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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, will you put the mark up to 68?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That won’t be enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



On Tuesday morning, Geoff got into work early. He dialled Jan’s number. He didn’t expect her to be there, but he thought it would be a good idea to leave her an early voice mail.

“Jan, it’s Geoff. Tuesday morning. Can you come down to my office as soon as you get in?”

He replaced the receiver with a heavy sigh. He’d hardly slept since Saturday. How was he going to tackle this? What would he say to Jan? What if there was something wrong with her, and she collapsed or something when he challenged her marking? She’d already been very difficult with him after he’d challenged her over offering extra marks to students who were nice to her, and docking marks from those who were late, or discourteous. Given that one of the students from the module had offered him a bribe, possibly, he had to wonder whether the peak in good marks was entirely natural. And the fact that there hadn’t been any moderation….if the Quality Assurance Agency found out….

He sat at the desk for a while, fretting.

He wondered if it was too early for a nip of whisky. Well, he knew it was too early. But it was an exceptionally difficult day. He kneeled down next to the cupboard and unlocked it. Turning over a glass, he poured a generous shot, downed it in one, then locked the cupboard again.

Leaning heavily on the top of the cupboard, he hauled himself up and flopped back into his executive chair. This was not how he’d imagined the role of Head of Department. He’d thought that the department just ticked away quietly more or less on its own, staffed by autonomous and independent academics. His idea of the role had been to ditch his teaching, carry on with his research, attend senior staff meetings and then just do a bit of admin to join things up a bit. How was it that he’d had no idea about recruitment targets, quality action planning, TRansparent Approach to Costing, audits, or the endless cycle of course reviews? Why was it so difficult to replace and recruit academic staff? And that was without thinking about the discovery that the Dean was a micromanager of epic proportions. Nor the seemingly permanent disputes about car parking, timetabling, photocopiers and small electrical devices. He shuddered.

The door banged open. Geoff started, making the executive chair snap upright. His knees banged hard on the side of his desk. “Ow. Fuck.”

He automatically looked for his whisky glass, but it was already safely out of sight. He wished he’d had another shot.

Jan was standing in front of him.  Geoff sighed. “Jan. Thanks for coming in.”

He rubbed his knee. “Sit down, Jan.”

She remained standing. Geoff looked up at her. She looked weird. Was she glaring at him?

“Hello, Jan. Why don’t you sit down for a minute?”

Reluctantly, she pulled the chair slightly further away from the desk and sat down. Knees together, fists curled, back hunched. She looked rather like one of Geoff’s children when they’d been going through their difficult teenage years. He’d never know how to deal with them when they’d been in trouble at school, or had done something else to disappoint their mother.

But Jan was in her late fifties. And had previously been a normal and valued colleague. Reliable. Not much research, but always a reliable teacher. Backbone of the department. He looked at her again. Stroppy. That was definitely the word that was coming into his mind now.

Geoff sighed again. “Jan. Thanks for coming in,” he repeated. “I just wondered if, I just wanted to, would you mind if we….”

Jan still hadn’t spoken. It was unnerving, the staring. He looked away from her and opened the folder he’d made over the weekend. There was only one sheet of paper in it. He lifted it up.

“I was just looking at the marks distribution for Foundations of Biology. You know, ahead of the exam board. Like to be prepared.” This wasn’t true. He usually just looked at all of the printouts as the results administrator passed the sheets to him during the board meetings.

“It’s a bit unusual. Very interesting, in fact.”

He looked up. Jan had raised an eyebrow. He looked back at the paper.

“I’ve never seen one quite like it, so I thought it would, er, be useful to, er,” he hesitated, then had a brainwave. “To, er,  find out how you’ve managed to get such startling performances from the students.” He smiled cheerfully at Jan.

She took the bait. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it looks as though some students have performed much better than we would have expected, given their marks on other modules.” He felt ridiculously pleased with himself. Tactful. He’d worry about the poor performers later.

