It was three o’clock. The Biology department academic staff sitting in their rows, looking balefully at Camilla, the cheery young trainer from HR. They were flagging, despite, or maybe because of, their above-average lunch. A whole series of new quality procedures had been presented, and possibly immediately forgotten. They’d been told what they needed to do to achieve professional recognition from the Higher Education Academy. Chris had berated their overall research performance and made it clear that the Biology REF submission was entirely dependent on the efforts of his own group.

These weren’t the best conditions for their team-building activity. Unless you could count the fact that they were united in their demotivation.

Phil leaned over and whispered to Alison. “If she tries to make us fall backwards with our eyes closed, I’m leaving.”

Alison sniggered. “It’s probably just another lecture about something or other we’re supposed be doing, but aren’t” she whispered back. “Theme of the day.”

Camilla cleared her throat a couple of times and balanced on tiptoes in excitement. “Hello everybody! Lovely to see you all still here! Well done!”

“Jesus. Like we had a choice.” Phil muttered. Alison pursed her lips in an effort not to snort.

Camilla showed no sign of having heard any noises off. “I know you’ve all been sitting quietly all day, so let’s start with a bit of movement. Can you all stand up, please?”

There was some rustling and grumbling as they all got up reluctantly from their comfortable chairs. Suspicious looks were exchanged.

“Great! Now, I’d like you all to walk across the room and find someone you haven’t spoken to today.” The rest of the sentence was drowned out as they all followed the initial instruction. Eventually, everyone had reached somewhere. They all turned expectantly to Camilla.

She raised her voice a little. “Great! Now. Tell your partner something that you really like about them. I mean about their work.”

A silence fell across the room. Pairs of biology staff looked at each other. There were some muffled giggles, then they reluctantly complied. The level of noise grew as they lapsed into conversation again.

Camilla clapped her hands.  Eventually silence fell. “Marvellous! I hope you heard something you appreciated! I’m sure you did! Now. Let’s not go back to those rows of chairs. Can you give me a hand to move them out of the way?”

A reasonable amount of chaos ensued as the adage of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ was comprehensively demonstrated. After about ten minutes, the chairs were stacked more or less tidily at the sides of the room. People looked with trepidation at the empty space in the middle. Alison was struggling to keep a straight face. “At least we’re getting paid for this,” she murmured to Phil.

Camilla frowned. “Oh dear. Not as much space as I’d thought. We’ll have to go in two circles.”

Circles? The word generated a collective shudder.

She moved into position. “OK everyone. Can you form a circle from here,” she pointed to her left. “Round to here,” she pointed to her right. “And then another one behind. Concentric.” She swept her arms from behind her round to the front, then back again, showing what a circle looked like. “Maybe a third if we need it,” she added, uncertainly.

After a fair amount of shuffling, grumbling, and groaning from those who hadn’t sat on the floor for some time, they were settled. “I wonder if she’s going to tell us a story, once we’re all sitting comfortably,” Phil whispered. Alison snorted. Camilla turned her head to find the source of the noise. She looked hurt. Geoff looked daggers at Alison. “Sorry,” she mouthed.  She looked hard at the pattern on the carpet. Strangely swirly.

Camilla lifted her hands above her head. When the room was silent, she started to talk in a different tone from her previous one. Calmer. Slower.  “Burston Central is successful. But to make it so, everyone has to work so hard. This is an opportunity to take a step back. We all lead such busy lives. Can you all close your eyes, please?”

The level of sniggering rose significantly. People looked at each other, half embarrassed, half hysterical. Geoff glared around the circles until everyone he could see had complied with the request.

Camilla slowed her speech still further. “Now. We’re going to visit the temple of the dolphins.”

Suppressed giggles rippled around the room.

“To get to the temple of the dolphins, we have to fly over the oceans….”

Alison had no choice but to tune out. There was no way she could listen to this without tipping over into complete hysteria. She focused back in on what she needed to do to sort out collecting in the dissertation marks. That would probably take most of Monday. It was always hard to get everyone’s marks. Sometimes she thought it might be easier to mark all ninety herself.

Camilla continued. Every now and then, Alison tuned back in. “…the dolphins work together to find food. They are committed to the Temple. In the dolphin nursery, the young are cared for by…..”

“Anthropomorphic nonsense,” thought Alison. “What is the fucking point of this?” She opened her eyes suddenly, worried that she may have spoken the thought out loud. Everyone was still sitting, heads bent. Probably doing the same thing as her.

The description of the dolphins seemed endless, but eventually, Camilla came to a stop. She leaped to her feet. “Aren’t they marvellous, the dolphins?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She seemed to be re-energised. She bounded over to the computer. “Now, let’s watch this video of dolphins, and see how they work together in teams. Probably best if you just stay sitting there. It’ll take too long to get the chairs back out. ”

Obediently, they swivelled on the floor until they could all see the screen. Camilla pressed ‘play’.

