Friday, March 12, 2010

Teaching social skills in the age of the internet

Another essential professional skill set that contributes to law school success are the social skills necessary to engage others. Just five years ago when I started in ASP, I would not have thought this was something that ASP could or should be involved in teaching.  I thought it was something that students either had by the time they reached law school or could never acquire. In the past two years, my thinking has evolved along with the students.  There are two developments that I believe changed the skill set of incoming students; use of the internet as the primary means of communication, and the increasing number of students with Asperger's or autism-spectrum disorders enrolling in law school.

I do not believe use of the internet and the concurrent loss of face-to-face social skills are generational; I see them in older students who have years of work experience as well as young students weaned on the internet.  This is the product of the internet age; if you spend most of your time working on a machine with limited face-to-face human interaction, your social skills will suffer.  However, I have started to weave lessons in professionalism and communication skills into my ASP courses.  Students who do not have the ability to make small talk need that skill to develop relationships with their peers and need to know how to make professional or academic small talk to get to know their professors. Law school is the time to hone those skills; it is essential for a lawyer to know how to communicate.  Including peer-to-peer activities in ASP classes and workshops forces students to get out from behind their screen and learn to work with others.  Scheduling joint programs with Career Services that focus on etiquette and business skills can help teach these skills explicitly.  Why does teaching social skills fall into ASP? Students who struggle in law school are sometimes the most isolated socially as well as academically, leading to emotional and mental health issues that compound their suffering. Students learn better from peers than from lectures. Study groups can be an incredibly effective means of testing understanding of the material. 

It was two years ago when I first encountered students with autism-spectrum disorders in law school. Working with undergraduates as well as law students, I see that this is going to be more common as services for these students expand and they reach their academic potential earlier in life.  Law schools, in their present state, are not ready to handle the challenges or provide the services necessary for these students.  These students know they have a challenge, and seek out help. ASP is usually where they land.  They struggle academically because they do not follow some of the informal banter between professor and student that shapes so much of class time; they struggle in the hyper-competitive environment that fosters a "say one thing, do another" style of communication; they struggle because disabilities are still seen as weakness by many of their peers and professors.  Many of these students need explicit instruction in how to behave during office hours with their professors. They may need additional support after meeting with professors to decode conversations that include sarcasm and facial expressions that these students cannot read. They may need to be placed in a study group facilitated by someone in ASP because their peers find them a little strange and they are hesitant to disclose a disability as the source of their uniqueness.  Many of these students do very, very well in the courses that use formal logic (future estates) or value procedural fairness instead of theoretical, abstract notions of justice.  They have a great deal to contribute to the field, and to their classmates. 

Lessons in social skills and communication, interwoven into the fabric of lessons on academic skills, or taught explicitly, are becoming necessary.  (RCF)

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