Thursday, September 26, 2013

Everybody Hurts

Every year, I have a handful of first-year students who do not utilize ASP because they believe that it is only intended for students for whom "something is wrong."  They think (or, more precisely, fear that others think) that ASP is for students who don't understand the law, or haven't slept in a week, or have a recurring dream where they are naked in class and the professor is beaning them with copies of the Restatement.  

They are not wrong to think that ASP is primarily targeted at struggling students. ASP is usually built around specific programs targeted at students who have already "failed" at one indicator or another (low LSAT, low GPA, failed exams).

The problem is that the perception of ASP as a program for students who can't quite make it means that some students who could greatly benefit from ASP services are not taking advantage of them.  They believe either that they "get it well enough" (a common feeling for weak first-year students in the fall) or they are embarrassed to come. In the past, some struggling students have told me that they feel there's something shameful about using ASP.  One of the ways I've tried to fight against this problem is to work on "de-pathologizing" struggle in the first year. 

The first year of law school should be a struggle.  It should stretch students' minds. Law school asks them to think deeply and critically, forces them to analyze all that they think they know, and requires them to participate in class in an utterly new pedagogical style.  The question that law school thrusts upon first year students is: How do you know what you think you know?  This is not just a matter of learning to think like a lawyer.  For some students, it can call into crisis their entire worldview.  Of course they struggle.  They must struggle, because it's in the struggle itself that thoughtful, critical thinking is born.

We tell them that law school is difficult and that they will think in new ways, study more hours, and do more work than they might have done before in their educational careers.  Despite this, some students still seem to get the message that there is something wrong in needing help in that struggle.  Perhaps it comes from their peers, or perhaps it's a result of the ease and success they had in undergraduate school.  Perhaps it's a message from the larger culture and the image of what a "smart and successful" lawyer should look like.  But wherever they are getting it from, the belief that struggling with law school is a sign of weakness is compounding their difficulty.  

This year, I have made a great effort to not say things along the lines of "If you're not getting this for some reason..." or "If you need my help..."  I have also tried to present coming to workshops, going to tutoring, and seeing me individually simply as something that successful law students do as part of their routine.  I think it's worked -- I've had over 100 students at every workshop, and I've had to switch rooms for tutoring because of overflow issues.  I've also been emailing as many students as I can to ask them to meet me individually to look over outlines or do sample questions.  I've let them know in that email that they aren't being targeted for any other reason than that they were the next name on my list. Finally, I employ 18 tutors, all of whom are in the very top of the class. In hiring the tutors this year, I made sure that as first-year students each of them came to every ASP workshop and went to all of the tutoring sessions available.  That way, I can simply point at the very successful tutors and say, "They came to everything -- they utilized services -- nothing was 'wrong' with how they were doing in law school -- they just realized ASP was a good idea -- and look how things turned out."

Luckily, I don't think this perception affects a majority of students. However, year after year, a majority of first-year students who get in serious trouble didn't use ASP when it could have helped them. Consequently, whatever small things I can do to reach students who might not have used ASP are worthwhile. [Alex Ruskell]

 

 

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