The title came up. ‘What Dolphins Can Teach Us About Teamwork’. What followed was a fairly dire compilation of clips, narrated by an enthusiastic American who was clearly just making things up as he went along. Camilla watched rapt, oblivious to the raised eyebrows and sarcastic expressions being exchanged around the room.

Fortunately it was only about ten minutes long.

Once it had finished, Camilla turned back to her group, still sitting in their ragged circles in the middle of the room. “Wasn’t that marvellous?”

There was no response. “Now, can you each tell the person sitting next to you what you’ve learned about team-work from this journey to the temple of the dolphins?”

One or two people stood up at this point. Camilla frowned. “Bad back.” one of them offered. She looked more sympathetic, and nodded understandingly. This was a cue for a mass movement, with colleagues united in helping each other up.

Camilla clapped her hands. “So, what have you learned?”

“I’ve learned that dolphins are very sensible not to have an HR department,” Phil said under his breath. Apart from that, nobody spoke.

“Don’t be shy! What do you think?”

Jan put up her hand.

“Yes! Do share!”

“I’ve learned that dolphins aren’t like people, particularly not like academics, and I can’t see any connection at all between them and us. We’re all individualists.” There was another outbreak of sniggering.

Camilla looked as though someone had slapped her. “Oh dear. That wasn’t what I was hoping you would learn.”

Geoff took pity on her. “Thank you, Camilla. I’m sure we’ve learned that by sharing goals and working together, we’ll achieve something greater.”

She brightened a little. “Exactly. So important.”

Geoff looked at his watch. “Well, thank you, Camilla, that was absolutely, er, fascinating.”

Everyone was still standing. Geoff couldn’t really see everyone. It wasn’t ideal. Much better if they’d been sitting in rows looking at him, as they had been earlier. He raised his voice. “Well, thank you for coming, everyone.” The crowd began to move towards the edges of the room, where coats and bags were stacked.  He raised his voice. “Just before you go, there was another announcement I forgot to make this morning.”

The rustling died down again. He cleared his throat. “It’s just about arrangements for resits.”

Resits? They all knew the arrangements for those. His team looked impatiently at him.

He cleared his throat again. “Er. There’s been a decision on high to make some changes this year.”

He took a much-folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “Resits will be in the second week of August, as usual. So that we can do the marking when you’re back in for Clearing, as usual. But there will be some changes to the, er, arrangements, beforehand.” He looked at the paper and read out the rest of what he had to say very rapidly. “We are expected to give more formal support to resit students between the exam board and the resit. Someone from every module must be on duty every day to give students advice and guidance. Alison will be sorting out a rota so please  don’t book any annual leave until that’s done. Right. Thanks for coming, have a good break, see you next term.”

He kept his head down as he refolded the paper and put it back in his pocket, and then began to edge towards the door. A silence had fallen. Briefly. Then the outrage of his team began to be expressed much more forcefully. They began to move towards him.

“It’s the only time we can get away.”

“I’ve already booked my holiday.”

“When CAN we take leave then? Exam-marking time? Clearing? Induction? Middle of term?”

Geoff kept inching towards the door. “I’m sure we can sort it out. Edict from on high. Got to go along with it. Need to support the students, don’t we?”

He reached the door. “Got to go to the loo.” He wrenched the door open and hurried down the corridor. In the Gents, he locked himself in a cubicle and resolved to stay there until they must all be gone. He shuddered. What a bloody disaster of a day. Waste of money.

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.

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Staff Development

It was Monday morning. Alison was feeling particularly grumpy. She’d had to work through most of the weekend, marking dissertations. And today had been blocked out for the Biology Department staff development session. She couldn’t think of a worse way to spend the day. It was the first day of the vacation. She had a pile of admin to finish off, and she needed to start chasing up the other dissertation markers before they disappeared on actual holidays.

Not only that, but the venue for the ‘Awayday’ was on the other side of town, and required her to take two buses, with a good mile of walking between them. And it was pouring with rain.

And to cap it all, at the end of the day the department were all  going out for a meal to mark the departure of a long-standing colleague. If anyone had asked her, she’d have thought that he’d left years ago, for all the impact he had on the department.

Derek, Emma and Ben kept well out of her way.

Eventually, she was on the bus. She opened her iPad and started reading a journal article which she’d downloaded several weeks previously and hadn’t quite got round to during term-time. Now she was reading it, she couldn’t for the life of her remember why she had thought it would be interesting. It seemed pretty irrelevant to her research interests. She skipped to the reference list. Nothing she recognised.

She closed the app and opened up a game of Solitaire instead. Sod them.

The conference venue was a shiny new building which formed part of the University of Burston expansion. Alison peeled off her soaking wet anorak at the Reception desk. “Burston Central Biology.”

“Good morning, Madam. That’s marvellous. You’re in the Shattock room, just down at the very end of this corridor.”

