March 6, 2008
Contemplating learning and squirrels
My third-floor office has a window that looks out at two substantial trees separated by a road. One large limb is close to the adjacent wing which is a good 50 feet of angular brick walls from my window. The closer branches from both trees are such frail twigs that they cannot support the weight of even a small bird. And, during the constant winds of West Texas, all of the branches whip around except for the supporting trunk and its main limbs.
The law building here at Texas Tech is built out of brown brick with walls that are straight horizontal and vertical stretches. Except for the grooves of mortar between the bricks, there is nothing to hang on to at any point.
So why am I telling you this? Well, I am looking into the eyes of a squirrel that just traversed over 50 feet of brick wall to look in my window. I have seen other squirrels traverse the same expanse on prior occasions. No, they are not flying squirrels. They are just your basic, ordinary, unremarkable, every day squirrels.
I am never sure whether I am more startled when I watch them make their way over the expanse or when they suddenly peek around the edge of my window and contemplate me before moving on to the next wall and an alluring flat roof nearby. Some days, I am amazed as they cling to tiny branches in gusty winds before they leap to a sturdier branch near the brick expanse of the other wing. In nearly four years, I have never seen one fall from the tiny bobbing branches or from the steep walls.
It is hard to relegate their ultimate accomplishment after their treacherous trek as being nothing more than too little brain and too much agility. I have to admire their determination to get to a ultimate destination for whatever purpose they have in mind.
My law students have a destination known (if not a specialty or dream job) and a purpose in mind (helping others, making money, or other reasons) when they arrive as first-year students . Many students keep both destination and purpose clearly in mind as they traverse three years and the bar exam to arrive as newly minted attorneys.
When I speak with students who are struggling personally or academically with law school, I find that some will handle the obstacles like the squirrels outside my window handle their obstacles. However, other students will not be as successful. The squirrels make it to the distant roof beyond my window because they exhibit certain characteristics:
- The squirrels leave the safe, broad tree trunk and sturdy lower branches to venture into the unknown reaches of small twigs and brick wall. Squirrels seem to love a challenge. The law students who make it all the way to their goals are the ones who can let go of the safety of past study habits and past academic competence to venture into the smaller branches of new study habits and uncomfortable ways of learning. We can coach our students to let go and grab on to the new ways of learning, but ultimately they have to venture out of their safety zones. The ones who do so will be better students and better attorneys as a result.
- The squirrels hang on to the small twigs and do not let go when the wind gusts. Squirrels seem to have tenacity in adversity. Law students often feel like they are being buffeted by strong winds. They feel knocked off balance by the overwhelming amount of work, the research and writing demands on top of substantive courses, the strange way of thinking like a lawyer, and their sudden insecurity in their academic surroundings. Some law students stop trying to go any farther in their climb for success. They assume they are "C" students without greater potential. Some law students give up and let go - either voluntarily or after academic dismissal. The ones who hang on throughout the adversities are the ones who accomplish their destinations.
- The squirrels make leaps of faith into the air for the next group of twigs or the wall and land safely. Squirrels have the knack to take a risk and land in the next safe spot in the journey. Some law students take foolish risks: not reading for class; not outlining for any courses; partying instead of studying; waiting too late to complete memos or exam studying. Other law students take no risks and settle for their status quo no matter its discomfort. The law students who succeed at new levels take calculated risks and land safely; they often make it look easy to the other students even though it was not actually easy.
- The squirrels study each foot placement on the wall and hang on with determination. Squirrels methodically traverse the wall and refuse to let go. When one route proves impossible, the squirrels hang on and turn around to find another route. Some law students never evaluate what worked or what did not work during a semester. They never allow for change or improvement. They lose any determination in setting their course and give up their control to "the curve" or "the competition." Law students who evaluate and methodically change and improve their study habits show the determination to traverse the obstacles. They take the small steps needed each day and hang on with determination until their grades improve over time.
- The squirrels reach the rooftop, look around, and head for the next destination. Squirrels enjoy the plateau only briefly before setting off again. Law students improve when they reach one level of success, evaluate, and move on to the next level of success. Even my weak students on probation can have success over time in increments throughout their careers. When probation students become satisfied with their first increment of improvement (off probation) and decide to stay at that plateau, they are most likely to hover just out of reach of academic probation without any real future improvement. Likewise, if "C" students from the beginning decide to accept that status quo, they will also miss the opportunities to improve.
There is one aspect of squirrels that does not translate to successful students. As the sun begins to set and the light fades, the squirrels disappear for the evening. For the squirrels, it is a matter of survival not to be out after dark. Some of my law students hunker down at the end of the day as well and refuse to study beyond the minimum that they have done during the day. However, the most successful students continue to traverse their own obstacles one case at a time and one outline at a time during several more evening hours. (Amy Jarmon)
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