Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, August 25, 2008

“How is a Professor Like a Chameleon?”

By Hillary Burgess
My first semester in front of a classroom, I asked myself, “Do I have what it takes to be a good teacher?”  After a few years of positive evaluations, I ask the same question, but with a slight twist: “What will it take for me to be a good teacher for this group of students?”
I hope never to talk about what other professors should do in their classrooms, so I will limit this blog to my own experiences and let the reader take whatever lesson he or she wants from them.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not what I know or don’t know about the topic or about teaching that will lead to my success or failure in the classroom, it’s how well I can connect with my students to engage them in the material.  And connecting with my students often means being a chameleon: showing (and especially developing) different colors of myself depending on what the students need at the time. 
Last year reinforced this lesson for me.  I was teaching a first-semester writing course for the seventh time.  My lecture notes were detailed and honed.  The examples I used were carefully tuned.  The class practically taught itself . . . except that it didn’t at all.  And I didn’t expect that it would.
This group of students was a new, unique class.  Sure, they were your typical freshmen at this school, with an identical demographic background as my previous classes.  But what made this group tick - individually and as a whole - was unique.  When I would put the same example that made the light bulbs flash above the heads of last year’s students, but all I could see were completely blank stares, I knew that I had to reinvent myself to teach that concept to these students.  When I set aside extra time for a concept that my previous 6 sections had struggled with, only to be met with knowing jokes from this class, I had to reinvent my lecture plan for that day to fill the time meaningfully.
I have yet to have a more telling experience about how I needed to adjust my colors to blend with the needs of my students than with my first semester teaching.  I was adjuncting at two different schools.  One school had mostly middle class undergraduates and I was teaching an upper level class while the other school had poor students and I was teaching a remedial class.  If any of the students ever switched classes on me, I’m sure they would have thought I was schizophrenic because I completely changed my teaching style, classroom rules, and demeanor between the two groups.  I had to because I quickly learned in my first few days that trying to impose the same rules on both groups was a complete disaster!
In my upper-level, middle-class course, we maintained typical classroom decorum.  Students would refer to me as “Professor Burgess,”  would raise their hand to be addressed, and would not engage with one another in class unless instructed to do so. 
In my remedial class, I answered to “yo” and “teacher-teacher” and just about any other term they used to signal they wanted my attention.  If one remedial student didn’t understand an idea, that student would ask a student who understood the idea to explain it to him or her, often without any acknowledgment that I was in the room or lecturing.  I quickly learned that 1.  the students could teach each other as well, if not better, than I could, and 2.  the students who “got it” learned more and gained confidence by teaching others.  Mostly, I learned that these students needed to learn math much more than they needed to learn “typical” classroom decorum and I had to pick between the two goals. I also learned that more important than either of these goals was building each student’s confidence as competent learners.  The students needed to know that they could learn, and sometimes that meant I needed to step out of the way, and not worry about “teaching.”
So now, as I approach each new class, I ask myself, “Who do I need to be to reach and teach these students?”  And I know that all of my careful preparation, lecture notes, assignments, and everything I’ve ever thought was “good teaching” might just have to fade away.  Most importantly, I have learned that each time I change my colors to blend with a new group of students, I learn from them who I am, who I am capable of being, and how much more I have to learn to be a chameleon for future groups of students. 
Hillary Burgess
Assistant Professor of Academic Support
Hofstra Law School
hillary.burgess [at] hofstra [dot] edu

August 25, 2008 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

New ASP'ers

Have you joined the ASP law school community over the summer?  Or, do you have a new member of staff who did join recently?

We would like to introduce new members of the ASP profession who have joined us since May.  I invite you to send me a three-paragraph introduction on the new ASP'er.  I'll edit (if needed) and post it on the blog so that others can get to know our new colleague.  If you can provide a link to your law school's web site that includes a picture of and/or a faculty bio for the person, feel free to include the link in the information.  You can send the materials to me at  (Amy Jarmon)

August 14, 2008 in Academic Support Spotlight | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Welcoming the Class of 2011

Yesterday was the start of our pre-orientation program at VLS, which we are calling Jump Start.  This is our first year of Jump Start, and we are learning alongside our students.   I feel truly lucky; I have an amazing group of students who are taking advantage of opportunities and giving me plenty to think about for the upcoming year.
Some pieces of advice about the upcoming year I have passed on to students so far this week:
1) Hold off  reading  Getting to Maybe until Christmas break.  Some of my students have already purchased exam prep  books based on how well they  are ranked on Amazon. I love Getting to Maybe, but I think it overwhelms and confuses students if they read it during their first semester. The examples in the books are fantastic, but students need to understand a little about the law before they can understand how to learn from the examples in the book, not just copy them.
2) Getting your life in order is your #1 priority during this period of time.  If you need to visit the doctor, take an animal to the vet, or get the oil changed, do it now.  Life is about to change in many ways, and you will be grateful you don't have these errands hanging over your head.
3) Build relationships with your classmates now.  This is the time to see your classmates at their best, before everyone becomes stressed out, cranky, or depressed.  Be aware that everyone is at their best, but they are also putting on a show. Everyone is nervous and overwhelmed the first couple weeks of school, no matter what they say. 
4) If you have a disability, see your ADA compliance officer now. It's too late to decide you need an accommodation a week or two before exams (temporary disabilities excluded). Even if you are on the fence about whether you will use the accommodation during exams, take care of those issues early. Locating paperwork and reports can be a nightmare, and that is another thing you don't want to be worried about while you are preparing for exams.
5) If you are not certain of what note taking method (handwriting v. typing) you want to use, try both during orientation.  There is no one "correct" method of taking notes. There are dangers to either method.  See what fits your learning style best. Chose the method the produces the most useful (not the most voluminous) notes. 

