Christmas Presents

Seriously, are you still in the office? Even Geoff has managed to leave, even if he’s only got as far as Cheeky’s…

Parts one and two of this episode may help to make sense of this. Or maybe not.

Geoff carried the mugs over to the table. The Chengs had been talking to each other – he presumed in Chinese- while they waited, but they fell abruptly silent as he returned to the table.

“Thank you.” They spoke almost in unison. Both of them looked at the milky beverages.

Geoff wasn’t sure what to say. While he was thinking, he took a sip of his coffee. It was scalding hot. And disgusting. He winced.

“So, as you staying in Burston for long, Mr Cheng?”

“Ah, no, sadly, we’re going to London tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s a pity.” Geoff wondered whether to follow up by asking whether Mr Cheng had had a chance to see much of Burston, but he couldn’t think of anything which Mr Cheng might have liked to visit.

“What will you be doing in London, then?”

Both of the Chengs smiled. “Shopping, museums, concerts.” said the father. “I’ve got tickets for a couple of shows, as well. I like the shows.”

“It’s a pity you weren’t here last week, for the University carol concert.” Geoff despised himself. No, it wasn’t a pity. He hadn’t even bothered attending himself. “Maybe next year.”

Mr Cheng inclined his head politely. “Yes, maybe.”

Cheng junior slurped his tea. Geoff was racking his brains. “So, how’s your first term at Burston Central been, Mr Cheng?”

As soon as the words were out of this mouth, he knew it was a high-risk strategy. He had no idea what was going on with the first years. The chances were, Mr Cheng’s first term had been crap. Or he was just trying to get enough marks to secure a move to Burston University, and hadn’t been anywhere except the library.

Cheng junior beamed. “I love it.”

Geoff didn’t manage to hide his surprise, but Cheng père was looking with pride at his son, and didn’t notice.

“It’s great. The tutors are nice, and they give me help, and the Chinese Society organises lots of things. The only thing I don’t like…” he tailed off. Here it comes, thought Geoff. “…the days are very short. I miss the daylight.”

Geoff stared at the earnest young man. He wondered if he’d misheard. Young Cheng did have a bit of an accent. But he couldn’t think of another word that sounded like ‘daylight’ that he could have mistaken it for. Delight? Possible. Dilate? Not a noun. Deloitte?

The Chengs were looking at him. He went for his first guess. “Oh, the days will be lengthening now. By the time you get back, we’ll be practically in the spring. Burston in the spring. You’ll love it.”

What the actual fuck was he saying? Nobody enjoyed Burston in the spring. It rained all the time. Why the hell was he here, sitting in an appalling little café with two complete strangers, talking complete crap? How had things come to this? He was sure that the other heads of department, the rest of the so-called Burston Resistance Movement, were sitting in a nice pub somewhere together, sinking pints, bantering, enjoying themselves. Definitely enjoying themselves.

Geoff had a moment of clarity. He’d forgotten how to enjoy himself, that was the problem. He needed to have some fun. Take a bit of ‘me-time’. Nobody ever thought about what he wanted to do, did they? His staff were too demanding. They couldn’t do anything without him, and they never wanted to do anything for him. The University Exec had no idea how hard his job was. They put far too much pressure on heads of department. Initiative this. Initiative that. Target-driven. Sort your NSS scores out. Improve retention. Nobody ever told them how they were supposed to do it. And his wife seemed to have given up on him. She didn’t even complain when he said he’d be working late, again. Even the BRM. They’d stitched him up like a kipper with the sit-in. Bastards.

Geoff pressed his lips together. Nobody appreciated him. His eyes misted over.

“Are you ok, Professor Sanders?” Cheng Shan had put a hand on his arm.

Geoff blinked and tried to focus on him. Pull yourself together, Geoff. “Oh. Yes. Sorry. I was just thinking about…” what had he been talking about? Oh, yes. “…spring in Burston. The flowers. The blossom. The new hope.”

Mr Cheng was nodding vigorously. “Oh yes. Spring is marvellous. That’s why we have spring festival, what you call Chinese New Year. In fact, you must visit us for New Year!”

Geoff had recovered. “I’d love to.” OK, he could do this. A bit of chit-chat, then he’d need to get home. He knew he wouldn’t be going to China. But he could pretend.

