Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Director of Academic Support, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University
The recent loss of novelist and professor David Foster Wallace was both tragic and eye opening. Wallace was not only a renowned thinker and writer; he was also a fellow educator, albeit in a different area. Wallace famously expressed his feeling that lifelong learning was the only way to pursue a full understanding of the world around us, something he called the “big T-truth.” I had already begun to evaluate my work as a new Academic Support Professor, but his passing pushed me to think more deeply, about the nature of higher learning and the challenges that we face as teachers and about the ways in which our roles as teachers, counselors, and mentors, best serve our students as they strive to find the “big T-truth” with respect to their legal educations.
As a new Academic Support Professor, the challenges I faced were myriad, but the sense of accomplishment and delight inherent in facing and conquering them was unparalleled. In looking back on the past year, I found that the challenges I faced broke out into three major groups, which I will term my faculty, my students, and myself.
But before I faced any of those three, I had to first address a threshold question. I needed to define my purpose, to get at what that “big T-truth” was going to be in the universe of my classroom. To clarify my purpose in my own mind, I asked myself probing questions: What role does my course play in the education of students? What specific ideas do I want them to take home? What universal values will I seek to bolster through the course as a whole? What do I want my students to think and feel about the law? About the process of legal learning?
In tackling these first questions, many possibilities occurred to me. Perhaps Academic Support was intended merely to give students a place to go to ask questions, to feel that someone in their school environment was approachable and could formulate clear solutions. That seemed a noble goal, but it fell short of what I thought Academic Support ought to be, and short of everything that I had read Academic Support was intended to be. Was it then a forum where struggling students could obtain the instruction they needed to keep pace with their classmates? That, too, seemed worthy, surely a large part of the overall goal, but somehow not the entirety of what I wanted to accomplish.
In the end, after much thought, I came to a decision. Academic Support, at least for me, would be a program, a set of classes and individual meetings, in which students would feel supported, would obtain necessary instruction, and would benefit from a peer supported learning environment. My Academic Support classroom would also be a forum where students could try on new, difficult, or otherwise missed ideas without fear of embarrassment, where students could tackle legal thinking and learning from a new angle, where students would make understanding their own learning process part of addressing the larger questions that would ensure them improved classroom performance, and where students could rediscover the joy of learning that, more often than not, had carried them through their academic careers before the law school phase, but had fallen off due to the forced curve, difficulty level, or other concerns.
If I could, I decided, my class would provide all of the practical nuts and bolts learning that ASP-ers needed. In addition, I would try to impart a passion for thinking critically about real world legal issues, and, I hoped, some support for the idea that lawyers and legal thinkers must be, above all, lifelong learners. In my mind, the importance of lifelong learning is what Wallace was addressing when he talked about the deep thinking and continual probing of ideas that help us to get at the “big T-truth.” If there was any big picture idea I wanted my students to have, a relentless passion for new knowledge was it. This passion, I thought, would propel them through the remainder of their law school careers and do much to ensure that they became happy, healthy lawyers beyond the university halls.
My goals after answering the threshold question were then two fold: to help students with practical and immediate learning-related issues, and to ensure that the process of addressing those issues resulted in students who were able to carry those skills beyond the ASP classroom. At first blush, these seemed reasonable goals for a new educator, freshly scrubbed and brimming with enthusiasm. And, as I tackled these and other ideas throughout the course of my first year, I found that, these were indeed workable goals, and, I still believe, the right aspirations for my teaching experience.
However, after addressing these threshold issues, I still needed to contend with the other, less theoretical challenges that would face me as a new Academic Support Instructor. I broke these challenges into three categories: dealing with the academy environment as an Academic Support instructor, reaching difficult students, and managing my expectations with respect to both myself and my charges. In other words, they broke into three clear categories, my faculty, my students, and myself.
Dealing with the academy was the first, and most apparent challenge that I faced outside of the classroom. At my home institution, Academic Support was still extremely new and many of our doctrinal faculty seemed unsure as to what it was I would do with all the class time I had been allotted. I caught sidelong glances from time to time when, at a lunch or before a meeting, I would mention something about my classroom or a conference I was slated to attend. I found that it was my duty to dispel what I call the Magic Wand Theory of ASP that many of our faculty held – the idea that, with the help of a few key texts and exercises, absolutely anyone could turn a struggling student into a strong one, and that ASP was not entitled to a legitimate, important status within the legal academy.
