Unconditional Offers

Bob stretched and looked around. He looked at his watch. Two o’clock. He’d managed to get a surprising amount done. Maybe open plan offices weren’t so bad after all. Ajay was quiet, and had even made him a cup of drinkable coffee earlier in the day. He had been aware of other people outside of their little pod, but nothing had really disturbed him. Not bad.

He stood up. “Coffee, Ajay?”

“Sure. Black, one sugar, please.”

Bob went through into the kitchen. Nobody looked up as he passed their pods. Fair enough. It wasn’t as though they’d been in and out of each other’s offices in the old building. Maybe tuning out was the best way to cope with life in the pods.

When he walked back through to his pod, Vanessa and Nawaz had returned. They were whispering loudly to each other. Bob passed a mug to Ajay, and cleared his throat. “Hello…” he paused. It wasn’t really appropriate to say ‘ladies’, was it? “…colleagues,” that was better, “Nice to see you again, and find out that we’re neighbours.”

They both looked up, and actually seemed quite pleased to see him. “Hi, Bob,” said Nawaz. “Good to have you back.”

“Thanks. What’s new?” It was just a social question. If anything had been new, he was pretty sure that Martin would have sent several emails round the department by now, explaining why nobody should go along with it.

They looked at each other.

“You won’t believe this.” Vanessa leaned towards him and looked conspiratorial.

Bob sat down and wheeled his desk chair closer to the women. Ajay, catching the scent of a break from the routine, did the same.

“We’ve just got back from an outreach visit to La Sainte Union college.”

“Oh yes?” Bob wondered what could be so surprising. It seemed an unlikely place for gossip to emerge.

“The head of sixth form took us to one side. She asked us if we were prepared to negotiate over our offers for this year.”

“But surely they’ve already gone out?”

“Yes, of course, but apparently some other places have been making unconditional offers, and she said she might be tempted to stop recommending us if we didn’t do the same.”

“Unconditional offers? We’ve always done that.”  Bob wondered what all of the fuss was about.

“Not before people have done their A levels, we haven’t.”

“Well, no, of course not…” Bob tailed off. “You mean, just saying students can come, whatever their results? Even if they fail?”

Nawaz nodded vigorously. “Yep. Well. That sounds weird. Maybe they have to get Es. I don’t know. Anyway, the point is that she was basically trying to blackmail us into changing our offers.”

“We can’t do that, can we?” Vanessa sounded as though she was genuinely asking him for a deciding opinion.

Bob tried not to look surprised at the tone of her voice. Was that what responsibility for the student experience meant? Being expected to offer decisive opinions on anything which might affect students? Actually, he did have some thoughts on this, having handled admissions for the University College of North Burston for a couple of years. “Um.  It doesn’t seem very wise to me. I thought we were trying to increase the number of UCAS points we expected from students. It’s a league table indicator. And if they haven’t passed, how will they have the basic knowledge they need to start on the degree?”

“No, I mean, we can’t change offers we’ve already put out, can we?”

“No, no, not till Clearing, anyway, but that’s not the point, is it? We’ve got to think about standards. And the student experience.”

Vanessa looked disappointed. “That’s what I thought. So that’s five students, maybe more, that we’re going to lose. We always get students from there.”

“Well, maybe that would be for the best. Come on, we don’t want to join the race to the bottom, do we?”

Nawaz sighed. “Maybe not. But what if everyone else does it, and we’re the only ones holding out for BBB? And how could it be the race to the bottom, if the University of Burston is doing it?”

“They are? Really? God.” He lapsed into silence for a few seconds. “I see your point. But still…don’t we have other things to offer?” He frowned.

The others said nothing. The four of them sat, with their wheeled chairs pulled together in a pod pow-wow, trying to think what it was that was distinctive about Burston Central. Proximity was a big draw, and the fact that they didn’t ask for such high grades as the University of Burston. If both of those factors had been removed, it was hard to say what would be the reason for coming to their department.

As if by common accord, they spun on their chairs and looked hard at their respective screens. And as if by magic, an email alert flashed up in the bottom corner of each one.