Mr Cheng was listing the delights of spring in Shanghai. Geoff smiled and nodded, adding the odd encouraging comment. He could definitely do this.

Eventually, Shan tapped his father on the hand and said something in Chinese. Mr Cheng looked behind him. The woman at the counter was noisily tidying up and wiping down the surfaces. Cheng looked at his watch. “Yes, you’re right, Shen. Closing time. We must go.” He looked at Geoff. “We have a dinner reservation, anyway. Would you like to join us, Professor Sanders?”

“I’m terribly sorry, my wife will be expecting me.”

“Of course, we’ve already kept you too long.”

“No, no, it’s been a pleasure. Lovely to meet you.” Geoff was already calculating the chances of getting to the station for the next train home. Slim, but if he got a wiggle on…Mr Cheng was holding out a business card. “Thank you. Er, I don’t have one on me, but…”

“No problem, Professor Sanders. I know where to find you.” Mr Cheng winked at him.

Geoff wasn’t sure how to respond to this. Mr Cheng continued. “I’ll get my personal assistant to contact you about the visit.”

Geoff put out his right hand. “Marvellous. Marvellous. That would be marvellous.”

“And I’m thinking about making a donation to the department. We can talk about that when you come to Shanghai.”

“Marvellous. Lovely idea.”

“A new lab, maybe? Anyway, think about what might be useful.”

Geoff was still shaking Mr Cheng’s hand. He was struggling to process what was being said, again. New lab? He must have misheard. But no obvious alternative presented itself. New lamb? New lav? He let go.

“That sounds very generous.”

Mr Cheng waved his hand. “If Shen is happy, I’m happy.”

They all gathered up their coats and bags. Shen took the mugs over to the counter. He beamed at the woman. The corners of her mouth twitched up slightly. Pouring the contents of the mugs in the sink, she complained. “Summat wrong with the tea?”

“Oh, no. We were just distracted. It was lovely.” Shen smiled again. “I’ll come again.”

The woman shrugged.

Outside Cheeky’s, Geoff stuck out his hand again. “Lovely to meet you, Me Cheng.” he said, again. “Have a lovely evening, and enjoy London.”

Geoff stood for a moment outside Cheeky’s, wondering if he’d imagined the whole encounter. But if it were real, what a coup!  Were donations REFfable? This could really give him some kudos.He grinned to himself.

The Chengs were about fifty yards away when he realised that he needed to go in the same direction as the Chengs to get to the station. He’d have to go a very long way round not to bump into them again. Bugger.


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 a cheesy novella about sessional staff, see The Unknown Tutor.

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A trip out

Still in the office? Here’s part two of a three part special focusing on poor old Geoff. Part one is here.

The mysterious visitors had left. Geoff resumed his pacing.

As he crossed the room, he realised that there was a scrap of paper by the door which hadn’t been there before. He bent over to pick it up. It was torn from a notebook.

“Professor Sanders, I came to introduce my daddy and to wish you happy holidays. My daddy would like to meet you. He is here from Hong Kong.” It was signed Cheng Shan, with a phone number. There were a lot of students in biology, and normally Geoff wouldn’t have known who any of them were, but this name rang a bell. Was that the student whose father was said to be unbelievably wealthy, a Hong Kong financier or something? It was assumed that he’d applied to Burston Central by mistake, instead of the University of Burston, but nobody had dared to ask. Other than that, Geoff knew nothing about him.

He stepped over to the window. He could see two figures just emerging from the tower block and walking towards the park. Why not? It was a good excuse not to go home. He switched on the office light, and picked up the phone.

“Mr Cheng?”

“Dr Sanders here. You just put a note through my door?”

“Ha, ha. Of course I’m still here! Lots to do. I must have just stepped out for a moment.”

“Always switch the lights off when I leave the room. Can’t have the biology department wasting precious resources!”

“Yes, well, anyway. I just called to say that I’d be delighted to meet your father. Would you like to come up? Or I’d be pleased to take you for a drink somewhere?”

“Well, of course, tea, whatever. Where are you now?”

Geoff could see the two figures standing at the entrance to the park. Even from this height, he thought he could see them shivering.

“Oh, that’s great. Not far away! Can you hang on for a moment, and I’ll come down to you? Why not just pop back into the building? ”

“Perfect. See you in a minute.”

