Like Ghostbusters’ Dr Jillian Holtzmann, we too can be quirky and successful

Two weeks ago I was in New York City, presenting a paper at the International Legal Ethics Conference. I stayed on for a few extra days in that wonderful city. And (amongst theatre visits, running along the Hudson River, and eating the most gorgeous pizza in Hell’s Kitchen),  I visited locations featured in the 1984 film Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters is a childhood favourite of mine. I must have watched it 100 plus times. It was one of the first DVDs I bought. I quote it at length, at random moments. Last September, when we visited New York for the first time, Mark and I sought out ‘Spook Central’, the apartment block where Rick Moranis’s Louis Tully and Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett live (and – spoiler alert – where the final fight scene with Mr Stay Puft takes place).

This time, I really went for it. I realised my hotel was only 10 minutes from Columbia University, from which Drs Venkman and Stanz are unceremoniously ejected. Next to the beautiful fountain and library steps, the Drs concoct a plan to set up in business as catchers of spectral forces. As a child (and in every subsequent viewing), I saw Bill Murray sitting on a wall outside the Columbia University library drinking from a bottle – and thought he was the coolest human being I had ever come across. I sat on that very wall (and some others just in case I’d got it wrong) and was overcome with pure joy (see photo for said joyfulness – and evidence I’m no good at rubbing in suncream). Later, I went back to Spook Central.  And I did a twirl a la Dr Venkman outside the Met Opera fountain – just like many other people it seems! I didn’t do the jumpy foot dance though. Not cool enough for that.

It’s just a film, right? Yes. It is. And it’s blatant nostalgia on my part. I totally accept that. But it means something to me.

So, when I went to see the new Ghostbusters film (the one with – shock horror – women in) I wondered how I would feel about it. I entered the cinema wishing the filmmakers, cast and crew well, not least because of all of the completely unnecessary rubbish they’ve been forced to endure. But I really didn’t know what my reaction would be.

I exited the cinema with one thought. I loved Dr Jillian Holtzmann. Played by Kate McKinnon, Holtzmann is an expert scientist, creating spectacular gadgets and stunning equipment for the Ghostbusters crew. She’s also, as director Paul Feig has said, a ‘glorious weirdo’. She is pure quirk. She says what she thinks without affectation. Her gear (those googles! that jacket!) is thrown-together-stylish. Her stance is empowered and confident, yet she’ll kick her legs up on the table whilst she’s working because, hey, she’s just more comfortable that way. Importantly, she is completely at ease with herself. And clever, successful, inspiring, practical, and innovative. In short, she is all the Professor I aspire to be.


She’s the one on the right. I may strike this pose walking into lectures. 

Before I went to New York, I spent every evening frantically drafting my National Teaching Fellowship application. Whilst I was away, the application would go through an internal review process, and it wasn’t until my last day in the Big Apple that I heard the outcome.

Initially, I had deleted the email containing the call for applications. I kept thinking about it, but hesitated. But after being asked for the third time whether I was going to go for it, I finally took the hint, and decided I would.

What made me hesitate? Confidence (or rather lack of) was certainly a factor. I looked at the criteria and the other NTFs and wondered if I was good enough. But alongside this, I had decided that if I was going to write 5000 words about excellence – individual, raising the profile of, and developing – then I wanted to write using my voice, and (to borrow from Frank) my way.  In essence, my plan was to let rip the glorious weirdo, rather than create a document which dispassionately observed achievements and goals.  And I wondered whether this would be an exercise in futility. Academia has funny old thoughts about writing in your own voice. We reject (and/or perhaps fear?) the use of ‘I’ in our academic work. Our creative, subjective expressions of self seem to get crushed, right from the word go.

But I put this all to the back of my head and got writing.