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Justin Marks, Head of Campus Communications

Subject: Burston Central leads the way with admissions

Once again, Burston Central is innovating. You may have heard about some Russell Group universities making unconditional offers to certain students who’ve been predicted to get particularly high grades. I’m pleased to announce that the University Executive Group has agreed a special Burston Central approach to admissions which will position us perfectly in the new market. We know that predicted grades aren’t always that reliable, so we’ve decided to use another measure to decide whether to make an unconditional offer: the number of interesting extra-curricular activities partaken by the applicant. We’re looking for students with a wide range of interests! This should boost the number of applications AND bring us students who already have a headstart on their employability skills. It’s a win-win for BC.

 

Bob pushed his chair back slowly, as if the screen was throwing out a repulsive force field. The email made absolutely no sense. Of all the weird things he’d seen at Burston Central, this had to be the least comprehensible. He turned, almost in synchronisation with the three others. They formed a circle and looked at each other. Nobody spoke.

Bob opened his mouth. No sound came out. He closed it again.

Four pings signalled the arrival of another all-staff email. In unison, they each turned back to their own computers.

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Janice Burton, Vice Chancellor

Subject: Unconditional Offers

Please disregard the previous all-staff email, sent by Mr Marks. This was sent accidentally while Mr Marks was testing a new computerised press release writing tool. I just want to make it clear that with my new drive on standards, we will be increasing the value of our offers, rather than removing them.

Bob looked at his watch. It was only 3.30. He swivelled towards the others again and cleared his throat. They spun in unison.

“Pub?” Bob didn’t think he’d ever invited his colleagues out for a drink before – except Sheila, and she was different.

Without saying a word, the other three shut down their computers, gathered up their bags, and stood up. They left the office in silence.

Bob smiled as he held the door for the others. His pod had bonded.

New role, new responsibilities.

By eight o’clock, Bob had packed away his stuff and managed to force the empty box into the recycling container in the kitchen. He hadn’t seen anyone else yet, though he’d heard the main door open and shut a couple of times. The strange arrangement of dividers, boxing everyone into their little pods of four, meant that you had to get up to see what was happening elsewhere in the office. In contrast, the four desks did feel rather close together, as if you’d know too much about what was happening in the area. He drew his elbows in involuntarily.

He had popped in to see the office previously, but it had been Easter vacation, and hardly anyone had been around,. He’d forgotten to ask who else was in his group of four. He hoped one of them wasn’t Martin. Not that he had anything against Martin. It was just that it had been hard enough getting any work done when the two of them shared a reasonably-sized office.

He sighed at the thought. He knew Martin meant well. And it was vital that somebody stood up for people’s rights. It was just that he didn’t always think that Martin picked the most important things to stand up for.

At least he’d missed the election buildup, if not Martin’s analysis of the fallout.

Bob plugged in his laptop and started to look at the university policies on student experience. He wasn’t really sure what his new role was going to be. The new head of department had been rather vague about it. “All the departments are having an academic lead for Student Experience” he’d said, “You can talk to the woman in Marketing and PR about it, she’ll tell you where things are up to, um, what’s her name, now…”

Bob had later found her name, and emailed her, but she hadn’t replied.

Trouble was, there wasn’t any actual named university policy on ‘student experience’. And pretty much every other policy probably had some impact on student experience, so you’d have to fit in with all of them. What the hell was the student experience, anyway? He thought he’d understood it when he’d been offered the job, but now he couldn’t get a grip on any part of the concept. Where to start? He began to doodle a kind of mind map.

Bob was surprised, a while later, to be disturbed by a loud throat -clearing just behind him. He turned round to see one of his ex-students standing at the next desk. For a moment, Bob wondered how he’d got into the office. Then he put the face and the name together. Ajay. Of course. He’d spoken to him on the phone, when Ajay was covering his teaching while he was on secondment, but not seen him for years.

“Hi, Bob. Sorry if I disturbed you. I just wanted to say hello, and welcome back.”