Alison was sure the receptionist was being sarcastic. She looked at him suspiciously. Was he making some kind of ironic comment about them being from a poorer university, without its own conference facilities? “Is there anywhere I can leave this?” She flapped her anorak towards him, causing a shower of raindrops to fall onto the highly polished wooden surface.

He reached under his desk for a cloth and started rubbing at the water. “Of course, Madam. The cloakroom is just over here. Shall I take it for you?” He looked as though he would rather walk across hot coals.

“No, that’s fine. I’ll manage.” Alison bent and gathered her things together.  It took a while, somewhat spoiling her attempt to look dignified.

She took her time hanging up her coat. Then she visited the Ladies. Then she went back to Reception.

“Is there anywhere I can get a coffee?”

“There are refreshments in your meeting room, Madam.” The receptionist managed to convey his disappointment that she could think that such a thing would have been overlooked in his establishment. Or perhaps that the standard of service was so much poorer at Burston Central?

“Oh. Thank you.”

She couldn’t put it off any longer. She walked slowly down the corridor to the Shattock room.

She was hoping that the meeting would be about to start by the time she got there, but inside the room everyone was still standing around.  The chairs were laid out in neat rows facing a screen.

There was a concentration of people to the left of the room, presumably where the refreshments were. Alison pushed her way gently through the groups, murmuring brief hellos. Her frigid expression helped to create a small space around her. She helped herself to coffee. Fucking staff development days. What a waste of time.

There was a large plate to the right of the coffee flasks, containing quite appetising-looking pastries. She was unable to prevent herself from thinking that this was a big treat. ‘Pastries. Ooh.’  She helped herself.

“They’re really good.” Sally came up to her. “What a treat. Pastries!”

Alison allowed a small smile to form. How feeble they all were. A pound’s  worth of cake, and they were all happy. Still, the pastries were good.

Geoff was hovering near the screen at the front of the room. “Er. Colleagues.” He raised his voice. “Colleagues. Shall we make a start?”

Reluctantly, they shuffled towards the seats. A small queue formed around the flasks again, but eventually, everyone was settled.

Geoff was moving impatiently from foot to foot. “Right then, colleagues. Let’s make a start. Lots to get through. Just before we get going, I’ve got a couple of announcements.”

He looked down at his notes. “Right. OK. Well, I’m pleased to say that Phil and Sally have agreed to step in as Joint Acting Course Leaders following Alison’s departure. They’ll be shadowing Alison until the summer. We’ll advertise during the autumn term.

“And there’s something else I just want to flag up. We’re going to need to do a review of assessment practices before September. I’ve asked Sally to co-ordinate this. We’ll need to look at everyone’s assessment strategies.” He looked hard at Jan, but she was staring at her phone, and didn’t seem to be listening.

“OK. Let’s get on. We’ve got a packed programme today, so we need to keep to time.” He looked around the room, making eye contact with as many people as possible. Alison was fighting back the urge to giggle. She looked at the window in an effort to distract herself. Outside, there were trees in blossom.

Geoff continued. “OK. Well. This morning, we’re going to hear from Diane, from the Quality Department, about the new procedures for,” he looked down at his notes again. “For engagement monitoring.  And plans for the QAA visit in three years’ time. And then Hazel from the Centre for Academic Practice has kindly agreed to come and explain the new, er, professional recognition scheme. Then it’ll be time for lunch, which I’m told is very good here. After lunch, Chris is going to come and update us on progress towards the Research Excellence Framework submission, and we’ll finish off the day with a team-building session from HR.”

A chorus of sighs greeted this dispiriting agenda, providing an appropriate audio accompaniment to the eye-rolling which had met each of the topic announcements.

Jan raised her hand.

“Yes, Jan?”

“Geoff. I thought you told us that attendance was compulsory.”

“Yes, and thank you all for coming along, of course.”

“Where’s Chris, then?”

“Chris? He’s coming along after lunch.”

An expectant silence fell.  Geoff realised that something more was needed.

“He’s got important research obligations this morning.”

There was an outbreak of muttering. Geoff rushed on. “Anyway, let’s get going, shall we? Diane, over to you.”

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.

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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.

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Academic emergency

Geoff has arranged to meet Alison early in the morning to work out what’s happened in the Foundations of Biology course.

On Saturday morning, Alison and Emma left the house at nine-fifteen. Emma was only wearing one shoe, and was pulling a hoody over her head as she hopped towards the car.

“For God’s sake, Emma. I told you we were leaving early this morning.”

“I can’t help it if you mess up my routine. It’s all right for you, you’re going to be in a nice warm car. I’m going to be hanging around outside the gym. What am I supposed to do for fifteen minutes?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Emma. The gym will be open by the time we get there. You’ve got your phone, haven’t you? You can go on Facebook and complain about how unfair everything is.”

