Goodness me! Another meeting at Burston Central. How does anyone ever get any real work done?

“Agenda item 13.5.14. Student Business. What we’re all here for.” Geoff looked over at the three student reps, who were sitting together at the far corner of the huge table, and managed to force the corners of his mouth up slightly. Alison wondered if it was meant to be encouraging. He looked more as though he’d sat on something spiky, but was too embarrassed to admit it.

Alison had long since lost the thread of the meeting, and was sorting out emails on her iPad. She looked up and nodded occasionally, to maintain the cover that she was taking notes. The Biology department half-termly meetings were a trial. They’d had an admissions report. A progress  report. A student survey report. An equality report. A widening participation report. A learning technology report. A staff development report. They’d received, for information, ten papers from ‘the University’ about various items of regulation. There had been an update on car-parking, during which Geoff had declared triumphantly that Biology staff had been more successful in gaining permits than any other department. Was there some kind of league table for that?

Now, she was aware of a silence. It was just like a seminar when you asked students about the readings they’d been supposed to prepare. The next stage in that scenario was that you rushed in and gave a mini-lecture, to cover over the lacuna. She expected Geoff to do that. She looked up. Geoff was still smiling fixedly, if lopsidedly – she wondered briefly if he’d had a stroke or something –  but there was a bit of shuffling among the students. Perhaps they were going to speak.

A gangling young man cleared his throat.

“Um. Thanks. We do have some things to mention.”

He looked down at his notebook, and there was another long pause. Alison willed him on. The students rarely said anything at these departmental meetings.

“Um. Well, can I start with some good news? The biology course has been shortlisted for a Students’ Union Teaching award, voted for by students. And so has one of the lecturers.”

There was an anticipatory silence. Every lecturer round the table was secretly hoping to hear their name in the next sentence.

Geoff gave a more genuine smile. That’s great news, er, er” he looked at the committee secretary, sitting next to him. “Jay” she hissed, through her teeth.

“Great news, Jay.” Geoff continued. “Which biology course is it?”

Jay looked puzzled. “Biology, it just says here.”

Geoff persisted. “Animal biology? Biology and Physiology? Forensic Biology? I don’t think we have a plain biology course any more, ha, ha, that’s progress for you, isn’t it?”

Jay looked deflated. “I dunno.” He brightened a bit. “Maybe it’s all of them? Anyway, and the lecturer who’s been nominated is Jan Bowman!”

The academic staff sitting round the table forced smiles, and there were some murmurs of “Great news!” “Well done, Jan!”

Geoff’s smile had faded. “Jan Bowman! Well, that’s great news. Congratulations, Jan, and good luck at the ceremony.” To his credit, he almost managed to sound pleased at the news.

Jan was delighted to be the centre of attention. She looked round the table gleefully. You might even have said triumphantly. “Thank you, colleagues. It’s an honour to be nominated.” She bowed her head in mock humility.

Alison shuddered. It was like a scene from the Middle Ages, but with slightly better clothing (looking across the room and under the tables, she could see that the socks and sandals combination was as popular now as it had been then). The honour bestowed upon the chosen one created a flurry of attention and praise, but secretly everyone was plotting to stick the knife in at the earliest opportunity. She wondered whether a failure to be nominated might soon condemn you to the stocks. And she was delighted that someone on her course had been nominated, of course she was, but, but, Jan? Reliable enough, but surely not inspiring, or particularly diligent, even? That little problem with the regulations was still pretty fresh in Alison’s mind. She shuddered again.

Whilst she was visualising this, the student rep gave their report, but she didn’t  really hear any of it. She was bored with these rituals. The students would make their complaints and suggestions. They would all listen gravely, and promise to go away and look into it. The course teams would come back to the next meeting with suggestions. If the same course reps were at the next meeting, they would either accept the suggestions, or reject them. There was never any discussion, or any involvement of students in making the solution. Consequently, the solutions were rarely effective, or if they were, it was a fairly sure thing that the course reps the following year would suggest an improvement which would take them back to the previous situation.

Oh yes, it was time to leave, alright… Martin’s Ramping-fumitory was calling her.

