Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Reading the last two excellent pieces by Professor Stillman got me to thinking about how I got into Academic Support, and to what extent my over twenty years as a litigator prepared me for moments like those she has shared with us.
I had been a member of the “Board of Advisors” to Whittier Law School and an adjunct teaching a couple of legal writing sections when I was asked to be part of the Dean search. During that search I met the man who eventually became Dean: Neil Cogan. His first week on the job, he asked to have lunch to talk about ideas he had that coincided with my background in statistics. Out of that conversation, he apparently decided I was the appropriate person to be the first Director of the Law School’s new Academic Success Program. Feeling some need for a change in the quality of life aspect of my career, I naively accepted the job.
Five months in, I had a moment like Professor Stillman’s. About 6:00 p.m. one day, an upper-level student came in crying. She had just learned that she failed several of her final exams. She told me that she took them when she was very distraught. Two days before her first exam, she caught her husband “in bed” with her best friend. I do not drink either coffee or alcohol, but one of my immediate thoughts was whether I should start. We spent quite some time that evening discussing the situation, what she thought she should do about her marriage, and how I would support her petition to be placed on academic probation so she would have the opportunity to repair her GPA. She then separated from her husband (against her family wishes, believe it or not), and over the next semester, we worked successfully to get her grades back where they should have been and to get her successfully graduated.
That incident caused me to think about whether I was qualified to do this job. After all, I was certainly academically qualified, and I had taught legal writing in some form for years, but first and foremost, I was a trial lawyer, not a psychologist or Marriage and Family Counselor! In fact (and please don’t tell my students), I skipped a few of my psychology classes in college because they were on Monday nights in the fall. Eventually, though, I came to realize that students are like clients: they do come to you for advice, and sometimes the advice is non-academic, just like sometimes the advice to clients is non-legal. Professor Stillman is right. It takes learning to listen, not just to the words, but also to the unspoken thoughts, dreams, and fears that students, and clients, have. Sometimes, in listening for those unspoken things, we can finally hear the truth in our students’ hearts and be better equipped to help them solve their academic issues as well. (mwm)