“Facebook? God, Mum, you have no idea.” Distracted by Alison’s untrendiness, Emma stopped complaining and took out the phone. She started tapping rapidly. Alison sighed. Emma was still typing when they pulled up outside the gym.

“OK. See you later.”

Emma looked up. There was nobody else in sight. “Mum, can’t you just wait a minute? It’s cold outside.”

“You’ll soon warm up when you start playing. Come on, I’ve got to get to work.”

Emma opened the car door, grumbling. “It’s always work first, isn’t it?”

Alison winced. “No, not always. But you’re going to play volleyball. Would you rather I stayed and watched?”

Emma recoiled. “No way. Only saddos’ parents stay for training.”

Her mother briefly contemplated a short lecture on inclusivity, but she really did need to go. “Well, there you are then. It’s a win-win for both of us. Have you got enough money for the bus?”

“Not sure. Only if I don’t get a drink afterwards.” Emma looked devastated at this idea. Alison sighed and scrabbled some coins out of the parking kitty, kept in the cup-holder between the seats. “Here you go. Text me when you get home. See you later.”

Just then, another car pulled up. Emma took the money and jumped out. She slammed the door and ran off to meet the other girl.

“See you later.” repeated Alison to herself, as she pulled off.

It was about ten past ten when she got to the University, and Geoff was jumping up and down outside the main building.

“About time, too. It’s freezing out here.”

“Geoff. I do have other commitments.”

“I did tell you this was an emergency. It’s not long until the exam boards. We’ll have to sort this out.”

They went round to the side of the building and rang the bell by the security door. The intercom crackled. “Yes?”

Geoff pressed the button marked ‘Talk’. “Professor ?? I emailed you last night to say I was coming in.” He let go of the button.

“Did you? I haven’t checked the email this morning. Too busy.”

There was a pause. Geoff pressed the button again. “Well, I did. And now I’m here. Got an emergency to deal with.”

“Emergency? Have you notified the police?”

“Not that kind of emergency. An academic emergency.”

An odd noise could be heard through the intercom. It was crackly, but it sounded remarkably like sniggering.

Eventually, the noise subsided and the door opened. A uniformed man stood in front of them. “An academic emergency. That’s a good one. Can I see your IDs?”

They both smiled politely and fished in their respective bags for lanyards. Flashing the badges in front of the guard, they started to head for the main atrium. “Hang on a minute. I need to make a note. Let’s see those cards.” He took their IDs and went back towards his small office.

Geoff and Alison stood silently in the small corridor. After a while, the guard returned, handed them the badges and said cheerfully “Pop in for a brew later if you like. The coffee shop isn’t open on Saturdays. And it gets a bit quiet around here. Always happy for a chat.”

Alison smiled at him politely and followed Geoff, who’d set off at a good pace without waiting for the end of the sentence. She felt almost sorry for the guard. Burston Central on a Bank Holiday weekend was a pretty dispiriting place to be. Especially when you were stuck there with Geoff, dealing with a ‘marking emergency’.

They continued in silence up to Geoff’s office. Once inside, Geoff unplugged the kettle and passed it to her. “Do you want to fill this, while I boot up the computer?”

Alison accepted the kettle. She stood for a moment looking at Geoff as he bustled round the desk and switched on the computer. Then she shrugged and went down the corridor to the Ladies. He probably didn’t mean anything by it. Thank God she was leaving.

When she got back to the office, Geoff was sitting at his desk staring at the opposite wall. She plugged in the kettle. “Got any clean mugs, Geoff?”

Geoff looked vaguely around the room. “Mugs?”

“Never mind.” Alison could see that there was a small collection of dirty mugs lined up on the very edge of Geoff’s large and overflowing desk. She collected up as many as she could and went off to the loos again. She was pretty sure Geoff wouldn’t have any washing-up liquid or cloths. She dumped the mugs and then went back to her own office to find a clean sponge. It would be a lot easier to have proper washing-up facilities. Not to mention more hygienic.

When she finally got back to Geoff’s office with her collection of clean mugs, Geoff was still staring at the wall. Alison wondered if he’d actually had some kind of seizure.

“Everything all right, Geoff?” She clattered the mugs down on the coffee table next to the kettle.

“What? Yes. Of course. Still waiting for this damn thing to boot up. Takes longer every day.” He looked at the screen. “Oh. OK. Here it is.”

“Tea or coffee?”

“What?” Geoff didn’t look up from the screen.

“Tea, or coffee?” Alison spoke with exaggerated slowness, as though to a non-native speaker.

Geoff didn’t seem to notice. “Oh. Um. Coffee. White, no sugar.”

“Have you got any milk?”


“Yes, Geoff. Milk. To make the coffee white?”

“Oh. No.”

“Black coffee, then?”

Geoff looked up. “I suppose so.”

Alison inhaled deeply. “Here you are, then.”

