Moderation

Lynn was in the main building at 7am. It was six months since they had moved to the new building. There were forty of them in the same office. They sat at pods of five desks each, arranged in a sort of strange star-like shape.

desks

The desks had been specially and expensively constructed so that people weren’t looking directly at each other, “to reduce extraneous distractions”, according to Jack, the interior designer.  Lynn grimaced whenever she thought of him. Permanent stubble, thick-framed hipster glasses (did he actually need them?), skinny black jeans, slim-fitting shirt, cashmere sweater, far too many four-syllable words. She was sure he was only about fifteen.  What did he know about how academics worked? It was all very well not being able to make eye contact with your “podmates”, but it felt really antisocial to be looking at other people’s backs all the time. And what had he done about the noise generated in an office that size? She’d found that the only time she could do any work was before about half-past eight.

She sighed as she got out of the lift. About half-way down the corridor, she stopped and put down her bag. She took off her coat and hung it on the hook with her name on it. Jack had put expensive modernist coat stands in the room, but the smell of forty wet coats had led to complaints. Jack was long gone, so the Facilities team had put up the hooks all along the corridor. There had been a few arguments over using favourite coat hooks, and eventually the labels had been added, in strict alphabetical order between the lifts and the office door. It reminded Lynn of her children’s primary school. All that was missing was a cute little picture next to each person’s name. She sometimes amused herself by thinking of suitable pictures for each of her colleagues.

The hooks didn’t make everyone happy. Some people were worried that their coats might be stolen. Lots of people ended up stuffing them under their desks. A smell of damp cloth still permeated the room. Lynn hated the smell, and hung up her coat dutifully in the corridor, but she still felt somehow demeaned every time she did so.

She picked up her bag and swiped her ID card at the entry to the office. In her old office, she’d had a window she could open, and somewhere to hang her coat, and a nice chair for students to sit in, and a kettle for making upset students a cup of tea. There was no chance of any students coming to see her in here. Students were banned. They had to make appointments to meet staff in the ‘chat zone’. “We don’t want to disturb everyone with endless unplanned visits,” Jack had said. “It makes people unproductive.”

Lynn breathed deeply. She was trying to be positive. Six months of rehearsing the same negative thoughts about her workplace. She had to try to get over it.

She sat at her desk and switched on her computer. She really wanted a coffee, but there was nowhere to make one in the office, and the coffee shop didn’t open at this hour. There was nowhere to hide a kettle, more was the pity. She sighed . More negative thoughts.

Before too long, Lynn had forgotten about her worries, and was quite happily planning next year’s lecture programme.  Once she got going,  she was reasonably successful at tuning out the comings and goings in the room, particularly if she had her headphones on. As the room became busier, she kept her eyes focused on the screen. People had pretty much given up greeting each other as they came in – it was too time-consuming to say hello to thirty-nine people – but they normally acknowledged their podmates. None of Lynn’s had yet arrived. They tended to stay late to work, rather than to come in early.

She became aware of someone standing behind her. It was irritating if people stood around in the space between pods, as they sometimes did, having a chat. She raised the volume of her headphones slightly, and carried on.

The person behind her moved closer to the right-hand edge of her desk. Lynn sighed and leaned towards her screen, hoping that whoever it was would go away.

“Lynn.”

She heard that through the headphones. She reached up and pulled them down around her neck, then swivelled her chair slightly to see who it was.

“Matthew. Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

“Evidently. Well, never mind. I wanted to talk to you about Bonny Heywood’s dissertation.”

“OK. We’d better go over to the meeting area.” Lynn sighed. She took off her headphones and stood up. Where was Bonny’s dissertation? She remembered. “I’ve left all of them at home. Nowhere to put them here. Have you got a copy?”

Matthew held it out. “Great,” said Lynn. ”Now, I just need to find my mark sheet – I’ll have to bring the laptop over.” She sighed again. What a pain, having to unplug the computer and bring it over to the meeting area.

Matthew held up a piece of paper. “No need.”

