Thursday, February 10, 2011

ASP (and legal writing!) reaching out to pre-law advisors/faculty

I will probably write a much longer law review/journal piece on this topic, but I think it's something that ASPer's can start thinking about now.

I live in two worlds. I teach an ASP course at UConn Law School, and I am the undergrad pre-law specialist. My experience in the pre-law world has been informed by my time as a full-time ASPer. The first time I attended a large conference of pre-law advisers and faculty, I was surprised by how few had JD's. Many advisers don't just advise pre-law students, but advise all pre-professional programs, or are a part of career services. While far more pre-law faculty have JD's, many of them are PhD's in Political Science or History. This is not a criticism of pre-law advisers or faculty; I have learned tremendous amounts from them, and many of them are excellent at what they do.

As ASPer's, we spend our days working with and thinking about what makes a successful law student. We see the characteristics of students who do not succeed, and we can usually recognize issues before the student knows it will be a problem. However, few of us reach out to undergraduate pre-law advisers to share what we know about what makes a successful law student. There are some ASPer's who are actively involved in undergraduate pre-law studies; my co-editor, Amy Jarmon, works with Tech's program, Corie Rosen works with ASU's undergraduate population, and I know a few ASPer's spoke to a pre-law gathering a year ago.

For many, it seems to be an issue of knowing who to reach out to, and at what school. Pre-law advisers as a rule don't know who to reach out to at the law school level, but it's easier for an ASPer to locate a pre-law adviser or faculty. Any school is a good school to reach out to, although many law schools are connected to or on the campus of a larger undergraduate university.

The message many pre-law advisers hear is that a broad-based liberal arts or business education is the best preparation for law school, and that any major can go to law school. That is correct, but incomplete, information. Students need to know how to write analytically and read critically to succeed in law school. Just because a student majors in English doesn't mean they know how to do read critically, and being an Engineering major doesn't mean that they don't have excellent critical reading skills. It's not the major, it's the skills. Pre-law advisers could provide much more guidance to their students if they understood the skills necessary for success. Students can acquire these skills in any major, in any college, but they have to carefully choose their classes. Many pre-law students avoid the classes that will give them these skills because they are hard classes, and they would prefer to maximize their GPA. I explain to my students that maximizing their GPA won't be as helpful as having the skills to succeed in law school, when the stakes are much higher, and the job you get will depend on how well you do in school.

I deal with this everyday at UConn. Law students need problem-solving skills, with a heavy emphasis on analytical reasoning. One of the best classes for this is in the Math department, in a class called "Problem Solving". My students avoid this class like the plague. They choose the pre-law track because they hate math. However, the problem solving class involves a lot of critical reading, and doesn't involve a lot of numbers or symbols. It is the best class to prepare students for the LSAT, along with the Logic classes in the Philosophy department. All students at UConn need to take a minimum of three math classes (called Q classes), and at least one Philosophy class, regardless of major. Pre-law students try to take what they perceive to be easier Q and philosophy classes, ones that have more of a focus on introductory math skills and philosophy in history. But these classes do not prepare students as well as classes that focus on analytical skills.

It is the same in almost all majors. I strongly advise students to take grammar, poetry, and rhetoric classes in the English department. They are three of the tougher courses in the English department, because they grade writing skill as well as content. They avoid all classes using the case method in the History or Political Science departments, because cases are difficult to understand. They run from econ classes because they fear econ will be too much like math.

I am not criticizing my students. They receive an overwhelming message that grades and LSAT are all that matter, thanks to for-profit websites and commercial LSAT prep programs. They worry about getting into law school, not succeeding once they are in law school. When I sit down and explain why skills are important, how to get them, and the importance of doing well in law school, they listen. For some, it takes more coaxing then others, but the majority will take some if not all of the tougher skills classes I recommend. Like many non-JD pre-law advisers, many students don't have the information to make an informed decision. Armed with the right information, they make smart choices. Which leads to better law students.