She passed him a mug, and rescued her own tea bag. Black tea. Bleurgh.

She pulled a chair round to Geoff’s side of the desk. “OK. Let’s have a look at it.”

Geoff had just managed to get the student record system up on the screen. He scrabbled through the papers on his desk to try to find out where he’d written down the module code the previous day.

“Shit. I’ve got it here somewhere.”

“Foundations of Biology? 53926. Underscore, 12.”

Geoff raised his eyebrow, but said nothing. He typed it in.

A long list of student names and grades came up.

“Right. Now look what happens when I sort them by grade.” Geoff clicked at the top of one of the columns. “See? That’s what I put into Excel and sent you last night.”

“Yes. Well. I agree. It doesn’t look right.”

Geoff snorted. “Slight understatement.”

“There might be a good reason, Geoff.” Alison had no idea what that could possibly be. She extemporised. “It could have been an odd multiple choice test, or some marking criteria which, er, were narrow in the middle, or something.”

Geoff stared at her. “Narrow in the middle? What the hell does that mean?”

“Look, I don’t know.” Alison snapped at him. “We’ll have to look at, er, the assignment brief, and, er, a sample of the work.” She sighed. This was going to take ages.

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Alison finished stacking the dishwasher and sidled over to the door. “I’m just going upstairs to get myself sorted out for next week. Won’t be long.”

Ben paused the programme that the rest of the family was watching.

Derek rolled his eyes. “See you tomorrow.”

Alison hovered in the doorway. “It’s not for much longer. Just think, soon I’ll be all yours on a Sunday evening.”

Derek raised an eyebrow. “I can hardly wait.”

The children affected not to hear this. Alison opened her mouth, but couldn’t think of anything to say which didn’t sound either martyred or mawkish. She paused for another moment and then retreated upstairs. Was it so wrong to want to clear her inbox ready for the week ahead? It wasn’t her fault she was so busy.

She settled at her desk and opened the lid of the laptop. She looked around the study while it was warming up. God, there was a lot of stuff to sort through before they moved. And she really must remember to back everything on the laptop up before she had to give it back to the university when she left. There were a  few personal things on there. No point in doing it till the last minute. As long as she remembered.

The laptop drew her attention back. Eleven email messages. God, since when did so many other people work at the weekend?  She scanned the list.  Only one caught her eye. It would have been hard for it not to. It was marked ‘urgent‘ and the subject line read ‘external examiner!!!! HELP!!!!’

It was from Phil. Alison sighed.

Phil and Sal had been supposed to be sharing the course leader duties since Easter, to provide a transition period. In theory, she was only providing them with occasional support and advice, because in theory the Quality department documentation was so robust that everything was self-explanatory. ‘Succession planning’, Geoff called it.

In practice, the documentation may have been self-explanatory, but it told course leaders nothing about when tasks need to be completed, nor who might be expected to do what. It was indeed very helpful, once you knew what what needed to be done, when, and by whom. So far Alison had just found it quicker to do everything herself. However, she’d insisted that they manage the exam board by themselves. That was something where the timetable was laid down from on high and which was adequately served by the central administrative team. It was on the following Wednesday and she was thoroughly looking forward to ceremonially sending her apologies.

The subject line of Phil’s email therefore filled her with gloom. She opened one or two less important-looking emails but her attention was really on the multiple exclamation marks and what might have been happening with the external examiner over the weekend. Could she be sick? Possible, but hardly a disaster – they could manage without her for once, as long as she sent in a sick note. Perhaps she had uncovered some terrible marking discrepancy. Unlikely – Alison had the marking criteria tied down to the last half a percent. Leaving aside Jan’s strange attempt to include behaviour in the criteria earlier in the year, that was all pretty much under control.

Reluctantly, she clicked on the row of exclamation marks.



Terrible cock-up.

Nobody told me I had to sort out a sample of work for the external.

Got an email from her tonight asking about it.

What should I do?

Alison swore loudly and kicked uselessly at the wall behind her desk. Fucking idiots. One thing they’d been asked to do. One.

She clicked on ‘Reply All’ and started typing furiously.


Having sat through innumerable interminable exam boards, it cannot possibly have escaped your attention that the external examiner makes a comment at the end about the SELECTION OF STUDENT WORK which he or she has had the pleasure of reviewing. HOW DO YOU THINK THE EXTERNAL EXAMINER GETS THIS WORK? THE PROGRAMME LEADER CHOOSES IT, FINDS IT, COPIES IT, and then asks the admin team to post it….

Her breathing was rapid and angry.Her fury overcame her. She stood up and clenched her fists, moving slightly away from the desk.

Her eye fell on a very old photo of Derek, Ben and Emma on a beach showing off an enormous sandcastle. It was and old one; they hadn’t bothered to get any photos framed or put up on the wall for years. It must have been twelve or thirteen years ago. All three of them were grinning excitedly for the photographer, proud of their entirely futile achievement. She had a feeling that Ben had kicked the whole thing to pieces about ten seconds later.