“Great, well, I’m glad one of us is organised!” Lynn cursed herself as she spoke – why was she being so self-deprecating? It wasn’t as though she’d known Matthew would be hovering around wanting to speak to her.

Still silent, Matthew led the way over to the meeting area. This was a small section of the room, separated off with three plexiglass partitions. There was a high bench running round two walls, and another across the middle. There were no chairs. “It’ll keep the meetings short!” Jack had said. There had been an unsuccessful lobby for easy chairs in the area. Lynn knew that some of the others were planning a subscription to go and get some bar stools from Ikea, so that they could at least perch at the benches when they were talking to each other. But for the moment, it was standing only.

Matthew stood on one side of the central bench and laid out the dissertation and two sheets of paper. He was a good eight inches taller than Lynn.

Lynn looked up, and smiled brightly at him. “Right, then. Bonny. What would you like to discuss?”

Matthew finally spoke again. “You gave it 63%.”

“Did I? Well, if you say so. I’ve marked quite a few in the last couple of weeks. I don’t remember exactly. Let’s have a look.” She picked up the dissertation and flicked through it. “Oh yes, I remember this one. Nice idea, not really followed through, though. Seemed to tail off a bit at the end. Do you think I was too generous?”

“No. I gave it 68. 63 seems very low. And I’ve checked her other marks and 68 would bring her average up enough for a first.”

Lynn frowned. “A first? Well,  I don’t think this is first class.”

“I didn’t say it was, I just said that a higher mark would bring her average up.”

“Seriously? But you know, Matthew, we shouldn’t be looking at her other marks. We should just be looking at this piece of work. We can only mark what’s submitted to us, not what we think could have been submitted.”

She knew she sounded sanctimonious, but honestly, what was she supposed to do? She’d second marked it as fairly as she could. She didn’t know this Bonny girl. Woman. Matthew was her supervisor. Maybe he was reading between the lines of the submission. Or maybe she’d missed something. They were only allowed half an hour for each dissertation on their workload plan. Even doubling that, which everyone had to, you could still miss something. She flipped through the dissertation again.

“So, will you put the mark up to 68?”

Lynn looked at Matthew. “I think that’s bit high.”

Matthew looked back at her. “I think it’s a bit low.”

Lynn sighed. “OK. How about if you show me where on the criteria I should be marking it higher?”

“Oh come on, Lynn. I’m her supervisor. Can’t you just take it on trust?”

“No. Come on, yourself. We mark to criteria here. Don’t we?” Lynn sighed again. “OK. Look. I can’t be that precise, nobody can. But I’m sure it’s not a high two-one. Why don’t we compromise on 65?”

“That won’t be enough.”

Lynn shrugged. “Really? 3% on one assignment isn’t enough to get her into the top band? Then maybe she doesn’t deserve to be there? It must be very borderline. And I don’t think this is a high two-one.”

They looked crossly at each other. Lynn felt smaller than ever. She wondered if the conversation would be easier if they could at least sit at the same level, in comfortable chairs, over a coffee. Maybe not. She clenched her toes. She mustn’t give in.

Matthew had gone silent again. Lynn held the dissertation out to him. “OK. Well, I think maybe you’re going to have to suggest a third marker. I really don’t want to go higher than 65.”

Matthew took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes. Lynn braced herself for one of his outbursts, but he only sighed heavily. His shoulders drooped. “OK. You’re probably right. Worth a try, though, eh?”

Lynn stared up at him. Worth a try? What the hell? This was assessment they were talking about, not blagging a good deal on the latest offer in the university coffee shop. She handed the dissertation back to him silently, and walked back to her desk.

She pulled up her electronic diary and opened the entry which said ‘exam board dry run’. She checked the details on her electronic mark sheet, and edited the diary entry: ‘Check mark for student 11607823.’ Matthew had given in too easily. She didn’t trust him. He might be hoping that she wouldn’t notice a change, since at the exam board, they only used student numbers to check the marks.

God, what was the world coming to, that she couldn’t trust her colleagues? She felt completely on edge. There was no way she could settle to her lectures again now. She stood up again, collected her ID card and purse, and set off on the long walk to the coffee shop.

