Thursday, December 27, 2007
I remember Januaries.
They begin with the AALS Conference where most of us show up to share ideas, eat too many cookies, scurry through the Thompson-West exhibit getting our cards initialed so we get the free gift and qualify for the big drawing, and ask, “Where is [fill in blank] ... did she retire already?” Then those of us who can show up at the pre-dawn (well, it always seems like that anyway) Academic Support Section overpriced breakfast meeting near the end of the week to ask each other, “Who’s hosting the summer meeting(s) this year?”
The following Monday we all return to our offices to welcome the students back for the spring semester. (Students in the northeast, as I vaguely recall, often return to snow.) All of them are asking the same question: “When do we get our grades?” The wunnelles are asking, “If my grades are horrible, can I get a refund on my spring semester books and get my tuition back?” Some have made New Year’s resolutions to study more efficiently, or visit the pub less, etc., etc.
The long wait for grades ensues. As they trickle in, so do the students – to make appointments with either the Dean of Students or the Academic Support Director (or both). Some drop by to offer gratitude, but most arrive with an array of emotions ranging from disappointment to shock – a few with anger. (I remember one student who arrived with her mother. They both explained that the student had graduated at the top of her college class, had an IQ in the genius range, and – most importantly – had several lawyers in her family (not Mom). The visit was to inform me that there’s something seriously wrong with a school that can’t figure out that she should be at the top of her class – her highest grade was a C. She withdrew.)
But this time of the year is when Academic Support professionals can do some of their most effective work – many students are now willing to admit that what you told them at Orientation really did apply to them.
If you’re relatively new to Academic Support and fortunate enough to be able to attend the AALS Conference, that’s a question to be asking your colleagues –“How can I be most effective in January for the students who have disappointing grades?” Search out the “veterans” and find out their (open) secrets. As weird as January is around a law school, it can be a very productive time for the Academic Support staff!
Me? No AALS this year. I wish I could! But the distance between New York and Montevideo is about 5,500 miles, the air fare is prohibitive, and I just compared the weather report for January in New York to January on Pocitos Beach in Montevideo. (Remember, it’s summer in South America in December.)
Also, the academic support I’m providing to students of Concord Law School via cyberspace is of a different variety – for me it’s limited to extensive (written) exam-answering improvement advice, including (unlike yesteryear in law schools with buildings) explanations of the underlying law when appropriate. I spend fifteen to twenty hours each week at this pursuit, reviewing essay answers that range from beginning students’ awkward attempts, to crystal clear, concise, excellent, lawyerlike answers. My comments are composed of footnotes to most every issue discussed by the student, followed by “overall” suggestions on how to improve. All of my work is reviewed by the professor teaching the class (and modified if necessary) before being sent to the students.
Of course this is time consuming. After reviewing many hundreds of exam questions (Torts, Contracts, Criminal Law, Property, Evidence), I still spend at least thirty minutes (usually longer) on each one. That’s what makes this type of feedback both (a) very valuable for the students, but (b) virtually impossible for a one-person academic support office at the typical law school-within-walls to handle. But I’ve got to say – this is something I’ve always believed students need: practice, practice, practice … with substantial feedback consisting primarily of encouraging positive improvement advice.
So even though I don’t get to see the smiling faces of the successful students, I suppose that’s balanced somewhat by the time not spent with … well, you know.
I have to admit that “going to work” (in my living room) in attire ranging from pajamas to blue jeans is a plus, too.
Enjoy AALS – I will truly miss a week with you. (djt)