She breathed in deeply. No point in getting upset. Breathe out. It wasn’t her responsibility any more. Breathe in. Soon she’d be gone. She felt her heart rate falling.

She sat down again and closed her eyes for a moment.

Then, she deleted the text she’d just typed and started again.

Dear Phil

I’m sorry to hear that the external examiner hasn’t yet received a sample. We usually send her all of the work from one student from each of the main bands, plus failing students, if there are any.  Then, we make available all of the work we have on the day in case she wants to sample something in particular when she’s here. Most of it’s digital now so we usually send it to her in advance. Probably best now to give her a CD or a memory stick on the day. Just email her to say that you thought that was the procedure.

Hope this helps


That should do. It still wasn’t her problem.

She sighed again. Suppose she’d better go in to the system and see what kind of a sample might be needed.  She went through the complicated set of screens which led to the student record system.

She had access to everything in the department. She scanned the list. BSc Forensic Biology, BSc Chemical Biology, BSc Animal Biology…She chose ‘Show All’. That lot would take a while to load. While it was metaphorically whirring away, she started jotting down some notes for the presentation she had to give at the staff ‘awayday’ on Tuesday. It would be a good opportunity to get her thoughts on the inclusive practice project together, make it easier to hand over. If anyone would take it on.

Her eyes returned to the screen. What kind of a sample for the external would work best this year? One student from each award, with a sample of all of their work?  A random sample from each unit? She started scrolling.

After the earlier debacle with marking on Foundations of Biology, she was sure that everything would have been moderated and double-moderated, triple-marked, or whatever it would take to ensure that standards were fair and consistent. Although she could see only twenty or so names at a time, one column still caught her eye. She couldn’t see the column header without going back up to the top. She put one finger on the screen to keep the place while she did that.

It was “Biology Skills”. She sighed. It was a core second year module taken by students on all of the Biology courses. Nobody wanted to teach skills in their ‘specialist’ modules – “I can’t fit that in. It just detracts from the important knowledge they need to gain, Alison” was a typical comment from her colleagues when the course was being reviewed. As a result, they’d removed some of the subject knowledge to make room for this special module. Nobody wanted to teach it, either, so they’d had to bring in part-time staff. But anyway. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it looked from this list as though students were getting consistently higher marks on this one than on other modules.

Alison sighed heavily. She clicked on ‘download’ to get all of the results into a spreadsheet. It took ages. She wondered idly what broadband speed would be like on the Isle of Wight.

Eventually the data reappeared in front of her in Excel. She added cells to create an average under each column.


The average mark for ‘Biology Skills’ was 8.3% higher than the next highest column mark. That couldn’t be right.

A lot of thoughts went through Alison’s head.

Why hadn’t the pre-exam board picked this up? (She’d sent her apologies)

Did it matter? It was just a second year module, and wouldn’t have much impact on final degrees. All students took it, so everyone would have had the same opportunity to do well.

Who was moderating the work?

What if the external examiner noticed?

Who was training the part-time staff who must have marked the work?

How could this have happened, with her detailed marking criteria?

Who set the work?

If nobody else had noticed, and she was no longer the course leader, should she just keep quiet?

She felt tears prickling her eyes. Downstairs, the others were laughing at something on the TV. She sniffed pitifully and reached for a tissue. It just wasn’t fair. She wasn’t supposed to be sorting this out. What could she do?

She took reached out to the laptop and gently shut the lid, removing the offending numbers from her vision. Sod the inbox. She tiptoed away from the desk as though something there might suddenly wake and leap out at her. Leaving the room, she closed the door carefully behind her, trapping the problem, and went down to join the rest of the family.

Not. Her. Problem.

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Quinquennial Review

Alison looked at her watch and sighed. She picked up the lever-arch file  and left the office. Sally was heading in the same direction and they fell into step.

“I can’t believe it’s only five years since we last did this.” offered Sally.

“No, me neither. Well, I suppose it’s only four, really. The review isn’t due till next academic year.”

“So why are we starting now?”

Alison smiled. “That’s how long it takes, Sal. Strategic approval, development plan, documentation, external panel, prospectus update, timetabling. You probably only had to get involved with the module reviews last time. There’s quite a bit more needed for the paperwork.”

“Are we going to make that many changes?”

“Probably not.”

“Does it really take that long? How?”

Alison simply shrugged.

They continued in silence.

In Geoff’s office, Phil was already sitting at the small round table. Alison and Sally sat down next to him. Geoff was still at his desk. He lifted his head.

“Hi, folks. Just waiting for, er,” he looked down at his notebook, “er, Jay, and then we’ll get started. Exciting times, eh? Course review?”  He grinned at them.

