January 29, 2006
At this time of the year—just after the appearance of fall grades—Academic Supporters at law schools across the country meet with scores of disappointed students.
Some are disappointed because they may be leaving law school—voluntarily or not—others because they simply did not earn grades reflective of their hard work, intelligence and aptitude.
In some ways, this is a difficult time for Academic Supporters. In two other ways, though, this time of year is tremendous. Here's why:
1. Now, many students realize their need for expert coaching. Students ask for help eagerly. That's a plus. Eager students are the best kind of students to work with, aren't they?
2. Along with the stories of disappointment, we hear the stories of success. Although the wunnelle stories are uplifting, they are to be expected . . . that is, with no law school track record, students who do very well are often surprised and elated when they receive their first "A" grades.
But for me, the best stories of success are those coming from second and third-year students who have been challenged, who have struggled, and who have leapt over barriers, overcome their bugaboos, and tasted the nectar of the high grade for the first time.
Having received permission to post an edited version of one such story, I offer it to encourage those who are new to the Academic Support ranks. Academic Support works.
Keep up the good work, friends!
P.S. If you have a particularly heartwarming success story, have obtained written permission to post it, and can edit all identifiers, email it to me for possible posting on the blog. (djt)
January 12, 2006
Sleeping Your Way to the Top
According to an article in the most recent (January 16, 2006) issue of TIME Magazine, 71 percent of American adults do not average eight hours of sleep.
The article, entitled "Sleeping Your Way to the Top," by Sora Song, cites a 2003 sleep study's results—"The human brain is only capable of about 16 hours of wakefulness [a day] ... When you get beyond that, it can't function as efficiently, as accurately or as well."
Sleeping less than your body requires erodes productive capability, according to the researchers.
Although people think of sleep as a necessity to avoid physical fatigue, Song points out: "What most people don't realize is that the purpose of sleep may be more to rest the mind than to rest the body. Indeed, most of the benefits of eight hours' sleep seem to accrue to the brain: sleep helps consolidate memory, improve judgment, promote learning and concentration, boost mood, speed reaction time and sharpen problem solving and accuracy."
The next time you work with your students, ask them how much they are sleeping. Many students I encounter tell me they are "lucky" to get six hours of sleep each night. Many "get by" on five or six.
My thought? They are unlucky to get six hours of sleep each night. Actually, luck has little to do with it. Poor planning is the reason—or an unrealistic sense of priority.
Ask your students, "Would you want your lawyer to be suffering from poor memory, less than adequate judgment, less than optimal concentration, and dull problem solving capabilities when your trial begins?"
The article includes this eye-opening fact: results of sleeping too little "...may even mimic the symptoms of dementia."
Ask your students, "Do you want to mimic the symptoms of dementia in class?"
Do the math: " ... in giving up two hours of bedtime to do more work, you’re losing a quarter of your recommended nightly dose and gaining just 12 percent more time during the day.” Trading a bit of "awake" time for a higher rate of productivity makes more sense doesn’t it? (djt)
December 21, 2005
Your Grades Are Not You
As exams come to an end, you probably have visits, phone calls, and emails from students who believe that they have done poorly. Some have good reason for that belief; they showed up an hour late for the exam and answered only half the questions, for example. But most just know they have not done as well as they had hoped ... they did not walk away from the exam room with that all-too-infrequent feeling of "Wow! I just aced that one!"
Frankly, those who have that "aced" feeling often have not aced anything.
The pessimistic feeling has little to do with not having learned the subject matter, or even with not having mastered the art of resolving novel, hypothetical, legal questions under extreme time pressure. Rather, it has to do with a dread of receiving ... yup ... poor grades.
Refer them to Professor Franzese's article. Say what?
Professor Paula Franzese, of Seton Hall University Law School, "gets it" when it comes to teaching. Not only is she a seven-time recipient of the Student Bar Association’s Professor of the Year Award, but she also has been named “Exemplary Teacher" by the American Association of Higher Education and was ranked the Top Law Professor in New Jersey by the New Jersey Law Journal. If you have had the pleasure of attending one of her presentations (example: AALS conference), you know why. She gets it when it comes to grading as well. She advises:
Law school modes of evaluation leave much to be desired. In a context where there is so little feedback, how one happens to do on a particular day on a three or four-hour test tends to take on an undeserved importance and magnitude. Some even construe their grades as the final word on their abilities and opportunities as a future lawyer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Students need to read what she has written.
Professor Franzese has given me permission to link to a copy of her essay, "On Grades" (click on this link).
"Let your grades inform your life," she counsels students, "not define, diminish or even exalt it."
Think about sending your students to this link as their grades trickle in over the next few weeks. (djt)
December 11, 2005
An Insightful Comment
Dan recently published his brief essay, "The Closest Thing to Junior High Since Junior High" (December 6th). Professor Amy Jarmon, Assistant Dean for Academic Success Programs at Texas Tech School of Law, added her comment, which I thought ought to be "posted" here, so y'all don't miss it.