An example of utilising my own voice? Well, part of the application requires you to evidence your commitment to ongoing professional development in teaching and learning and/or learning support. At first I did what I suspect most people would do and started to list all of staff seminars, CPD days, conferences etc. I’ve ever attended. Then I deleted it, and started again. Because, let’s be honest, some sessions we go to are useful, and some are not. Listing all the sessions I’ve ever been to does not evidence my commitment to ongoing professional development. Quite frankly, all that sort of list does is evidence commitment to attending events which promise tea and biscuits (or sometimes – gasp – cake).  So I wrote that (although not the bit about the refreshments). I wrote that I’d started writing a big long list, but that didn’t evidence my commitment to developing my own practice. What really develops my practice? Random conversations in corridors about trying new teaching activities. Going up to a speaker after their conference paper, teasing out the issues, and then following up with an email or phone call to work out possible collaborations. Watching a colleague handle a room of disgruntled, nervous students and replicating her strategies. Catching up over a cuppa (those refreshments again). Arranging a writing day with my PhD Buddy. I wrote about that. Like I’ve just done here.

And you know what? They liked it. In fact, one reviewer said they loved it (!). That bit about professional development – the bit I thought the panel would either roll their eyes at or dismiss kindly as ‘engaging, but not scholarly’ – got the highest praise out of the whole thing. So, I am thrilled to say that my application is now in the hands of the reviewers at the Higher Education Academy. And I am thrilled that it represents me. The proper me. With a large dollop of quirk. And also successful, creative, practical, and clever.

Who are you going to call? Well, that’s easy. Call on yourself – you’re the best person for the job.

Running up that hill: a Thank You

On Thursday, I was awarded joint Law Teacher of the Year at the Northern Law Awards with the wonderful Jenny Jarvie of Bishop Auckland College. I was thrilled to share the award with such a passionate, caring, innovative teacher. We were both called upon to give an acceptance speech. This post is an extended version of mine.  

2015-07-01 12.33.23

Last Saturday, I did parkrun. Have you heard of parkrun? Free, timed, 5k runs, 9am every Saturday. Have a look at the website – there’s bound to be one near you. My local parkrun takes place at Whitley Bay.

Now, I run to think. I use the time to work things out in my mind, and to draft and re-draft speeches, bits of conference papers, applications, titles of blog posts etc.

You might think that a seafront run would be fairly flat.  And indeed there is a lovely start at my parkrun, where we run down a slope onto a long pathway parallel to the sand with the lighthouse in front of us. But about halfway round the course there is a humdinger of a hill. The sort of hill that makes you take a deep breath. The sort of hill that makes your head bow low (don’t look at the top, don’t look at the top…!).

I’ve been drafting some long documents for a few weeks now. Documents that require me to talk about my teaching practice, and why I love to teach. I’ve written and re-written over 10,000 words, carefully crafting statements that attempt to show what it is that makes me get up and go to work.

As I approached the hill of doom last Saturday, it suddenly dawned on me. It was oh so simple:  there were two reasons why I loved my job.

My colleagues. My confidence building, supportive colleagues who put the student experience at the heart of everything they do even in the most challenging of times.

My students. My bright, articulate, capable students whose varied interests outside of their academic life make them so exciting to work with. Many of our former students are in this room tonight, up for “Rising Star” or “Trainee of the Year”. We are so so proud of you. Well done. We are proud of all of our students and everything they achieve.

Buoyed by those thoughts, I soon found myself at the top of the hill. Not only that… I got a Personal Best(!). I will continue to try to do my best for my colleagues and for my students for the remainder of my teaching career. Thank you.


Lit Review 1

How I use Excel to manage my Literature Review

Abandon your Word tables! Using Excel to manage your literature review can make research quicker, easier – and yes –  fun.  

A short while ago, David posted this comment on How I use Scrivener for academic writing:

David comment on excel lit review

I promised I would write a post about it. So here it is. But before we get down to the mechanics of Excel….

A little note about my literature review 

The methodology for my Professional Doctorate is autoethnography. I’ll be posting a fuller explanation of autoethnography in due course, but for the purposes of this post all you need to know is that this type of research uses self-examination and story in order to promote new ways of thinking, and help others make sense of their own lives and culture.