Jan pulled her chair a little closer, so that she could see the paper with the graph on it.

“Hmmm. I hadn’t seen them like that. Interesting.”

“Yes. Usually we’d expect a normal distribution of marks, wouldn’t we?” Geoff traced an imaginary line on top of the paper. “This is very unusual.”

Jan leaned in. “That’s probably because I’ve made an important discovery. I’m glad you’ve noticed.”

Geoff moved back very slightly. “Oh?”

“You’re always telling us we need to focus on employability, aren’t you?” Her tone was certainly assertive. Maybe even bordering on accusatory.

“Well, yes, it’s a strategic objective to…”

She cut him off. “Well, I’ve decided to assess professional values as well as academic performance. Just like you’ve told us to.”

“Told you to? I don’t remember…”

Jan kept going. She sped up. “If that’s how you want things to go, not bothering about how much they know, never mind if they don’t know any biology, as long as they can get a job, I’ve decided to reward their behaviour.”


“I told you, earlier in the year. Punctuality, courteousness, neatness, attention to dress. All that.”

“But. But. But. I thought we’d agreed that wouldn’t….” Geoff felt his heart rate increasing. “Jan. Have the students had their marks back yet?” He knew they probably had, but just in case…

“Of course. You should know that. You’re always reminding us about the marking deadline.”

“And. Er. How have you moderated the marks?”

“No need. I wasn’t basing them on one single piece of work, after all, but over performance across the whole module. And I got peer verification.”

Geoff sighed with relief. “Oh. OK. Great. Why didn’t you say so? Who did it? Phil? Sally?”

Jan frowned. “I said peer verification. You know, asking the students to mark each other?” She spoke slowly, as though explaining a new concept.

“But. But. But. It didn’t say anything about that in the module brief. You have to stick to what’s in the documents, Jan. You know that. What if we had an unexpected audit?”

Jan shook her head. “Don’t be daft. It’s only eighteen months since the last one. We aren’t due one for another four years, and by then, you’ll see the effects of my strategy. Anyway, it’s what you told us to do.”

Geoff forgot about his tactful approach. “I don’t think it is. That’s ridiculous. You’re on your own with this one. I want to see some samples of their work, Jan.”

“They haven’t handed anything in. All done on their performance in class.”

“But. But. But….” Geoff was really struggling to process this. “But there are three hundred in the class. How did you…” Actually, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Jan stood up. “It was bloody hard work. Got to go. Teaching now. Let me know if you want to report back on this at the annual staff development day. I think you’ll see the benefits.”

Geoff barely noticed her departure. He was staring at the graph again. This was far worse than he’d thought. Jan was clearly completely mad. And yet, she seemed to think it was all rational. He’d asked for employability to be embedded in the curriculum. He hadn’t really thought about what that would mean. How could anyone think a biology course should be assessed depending on the student’s neatness?  How could he have predicted that? Should he have done?

What was he going to do now? He got down on his knees in front of the cupboard again.

Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

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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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Geoff shifted uneasily in his executive office chair (padded armrests, leather-look cover). A sheen of sweat was developing over his hairless scalp. He was suffering from flashbacks to the unfortunate incident with the regulations in the autumn term, when his visitor’s father had threatened legal action against the department. He looked directly at Sami.

“Now then, Mr Patel, or may I call you, er, Sami”? He gave a nervous giggle.

“Mr Patel seems fine to me, Geoff.” Sami was standing quite close to the desk, leaning slightly towards Geoff.

“Oh! Alright then. No need to stand on formality with me, though, Mr Patel. The Biology department is just one big, happy family.” Geoff winced slightly. Sami looked anything but happy. “Anyway, perhaps you’d like to sit down.”

Sami didn’t move.

“So that I don’t have to stretch my neck.” Geoff added, craftily. “I’m feeling my age these days.”

Sami sat reluctantly in the visitor’s chair across from Geoff.