August 13, 2008 in Orientation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

New Book on Honesty

A colleague forwarded a book review link to me today, and I thought the review might interest a number of us who work with ASP.  Although not strictly a title in our area, it is a new title that deals with honesty in the legal profession.  All of us are concerned with our students becoming ethical legal professionals, even if only as role models rather than teachers of a professional responsibility course.   

Steven Lubet has written The Importance of Being Honest: How Lying, Secrecy, and Hyposcrisy Collide with the Trust in Law.  The book contains short chapters that focus on stories of ethical dilemnas that face lawyers, clients, judges, and academics.  A final section compares doctor and lawyer ethics. Mark C. Miller reviewed the book recently at the following link: Book Review of Lubet Work on Honesty.  (Amy Jarmon)

August 13, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Welcome to new Asst. Director of Bar Prep at Phoenix School of Law

I would like to welcome Jill Hudson to the ASP group as she begins her job at Phoenix School of Law.  She has provided the information below so that we can get to know her.  Unfortunately, she is not yet added to her law school's website for us to link to a photograph so that you will recognize her face at the next ASP event.  (Amy Jarmon)

Jill Hudson is the Assistant Director of Bar Prep at Phoenix School of Law.  She is an alumna of the University of Arizona, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (Business Economics).  In 1998, Jill earned a Juris Doctor from Regent University School of Law in Virginia, where she served on the Moot Court Board and competed on the National Moot Court Team.  She also contributed to her law school as the Executive Secretary and Executive President of the Student Bar Association.

Immediately following law school and passing the AZ bar exam, Jill served as a Deputy County Attorney for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office where she prosecuted adult felony and misdemeanor crimes.  Prior to joining Phoenix School of Law, Jill was an adjunct professor for Northern Arizona University’s Distance Learning program (an accelerated bachelor degree program for law enforcement officers), Western International University (undergraduate and graduate level classes), and Chandler-Gilbert Community College (both as an adjunct and instructor for their Law Enforcement Training Academy).

Jill’s true passion is teaching and encouraging students, and she is excited to blend this passion with her experience and education for the benefit of the Phoenix School of Law students. 

August 12, 2008 in Academic Support Spotlight | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Quick Hints for the start of a new year

Based on some of the emails I have received from various listservs this past week, I decided to compile my completely subjective list of quick hints for the start of the school year.  I stress completely subjective; these are my opinions. 

Best Case to Use During Orientation: Gideon v. Wainwright. Why? It's rarely used in the first year curriculum, so it doesn't step on anyone's toes, it is compelling on an emotional level (ever see a picture of Gideon?), and it can be simple to read.  If you are familiar with RuthAnn McKinney's Reading Like a LawyerGideon is the case she uses on her PowerPoints on reading and case briefing.

Most useful books for small group ASP work during the first semester:
Expert Learning for Lawyers and Reading Like a Lawyer.  BIG important note: there are many, many fabulous ASP books--these are the two I recommend for the start of the school year if you work with small groups of students (5-25) on introductory skills, NOT exam-taking skills.  I love many other ASP books (1000 Days to the Bar, Bridging the Gap, Getting to Maybe, Succeeding in Law School, Mastering the Law School Exam, Law School Without Fear, Law Student's Pocket Mentor, Law School Exams by Charles Calleros), but I would use them differently than I use RLAL or ELLS

Best Books for Students to Practice Future Interests Problems
: Estates in Land by Makdisi or Estates in Land: A Step-by-Step Guide by Edwards.  Every year, students panic over future estates, and every year I recommend these two books.  If they can get through Makdisi's problems, they know future interests cold.

Best Series for Checking (not testing!) Substantive Knowledge: Lexis Nexis Q and A series.  If students do well on these questions, it's no guarantee of exam success, but I find that if they do poorly on these questions, they will struggle on exams.  Additionally, Examples and Explanations in Civil Procedure is golden. 

Best Online Resources for Learning Styles Assessments: and website, the ILS questionnaire at   

I will continue to think about critical resources for the start of the school year.
Enjoy! (RCF)

August 7, 2008 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)