Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Intuition

(Note to reader: This is my first ever blog post, so I hope you will afford me some leeway as I find my voice.) 

According to one songwriter, you should “[f]ollow your heart [because] your intuition, it will lead you in the right direction.”  Indeed, if you “[l]et go of your mind, your intuition is easy to find.” (Jewel, “Intuition.”)

I have been thinking a lot about intuition.  Simply put, I question whether intuition is good, bad, or both when it comes to academic support?  Is it better to let our minds go and allow intuition to guide us?
Having met many of the members of the academic support community, I can say confidently that a significant percentage of those drawn to work in academic support are thoughtful, caring, often empathic people.  Our DNA mandates that we work in a position where we can help others.  For example, years before I took the academic support position I have now, I knew, instinctively, that I wanted to work with new law students and help them adjust to the rigors of law school.  I am sure that many other academic support professionals had the same inclination. 

In our roles as academic support professionals, we wear many different hats.  We act as academic advisors, of course, helping students figure out how to outline, take notes, review, and write essay exam answers.  But we also are counselors, career advisors, mentors, coaches, and even -- at times -- surrogate parents.  We wear these hats willingly, and, to the extent that we ever take them off, we can put them back on at a moment’s notice.  

Notwithstanding the many aspects of our professional duties, many of us have very little formal training.  Of course, there are some who are well-trained professionals, but the rest of us, while smart and highly capable, often rely on intuition.  (And I do not mean to ignore the highly valuable training and guidance provided through the Law School Admissions Council and the American Association of Law Schools.)  For the most part, I think that our intuition serves us well.  We are encouraging, we challenge our students, and we look for creative ways to assist them.  But, unless your last name is Jarmon, how do you really know how to work with a student who has an unusual learning style?  Unless you are Marty Peters or Ruth Ann McKinney, do you really know how to effectively counsel students in crisis?  (And really, unless you are Michael Hunter Schwartz, how can you even look at yourself in the morning?) 

We read and write articles, go to conferences, and, over time, we develop competence in these areas through trial and error.  In large part, if we are honest, we rely on intuition.  For example, most of us are not qualified to diagnose the student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), nor do we appreciate the difference between that and attention deficit disorder (ADD) – I had to Google that just to be sure there was a difference.  Nevertheless, we must rely on our intuition to help those with learning disabilities.  (I do not mean to paint us all with the same brush.  Indeed, perhaps I should refer only to myself.  But my intuition tells me that I am not alone.)

Many times, our intuition guides us to do the right thing.  Help a disorganized student schedule her time, help a lost student see the forest notwithstanding the many trees, help a depressed student find the motivation to work.  But is it possible that sometimes we say the wrong thing and never know it?  Do we encourage when brutal honesty is more appropriate?  Do we assuage when we should increase pressure?  Are we harsh when a gentler, kinder approach would be better?  [Having recently returned from the LSAC workshop on counseling, my inclination is to compare us to those who work in counseling as therapists or psychologists.  I am sure that many work in that profession because they, too, feel an innate need to help others.  But no one would ever claim competence in that area without substantial training.  Should we be any different?]

Perhaps we make mistakes and never know it.  Maybe, over time, we do enough right that it all works out in the end.  Maybe, the words of Amy Jarmon in response to my draft post are the most enlightening:

All of us [rely on intuition] (even those of us with lots of experience and expertise).  Any training (whatever its source) will assist in fine-tuning that intuition.  Study and research can also aid our intuition.  Often, expertise in an area is built over time on a series of intuitions that prove right consistently.  And, we have to be willing to learn from our students on a daily basis to gain knowledge that we may have missed with our intuition or which tweaks our intuition to be a bit more accurate. 

While I write this post in no small part to encourage us to deliberately develop our professional expertise, my intuition tells me that Amy is right.

Russell McClain

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