January 21, 2006
Student Depression: Where Do We Come In?
At the recent annual meeting of AALS, James. J. White of the University of Michigan Law School made the provocative observation that law school professors may be taking themselves a little too seriously when they characterize law school as the primary cause of high levels of depression among law students. He suggests that other factors may be every bit as important and that the stress-induced depression afflicting many students may be the inevitable result of engaging in a very demanding pursuit.
I have to agree with him in many respects. During any three-year period, "life happens"; and just because one enrolls in law school, one cannot expect to be free of the normal traumas and tragedies of life until school ends. In addition, the demands of law school parallel the demands of the profession; so no one really gets a pass on stress, failures, or disappointments either in school or afterward.
We therefore cannot hope to eliminate most of the stresses afflicting our students. We cannot fool students into believing that the practice will be largely stress-free or that there will not be failures or that life will step politely aside in those times when the practice seemingly needs their complete attention. Even if we could eliminate that stress in law school, our students would be blindsided by the demands of practice, caught without having developed the coping skills essential to emotional survival in an exceptionally difficult profession.
Even so, I remain convinced that we must step up and help students learn to cope effectively with the stress of law school and to avoid the depression to which too many students and lawyers succumb. It is true that the high level of depression among law students exists for a variety of reasons, some of it the result of the inevitable demands of the legal profession, some of it the result of unnecessarily damaging pedagogical approaches, and some of it the result of events and emotional dynamics that would have existed regardless of whether the student had enrolled in law school. Those realities, however, underscore why we should actively engage in teaching our students how to survive those stresses.
One of the skills that lawyers must master is the ability to handle stress and to avoid depression without succumbing to self-destructive behaviors. Law school is the natural place to begin that process, and professors and academic support professionals are the natural choices to provide that help. After all, part of what we are doing is helping students acquire the skills to succeed in the practice of law. We have learned, I hope, to cope successfully with the stresses of the profession; why should we not deliberately help our students to do the same?
What I find most insightful in Prof. White's observations is that we should not deceive ourselves about the inevitability of stress in our profession, and we should not convince ourselves that all such stress could be eliminated if we just taught the law properly. Failing to understand those realities can lead us to castigate our colleagues and ourselves unfairly; to make bad pedagogical choices; and to teach our students to blame their difficulties on the school, when in fact the causes of those difficulties are complex and often self-inflicted.
That said, we still have a genuine responsibility to help our students learn to cope with the inevitable difficulties of pursuing a law degree, and we should work hard to reduce or eliminate unnecessary stresses caused by our pedagogical choices. We should invest energy and resources in helping our students learn to handle the stresses of the profession amid the stresses of normal traumas and tragedies of life. We should also convince our colleagues that adding unnecessarily to the inevitably stressful dynamics of a demanding profession makes no pedagogical or professional sense.
We should also not be misled by the fact that most students survive the pressures of legal education and go on to graduate and practice law. That they graduate does not mean they have developed healthy coping strategies. We know that many students and lawyers learn to cope using alcohol or other substances and many others suffer serious personal consequences because they cannot balance the demands of practice with the demands of their personal lives. We also know, if we are honest with ourselves, that many students suffer unnecessary emotional damage in law school and carry it into the profession.
It is not our responsibility to make the world perfect, and we should not berate ourselves or our colleagues because our profession can be unforgiving in the demands it places on those who pursue it.
It is our responsibility, however, to teach our students how to live successfully in that profession. We owe it to the profession, to our students, and to our students' future clients. We have the ability and the means to purge our law schools of those avoidable dynamics that begin a pattern of damage and self-destructive behavior in too many students' lives. We have the knowledge and the opportunity to help our students cope with the unavoidable mix of professional and personal demands that life in this profession will inevitably place on them.
