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.


Why it’s important to share our rejection stories

Rejection sucks. It can affect us like physical pain. But like we would the genesis of an old scar on the forehead, let’s keep sharing our tales of rejection. 


rejectionEach year, around this time, some of my students greet me with sad faces. They’ve tried their best to get a training contract or a paralegal position, but they haven’t been successful.

In our weekly clinic meetings we often discuss what happened at vacation placements, interviews or assessment days and my students and I share tips for application forms and interview questions. But this doesn’t necessarily provide comfort. My students tell me that they still feel hurt from the rejection. And so, each year, around this time,  I tell my students a story. It goes something like this:

When I was a law student I applied to a significant number of law firms for a job. Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Chester, London, Birmingham, Liverpool: you name a city, I applied to work there. I did my homework. I researched the law firms thoroughly. I thought about the questions they might ask and the answers I might give. I knew about their charitable work, their top clients, potential areas for growth. And this was back in the day where you had to queue up in the library to get on a computer. A computer that would then take 5 minutes ‘dialing up’.  Despite many interviews – some good, some really terrible – I didn’t get any offers of employment. Slowly but surely, I pinned the rejection letters to the wall of my student digs. They covered the damp perfectly. I also made a note of the law firms’ feedback on my performance. I distinctly remember where I was standing the day I was told that one half of a particular law firm’s partners wanted me to have the job and the other half didn’t, but in the end they decided it was a no… and, by the way, appearance was quite important in the legal world – had I thought about going to the gym? Ahem.

Two years of rejection. Two years of rejection letters. I had very nearly given up. Clearly the legal life was not meant for me. And then, on the day of graduation, I landed a job. The greatest job. I was to be a teacher. A Graduate Tutor at a university, teaching business law to undergraduate students. Fixed term – for 24 months. And at the end of those 24 months, filled with confidence, life experience, and a newly formed wry, sometimes a bit daft, sense of humour that only teaching can bring, I applied for a training contract and got it. I trained to be a solicitor and many years later returned to teaching law at university.

In March, JK Rowling published the letters of rejection she received about her first Robert Galbraith novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. The letters themselves have been somewhat sensationalised in the press (“JK Rowling told to go to writing classes!!”), but, actually, they’re full of useful tips for budding novelists. I liked that JK Rowling herself noted that she was sharing them “for inspiration”, rather than revenge. Because it’s an important story to tell: everyone gets rejected at some point. And, at some point, something else will come along.

Neuroscientists have concluded that our experiences of social rejection and physical pain are similar. So, it hurts. For real. But like a broken heart, it can heal. And it can lead to new things – things you might not be able to imagine yet. Some might call it fate. Others, well, they might say it’s just the way the world works.

I’ve been on a bit of a roll publication wise recently. So when I received my first ever article rejection a couple of weeks ago, I waited to see how I would feel. And yes, I had the heartbreak. That feeling in the pit of your stomach where all the world seems out of kilter. A feeling that slowly rises to your head and gently pushes the backs of your eyes so they feel like they need to leak in order to achieve release. But after the initial reaction, I wondered if something else was around the corner waiting to leap out. It was. Rejection led to new conversations with people I admire and new connections as I looked for alternative places to submit the article.

I have placed the article elsewhere and I’m waiting to see if its been accepted. But it might not be. And that’s okay. It’s another tale to tell. As JK Rowling has shown, inspirational stories don’t need to focus solely on amazing successes. They should also disclose when things didn’t go as expected. And when it was a bit of a trek up a seemingly never ending mountain. Rejection isn’t personal. It doesn’t cause us irreparable harm. It can make us more resilient, better at dealing with uncertainty, and more empathetic to others in the same position.

Good old rejection, not so bad after all.

[Update – 8/4/16: This morning I received word that my article would be accepted, subject to significant revisions. The anonymous reviewers’ comments were amazing – detailed, challenging and consistently supportive. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to place my writing in front of so many people and to have received critical feedback – from two journal editors, from colleagues, from a number of peers. Next step? Get those revisions done!!]