Geoff hung up. He opened the top drawer of the desk and took out a packet of mints. He popped one into his mouth, then put the packet into his pocket. He’d possibly had more whisky than one mint would mask.

He had a quick look round the office. Was there anything he needed for the holidays? He looked at his laptop. No. It could stay there. He picked up his coat and keys, kicked the desk drawer again, to no effect, and left the room.

Downstairs, there was no sign of any security staff. The student and his father were standing in the semi-dark near to the revolving doors. They looked cold. Geoff advanced towards them, holding out his hand. “Mr Cheng, lovely to see you again. And this is your father, also Mr Cheng, I presume?”

The student shook his hand limply. He looked surprised. As well he might – Geoff had probably passed him dozens of times in the corridor without showing any signs of acknowledgement, or welcome. “Yes, sir, professor, I present you my father, Mr Cheng. Visiting.”

“Quite so, quite so.” Geoff shook hands vigorously with Mr Cheng.

He looked carefully at Geoff. “Nice to meet you, Professor.”

“Oh, call me Geoff. We aren’t too formal here! And I’m not a professor, anyway, just a humble doctor,” he added, almost sotto voce.

“Geoff. Fine. I am Cheng-Gong.”

“Cheng-Gong.” Repeated Geoff. “Marvellous. Lovely to meet you. How are you finding Burston?”

“Cold.” Mr Cheng shivered, as if to emphasise the point.

“Oh dear. Well, it is winter. Shall we go and find somewhere for a cup of tea?”

“I wouldn’t like to keep you from your work, er, Geoff.”

“Oh, I was just about to leave anyway. It’s quiet at this time of year.”

“So I see.” Mr Cheng looked up at the darkened building.

“Yes, well, it’s good for everyone to get a break. My team work so hard all term.”

Mr Cheng said nothing. Geoff wondered if he’d raised an eyebrow, but it was quite dark. Difficult to be sure.

“Let’s go.” Geoff led the way out of the building. There was no catering on campus on Christmas Eve. He paused outside the building and looked up and down the street. Burger bars. Fried chicken shops. Convenience stores.  Not really what he was looking for. He walked past these establishments every day on his way to the station, but never really registered them. Why would he go out of the office for coffee, when he could make his own at a fraction of the price?

Where would be suitable? He vaguely remembered someone in the department mentioning a place down Challoner Street. Chicky’s? Cheeky’s? Smiling at the Chengs, he put out his arm in an encouraging gesture, and ushered them towards the main road.

Challoner Street was dimly lit, but he could see the café about half-way down. He led the Chengs confidently to the door and thrust it open, ushering them inside with a magnanimous gesture. A bell clanged somewhere as the door opened. His face fell as he looked around the room. He hadn’t realise that such places still existed. The orange plastic chairs surfaced dim memories of Wimpy Bars from his childhood.

Not for the first time, he marvelled at the difference between Burston city centre and Rumchester, where he lived. Twenty minutes on the train, and it was like another world. Rumchester was bursting with chi-chi coffee bars, each serving their own special blend of estate coffees to be sipped whilst installed on fine leather sofas reading an uncreased copy of your choice of broadsheet, or using the free wifi to catch up on Buzzfeed on your iPad.

The Chengs were looking at him. He gestured them towards the nearest table. There were no other customers, but the bell had summoned a woman to the counter. Behind her, he could hear a TV.

Geoff recovered himself. “Thought you might like to see a bit of local charm. Famous for its coffee.” He laughed nervously. “What can I get you? My treat.”

Mr Cheng looked carefully at him, as though trying to decide if Geoff was mocking them. Then he looked at the counter area. “I think I’ll have tea. Same for you, Shan?”

His son nodded.

“Great. I think I’ll try the famous coffee.” Geoff took the two paces to the counter with great decision. He smiled at the woman. “Two teas, please, and one black coffee.”

She nodded, and picked up a kettle, filled it, and switched it on. Geoff watched as she took three mugs from a shelf. She put tea bags in two of them, and a teaspoon of instant coffee in the third. The kettle boiled. She filled the mugs, stirred them all, extracted the tea bags, and then added generous quantities of milk to each. Geoff opened his mouth to say something about the coffee, but it was too late.

“There you go. Three pounds, please.”

Geoff fished in his pocket for change. He wondered if he’d stepped into a timewarp.

Part three is here.

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.

