What’s it all for?

Should you be unlucky enough still to be stuck in your office for the rest of the week, here’s part one of a three part special, focusing on poor old Geoff.


It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve. Burston had been shrouded in grey gloom all day. One or two office windows were lit in the tower block at Burston Central University, but it was almost completely dark. A few stray pieces of tinsel in some of the admin offices occasionally caught the light from passing cars on the overpass, and occasionally a corridor light came on for a brief period, presumably as an occupant sprinted to the toilet, or to the lift. Apart from these sporadic interludes, the building looked as though it had been long deserted, perhaps as a prelude to demolition.

Up on the tenth floor, Geoff paced the floor of his unlit office. His office was quite small. Four small paces were enough to take him from one end to the other. Twelve paces made a little circuit round the desk, if he made a little shimmy to squeeze through the gap between the filing cabinet and the desk. From time to time he paused to sip from his glass. There was really nothing important for him to finish off. He could easily have gone home, knew that he should have gone home, but he couldn’t quite face it. Carol would be at fever pitch with arrangements for cooking Christmas dinner. He checked his watch. According to Delia, it was now T-23 hours, and she should probably be stuffing the turkey by now, or something. He wondered how she was managing to do that and keep an eye on her father, who had arrived a week earlier and had been roaming restlessly around the house looking for DIY jobs. As he had done for the last thirty years, he had been making it clear that he didn’t think much of Geoff’s skills in that area. If anything, age was loosening his inhibitions. Geoff thought that Carol should defend him a bit more, rather than nodding when her father made a comment about standards slipping since his day. She said that he was just an old man, and she was just humouring him, but Geoff was starting to think that she secretly agreed.

Even if he did go home, he wouldn’t be able to slump in front of the TV as he usually did, because his father-in-law had taken possession of the remote control. He had chosen the ‘Gold’ channel and spent hours every day watching seventies’ sitcoms of dubious political correctness.

So Geoff had come unnecessarily into work instead, pleading the cares of a Head of Department. But there was nobody around. No emails to answer. No decisions which couldn’t wait until January. Instead he was pacing the floor of the office, thinking about his job and the way it was going.  He paused for another sip of whisky. He looked around the office. It was horrible. OK, it was a corner office, so it had two sets of windows, which would have made it light, if Burston were not usually shrouded in cloud. It was north-facing, so he was spared the gentle cooking effect experienced by those on the other side of the building on the rare occasions the sun emerged.  He supposed that was a good point. On the whole, though, it was gloomy, and it really was horrid. The cheap padded plastic chairs, which were meant to create a less formal space for chats with his team were ugly. The desk and filing cabinet were crammed in, and neither was big enough for him, so there were papers and folders always piled up waiting for something else to be removed to make space for them. Every now and then a pile toppled over, and he had to spend ages trying to make sense of it all again.

When he’d been an undergraduate, even a postgrad, Heads of Department had had secretaries to come and magic papers away. Their offices were spacious, yet cosy. Usually on the ground floor in some listed building, with a fireplace. Maybe a rug in front of the fire. Maybe someone to come in and light the fire, too. There would have been proper wooden bookcases, sofas for guests, and probably a drinks cabinet for sherry to offer those guests. Over sherry, he and the guests could have solved a problem or two of biology. Maybe a Nobel prize would have resulted.

No matter that his fantasy office was probably from a CP Snow novel set in an era long before his. He was trapped in this cell, ten floors up, with draughty aluminium window-frames and venetian blinds which didn’t seem to have been cleaned for twenty years.

Geoff was feeling very sorry for himself. He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to be Head of Biology. It had been a horrible year. Alison had left. The new joint course leaders didn’t know their proverbials from their elbows, and quality procedures had changed so much, he had absolutely no idea where they were going wrong. Jan had nearly caused utter disaster with the third years, and just before the bloody NSS as well. Not to mention that parent who was a solicitor picking up on the regs cock-up, and then the appalling son trying to bribe him to find more marks.

The University had issued even more incomprehensible edicts than usual. And to cap it all, Chris had nearly got them into the most horrendous Health and Safety trouble by trying to cover up a phage attack in the labs. And had trashed quite a few experiments in the process. If Chris hadn’t redeemed himself by getting the University’s only 3* rating in the REF, that could have been a lot more difficult to sort out.

Oh God, he felt so trapped. What was the point of this job? Of the department? There was nothing to look forward to any more. NSS results never went up. The REF result was crap, no matter how much the marketing department tried to spin it as a success. All of the good students left after a year and went to the University of Burston, unless they were completely lacking in ambition. His staff were a complete shower.

The glass was empty. He walked over to his desk and bent over the bottom drawer, where he kept the bottle. It was stuck – the furniture was all cheap crap. He put the glass down and knelt down on behind the desk so that he could pull at the drawer with both hands.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Geoff froze. Who the hell could that be? He could have sworn there was nobody in. Lucky he hadn’t put the light on. He stayed put. Putting his head back a little, he could see that the corridor light had come on and he could see two figures through the frosted glass set into the door – it was about the only perk of being a Head of Department, having frosted glass instead of clear glass.

He heard voices, but couldn’t quite catch what they were saying. Then there was a slight rustle, and the figures moved away. He sat back on the floor for a moment. When the corridor lights had gone out again, he resumed his efforts to open the drawer. Inevitably, it came free with a jerk. There was probably a joke lurking there about the parallel with his department, but he felt too gloomy to smile even to himself. He poured another generous measure – he was taking the train home – and kicked the drawer to close it. It stuck open. He kicked it again, this time in irritation. Bugger it.


Parts two and three are here.

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Team-building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circles? The word generated a collective shudder.

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

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

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

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

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

Suppressed giggles rippled around the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately it was only about ten minutes long.

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be shy! What do you think?”

Jan put up her hand.

“Yes! Do share!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s the only time we can get away.”

“I’ve already booked my holiday.”

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

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

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


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

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

Staff Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there anywhere I can get a coffee?”

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

“Oh. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan raised her hand.

“Yes, Jan?”

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

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

“Where’s Chris, then?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

Justifications

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.”

“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.

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

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.

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

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?”

“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.


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.

Bribery

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.