Friday, June 30, 2006

Reducing Stigma

One of the problems that often plagues ASP programs is the stigma that can attend students' participation in academic support efforts.  Because academic support at the undergraduate level is usually directed at those students who are struggling in their studies, law students often perceive ASP programs as remedial in nature, reserved for those who cannot perform adequately in law school without special help. 

As a result, those students who participate in the programs, often at the urging of the school, find it tough to shake the perception that they are not as smart or as qualified as their peers.  That perception does double damage: it lowers the ASP participants' confidence in their own abilities, and it leads to the fear that others will regard them as less capable than typical law students.  The effect is magnified for minority students who must already face the mentality among some students and faculty that most minorities ride into school on the backs of affirmative action programs rather than their own abilities.

One way to lessen the stigma so often associated with ASP programs is to widen the target group from "at-risk students" to the entire student body.  In other words, the program can be based on the proposition that all students can use help transferring their existing academic skills into the peculiar demands of law school. 

Few students arrive at law school knowing how to read and brief cases effectively, create useful outlines and flowcharts, etc.  Most are forced to develop those skills through a kind of "accidental curriculum" made up of unpredictable relationships.  A few are fortunate enough to have family and friends who have been through law school to help them uncover the best approaches.  A few others arrive having had the good fortune to have been trained through earlier pursuits in the art of text-based analysis and reasoning. 

Most just have to wing it until they stumble across model outlines or other study helps that may be floating out there in the law school ether.  Whether what they stumble across is actually helpful is mostly a matter of luck.  As result, the average law student is a much less efficient and effective learner than he could be.

Given those realities, an ASP program can be promoted as relevant to all students' law school efforts and can become accepted as merely another piece of the academic life of the typical law student.  I like to tell my students that law professors rightly "hide the ball" when it comes to what the law means, because learning to find what the law means is the primary skill lawyers must possess.  There are no tutors out in the practice.  As for how one learns to find what the law means, however, I see nothing useful in hiding the ball.  While every student must learn to outline her courses for herself, she needn't develop the skill out of thin air.  While every student must learn to answer law school exam questions for himself, he needn't discover the best approaches by trial and error on real exams.

So I aim my program at all students on the theory that all students could learn the law more deeply and effectively and develop their analytical skills more efficiently if they did not have to spin their wheels trying to discover effective learning techniques with no guidance.  In my estimation, an ASP program should serve to deepen the legal discourse among the entire student body by moving all students as rapidly as possible down the road of effective class preparation and review.  To the extent that the program causes all students to engage the material in their classes more effectively and efficiently, it shifts the focus of the entire enterprise to deeper and more meaningful discourse about the law itself.

To further that goal, I have decided to send a letter this summer to every incoming first-year student, introducing them to the school's ASP program and telling them that I expect them to come to school having already read a text I use extensively in the program.  I have also told them that I will be emailing each of them early in the semester to talk about how they are implementing the techniques and principles I will be presenting in ASP lectures.  By taking the attitude that participation in ASP programming is normal and expected, I hope to eliminate the perception that only some students need instruction in the skills the program presents.

My goal is that every student will take advantage of ASP instruction so that their energies can be expended more effectively and efficiently from the outset.  I hope that all students will more rapidly clear the elementary hurdles of learning how to prepare for class, examine and organize what they have begun to learn, and identify their gaps in learning.  In doing so, they will be freed to enter into a level of legal discourse often missing among the majority of law students not only in their first semesters but through much of their law school careers. (dbw)

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