On the twelfth day of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas
My VC sent to me:
Twelve Students Striking
Eleven TEF Measures
Ten New Professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight Interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

Geoff looked longingly at the cupboard next to his desk. It would be impossible to open the door discreetly, never mind extract the bottle, pour a drink, knock it back and hide the evidence. He sighed heavily.

“What’s up, prof?”

Geoff looked wearily at his nemesis. “What’s up? What’s up? I don’t know. Maybe the sun?”

Quentin looked quizzically at him. “You’re not making much sense, prof. Come on, get in the spirit.”

Geoff turned and looked out of the window. The lights of Burston spread away from the tenth floor office. Far below, the blue lights of an ambulance sped past. They were too high to hear the siren.

At the foot of the Burston Central University central building, he could see a couple of black-uniformed figures standing in a small group with three or four men in suits. He very much hoped it was Security planning his rescue.

There were twelve students in his office. The last time he’d seen that many students all together was at an induction session years ago, before he’d delegated pep talks to his course leaders.

They took up a ridiculous amount of space in the office. And they smelled unpleasant. The great smells of Lynx, or Sure, were layered over bodies which hadn’t had time for a shower in the morning. The fustiness of clothes which had been considered clean enough to be worn until the end of term, rather than bother with the over-priced launderette. Boxes of pizza strewn over the floor – to be fair, those had smelled pretty good when they arrived, but now the remains were congealing, and an unpleasant mix of anchovy, ancient oregano and cheap cheese was making him feel slightly nauseous.

He banged on the window. Damn those architects in the seventies who’d thought we’d never have to open a window again. There was no response from below, but Quentin moved languidly over and placed a hand on his arm. “Easy, prof. You’re safe with us.”

This was all Julian’s fault. The ‘Burston Resistance Movement’ had met again. Different pub this time, a little further away from campus. As Julian said, seven senior members of staff being seen regularly in the same pub might attract attention. The Blacksmith’s Arms was on the edge of what students called ‘no-man’s land’. If they got the apostrophe in the right place.

Geoff had felt a little uncomfortable walking over. He hadn’t actually seen anyone else on the streets, but he was sure there were other people around. And if there were others, they weren’t wearing sensible shoes and a Berghaus anorak, or carrying a rucksack large enough for a laptop. He’d tried to walk purposefully, and fast.

Despite his best efforts to be a couple of minutes late, nobody else from the BRM had arrived yet. Geoff waited at the bar. Didn’t want to get hemmed in at the table again. There were no stools, so he leaned back onto the bar. His pulse rate began to return to normal. Sipping his pint, he thought he probably fitted in not too badly.

The front door opened, and Geoff turned to the sound, hopeful that it was his colleagues. As he did so, there was a slight feeling of resistance in his shoulder straps, followed by a slow tinkling as his rucksack gently propelled a tray piled with glasses along the bar.

“For fook’s sake,” the landlord dived sideways, managing to catch the tray and a couple of the glasses. “Ya twat. Watch what ya doing.”

Geoff stared hopelessly at the damage. “Oh God. I’m so sorry. Let me help.” He made as though to come round the bar.

“Na, ya’ve done enough already.” The landlord waved him away. “G’an siddown out o’t’way.”

Mortified, Geoff slunk off to the only large table and slid round to the corner. Without thinking, he drained his glass. Still no sign of the rest of the BRM. He couldn’t go back to the bar. He couldn’t sit there on his own any longer.  He didn’t want to walk back into Burston on his own. He sat hunched in the corner.

Long, long, minutes passed before the door burst open again and Julian and the other five members of the BRM tumbled in, laughing and jostling each other. They chattered noisily while they ordered their drinks. Nobody looked at Geoff.

Eventually, they were all served, and Julian turned to survey the room. Geoff raised a timid hand, and Julian beamed at him. “There he is! Brilliant!”

Geoff absorbed some of the glow of the group as they made their way over to his table and settled themselves on either side of him. He wished he’d got himself another drink. He was hemmed in again.

Julian looked at his watch. “Right. We’re running a bit behind, so let’s get on.” As at the previous meeting, he leaned in a little, and lowered his voice. “OK. I’ve had an idea.”