Bob smiled. “Ajay. Hi. Good to see you. I didn’t hear you coming in.”

“You seemed to be quite absorbed. I wasn’t sure whether to disturb you”

“Oh. Well, that’s good. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to work in here. But it looks as though I might!”

“It’s pretty quiet today. Everyone’s marking at home, I think. Anyway, I’ll let you get on. Just thought I’d say hello. I’m just next to you, here.”

Ajay sat down at the next desk. There was about a metre between their chairs.

Bob leaned over. “Great. It’s good to see you again. And thanks for holding the fort while I was away.”

Ajay smiled shyly. “No problem. I enjoyed it. Bit of a baptism of fire, but it’s been interesting.”

“I heard they’d managed to keep you on. Glad me coming back hasn’t put you out of a job.”

“Well. It’s still only temporary. No permanent posts unless you’ve got a PhD.”

Bob made a sign of commiseration. There weren’t too many experienced accountants who could teach on the professional courses and who had a PhD. He was glad he’d been appointed before the new rules came in. “Are you going to do one?”

Ajay sighed. “I guess so. I’ve got to finish the PGCHE first.”

Bob gave a wry grin. “Don’t tell me. You’re not enjoying the reflective portfolio.”

“Good guess.” Ajay paused. “I don’t know why. I suppose we’re just trained to record the facts, in accountancy. I can’t see how what I think about my teaching is particularly relevant to anyone except me.”

Bob grinned more widely. “You’re bringing back painful memories! I did manage to pass it, though. Tell you what, I’ll bring you mine to have a look at.”

“Would you? Thanks, Bob. It’s due in a month or so, and I just don’t know where to start.”

Bob laughed at that. “Wasn’t the point of the portfolio that you were filling it in all year?”

“Well, I’ve been keeping my lesson plans and stuff…but I don’t really know what else is needed.”

“God, don’t look at me, I haven’t even thought about any of that stuff since I finished it.” Bob wondered if that was really true. Surely something had gone in? Nothing came to mind. He shrugged. “OK, I’ll try to remember it tomorrow.”

Bob looked behind them. “So, who usually sits over here?”

“Vanessa and Nawaz. They’re both part-time. I don’t see much of them.”

Bob tried not to look pleased. “Oh. I’m so used to sharing with Martin, I assumed he’d be in this pod.”

Ajay looked a bit uncomfortable. “Um. He’s got a desk by the window, in the corner. He was just on the other side, actually, but, um, he ended up moving.”

Bob decided not to ask more questions. Martin could definitely be relied on to tell the story from his own special perspective. “Well, it’s good to be sitting next to you, Ajay. I’d better get back to this.” He waved vaguely towards at his desk.

They smiled at each other and returned to their invisible bubbles.

Bob found that he hadn’t got the slightest idea what he’d meant by any of the scrawls in front of him. He scrunched up the paper and prepared to start again. Student experience. Student experience in accountancy. Students, experienced in accountancy study. Students’ experiences aggregated into an amorphous blob. He sighed.

Was there any chance of anyone getting responsibility for the staff experience?

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.”

The White Heat of Technology

This joke just isn’t funny any more….Wading Through Treacle has been suffering a severe sense of humour failure lately, but can always be cheered up by news from elsewhere, whence the inspiration for this episode came. Remember, sending me stories of absurdities keeps me sane. It’s your public service.

Martin stood up. This was a fairly uncommon occurrence during the working day, and Ajay raised his head from his screen. “Come on, young’un. Time to go.”

“Go where?”

“You know, the meeting about how to use the new holiday booking system. Lecture theatre J.”

“Oh, that. I wasn’t going to go. It should be easy enough to work out.”

Martin shook his head. “That’s not why I’m going. I want to find out what’s they’re up to. I don’t like the sound of it. Come on, we’ll be late.”

Ajay was desperately trying to finish off planning a lecture, but he couldn’t think of any feasible excuse.  It seemed to take him so long to prepare teaching. He knew Martin wouldn’t think that was much of an excuse. With a sigh, he picked up his iPad. Maybe he could look up a few references or something.