Alison was the only one to grin back. Sally lost a little more colour from her face. It would have been difficult for Phil to look more disdainful. Geoff had turned back to his computer without waiting for a reply.

“Who’s Jay?” Sally whispered to Alison.

“No idea. Someone from the Quality Office?”

Geoff looked up again. “The Quality Office! I’d forgotten about them. I haven’t invited them. Bugger. We’ll have to do that next time.”

Alison shook her head. “I wonder if they can send someone up? There are bound to be differences in procedures since last time we did this. We could end up wasting a lot of time.”

Phil snorted. “It was only four years ago. They work on a glacial time scale. It’ll be exactly the same.”

Geoff sighed. “You might think so, Phil, but Alison’s probably right. The forms will all be different, and maybe the process, too. I suppose it’s worth giving them a call. Although I suppose I’ll get an earful. Who’s our contact again? I don’t want to confess to Jean that we forgot to invite them.”

Alison nodded in assent, and grimaced. “No, I wouldn’t tell Jean, either. It’s Priya Balan.”

He checked the online directory and picked up the phone.


“It’s Geoff Sanders, Head of Biology.”

“Fine, thank you. And you?”

“Very good. Priya, as you know, the biology courses are up for review, and we’ve decided to have a quick, er, impromptu, meeting about the process. I don’t suppose you’re free for an hour now, are you?”

Geoff winced and leaned his body unconsciously away from the receiver, although it was still clamped to his ear.

“Of course I realise how busy you are. We just thought we’d benefit from some of your input on the processes. We’re at very early stages, so I didn’t think to ask you earlier.”

“Not to worry. Shall we make an appointment, then?”

“OK. I’ll see what my colleagues can do.” Geoff jotted something down on his notepad.

“Thanks, Priya. Sorry to have disturbed you. Bye.”

He looked at the others. “She can’t make it. She’s suggested a date in a couple of weeks. Should be all right, shouldn’t it?”

“As long as it doesn’t clash with exam boards.” Sally pointed out.

“OK, I’ll have to check. I’ll send it round to your Outlook calendars.”

They nodded.

There was a timid knock. They looked up to see one of their second year students hovering in the doorway. They all stared at him.

Geoff was impatient. “What can I do for you? I’ve got a meeting now, but if you want to make an appointment…”

Jay looked worried. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said to come at ten o’clock.”

Geoff looked blank.

“About the course development? I’m, like, the second year rep?”

Light dawned on Geoff. “Of course. Sorry. Just had a bit of confusion over procedures. Come and sit down, er” he checked his notebook again, “er, Jay.”

He got up himself, picking up a huge folder of papers, and ushered Jay over to the table.

“Great. We’re all here. I’d offer you a coffee, but perhaps we’d better get on.”

Phil rolled his eyes.

“Now, I think we all know each other.”


Phil cleared his throat. “We do all know each other, Geoff, but charming though it is to see Jay here, especially as I’ve just marked his exam paper –“

Jay looked as though he’d managed to forget such an item had ever existed, and had been only too pleased to remain in that state.

“ – I’m just wondering whether I’m at the right meeting. I thought we were here to discuss the course review? Have I got it wrong? Is this meeting something to do with students, instead?”

They all looked expectantly at Geoff.

He managed what could only be described as a hearty chuckle. “Ha, ha. Phil. Are you saying that courses have nothing to do with students, then?” He rattled this off smoothly. Possibly it was a rejoinder he’d received himself in response to a similar question.

Alison and Sally smirked, although Phil had probably only voiced their own thoughts.

Geoff continued. “No, Phil. One of the new elements of the quinquennial review procedure is going to be better student engagement in the process. So Jay is here. To help us. And we’re very grateful to him, giving up his time for us like this. Especially as he won’t be here when the new course starts. Very altruistic.”

‘Rabbit in the headlights’ was probably the best description of Jay’s expression.

Phil rolled his eyes again. “I think I need coffee, Geoff. Shall I make it?”

“Be my guest, Phil.” Geoff waved over at the kettle. “Meanwhile, I’ll start giving out some of this paperwork.” He opened the huge folder.

To be continued.

See also Them and Us.

A little problem with the marking

Sami has been to see Geoff to complain about his marks. As Head of Department and Chair of the Exam Board, Geoff feels honour-bound to check the transcripts. This has nothing to do with the money Sami put on the table. Has it?

After Sami had left, Geoff walked over to the door and quietly turned the lock. He leant against the door for a moment, and then crossed back to his desk and sat down heavily in his executive chair. He wiped his forehead again and sat for a moment.

Then he took his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the cupboard next to his desk. He took out a bottle of whisky and a glass and  pushed aside the kettle and mugs on top of the desk to make room to put them down. He poured out a generous portion and took a large mouthful. He closed his eyes. Students. Staff. Parents. He’d had enough of all of them.