As ASP professionals, we know so much, and we have so much to give back. Far fewer students would be struggling academically if they had a pre-law adviser or faculty member who could steer them to the right classes that focus on the type of skills they need to succeed in law school. (RCF)

February 10, 2011 in Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing and Running

This is a call to everyone in ASP who has something to say, but is afraid to write. Most of us don't need to write for our job. However, if you don't write, it's almost impossible to move past "staff" status. There aren't as many writing mentors in ASP as there are doctrinal folks who can help junior faculty while they are writing. So I am writing about my writing process to let new ASPer's know that it is not them; writing is tough. But it's worth it.

I have been working on a major writing project for the last couple of months. I finally finished this weekend; I had to do the bulk of the writing on days off and weekends because my workload was too heavy to allow much writing 9-5. Finishing a writing project is both a relief and filled with anxiety. It is incredibly satisfying to be done, but then comes the intense worry that it's not good enough, a citation is missing,  or that I forgot a topic essential to the discussion. One of the reasons I don't write as much as I should (outside of this blog) is due to the anxiety it provokes when I finish. Unless I have a deadline, I will never stop second-guessing my work.

Writing is a lot like running. I am a long-time distance runner (almost 20 years!). Even for the best writers, it's sometimes a grind. In both writing and running, it's hardest when you are out-of-shape. We generally don't think of needing to be "in shape" to write, but writing makes writing easier and more fluid. This does feel a little unfair, because when you most need to feel good about writing (or running) is when you are getting back after a long break. But that is when it is hardest and most painful.

For nearly two months I resorted to exhaustive, probably unnecessary, research because writing was too painful. I could not get more than a paragraph or two on a page, and I knew I needed 10,000-15,000 words. It seemed insurmountable because I had not written that much in years.  I knew I could do it, but I could not remember how I did it, what my process was, what I did in terms of a timeline. But after two months, I found that my one-two paragraphs while researching out came to about 3000 words, and suddenly I had about 20% of the project done. And it didn't seem like I could never do it. When I would come back to running after taking time off due to illness or injury, it would seem like I could never get over the 1-3 mile range. And then, after a couple of months, I could hit 5 miles without stopping. And at five miles, a half marathon doesn't seem so unreasonable after all.

The second hardest time is when you get writer's block, or in running, when you plateau. This usually happens when you have been at it for a while. You become acclimated to the process and you stop responding. Nothing you do seems to make it better. This tends to happen at the worst possible time; when you need to get a project finished, but your mind is empty, or when you are training for a major race, and your legs don't want to cooperate. The experts say beware of overtraining, but work through it. It will break. This was were I was at about two weeks ago. I desperately needed to get past the 5000 word mark, but everything I wrote was terrible. None of it fit with the theme. I couldn't transition between topics. Every word was painful. But I knew I had two weeks, so I worked through it, and it did come together. But during that period, I probably erased more than I wrote. Through erasing and rethinking, I came out with a much stronger theme.

The last painful period for me is finishing up. As I said at the start, I never want to finish because I am afraid it's not good enough or dreadfully flawed. The easiest way for me to get over this is to send it out to be proofread. As soon as I hit "send" I think of five topics I needed to cover but forgot while I was writing. I would never remember what I needed to add if I didn't hit send. The anxiety of someone else reading my work, and finding it lacking, produces the adrenaline to put it all together. Quite honestly, what I send out to be proofread usually is lacking. It's not my best work, and it's not even very good work. In running, this is usually the period when I need training partners to keep going. I am in a pretty bad state about two-three weeks before a race, and I need companions to keep me going. I will not walk unless injured, so even when I hate running, I keep going because I am too proud to be the person who  slows down the group.

In that last rush of adrenaline, I can usually knock out a substantial portion of the paper. The fear won't go away until it's published. In this way writing is still like running...you cross the finish line, and you immediately start planning your next race. In my case, I wrote three pages of a law review article while finishing my last work. Writing and researching made me realize how much more there is to say on the topic. So I started with just a heading. Then I jotted some notes about where I wanted to go with the topic. The I took a break from the major project and put in several more topic headings. There was no fear, no anxiety, as there is when I start writing after a long break. It was smooth. (RCF)

February 7, 2011 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Publishing, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)