Thursday, July 6, 2006
This last year as director of academic support was my first involvement with a year-long ASP program, and one of the strangest and most unexpected things afflicted me: I suddenly became incompetent in things I normally do well. I found, for example, that I made stupid mistakes in writing letters and emails, sometimes in really important letters and emails that I had edited several times. And I have been teaching writing at one level or another for twenty-five years! At one point, I sent an email announcing a deadline for applications to a program; and within the few paragraphs of the email and its attachment I gave three conflicting deadline dates, not one of which was the actual date I intended to convey.
I would have concluded that senility had finally set in with a vengeance, but I remembered that the phenomenon is often common among first-year law students. Studies have revealed that when trying to master high levels of especially complex and challenging material or skills, people often experience a temporary drop off in their existing skills. Because of the overwhelming nature of the new learning they are encountering, law students find similar drop offs in skills that earlier in their academic lives they had acquired with a significant level of mastery.
Taking over our academic support activities at UMKC presented a very steep learning curve for me, not only about the theories and methods associated with effective learning in the law school context, but about the simple mechanics of our existing support programs. I found that in trying to juggle all of those aspects of the job, along with preparing for my normal classes, I suddenly became stupid about the most routine kinds of activities.
The phenomenon was terribly unsettling at times and made me frequently question whether I had any business doing what I was doing. That same phenomenon afflicts many, if not all, of our first-year students.
We need to remember to tell our students that such reactions to the stress of their new endeavor are only temporary and that they are not an indication of anything other than the intensity of the learning curve. Half the battle in getting through the first year of law school is knowing that one's struggles are common and to be expected. Knowing that "getting stupid" is a normal response to unfamiliar pressures can take some of the sting out of the experience and replace it with a realistic hope that old skills will return once the new skills begin to settle in. (dbw)