Lecture Theatre J was pretty full. Martin led Ajay to a seat right in the middle, near to the front. Lots of people nodded at them as they made their way through; a few shook hands with Martin. Ajay smiled vaguely at the unfamiliar faces.

Ajay and Martin settled into their seats. Martin immediately turned to talk to the person sitting behind. Ajay didn’t know anyone except Martin. He looked forward, as though the front of the lecture theatre was fascinating.

Standing at the lectern was a man about the same age as Ajay, maybe a little younger. He was wearing a dark grey suit, a white shirt which looked brand new (the packing folds were still evident), and a brightly patterned tie. There was a slight sheen of sweat on his face.

The young man cleared his throat. There was no appreciable effect on the noise level. He coughed, then blushed deeply. Slowly, a silence rippled from the front rows to the back. The young man smiled, cleared his throat again, and then began.

“Hello, everyone, and thank you for coming. My name is Luke Price, and I’m from the employee coordination division. Today, I’m going to demonstrate the new system for booking holidays. It’s called,” he paused, and pressed a button on the keyboard. The slide behind him changed to a photograph of a cottage garden raised bed, filled with green plants, and a fanfare played over the speakers. When the music had ended, Luke spoke again. “It’s called HURB. Human Resources at Burston!” He gave the audience a happy grin.

Low-volume groans could be heard.

Luke didn’t seem to hear them. He continued. “Right! Let me take you through the main features.”

Ajay tapped surreptitiously. The iPad wasn’t the best tool for accessing tax law databases, but it would have to do for now. He was a bit bothered about being so close to the front, but he hoped that Luke would think he was taking notes. He looked up every now and then and nodded, to give the impression of concentrating.

After a while, he was aware of a certain restlessness around him. He tuned back in. Luke seemed to have finished explaining the virtues of the system and how long it had taken to develop, and was on to a demonstration.

“I’ll just take you through the process.”

He moved and clicked with great dexterity, swapping from keyboard to mouse seamlessly. Like crowds watching a tennis match, the assembled staff moved their eyes in unison as they tracked the cursor around the screen. “So, first of all, we log in to the system, using your usual BurstU username and password. Next, click on the ‘manage leave requests’ icon.”

He worked through a series of screens until they could see a short form.

“Pick the start date for the leave. Then, in the next box,  choose the total time you want to take off, in hours. Everyone has a working day of seven and a half hours, so if you are taking half a day’s leave, you put three point seven five in the box. Then, click on ‘request’, and it will be sent directly to your line manager.”

“What if you want to take a week off?”, somebody called out.

“Well, it’s the number of days multiplied by the number of hours in a day, so you put in, er, seven point five, times five, er, thirty-seven point five hours.”

Luke smiled vaguely and looked around the room. He’d been trained to look at people directly when he was presenting, but he wasn’t sure where the questioner was sitting.

From somewhere right at the back of the room, another question: “What about 13 days?”

Sniggers broke out around the lecture theatre.

Luke went pink. “Ha, ha. You’re all clever folks, I’m sure you can work it out!”

A bearded man sitting in the next row slowly raised his hand.

Luke smiled encouragingly. “Yes! Go ahead!”

“Could you just explain to us the semiotics of the imagery?”

Luke’s smile froze. He looked over at his line manager, sitting in the front row.  Finding no comfort, he looked back at the questioner. “Um. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m a business studies graduate. Could you just explain those technical terms?”

The questioner tried again, speaking very slowly, as though it was the speed of delivery which had confused the young presenter.

“Could. You. Ex. Plain. The. Semiotics. Of. The. Imagery?” There was a bit of shuffling in the auditorium. Ajay looked at Martin. “What does it mean?” He whispered.

Martin shrugged. “Dunno. Some poncey media studies jargon, I suppose.”

“Media studies?”

“Shhh. I’ll tell you later”

At the very back of the room, someone called out: “He means, what do the herbs mean?”