We are neither the sole source of nor the sole solution to our students' emotional and psychological challenges. Professor White is right: we are not nearly so important in the world. We are, however, powerful players for good or for ill in the midst of those challenges, and that fact carries with it responsibilities we must not ignore. (dbw)
January 18, 2006
Following Up on Exams
In a recent addition to the on-line version of Law School – Materials for Success, Professor Barbara Glesner-Fines has put together some very helpful advice for students who are coming to grips with their first set of exam results. Check it out. You might find it worthwhile to send an email to your students, directing them to the new chapter. (dbw)
January 17, 2006
This is no time to be a Cowboy
I spent two days over the break reading exams (construction law, no less!) to a blind colleague. He did not hesitate to ask me for help when he needed it. The stories he told me about going to law school and taking the bar while losing his sight were inspiring. He is a neat guy. When he took the bar he needed a reader and had to fashion his own accommodations at times to get through it. He passed the first time. Granted, he is a very intelligent person, but perhaps his greatest gift was to know when to ask for help. This is a gift I wish to bestow on my students.
Now that the grades are in, I will soon be seeing a new crop of students who performed poorly on their midterms/final. I have a mini-diagnostic sheet I ask them to fill out when they come to see me asking about study habits (did you outline?) and life changes (did you end any relationships just before exams?). At our preliminary meeting, I always ask the students if they have ever had ADA accommodations at school before. A surprising number of them will say yes, but that they did not seek such accommodations in law school. Why? They are afraid of being stigmatized or labeled. They fear that their professors will know that they had extra time and will grade them accordingly.
I always assure them that such accommodations are between them and the Dean of Students. Their professors will never know. Their colleagues will never know either (the hand-writers will assume they are typing and the typers vice versa). Also, the exam answer given to the professor will have only their exam number on it, no indication of any accommodations and will be included in the pile with all the other exams. Still, I find resistance.
So, then I beg students to get the accommodations they need. I tell them they should set a "precedent" for bar accommodations now (although there is no guarantee of accommodations on the bar, it helps to have had them in law school). I try to persuade them that this is no time to be a cowboy about exams. I even stock the forms necessary and pass them out to students who might need them. I have a list of people at student health services and the learning center they can see if their documentation needs updating. Still, some students will not do it.
Eventually, when the students are seeing me because they are on academic warning, I might be able to persuade them to file the forms and get their paperwork to the Dean. It is one of the most frustrating circumstances I encounter in Academic Support when the" academic warning" designation, which will be noted on their transcript, could have been avoided. In the end, the negative label the student feared happened by not taking steps to seek accommodations which would have been confidential.
So, as I am gearing up for my "no cowboy" speeches this semester, I will have more stories in my arsenal about my colleague (and more dog hair on my coat), but hopefully I will also have a little more success in getting students to get help when they need it. (ezs)
January 16, 2006
Learning from Exams
Because both legal reasoning in general and law school examinations in particular are new to first-year students, you might want to include in your second-semester academic support program some instruction in using exams as a method of improving learning. As I have been preparing for such a lecture, I have asked my colleagues at UMKC what advice they have for students who wish to go over their exams with their professors. Below are some of the key suggestions for students.
1) Do the hard work of evaluating your exam yourself before you ask the professor to go over it with you. Passively asking a professor how you could have done better not only wastes your professor's time and energy, it is not as effective as actively teaching yourself by analyzing your own performance as completely as you can before asking for your professor's help.
2) Where a professor provides a model answer, spend time on your own comparing your answer to the model. In doing so, you are likely to discover where you could have improved your responses to the test questions. Perhaps you have left key information out of the answer, have failed to argue both sides of issues, have misstated rules, or have missed key issues, for example.
3) Ask for a grading rubric to guide your self-analysis. The rubric will itself answer many of your questions.
4) Ask to see one or two of the best exam answers and compare yours to those. That approach may be especially helpful because those answers provide a concrete illustration of successful answers. One professor suggested that looking at the best answers may produce much more meaningful help than would even lengthy one-on-one discussions with a professor.
5) Force yourself to identify specific, concrete questions for the professor and list them on a piece of paper. Try first to answer them yourself and narrow the list to those you truly cannot answer. Doing so ensures that you have taken responsibility for your own learning and makes the resulting learning deeper and more lasting.
6) If you still have questions that would support a meaningful one-on-one discussion with your professor, keep the focus on those questions and not on attempting to elicit sympathy or a grade change. Professors are not likely to second-guess their grading unless there is a glaring error. They are never in the mood for complaining students who simply did not answer the questions as well as some of their peers.
7) Whatever you do, keep your eye on the ball: teaching yourself to prepare for exams more effectively by understanding the law more completely and accurately and by developing your analytical and communication skills more deeply and thoroughly. (dbw)