Afterwards, the usual huddles of staff hung around to gossip about the meeting. Alison had been determined not to join one, but somehow she found herself agreeing to go for a coffee with a couple of the others. As she had feared, the only topic they wanted to discuss was the Teaching Awards.

“Jan Bowman. That’s ridiculous. She hasn’t updated her notes for years. And she gives marks for turning up. ”

“Now, come on, Sal. I’m sure she doesn’t. That’s not in the marking scheme.” Alison protested, mildly.

Phil  looked self-righteous. “I don’t know why anyone takes it seriously. It’s just a popularity contest. No objective criteria.”

“Just like your marking criteria.” thought Alison. She sighed. Miserable sods. Although. Jan. God. There really was no justice.

“I think it’s great that one of our colleagues has been nominated.” she said. “And the course, too. Whichever one it is. I’d love to have been nominated.” As she said it, she realised that it was true. All the hours she put in. Planning. Organising. Preparing. Marking. Comforting. Sorting out. Stepping into the breach. She would love to have been nominated. And now, she never would be. To her horror, she felt tears rising. She bent down to her briefcase and pulled out a cleanish tissue.

“Something in my eye.”

The others changed the subject. Probably not to be tactful. More out of panic. Emotions were strictly for students who’d missed a deadline. Phil looked briefly at her, sympathetically. She was pretty sure that he was wondering if she was menopausal.

Alison blew her nose, and contributed in a desultory way to the subsequent dissection of Geoff’s abilities to chair meetings, manage his staff, be fair about timetabling, speak to students, advocate for the team with senior management and so on. But in the back of her mind she was wondering…should she change her mind, and stay, in the hope of getting recognition next time round?

Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebookto be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise. Apart from THES journalists.

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, see the‘About’ page.


Advent Episode 12: Collegiality

Sheila returned from her nine o’clock seminar feeling pretty pleased with herself. It wasn’t easy to get students to understand ratio. She thought she’d done really well to get a group of them to stand at the front and then to sift them out according to different principles, with less obvious ones being used each time. And it had been a master stroke to get them to imagine a pompous judge sitting at the bench and querying some of the more outlandish criteria. Earring in left ear. Hole in jeans. Shoelaces or slip-ons.

She’d worry about the stereotyping of the judge later on; in fact it was a good plan to build up an image of a male, late-middle-aged white judge now and then to challenge it later in the term. She made a note in the front of her new Moleskine notebook. It had gone much better than her old lecture, when she’d just read out the explanation and asked if anyone had any questions. She was on fire this year! Still smiling, she turned the notebook over and looked at the back pages.

1)    Gareth

2)    Lilian

3)    Bill

Her smile slipped a little. If anyone asked her, she’d be able to say it was just a note to remind her to contact them. And the other stuff in the back was for a lecture on academic writing. Avoiding clichés.

Ping! Email notification.

To: Sheila

From: Lilian

Subject: next week’s session for Criminal Law

Hope it’s alright Sheila, I noticed that you hadn’t ‘revealed’ the notes for next week’s session on corporate liability, so I’ve done it. Save you a job :-).



Sheila glowered at her computer screen. Of course it wasn’t alright. Those were last year’s notes which had been automatically copied across, and she hadn’t found time to go through them and update them yet, so she’d left everything hidden.  Now, the out-of-date ones were visible to the students.

She supposed that Lilian would accuse her of being unprofessional by not releasing the notes seven days in advance, as they’d all agreed to do. But she would have preferred that to the students thinking her unprofessional by having out of date notes. Plus, as Lilian well knew, she’d been off sick and it took time to catch up.

Her lip raised in a curl, she navigated to the university’s virtual learning environment. Her foot was tapping impatiently. Username, password, long, long list of modules…eventually she found her way to the Criminal Law module. Change status to ‘editor’. Page reloads. By now her foot was doing the Edinburgh tattoo.

Eventually, she got to the relevant page for the following week’s work. She clicked ‘hide’ next to the notes. Then she clicked through to the ‘tracking’ section to see if any students had actually looked at the notes since Lilian had revealed them. No. Good.