Luke looked relieved. They just hadn’t understood the key. “Well, parsley is for when you’re sick, chives are for annual leave, basil for…”

The man in the next row interrupted him. “No, we get that they stand for things. We want to know why you picked these particular plants.” He had continued to speak slowly. It sounded sarcastic.

Luke was also speaking very slowly, but more as though he were speaking gently to a small child who was slow on the uptake. “Well, no reason, I expect it was just to do with herbs, you know. HUman Resources at Burston. HURB.”

The bearded man subsided back into his seat with a huge sigh. Luke gave him a sympathetic look.

Martin leaned over to Ajay. “Tarquin. Media studies lecturer. Good bloke, but a bit up himself. Thinks they’re the only intellectuals in the place. Check the footwear.”

Ajay looked down. Tarquin was wearing sandals. And socks. And corduroy trousers. He raised his eyebrows. He looked like the bloke in that old film they’d been recommended to watch, on his PGCHE. What was it called? With the hairdresser…

Meanwhile, Luke had moved on with relief to another questioner. “When you were doing the demonstration, I noticed that there were some other functions. Can we use this to note down when people come in late?”

Luke smiled at her. “Well, we’re only implementing the holiday-booking part at the moment, but well-spotted, there are some other things you can do with the records. I don’t think that, er, late arrivals are quite what it was intended for, but, yes, I’d say you can. I’ll just show you. You could go to, er, belladonna, isn’t it, yes, that’s unauthorised absences,  and then just fill it in for the number of hours that they’re late. Obviously you can use fractions there, like, 0.25 hours for fifteen minutes, and so on.”

There was a rustling of movement around the room. Suddenly, Luke had everyone’s attention.

Martin raised his hand.

“Yes!”

Martin stood up. “Martin Shepherd, UCU branch chair. You do realise that half of the staff at the university don’t have set working hours, don’t you? So how could they have unauthorised absences?”

“Well, er, I think we were just talking about unauthorised absences in general. Like I said, we aren’t implementing those functions yet, though. I was just, er, showing the,er, proof of concept.” Luke clearly couldn’t see what was coming. In the front row, his line manager slunk down in her seat.

Martin ignored what Luke had said. “And the other half are constantly asked to trade on their considerable good will to keep this institution going. And these relationships are built on trust.” Martin had switched to a declamatory style. He was no longer looking at Luke, but was addressing the whole room.

“Built on trust,” he repeated, “Not on petty-fogging obsessions with clock-punching and rule-keeping. Not on wasting millions of pounds on a system to replace a very effective existing one. Keeping a paper record of people’s holiday requests works perfectly well.” He paused.

“And that’s the only part of the academic contract you can feasibly track.” Martin stopped again, and tilted his head, quizzically. Luke seemed transfixed.  Not receiving any response, Martin continued.  “Unless there is some hidden agenda here, you can’t use the other parts of this system with our existing contracts, and surely you know it?”

Martin paused. He turned in his place to scan the audience, before delivering his punchline: “It seems as though you’re missing some ingredients for this recipe to work!”

Laughter swept round the lecture theatre. Martin grinned, and then sat down.

Luke hadn’t moved. Once again, he looked at his line manager.

She mouthed an instruction at him. “Carry. On.”

There was an increasing volume of noise in the lecture theatre. Luke looked down at his notes. Where had they got up to? He had absolutely no idea. Surely it must be the end? Yes, he’d finish the session off. He looked up. A forest of hands had gone up. He decided that he’d better take some more questions. He pointed to a kindly-looking woman on the opposite side of the room from Martin, and tried to look encouraging.

She stood up. “Mr Price. Are you sure that this system is intended to be used with academic staff contracts?”

Luke looked relieved. He knew the answer to this one.

“HURB is an inclusive service for all Burston Central staff, madam. Nobody is left out.”

He smiled broadly at her.

“Are academic staff getting new contracts, then? Ones which say that they may stop work after 7.5 hours, whatever their timetable says, or whoever is knocking at the door? And by the way, if you wish to use a title to address me, it’s more appropriate to use ‘Professor’.”