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Disputes

Ajay cleared his throat. “Martin.” He began, uncertainly

Martin looked up. He raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. Ajay never started conversations.

“What’s up, young’un?”

Ajay grimaced. He hated being called ‘young’un’. True, Martin had once been his lecturer, but now they were colleagues, surely a more professional nickname would be in order?

“Have you seen this email from HR?” He sat back, in anticipation of an explosion.

To his surprise, Martin looked slightly taken aback. “From HR? No.” He looked at his screen and tapped frantically at the keyboard. “When did it arrive?”

“About ten minutes ago. I was just thinking about it…”

Martin wasn’t paying attention. He was still searching his email. “So fuckin’ slow.” He muttered.

As he always did, Ajay mouthed “you should clear your inbox out a bit, then”. He smiled innocently when Martin looked up again.

“I definitely haven’t got it. What does it say? No, forward it to me instead.”

Ajay did as he was told. There was a short silence before the previously-anticipated explosion.

“For fuck’s sake! Who do they fuckin’ think they fuckin’ are? Bunch of bullying, obnoxious, bastarding…” He ran out of adjectives, or steam.

“Well, anyway,” Ajay tried again. “I was just wondering…”

“Hang on, young’un, I need to see if anyone else has got this.” Martin reached for the phone and jabbed furiously at the keys.

“Claire? Martin.”

“Have you had an email from HR about the marking boycott?”

“Me neither – looks as though they’ve not sent it to everyone.”

“Yeah, maybe. I’ll check with the other committee members after.”

“Oh, even for them, fuckin’ shockin’. I’ll read you a bit. ‘We regret to inform you that refusing to mark students’ work will be considered as complete withdrawal of your labour. You will not be paid at all if you refuse to mark students’ work. Every day that you refuse to mark work after April 28th, your pay will be docked at 100%.’ What d’ya think of that, Claire?”

Claire evidently thought quite a lot about it. Ajay sighed. He had something he wanted to suggest to Martin.

Eventually, Martin spoke again.

“Right. We need an action plan. Emergency union meeting tomorrow, 2pm. I don’t care if people still have class. Cancel it. This is a crisis. If you send out the invitation, I’ll draft a response to HR.”

“Yes, ok, I’ll contact the other elected members, too.”

“Bye.”

Martin put the phone down and returned to his computer screen.

Ajay tried again. “Martin.”

Martin didn’t look up. “Not just now, young’un, bit of an emergency. Thanks for the heads up, though”.

“Martin. I had an idea. About the strike.”

“Really? ” Martin did make eye contact this time.

“Yes. Why do we always do things which affect students directly?”

“They’re the customers, aren’t they? Management wants to keep them happy.” Martin thought for a minute. “Not that I think of them as customers, obviously, they’re comrades in the union movement, of course, but that’s how management sees them.”

“Well, ok, but it doesn’t really hurt management if we don’t do the marking, does it?”

“Course it does. Marks will be late, exam boards will be late,  won’t be able to have graduation in July, everyone will be pissed off.”

“Exactly. Everyone. And there are lots of staff who would take action if it didn’t hurt students, but won’t, because it does.”

Martin looked confused as he tried to disentangle the negatives in that sentence.

Ajay pressed on. “I don’t want to join the marking boycott, because it will stress my students. But why don’t we take action which only hurts management?”

Martin snorted. “Like what? That lot only care about their six figure pay packets.”

“Well, we could refuse to attend any committees or working groups. The whole place would soon grind to a halt if there was no Senate meetings.”

Martin looked skeptical. “Nobody would care.”

“They would, Martin, because it would mean that there was no effective governance, and they’d be in breach of their charter. And suppose we all refused to go to any meetings about the QAA review? Or, I don’t know, health and safety working group, or disability support? The university would be breaking the law before the end of the month. And I doubt that stuff is in anyone’s contract, so they wouldn’t be able to withhold pay.”

Ajay paused.

Martin was staring at him. “Bloody hell, young’un. You might be on to something.”