God. In the time she’d spent doing that, she could probably have updated the notes, she thought with a certain amount of exaggeration, and now there wasn’t time, she had to get to the staff meeting. No time to reply to Lilian either. That was probably just as well. She looked at the back pages of the notebook again.  “Revenge is a dish best served cold. Revenge is a dish..” she repeated desperately to herself. She picked up her laptop and notebook and set off down the corridor, still fuming.

Unconsciously, she twisted her face into an approximation of a fake simper and mouthed “Hope it’s alright. Save you a job” with a sneer and a sarcastic roll of the eyes.

Pete rounded the corner at that moment and looked at her warily. He was probably wondering if she was going to flip again.

“Hello, Sheila” he said, heartily. “Going to the staff meeting?”

Sheila took a deep breath. She was far too wound up for normal conversation. “Hi, Pete. Yes, sure, just popping to the Ladies first. See you in a minute. Save me a coffee!” she hurried off towards the loos, muttering to herself “breathe, breathe, breathe…”

Once safely in the Ladies, she locked herself in a cubicle and put down the seat, then sat down and took out her notebook, flipping it over and looking at the maxim pasted inside the back cover.“You can’t change them, but you can change the way that you react to them.”

She repeated it to herself several times. Then she closed her eyes briefly, inhaled deeply, and then stood up. She forced herself to smile. Ready to face the world. Or at least, ready to face a staff meeting.

When she got into the room, everyone else was still milling around the refreshments. Pete had been buttonholed by Lilian and was looking around with a slightly desperate air. “Sheila!” he called over to her. “I’ve got you a coffee!”

Her mouth felt dry. Bloody hell, wasn’t there anyone else he could have been talking to? Pete and Lilian stared at her as she walked towards them. Did she look strange? The walk across the room seemed to take an age, but in fact, within ten seconds she was standing next to Pete and Lilian, and raising a coffee cup to her mouth as though everything was normal.

“Thanks, Pete” she nodded to him. Lilian was carrying one of the new tablet computers which had been distributed to a select range of staff. She wondered why Lilian had been chosen to get one.

“Did you get my email, Sheila?” purred Lilian. Sheila marked a pause. “which one, Lilian?”

She’d learned to do passive-aggressive as well.

“The one about next week’s notes”.

“Oh yes, of course. Thank you SO much for the reminder, Lilian, I would have got very behind if you hadn’t told me”. Sheila looked and sounded angelic.

Lilian looked suspicious, and added “You do remember that we’d agreed to release all of the notes a week in advance, to allow students to prepare?”

“Of course I do.” Sheila replied “Such a good idea, and so helpful to those with disabilities who need the help of a screen reader or to have them printed on special paper. I was just running a bit behind still, you know, after been off sick for such a long time.” she pouted slightly and flapped her eyelashes unconvincingly at Pete.

He recoiled very slightly, but gamely joined the conversation “Yes!” He tried for a hearty tone. “It’s hard enough keeping up when you’re fit and well, but when you’re…”  He tailed off.

“Ready for the funny farm?” completed Sheila silently. At least, she hoped it was silently. You never knew, when you’d been ready for the funny farm.

Lilian looked puzzled. “Great, well, thanks” she said, tailing off. She wasn’t used to people being compliant. Sheila hoped that she was now wondering how to challenge poor, sick, brave Sheila any further on the issue.

Sheila had to stop herself giggling. She wondered if Lilian would bother to recheck the online learning site now, and if she did, what she would say when she discovered that Sheila had hidden the notes again.

This was actually fun. If only she’d thought of it before. After all of these years of being manipulated, she was now messing with people’s heads all on her own. LOL, as her nieces and nephews had forbidden her to say.

Pete was staring at her. Maybe she’d grinned openly. She flapped her eyelashes again and he looked away hastily.

Bill had been sitting at the head of the big table, shuffling papers and making throat-clearing noises for some time and now said quietly “Right then, ladies and gentlemen.”

