There is a not entirely satisfactory end to the Cambridge academic year. Rooting around the main University Library I receive a call from the director of the PhD programme in the Business School. He needs to see me as a matter of urgency. So I grab a yard of books, make it half a yard through an hour-and-a-half’s diligent photocopying, cut short a meeting with a nice teacher in East Asian Studies, cycle at speed and arrive panting at the director’s door. I enter to find the director, the deputy director and the administrator seated around a conference table with stern faces. Uh oh.
The issue at hand is mandatory work I was required to do on ‘quantitative research methodologies’ (in essence, turning life into numbers and asking a computer programme to tell you what is going on and what to do next; this more or less caused the current global financial crisis and is deemed to be an essential competence in contemporary academia). If you don’t pass Quants, you can’t stay in the Business School. And as I look down at the unhappy faces, I am failing because my submission is short of two exercises.
It is a minute to execution time as I pull out my aging lap-top. On it we find one of the two missing exercises. We look under properties and see that the last date on which the file was changed pre-dates the submission deadline. ‘Don’t resave,’ comes the cry; this would overwrite today’s date and leave me with no hard evidence to put before the PhD degree committee, which will have to rule on my case. At this point it looks like I can plead to have one of two missing exercises considered; but this might not be enough to save me. The three officials witness the saving of the first exercise onto a memory stick, soon to become Exhibit A at a formal hearing. I am then accompanied by the PhD administrator (lest I quickly bang out the missing exercise on the fly – hardly likely for someone who says things like ‘Remind me which one is the x-axis’) while we see if I can strengthen my defence.
Looking through my files I am relieved to see that I printed a back-up copy of the material I handed in. This is interesting because it contains missing exercise one. And this puts into play that most embarrassing of university possibilities – that work was handed in and the examiner, or (less likely) an admin person, lost it. Perhaps sensing an interesting outcome, the PhD administrator adds the back-up hard copy to the memory stick, and now has Exhibit B and Exhibit A.
But what of missing exercise two? On that I am surely bang to rights. Since I have no electronic copy of the exercise, it must have been one where I missed the class, because otherwise I would have done the exercise during the class. The exercises for which I missed classes (through teaching, so a reasonable excuse) were done at Easter. I took them off the university intranet where all coursework and materials are supposed to be posted.
We have a look on the system. Sure enough, there is no template for the missing exercise on it, at least not where it should be. There is one unexplained folder in the relevant part of the system, but it proves unopenable. Images of the intranet file directory are printed off as Exhibit C. It rather begins to look like missing exercise two may be the result of a departmental cock-up, and I subsequently hear that investigations are being launched.
So what will the degree committee decide? To throw me out anyway? To issue a groveling apology for what appear, on balance, to be university mistakes? Or to do a bit of coughing, give me a pass, and pretend the whole thing never happened? I know which one Slumdog Millionaire would go for.
The brush with the Inquisition aside, Cambridge is far from an upleasing experience. The weather is fine, it is May Ball week (don’t ask me why it is in June) and lots of slightly plump girls are wearing those deeply unflattering English ball gowns. My eldest daughter, six, is with me to meet her granny and, seeing a fleshy young lady in a shocking pink outfit outside Trinity, demands: ‘What does she think she’s wearing?’
We take granny and my stepfather out in a college punt down the river and past the main colleges. My stepfather, with broad Yorkshire accent, makes the same weak joke about being promised galley slaves half a dozen times to people on the banks and in other punts. The southern bourgeois intelligentsia, however, has dealt with far worse, and shrugs off this provocation from the Barbarian Northerner. Meanwhile, in the queues for the balls, one suspects there must be the next generation’s David Cameron, perhaps about to have that embarrassing photograph taken which will haunt his political career (the photo can no longer be published, but here is a painting of the photo, with Our Dave second left, back row).
The only crumb of comfort for the young Tory who is about have that photo taken is that the opposition is likely to be an even bigger titty, like Tony ‘Harry Potter’ Blair (seen here in a 1970s colour photo of his Oxford dining club, third from right, back row, possibly making a childish gesture with his right hand).