There was a murmur of approval around the room.

Luke’s smile froze. He looked wildly around the room, having given up on the hope of any support from his line manager. Finding no inspiration, he eventually picked up his pen and said “I’m afraid I’m not in a position to answer that one at the moment, mad, er, professor, but I’ll make a note and get back to you, if that’s ok.”

He scribbled on his pad. “Any more questions?”

The professor stood up again. “Don’t you need to know my name, if you’re going to,” she held a hand either side of her ears and waggled the first two fingers of each as she emphasised each the next words, “get back to me?” This time, there was open laughter.

Luke was bright red, but he managed to make his voice carry across the lecture theatre. “Of course, professor.” He stood with poised pen.

The woman spoke slowly, emphaisising individual syllables. “Pro-fes-sor Mel-issa Burton-Smith.” She sat down.

Luke wrote  on his pad, for much longer than seemed necessary to note down the name.

Finally, his line manager stood up and joined him at the lectern. “Well, everyone, thanks for coming, I think that’s all we’ve got time for.” She pressed a button on the keyboard, and the herb garden photo came back up, together with some vaguely Elizabethan keyboard music recorded on a synthesiser and played tinnily through  the lecture theatre’s inferior speakers. There was a mass exodus.


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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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.

Security

Ajay pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time. Damn. Running a bit late. Bloody buses. His lecture started at nine and he still needed to pull some files off the multi-function device.

He started to jog across the park towards the main building, fumbling in his messenger bag as he went for his USB stick so he’d be ready to print when he got there. He slowed down briefly for the revolving door, poised to accelerate towards the lifts as soon as he got through. He ran straight into a large man wearing an ersatz police uniform.

Ajay was lightly built. He bounced off Ian McKenzie, who put out an arm to catch Ajay as he fell backwards towards the revolving door.

“Thanks”

“Now then, young man. What’s the hurry?”

“I’ve got a lecture in five minutes. Sorry about that, I wasn’t looking where I was going. But I do need to get on.” Ajay stepped to the left, as if to continue on his way. Ian was still holding his arm.

“I’ll just check your ID, sir.”

“ID?”

“New campus policy. Everyone must be carrying their ID cards at all times. Everyone’s had an email.”

“Well, I’m new, and I haven’t got an email account yet. Or an ID card.” Ajay shifted his arm slightly. Ian held on.

“No ID card?”

“No. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to be late for my lecture.” Ajay tugged his arm harder, and Ian let go, but took a step to the right, still blocking the way.

“Do you have any proof of your identity, sir? Driving licence? Passport?”

“I don’t drive. And I don’t carry my passport around with me. I’m British.”

“That’s as may be, but for all I know you could be anyone. You have to carry your ID card.”

“I don’t have one.”

“Have you got a letter from the Head of Department?”

“A letter from…?” Ajay tailed off. What the hell? “No, I bloody haven’t. I’m just trying to do my job, here.”

“As am I, sir, as am I.” Ian smirked. “It’s the rules. I’m afraid I can’t let you enter the building, sir.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Ajay put his hand in his pocket.

Ian shot out his hand and grasped Ajay’s arm again. “Steady on now, sir. Just stay calm.”

Ajay looked at him incredulously. “I’m just getting my phone out. Just because I’m Asian, it doesn’t mean I’m armed, Mr McKenzie.”

Ian dropped Ajay’s arm as though it were on fire.

Ajay continued “I was going to suggest that I could phone my Head of Department.”

Ian looked pained. “Good idea.”

Ajay didn’t know what Gordon’s number was. He dialled the switchboard.

“Gordon Flack, please.”

“Thank you.”

The phone rang a couple of times, then clicked through to another number. “Gordon Flack’s office.”

“Betty? It’s Ajay Mehta. The new lecturer in Corporate Accounting? Replacing Bob Barker?”

“I’m downstairs, but as you know, I haven’t got an ID card yet, so there’s a, an, er, a gentleman here who won’t let me into the building. And I should be in a lecture now. And you know we aren’t allowed to cancel lectures.”