Most of the women winced at this. Bill noticed and flushed slightly. “Er, colleagues.” he continued. “Shall we make a start?” he added, a little more loudly.

Dutifully, his team started to drift away from the flasks of hot water and sachets of FairTrade tea and coffee and take their places at the table. One or two took the opportunity to rush for a refill, as though this was the last opportunity for refreshments before a long expedition, rather than an admittedly tedious two, or possibly three, hour meeting.

When everyone was settled, Bill cleared his throat again. “Right then, everyone. Thanks for coming. We’ve got a full agenda this afternoon as usual, but I’ll try to be quick and get you out of here by three thirty.”

Eyes were rolled around the table. James and Gary ran a permanent sweepstake on the actual time that the meeting would end. Pete was in for 16:45. He could never decide whether it was worth the £10 he would win if it did drag on for that long. Bill got started on the agenda.

Sheila wasn’t listening, although she was tapping away on her laptop, hoping that the angle of the screen meant that her neighbours on either side wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t really taking notes from the meeting. In fact, she was updating the notes for the Criminal Law module.

She finished the edits and was waiting for them to upload to the online module area, when she noticed that there was silence. She looked up to find expectant eyes upon her and realised that Bill had spoken directly to her.

“Sorry, Bill, I was just capturing the last important point” she said brightly, “I didn’t catch that.”

“We were talking about Mitigating Factors.” he said, very gently “We wondered if you had a view on special arrangements for students with mental health issues”.

Sheila looked blankly at him. “Me? Well, not particularly” she started to say, then stopped. She realised with horror that he was asking her because she’d been off sick with stress for so long. Everyone round the table was looking at her, apparently waiting expectantly for the view of an expert on the topic.

Her mouth felt dry. “Er. Er.I don’t know enough about the issues, I’m afraid.”

Bill looked slightly surprised by this. She wondered if he was going to suggest that she stop being modest and share her expertise. He was still waiting for her to add something

“Don’t gabble. Don’t gabble. Don’t gabble” she repeated to herself. Hopefully silently. She stared beatifically back at Bill, and added a smile. “Perhaps you should ask the Student Services people who deal with disabled students?” she suggested.

One or two other people broke in at this point, perhaps trying to cover up Bill’s appalling faux pas with some loud alternative suggestions to address the issue. Sheila sat immobile, retaining her fixed grin and trying not to think about what had just happened. Now, at least, nobody was looking at her. In fact, they all seemed to be trying very hard not to.

The rest of the meeting passed in a bit of a blur. Eventually she was aware of the shuffling of papers and scraping of chairs. She bent her head, picked up her laptop and notebook, and forced herself to stand with everyone else.  She looked round. Everyone was heading for the door. They were still trying not to look at her.

Bill had scuttled first towards the door and was already almost out. He didn’t look round. Pete was not far behind him, almost at the door. There was a bit of a snarl-up as everyone tried to leave at once. Pete looked round and caught Sheila’s eye. A look of slight panic crossed his face, but he slowed and stepped to one side of the door, waiting for her to come over.

Sheila walked slowly over, dreading any further attention being drawn to her previous illness. “What did you think of that?” Pete started “I thought it was absolutely shocking.

Sheila looked at him “Well, it was a bit of a surprise.” she said “I suppose we should expect that kind of thing” she added, bravely “it can take time for people to catch up with the latest thinking.”

Pete didn’t seem to register this “I mean, how are we supposed to get to work if there aren’t enough car parking spaces?” he continued. “Another erosion of academic life.” he sighed heavily.

“mmm”  said Sheila, realising that Pete had no intention of mentioning the mental health issue. “Well, Pete, I’d better be getting on.” She nodded at him and walked purposefully towards the door. One foot in front of the other, that was the way. She kept going. Not much further to her office. She kept going.

When Sheila got to her office, she shut the door carefully and quietly turned the lock. She sat at her desk and opened up the notebook from the back.

1)    Gareth
2)    Lilian
3)    Bill

She took out her pen and added a double headed arrow, curving between ‘Lilian’ and ‘Bill’. Then she reached for the phone. She needed to book an urgent appointment with her counsellor.