Fortunately for me, I work with a fairly open minded faculty, many of whom have recently come from other institutions where ASP was a priority, all of whom love to talk, listen, and debate. They dialogued with me as I explained teaching methods I had just learned about or described conference presentations by which I had been enlightened. They listened when I told them success stories, about brilliant students who had struggled initially and, with the help of ASP, had demonstrated their capability beyond all doubt. And slowly, conversation by conversation, what at first had seemed daunting, began to be pleasant. Over lunch and through faculty colloquia, I formed relationships and dispelled misconceptions. I found that what I had thought was a complex problem could be solved by the simplest of actions; just talking with our faculty has proven the most effective and straightforward means of clarifying the importance and efficacy of ASP. Today there are few, if any, adherents of the Magic Wand Theory remaining and the result of all this talking is that I enjoy wonderful working relationship with many of the people who I once worried would never embrace ASP.
The challenge that has proved far greater, and the one that, after years of preparation for the job, I had anticipated I was most prepared to face, has been dealing with difficult students. This is true in part because the troubles of these students vary tremendously and each student is a unique, individual, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, backgrounds and behaviors. I have been at this for less than three semesters and already I have seen issues that run the gamut.
Ranging from extreme PTSD to deep seated family troubles, from a troublesome lack of boundaries to simple anger at not having performed as expected, these individualized problems have presented my greatest challenges. Dealing with each has been very much an exercise in handling students’ personal and learning-related needs in a case-by-case fashion, often working hard to divorce that student’s idea of him or herself as unfixable, from the problem at hand. It was a revelation when I discovered that a student I had thought was blowing off my class was in fact troubled by serious trouble at home. In tackling these problems, I have found that identification is often half the battle. And in the identification game, I have found nothing more valuable than the students’ trust. The rapport building needed to establish this trust takes time, and I have learned to allow the students to open up to me on their own schedules, to allow them the space to confront their problems individually before we take them on together.
Building rapport with students, convincing faculty that ASP is something to be embraced, and facilitating a classroom environment that stands in line with my specific, daily and long-term, global teaching goals has proven daunting in some ways, but exhilarating in most. And, in addressing these goals, my third greatest challenge emerged. This challenge has been pacing myself and allowing things to take time, instead of trying to do everything for everyone all at once. When I began at ASU, I wanted to do so many things. I wanted to maintain the spectacular program my predecessor had put into place. I wanted to both emulate her and develop my own style both in and out of the classroom. I wanted to expand our program and add an upper level ASP class. I wanted to give a presentation to the faculty. I wanted to meet everyone in our wonderful national ASP community. And I wanted to solve every student problem, whether academic or personal, with precision, perfection, and compassion. Needless to say, I learned very quickly that all of these things, together with preparing for a new slate of classes and establishing roots in a new city, were impossible to do all at once and, after months of sixteen and eighteen hour days, the law of diminishing returns found me at last, rendering me too tired to be of much use to anyone and forcing me acknowledge that I had become one of my own professional challenges.
Today, I use a new and far more effective tactic. I allow things to evolve more naturally. Like building rapport with my students and my faculty, developing my program and my professional self takes time. No matter how I try, these things cannot be rushed if they are to be effective. Today, I am delighted to look back on the past year and recognize how far I’ve come. I spent my first two semesters doing the essential, getting to know the material in my classes, the seminal literature in the field, the culture of my institution, and the needs and personalities of the individual students. This semester I have inaugurated a program for upper level students and I will be attending two exciting conferences, where I will deepen my knowledge and expand my network. Next semester, I hope to begin work on an article. The semester after that, well, who knows? I have learned to trust that, with continued hard work and commitment to helping my students succeed, new goals, and the means with which to meet them, will arise in their own time. For now, I am happy to face the challenges inherent in ASP with the knowledge and foresight I have developed over the past year. I am delighted to work everyday toward helping my students through the law school learning experience, guiding and supporting them as they seek out their own, educational, big T-truths, becoming stronger people, more effective law students and, I hope, in the end, lifelong legal learners.