“OK, I’ll do that.” Ajay held out the phone to Ian. “She wants to talk to you.”

Ian took the phone. “Ian McKenzie here. Who’s this?”

“Betty. Hello. How’re you doing?”

Betty was clearly offering Ian a piece of her mind. He held the phone slightly away from his ear.

“OK Betty. Well, you know the new rules. I’ll have to make a note.”

“Alright.  Just this once.”

Ian passed the phone back to Ajay.

“I don’t know how to hang up.”

Ajay pressed the ‘end call’ button and put the phone back in his pocket. He took another step to the left.

“Just a minute, sir.”

Ajay looked him in the eye. “I thought Betty had vouched for me?”

“Indeed, but I still need to make a note. New rules. You’re allowed three stops without an ID card, and after that, it’s disciplinary.

“I don’t have an ID card. Take it up with HR. Now let me go. I’m late for my lecture, and we aren’t allowed to cancel sessions.”

“Just a moment, sir.” Ian had a notebook out. “A J May-tar, did you say?”

“Mehta. M E H T A. Accounting department.”

“Alright sir, you can go now, but remember your ID card next time.”

“I don’t…” Ajay realised that further discussion was pointless. He pushed past Ian and ran to the lift. As usual at this time of day, it was on the fourteenth floor. He pushed the button.

By the time he got to the lecture theatre, it was quarter past nine. Two or three students were leaving the room.

“Here I am!” Ajay said, cheerily and entirely pointlessly. “Just got a bit delayed. We’ll start now.” He stood still while the students turned and headed back into the room.

He followed them in. There were about thirty students still there. They were mostly packing up. A low groan went round the lecture theatre as they realised the session was going ahead after all.

“Fucking typical.” thought Ajay. “If I hadn’t turned up at all, they’d have complained to Gordon that I wasn’t there. Now I’ve turned up, they’ll complain that it wasn’t cancelled.”

He realised that he hadn’t printed out the slides. No time. He bent to the presentation equipment and inserted the USB key, then logged onto the computer and loaded them up. The room was a bit restless. He straightened.

“OK everyone. My apologies for the delay. I got held up by the security man. No ID card. Does everyone know about the new rule about carrying cards?”

They all nodded. Ajay felt foolish. “Oh. Well, I’m new around here, as you know.” He tailed off. Perhaps he shouldn’t make an issue out of that. He needed to look authoritative. He faced the class and straightened up.

“OK, well, sorry for the late start, but let’s get going now. Today we’re going to be talking about, about…” he turned slightly so that he could see the screen, “…about  assets, liabilities and amortisation.”

The students started to scribble. Ajay felt slightly panicked. Oh God. He couldn’t even remember the title. He had no printout and no idea what slides were coming next. He was using Bob Barker’s slides, which he’d slightly adapted, and he couldn’t really remember what was in them.

He realised that he could look at the screen on the desk and see the slides without turning round. He clicked forward to the next slide and started to read it out.

Half an hour later, he’d got to the end of the presentation.

“We seem to have caught up some of the time. Now, has anyone got any questions?”

A student in the front row raised her hand. Ajay smiled encouragingly at her.

“Will the slides be on Burst-E?”

Ajay nodded vigorously. “Absolutely. I’ll do it as soon as I get back up to the office. Any other questions?”

He looked around the room. Nobody looked back at him. Most students were packing their bags. He raised his voice slightly. “OK. Well, if you think of anything, drop me an email. Otherwise, see you next week, same time.”

The noise level rose as the students got to their feet and headed for the exits.

Ajay closed down the Powerpoint presentation and removed his USB stick. There were still ten minutes until the official end of the session. He sat down for a moment. The people from the Associate Teachers course he’d just started did harp on about the importance of reflection after every session.

On the plus side: he’d finished on time, and had got through all of the material on the slides.

On the negative side: He’d been late. He’d probably more or less read out the slides. And he must have read them too fast, to finish so early. He had no idea whether anybody had understood, because he’d been too flustered to ask them any questions, and they hadn’t asked him any.