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 new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: A little problem with the regs.

Advent Episode 2: The Last Straw

Bob was staring blankly at his computer screen. He was finding it difficult to concentrate. Martin hadn’t been too happy about the broken kettle. He was sitting muttering to himself, nursing a super-sized Americano which Bob had gone down to get for him from the coffee shop.

Bob was answering emails from students about the assignment which was due in at 5pm. He was trying very, very hard not to think about Alan’s frankly bizarre behaviour in the toilets that morning. He just wanted to come to work, teach students, do his paperwork, and go home.

He didn’t expect the job to be stress-free, and he didn’t mind working long hours, but he did expect it to be reasonably predictable and, well, safe. Being a forensic accountant had been fine, while he was sitting analysing files, but he’d never really enjoyed having to confront people at the sessions where he presented his findings, or, worse, had to ask them why documents were missing or didn’t tally with each other. The rules had been clear enough, and he was good at auditing. He could just never get to grips with the general deviousness of some of the clients.

University life, by contrast, was pretty straightforward. People thought they were creative and original, but they worked within well-defined parameters. The year was tightly structured. There were clear rules of behaviour and most people stuck to them. Annual appraisals didn’t have numbers on, but were based on vague objectives which were subject to a wide range of gentle interpretations.

Students did the same kinds of things every year, made the same kinds of excuses, dipped in performance at the same times of the year, sometimes made the same kinds of startling progress, and were generally, or at least on the average, charming.

Staff were usually courteous to one another. Hardly anyone raised their voices, which was nice, even if perhaps there was sometimes rather too much muttering. People covered classes for each other when someone was sick, or needed to attend the nativity play, or got a paper accepted at a special conference.  He liked it here.

He’d never heard of anyone else being ambushed in the toilets by senior management. So why had it happened to him?

His phone rang. He was almost relieved when it turned out to be a student. An extension request, perhaps?

“This really is the last straw…” spluttered Martin. He reached for a tissue to wipe flecks of coffee from his keyboard and reread the email which had just landed in his inbox.


From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: Car Parking Charges

All staff will be aware of the University’s commitment to Sustainable Development. As part of this policy, we are committed to encouraging staff to travel to campus by public transport. We will therefore be introducing a charge for car parking with effect from 1 January. Charges will be competitive compared with other local facilities at £8 per day, or £35 for a full week…

Martin didn’t bother to read the sections on subsidised rail season tickets, bus concessions or the provision of extra bicycle racks. He continued to fume, more or less silently. The rules of office-sharing dictated that they should try to be quiet when the other was on the phone. Bob was involved in a protracted conversation.

“I’m terribly sorry to hear about your grandmother”, repeated Bob, “and if you’d like to collect a Mitigating Circumstances form from the Student Support Office…” he tailed off. A pained expression crossed his face and the sound of noisy sobs could be heard through the receiver.

“From the Student Support Office”, he continued, “and submit it together with any supporting evidence by Friday,” – he speeded up – “itwillbeconsideredbythepanelwhowilldecideifyoucanbe givenanextension for the assignment. Now, I have another call waiting, so I’ll confirm this to you in an email, and I really do offer my deepest sympathies on your bereavement. Goodbye”. He replaced the receiver, then took it off the hook again and turned back to his computer.  He sighed.

Martin had been simmering as he waited for Bob to finish on the phone. “HAVE YOU SEEN THE LATEST?” Bob looked up, guardedly.  “Um…probably not”, he ventured. “I was just trying to remember whether that was the student who’d already claimed special extensions for grandparental bereavements or not. What have I missed?” He wasn’t sure that he wanted to know.

Martin didn’t really let him finish the sentence before continuing “CAR PARKING!” he shouted. “They’re even going to charge us to come to work now!” Bob located and opened the car parking email in his own inbox. He read it through carefully.

“Oh dear. And they’re going to reduce the number of places, too. Didn’t you say it was already difficult to park unless you get in before seven-thirty?”

