Friday, January 24, 2014

Tubthumping

Whenever I meet with students who have done poorly in the first semester, I tell them about the first English paper I turned in in college.  I had never gotten less than an A in anything in my life, I was the “English” guy for big state contests, I’d won several creative writing awards, and I really thought I wanted to major in English.  On my first paper, I got a C.  When I went to talk to the professor, a man who wore seersucker suits and looked like a cross between Mark Twain and Colonel Sanders, he said in his genteel Virginia-tidewater accent, “Is English your first language?  Your name is Russian.  Are you translating as you write?”  

The unfortunate thing was that he was genuinely curious and English is my first, and only, language.  

And the thing was, he was right.  The paper was too clever by half, full of elevated verbiage and ideas that got started but then petered out.  Split-infinitives were everywhere, the Oxford Comma had apparently decided to hop a bus to Cambridge, and the whole thing rested on a very faulty argument I'd cribbed from an R.E.M. song.  But, I took his advice and comments seriously, readjusted my writing process, and, in the words of my seventh grade science teacher, "Got back on the A-train."

I go on to tell my students that I bet most of their professors have a similar story somewhere back in their academic careers, so they should realize that 1) they’re not alone, 2) they can bounce back, and 3) this is an integral part of the learning experience that is often overlooked (as in, “Hell, I’m never taking Crim Law again!  Let’s toss that exam and never look at it!”).

I honestly believe hitting a roadbump can sometimes be the best thing that can happen to a student. It forces the student to reflect on their learning and forces them to get better.  If I had continued on my merry way without hitting that first bump I might still be scribing in bloviated sentences constructed entirely in the aether and intertwined with the thoughts and errs of beknighted folly -- or something.

So, I try to present a first semester failure as opportunity.  I ask them to go over their exams with their professors to see where they fell short, then I meet with them and we make a plan to fix those holes. 

And, happily, this year many, many second year students have been coming in to tell me about how they have been able to turn around their grades. While their egos may have been bruised, they have gained necessary insights into themselves and their education. And I know these insights will make them better lawyers. (Alex Ruskell)  

 

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