Geoff felt a bit better. “So, Mr Patel. What can I do for you today?”

Sami glared at him. He reached into his rucksack and pulled out a rather dog-eared piece of paper. It was a print-out of his results. Geoff took the paper from him and scanned it quickly.

“Ah, I see. It hasn’t been a very good year for you, has it? Well now, I’m sorry to see that, but you’ll need to go and talk to your course leader, er…” he checked the course title at the top of the transcript, “er, Alison Fletcher. She’ll tell you what to do about your resits.”

Sami’s  face had darkened. He clenched his fists. “I won’t be doing resits.”

“Oh, but you must. Look, you’ve hardly failed by anything. Don’t give up now. You’ll soon pick up the marks, Sami, er, Mr Patel.”

“That’s. My. Point.” Sami was struggling to control himself. “It’s not fair.”

“Not fair? I can assure you, Mr Patel, that our assessment system is extremely fair, and in addition, it is very reliable. All of our systems are double-checked both internally and externally. We pride ourselves on fairness.” Geoff felt indignant himself, as he offered a well-rehearsed justification of his department’s assessment practice. What did students know about what went on behind the scenes? At the same time, the memory of Sami’s father threatening him stood out from the many times he’d been challenged before about student marks. But that had been different; in that case, bloody Jan and giddy Alison had dropped the ball completely. In this situation, he was on solid ground.

“My average mark is 38.8.” said Sami.

“Yes, and a pass is 40, as you well know. So you didn’t quite make it. And you’ll have to resit two modules. Pop over to see Dr Fletcher and she’ll sort out the details with you.”

“But I can’t. My Dad will be so angry with me. And it’s so close to a pass. Look at my profile. There are some good marks there. It’s not fair. ”

Geoff felt a mean pleasure at the thought of Mr Patel being angry with someone other than him. And an even meaner hope that Mr Patel Senior would take him on about this issue. He knew he could win this one. He smiled with fake concern at Sami. “I know it’s very disappointing, Mr Patel, but you will need to do a little bit more work.” He held out the transcript.

Sami took it and bent again to his rucksack.

Good, thought Geoff, he’s going to go. Time waster. Should have spent more time on his studies this year.

Sami straightened and placed something on the desk. Geoff’s eyes widened. It was a large wad of fifty pound notes.

“You’re chair of the exam board, right?”

Geoff nodded. “Yes, but I don’t see …”

Sami continued. “So you can change one of my marks to bring my average up, right?”

Geoff took a deep breath. “Mr Patel, you must realise that marks at this university are awarded only on merit. And that bribing a member of staff is a disciplinary offence.”

Sami said “Who mentioned bribery? I was just putting this down do that I could find something else in my bag. Yes, here. It’s an article I found about marking practices. Look.”

He shoved a printout at Geoff. “I don’t believe your staff can grade assignments that closely. I only needed another 8% in Foundations of Biology, and I’d have passed. And Dr Bowman has favourites, and she threatened to dock marks if we were rude, and I think she’s picked on me because I got my Dad to complain to you.”

Geoff felt the sweat starting to form again. After what had happened earlier in the year, this had a ring of plausibility. He looked at the money on the desk and wondered how much there was there. His daughter was going to Uni next year, and it was going to be very expensive.

“£3000” Sami answered his unspoken question. “My dad’s quite well off. He’s a very good solicitor. As you already know. I’m sure you can find me some more marks in the Foundations of Biology course.”

Geoff wiped his forehead with a large white hanky. He put out his hand. “Just let me see that transcript again.”

He sat and stared at the much-folded page. His academic life seemed to be flashing before him. Who cared about a couple of marks? What was it all for?

Sami pushed his chair back slightly. Geoff looked up.

“Just leave this with me, son.”

Sami frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I need to do some more investigations. You’ll hear soon enough from the official channels. Just close the door on your way out, will you?”

He stared again at the piece of paper, studiously ignoring Sami, who repacked his bag and went out of the room.


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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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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