Bob cycled to work most days. If it was very wet he took two buses instead. He had no real idea of whether it was difficult to park or not. Still, he felt an instinctive sympathy for the reaction the email had provoked in his colleague. Martin complained regularly about the difficulties of driving into work and finding somewhere to park when he’d arrived. He often arrived in the office slightly out of breath and pink-cheeked, as though he had run to work. Actually, the effect would have been produced by sitting in his car and getting angry with the nameless idiots blocking his way and taking his parking space.

“It’s all right for you. You don’t drive to work. What am I supposed to do? Well, if they don’t want me to come in to work, I’ll just work from home more. Let’s see how they like that! I wonder what the union has to say about this?”

He bent over the keyboard and started tapping frantically.

Bob sighed again and turned back to his own computer, remembering that he’d promised to email the bereaved student with confirmation of the arrangements for requesting an extension.

He supposed it must be fairer to make all of the students apply for extensions in the same way, using the same forms, but it did seem to be a lot more hassle than just agreeing on the spot to a student who sounded genuinely upset. It felt so impersonal. And Sally Smith was such a nice genuine sort of girl. It seemed cruel to make her prove her grandmother had died when she was obviously so upset. He was still trying to remember if she’d asked for an extension for that before. It didn’t mean she was cheating. She did have four grandparents. Had had, anyway.

He sighed yet again. He had a class at two and he hadn’t yet managed to nip out for anything to eat.

There was a loud knock at the door. Both men stiffened slightly. Martin hissed “ssh…they might go away”. They sat motionless for a few seconds. There was a second knock, more hesitant this time, and then the person outside tried the door handle tentatively. The door was locked. There was a short silence, followed by some rustling outside, and then a note appeared under the door.

The building was too noisy to distinguish footsteps retreating down the corridor, but after a decent interval had passed, Martin went over and picked up the note. “Dr Barker”, he read aloud “Hah! It’s for you, Bob. I told you it was a good move to put that dark paper over the window in the door. We’d never get any work done if they could see in.” He passed the note to Bob and went back to his email to the departmental union rep.

Bob unfolded the scrap of lined paper “Dr Barker”, he read “came to c u 2day, but ur not in. I need an extension cos my housemate was sick. Susie B.” Bob looked deeply pained. He turned back to the computer.

Susie B? He had 127 students in the class which had an assignment deadline that day. He knew the names of about 42, he reckoned. This one didn’t ring a bell. He brought up the student records programme, highlighted the relevant class, and searched on First Name: Su*. Susan, Susanne, Suzanne, Sue…good. Only one whose surname began with ‘B’. Susanne Brough.

He started an email, then stopped again. He couldn’t send it right this minute, as it would be obvious that he had actually been in his office when she put the note under the door. Then he started again – he could have been in the loo, couldn’t he? Or gone for a sandwich? That reminded him – what time was it? He looked at the clock in the corner of the screen. One-forty. Time for a quick sandwich before the lecture? Probably not. His stomach rumbled in protest.

He realised that he wouldn’t have time to get food after the lecture either. He’d have to go straight to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s office. His sigh could probably be heard in the next corridor. He forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing right now.

He finished the email which redirected Susie B to the appropriate part of the university website to apply for mitigating circumstances, pointing out gently that a friend’s illness wasn’t usually considered a good enough reason, and sent it. What was the modern equivalent of paper-pushing? Email-sneaking?

Shit! Shit! Shit!  Ten to two, and he hadn’t got all his stuff together for the lecture. Handouts? Notes? Where were they? He pulled the USB disk from its slot, ignoring the sanctimonious message about properly ejecting it, gathered up a pile of likely looking papers and headed for the door. Martin was still composing his email to the union, muttering quietly to himself as he typed, deleted and retyped.

Bob sighed again as he turned the lock with his little finger, then pushed down the door handle with his elbow and edged the door towards him, getting a foot in between it and the frame so that he could force his way out without dropping anything.

He emerged from the haven of the office, bearing his armfuls of material as though they were a shield to protect him from the parries of barbarian hordes. “Into the fray,” he muttered melodramatically to himself, as he dodged and weaved through the cheerful crowd of undergraduates.

This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: Fighting Back.