Initially, a systematic review of the literature appealed to me. I’m a lawyer. I like structure. So I begin my systematic review, looking for autoethnographic articles on Web of Science, HeinOnline, LexisNexis etc. My days as working in a library mean that I’m pretty au fait with boolean operators and the like – however, my searches yielded very few results. Key texts (which I knew existed, as I had read them) didn’t appear.

At the same time as conducting my systematic review, I was reading a minimum of one article on autoethnography per day. I was following bibliographies. Each article I read led me to another, then another, then another. And I made my choices based on the knowledge that I wanted to accumulate. For example, I wanted to specifically look at autoethnographic articles which were located in the educational world. Articles about disability and discrimination were very powerful, but they were not within the scope of my review. This process of “systematized creativity” or intuitive research is a feature of an abductive approach to reasoning (Andreewsky & Bourcier, 2000; Taylor, Fisher, & Dufresne, 2002). Rather than follow a linear process, an abductive approach allows for the type of intuition I was using when finding the next article.

I suspect that I am drawn to an abductive approach because its focus is on interpretation and understanding new perspectives. These are phrases that are strongly associated with autoethnography. It makes sense to me that an autoethnographer would approach the literature in this way.

So that’s the way I’m reviewing the literature. One step at a time. One article or book at a time. And I’m following my nose.

So what’s this spreadsheet about? 

Aha! So here’s where the lawyer in me comes right back to the fore. I wanted to create a table that I could manage effectively. Where I could move the data with ease. And, because seeing how far I’ve come helps to keep me feeling positive, where I could easily find out how many articles I’d read!

My spreadsheet is basic. It is not all singing and dancing, and I’m sure there are lots of clever things I’m missing out on. But its simplicity works for me.

This is how it looks when I open it up:

Lit Review 1


You’ll see that across the top, in row 1, I’ve chosen a heading for each column. Originally, I used headings from lit reviews that I had seen elsewhere. But those headings, and the placement of the columns, didn’t work for me. There were some columns I never filled in. And I found it hard to remember what some headings were for. So, over time, I made my own, to suit the purpose of my review and the topic I am reviewing (in this case autoethnography). For example, I like to have the ‘conclusions’ column right at the front – I don’t want to hide it away in column ‘S’.

Happy thoughts

The photo above only shows the columns I can see when I open the spreadsheet. If you were to scroll to the right, you’d also see these headings:

Lit Review 2

I did say I made my own headings up…

But the “happy thoughts” and “unhappy thoughts” columns are where I can place all of my critical thinking, abstract comment, and queries (and what I sometimes think are really impressive points, but later on turn out to be a load of rubbish). In happy thoughts, I’ll often write about what I loved about the work or how I can use that work to frame my own. In unhappy thoughts, I might note if the text is fairly hard going and perhaps needs a few reads, or any contradictions I might have picked up. I also use this space to record where I don’t agree with the author.

The “ethical concern” sections are there because many of my papers and publications on autoethnography concern ethics. I wanted to capture if the author of the work raised any ethical issues, and if I had any. This is furthest away as it is not my primary concern at the moment. I regularly move my columns around.

Being able to move things around, easily

If I click the drop down box at the bottom right of the ‘Author’ column, Excel will order that column A-Z or Z-A within a second. This is incredibly useful if, like me, you add rows in all over the place. I know I can insert a new row anywhere I like and with the touch of a button Excel will put it in alphabetical order. Similar with year – I’m looking at the history of autoethnography at the moment and I was interested to see the spread of articles across the years. Click the drop down box at the bottom right of ‘Year’ and Excel orders the list. Same goes for any other column.

Lit Review 3

Seeing how far you’ve come

This is where I’m up to today. There’s something very satisfying in seeing you’ve nearly read 100 articles!

Lit Review 4

Do you use Excel to manage your literature review?

Do you have any ‘unusual’ headings too?

Any tips to share?