A complaint. Inappropriate behaviour.”

Once again, Ajay was assailed by pure panic. It had been bad enough ten minutes ago, when he’d thought the student was trying to get him to engage in some inappropriate behaviour. Now he was about to be presented with someone else’s? He tried to think of a suitable response.

“Oh dear.” That probably wasn’t strong enough. “That sounds very serious.” That was better. “What exactly is it that Martin is supposed to have done?”

He wondered if he should be asking for any details at all. Maybe that wasn’t the procedure. What was the procedure?

The student blurted out a list of complaints. “He’s just generally unprofessional. Turns up late. Cancels sessions without notice. His teaching notes look ancient. He never uses recent cases. He doesn’t seem to be up to date with the legislation.”

She stopped, and took refuge in her mug. She seemed deflated now that she’d told him.

Ajay felt relieved. It could have been worse. That sounded fairly normal, if his own experience as a student had been anything to go by. Not that it was professional behaviour, but he didn’t think it was anything that would be taken seriously in the department.

“Well, er, er,” dammit, it was such a handicap not knowing people’s names. “ Thank you for mentioning your concerns. I’m not sure what the official procedures are. I haven’t’ been here very long. Leave it with me. If you just write down your email address here, then I’ll let you know when I find out.”

He pulled an undistributed handout from his bag, and felt around for a pen. “Here we are.”

He wrote ‘complaints’ on the back of the handout and then passed the paper and pen across the table.

“Right, well, as I say, thanks for letting me know. I’ll be in touch soon.” Ajay took the paper back and stood up.

“I won’t get into trouble, will I?” The student had lost all of her previous bounciness. “It won’t affect my marks? You won’t tell Martin it was me who complained?”

“No, no, of course not. We’re a professional organisation. We always treat concerns in confidence and we value your feedback.” He had absolutely no idea, but that’s what they always said in the accountancy firm when customers complained.

“Right, I must be off. I’ll be in touch soon.” He waved the paper at her.

As he opened the door, he was sure that he heard the waitress whispering something about herbal tea to her colleague. They giggled.


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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