He opened his eyes and swivelled to his computer. He logged into the student record system and tried to find the results for ‘Foundations of Biology’. You could only change grades when you were looking at the module view. As chair of the exam board, he had access to everything in his department. But he couldn’t remember how to navigate the system properly. He hardly ever bothered to log in. You couldn’t just search on the module title, only the module code, which of course he didn’t know by heart. He resisted the temptation to call Alison.

Eventually he looked up Sami Patel, and then worked back from the list of modules linked to his name.  He felt quite pleased with himself when the list finally came up, and treated himself to another slug of whisky. He glanced down at Sami’s transcript, to double check he was on the right module. The transcript contained module titles and numbers. He sighed. Did humans really design this system, or was it all somehow robotically generated?

He looked more closely at the marks for the module. They were sorted by student number, so it was hard to see any pattern, but he thought they looked a bit odd. There was no way of sorting the data any differently in the student record system. Better take a closer look. He’d need to download the results, put them into Excel, and see what was going on. If he could work out how to do that….

Two hours later….

Alison and Derek were having a quiet night in. They were slumped in front of a Bond DVD with the remains of a takeaway on the coffee table.  Emma was out, and Ben was holed up in his bedroom. A faint thumping from his bass speaker could be felt throughout the house.

“I’ll go and get another bottle of wine.” Alison reluctantly lifted Derek’s arm from her shoulders and went out to the kitchen.

Her mobile was ringing in her bag. She took it out. ‘Geoff, Office.’ Office? Geoff? At this time on a Friday night? She’d better answer.

“Geoff. Is everything all right?”

“No, I haven’t. It’s Friday night, Geoff. What’s the problem?”

“OK, OK. Hold on.”

Holding the phone to her ear, she fished the iPad out of her bag with the other hand.

“No, hang on a sec, I just need to…”

She opened the mail application and scrolled down to the most recent message, from Geoff. Subject line ‘Foundations of Biology’.

There was no text in the email, just a graph.

Graph showing strange variation in mark distributions

Alison had had her share of the first bottle of wine, and it took her a moment to see the significance of the graph. Mark distributions were usually bell-shaped, with longer or shorter tails depending on whether it was a science or an arts subject. This one did look rather odd.

She sat down at the kitchen table.


Derek came into the kitchen. “What’s happened to that bottle of…” he broke off. “What’s up? Is it Emma?” She shook her head, and mouthed “work”.

He came and looked over her shoulder. A graph. Who looked upset over a graph? At least it wasn’t another death in the department.

Alison waved her hand at him to indicate she’d explain in a minute, and continued her conversation. Derek took a second bottle of wine from the fridge and wandered out again. “It’s on Pause,” he offered, as he left the room. Alison gave no sign of hearing him.

“I see what you mean, Geoff.”

“Favourites? Really? Although…actually, looks more like non-favourites. Or whatever the opposite is.”

The wine wasn’t helping.

“No, I’m not the internal moderator. I don’t know who it is. Probably Tim. Or Heather. Heather. I think.”

“I don’t know where the scripts are. Jan may still have them.”

“It’s Bank Holiday weekend, Geoff. I’m pretty sure that Jan’s gone to her flat in Anglesey. We can’t do anything till Tuesday.”

“We can’t do that. They should be locked up somewhere anyway.”

“OK, OK. Tomorrow morning.”

“Eight? Come on, Geoff.”

“OK. Ten o’clock outside the main building. But you’ll have to warn security. The building’s all closed up at weekends.”

“OK. See you tomorrow.”

She pressed the red button and put the phone back in her bag. Shit.

She pulled the laptop out of her bag and opened up her master marking and moderation spreadsheet. Weird. ‘Foundations of Biology’, 200 students. Jan was the sole marker, and there was no moderator listed.

Alison felt slightly queasy. Why wasn’t there another marker to share the load? And why no moderator? Dimly, she remembered  there had been some discussion when she’d produced the list in September. Had she put Tim down? And he’d pointed out he was meant to be marking something else at the same time? And she’d crossed him off, and said she’d find someone else…? Surely Jan would have reminded her?

She shook herself. Couldn’t do anything now. Better be practical. On the iPad, she checked the calendar for Saturday. Ben: computer club, 10.30. Emma: volleyball, 10am. She went back into the lounge and sat down heavily.

“At last. Don’t they know it’s Friday?” Derek reached for the remote.

“Hang on” Alison said. “Can you take Ben to computer club at ten-thirty? I’ve got to go into work. Emergency. I’ll drop Emma on the way. She’ll be a bit early, but it won’t kill her. She can get the bus back.”

“But I thought you were doing tomorrow. I was going to …” Derek didn’t bother. He sighed heavily. “OK, whatever.” He shifted slightly on the sofa so that they were no longer touching. Alison poured herself a very large glass of wine.

Was Sami right? Did Jan have favourites? Or were they a particularly odd group that year?

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