Action plan: be more prepared next time. Leave time to ask them questions.

Ajay stood up. That would do. He’d write that up later for his portfolio. He picked up his stuff and headed up to the office.

Is it the end of term yet?

Ajay picked up his desk-top tidy. “I really must empty this, Martin.”

Martin was in mid-rant. He looked up, puzzled. It was possible that he’d forgotten that Ajay was even there.

Ajay hurried out. His desk-top tidy actually only had an apple core in it, but he couldn’t stand listening to Martin for a moment longer. He needed to concentrate. He was replacing Bob for the full academic year, and all of the modules he was teaching were new to him. He had a lot to do.

The bins were at one end of the long corridor. Apparently this distance was intentional, to give staff a chance to stretch their legs regularly. ‘Green-ness and Well-ness’, as the Environmental Enhancement Manager liked to say. Martin thought it was so that they could cut down on cleaning staff, but he only usually repeated this particular proposition when he was emptying his own tidy, which wasn’t very often. There was often a slightly musty smell in the office. Ajay opened the windows when Martin wasn’t in. They were on Martin’s side of the office. If Martin came back in and found them open, he sighed heavily and closed them with a clatter.

Sometimes Ajay emptied Martin’s tidy at the same time, and let Martin think that the cleaners had done it. Martin thought that there had been a small victory for common sense and radicalism, if the cleaners were spontaneously emptying the bins when they weren’t allowed to. It seemed to make him happy.

Walking back towards his office, Ajay could see an unusual amount of activity at the opposite end of the corridor, where the multi-function device was. Impromptu staff meeting? He couldn’t resist having a look. He had to push slightly to get through the last fire door. The cluster of people standing round the machine shifted slightly to let him through. They were mostly holding out their ID cards, and there was a buzz of angry complaints. He stood for a moment, trying to pick out sentences.

“I’ve got class in five minutes”

“I told them…” (told them what? Ajay felt cheated of the detail)

“…if we had printers in our offices…”

“I’ve been downstairs to try theirs and it doesn’t work either.”

The lift doors opened and one of their colleagues emerged, balancing a large pile of handouts. There was a slight surge towards her.

“Look what Jamila’s got!”

“Where did you get those copied?”

“Is it just ours which isn’t working?”

Jamila stepped back. She looked bewildered. “Get what? What’s working?”

“Your handouts.”

“The printer.”

She looked at the pile of papers to which they were pointing. “I’ve just picked them up from Repro. They’re my handouts for next week’s corporate course. Why? What’s going on?”

“Printer’s not working.”

The crowd turned away slightly, back towards the non-functioning device. Jamila pushed her way through to the fire doors and continued back to her office.

One of the lecturers swiped his card through the reader again. “Still not working.” he reported back.

Ajay took out his phone and dialled IT services.

“If you are calling about a printing problem, please note that there is a campus-wide problem with printing at the moment. Our engineers are trying to solve the problem now. There is no need to log a fault with the service.”

Ajay hung up. “Um. Everyone. There’s a campus-wide problem with printing.”

The crowd turned towards him.

“Fucking typical.”

“First week of term. Don’t tell us, the systems are overloaded. Have they forgotten that some of us actually have to teach this week?

“I knew this would happen.”

“When’s it going to be fixed?”

“I’ve got class in a minute, and no handouts. What am I supposed to do?”

Ajay shrank back. He held his tidy out in front of him. “Well. Anyway. Must get back to the office.”

He backed up to the fire doors and escaped back to the relative sanctuary of the office.

Martin looked up when he came in, possibly about to resume his litany of complaints about the university. Ajay had a brainwave.

“Martin, have you heard about the printers? You should go out there and see what’s happening.”

Martin was out of the office before Ajay could say any more.

Ajay sat down with a sigh. He knew that he probably shouldn’t feed Martin’s outrage, but the thought of five minutes peace had been too tempting. He patted his pile of handouts for the next two weeks, carefully copied a couple of weeks ago when things were quiet.


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