“This has all gone too far. This restructure. Look at us.” He gestured round the group. “Seven senior staff. Do you think we’ve got a cat in hell’s chance of getting a look in to the research institutes?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “No. Because we’ve all been doing the thankless task of keeping the university running.” His colleagues nodded. “And saying the three teaching hub managers will be picked from the so-called highest-performing teaching departments. Well, fuck that. How’s it going to be measured?”

Geoff took this for a real question. “Um, didn’t the VC say that he’d be using the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework measures from the Green Paper?”

Julian had been waiting for this. He pounded his fist on the table. “Do you call that a measurement? Come on, Geoff. I thought you were a scientist.”

Geoff shrank back into his seat. Was he still a scientist? And anyway, how would he know anything about social science measures? Julian lowered his voice again. The fist-pounding had attracted some attention. “Look, this is all a pile of crap. National Student Survey, Graduate Employment Rates, Progression. They’re all proxy measures for teaching excellence, right? I mean, nobody knows what teaching excellence is, right?”

The BRM nodded collectively. Nobody was going to attempt another answer to Julian’s questions, which were now revealed to be rhetorical.

“Look, we can’t do anything about this. We’ve been castrated. Emasculated. Disempowered.”

In his intense state of anxiety, Geoff misheard the last word as ‘disembowelled’. He shrank back still further .

There were murmurs of ‘too true’, ‘bloody exec’, and ‘what happened to academic freedom?’

Julian continued. “We can’t do anything, but you know who can?”

Peter put his hand up. Julian indicated with a nod that he could speak. “The Senate?” he suggested.

It was just like QI. Julian was hoping for the wrong answers, so that he could sound a verbal klaxon. “The Senate? The Senate? Who’s on Senate?”

Geoff raised his hand a fraction. “I am.”

Julian spread his hands out, palm up. “Exactly. Exactly. What on earth could you do about all this?”

Geoff shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing.”

Julian’s use of the rhetorical device of repetition appeared to be infectious.

“So who can influence the VC?”

Nobody dared to make a suggestion.

“STUDENTS! The VC will have to listen to students.”

There was general assent around the table. Of course. Students had all the power nowadays. Academics counted for nothing in the consumerist world of modern higher education. Spoon-fed, cosseted, always put first.

Geoff didn’t join in with the murmurs of support. He never saw students getting much chance to speak at Senate. Sure, they were represented. Sure, there was an item marked ‘student agenda items’, but it was always about what was happening in the Students’ Union. They hardly ever spoke about any decisions Senate was taking, and when they did, the VC could be pretty sarcastic.

Geoff tuned out of the main discussion as he thought about what use students could possibly be in affecting the decisions of the University Executive. He couldn’t see it.

Julian was really getting under way now. “Let’s organise this where it has maximum impact. No good getting my students to do it, everyone knows that Sociology students will protest at the drop of a hat. We  need to pick a department where people will be more surprised, where there’ll be more press coverage, where we’ll get national attention.”

Geoff realised that the other six members of the BRM were looking at him.

“Biology!” Julian said in triumph. “Biology! Nobody expects militant biologists!”

At that moment, Geoff realised that he’d been set up.

And now, here he was, trapped in his office with twelve smelly students. If the inactivity below was anything to go by, there was no press coverage, no national attention, nobody who was actually bothered. Well, maybe his wife was bothered, but it was more likely that she thought he was working late, or in the pub. She’d probably say it served him right for not ever telling her when he was going to be late back. The students had ‘borrowed’ his phone and unplugged his computer when they’d ‘stormed’ his office according to Julian’s plan, so he didn’t really know if anyone was looking for him. The pizza delivery man hadn’t encountered any security staff on his way up. Nobody had knocked on the door to offer to negotiate. The little group downstairs might just be having a chat.

He sighed. It could be a long night. Maybe he could talk to the students about teaching excellence.

That was the twelfth day. The singing is over. But will Geoff remain in his office until the University shuts down on 24 December? It depends whether those students have booked Advance tickets to go home, probably.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circles? The word generated a collective shudder.

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

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

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

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

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

Suppressed giggles rippled around the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately it was only about ten minutes long.

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be shy! What do you think?”

Jan put up her hand.

“Yes! Do share!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s the only time we can get away.”

“I’ve already booked my holiday.”

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

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

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

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

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Staff Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there anywhere I can get a coffee?”

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

“Oh. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan raised her hand.

“Yes, Jan?”

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

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

“Where’s Chris, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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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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