Amy, pictured below, wrote:
Thank you for a wonderful, insightful column on the confusion, pain, and fear that are encompassing our students right now. Sadly, I find that it is not just my 1L students who are struggling with these emotions and thoughts. Some of my 2L and 3L students have never recovered a sane perspective on law school and are "casualties" of the system.
This time of year always reminds me that as an academic success professional my job title is really "CHIEF ENCOURAGER" for many students. I have had students dropping by for several weeks asking for "pep talks" and reassurance. Some students are shy about the requests while others are very upfront about their immediate needs. I gladly respond to those who ask. And, I spend time walking the halls and student lounge smiling at one and all and trying to spread some cheer to those who do not cross my threshold.
I always feel blessed to have this position because it combines my education and law backgrounds. But, I realize each December (and May) that most of all I need to be a blessing to others — some of them with worried faces, trembling smiles, or false bravado.
Thanks for your comment, Amy. (djt)
December 07, 2005
Exams: Last-Minute Advice
This year, he has offered it to us (via the Blog) as a template for what we might want to send to our students this week. With his permission, I have revised the letter (based on personal preferences and institutional differences) and will be sending it to our student body this afternoon. Take a look — you may want to e-mail a thanks to Herb. (djt)
November 22, 2005
Thinking Like a Lawyer
In keeping with the holiday, I'll say that I am thankful for something that makes our students' lives miserable in the first year. I know that sounds sadistic, but stick with me for a minute, and I'll try to explain.
What I am thankful for is the maddeningly elusive and generally misunderstood art of "thinking like a lawyer."
First-year students become deeply frustrated by the phrase while we faculty throw it around with abandon. "Thinking like a lawyer." We'll teach them, we say, to think like lawyers; but we seldom define exactly what we mean — as if, like obscenity, they'll know it when they see it.
The problem, of course, is that they do not see it clearly at all in the first months of law school; and what they are attempting to see and eventually master is quite different from what many of them have ever seen or attempted in their lives to this point. The difficulty is compounded by popular notions of lawyers as clever tricksters who bend and twist words to mean whatever the lawyers wish them to mean. (See the Nov. 20 posting, "Looking Before One Leaps" for some insightful observations about the corrupting influence of such notions.)
So what is learning to "think like a lawyer" and why is it so hard to master? Well, let me suggest a definition that may help answer those questions: learning to think like a lawyer is learning to think with exacting precision about human relationships and human events. It's a loaded definition.
It means defining as precisely as possible where duties begin and where they end. It means determining the exact contours of rights and the precise limits of privileges. It means carefully and methodically tracing causes and effects at levels of precision lay persons seldom consider, at least in terms of human conduct.
It also means doing this type of thinking — difficult in its own right — alongside the even more difficult and foreign art of text-based reasoning. Most of our students have never been asked to interpret text with any sort of rigor or precision. Most have sat through endless high school and undergraduate "discussions" of literature that were little more than pooled ignorance. Most were never taught to analyze and interpret text with any demonstrable accuracy or precision. Most were never required to prove, using the text itself, that what they believe it says is what the author actually intended to convey. Most were taught that if to them, the central lesson of Macbeth is to avoid ambitious women, then that is what Macbeth means because, after all, that is what it meant to them.
Judges and lawyers won't put up with that nonsense. So our students must abandon their trust in their own gut reactions and lazy musings and learn to think clearly and precisely about human relationships and human events, even when those relationships and events defy clarity and precision; and they have to do it using a language riddled with vagueness and ambiguity.
Perhaps it is this demand for precision despite the unavoidable imprecision of human language and the profound complexity of even the simplest relationships that creates the impression of cleverness for cleverness' sake. Lawyers are forced to press logic to its breaking points to determine where its soundness ends, and judges are routinely forced to choose between equally compelling arguments that rest on equally compelling moral imperatives placed in tension by an accident of the human condition.
From a comfortable lay world of imprecise thinking, our students are thrust into a world where every argument is vigorously examined for flaws and missteps and where every proposition must be supported carefully and completely. They find a world where notions of justice are challenged, dissected, and pressed to reveal where they hold up and where they do not.
No wonder our students find law school so daunting. No wonder they lose confidence in their intellectual abilities for a time and even in their sense of justice and injustice.
It falls to us to combat the discouragement and cynicism that so easily overtakes them. The task falls to us because we know that despite what cynics say or bad results imply, most legal thinking is done, in the end, by most lawyers and most judges, to promote justice in human affairs. Lawyers may cynically growl that justice is not what is likely to occur in court, but precious few believe that justice does not matter or that the causes for which they themselves plead are unjust.
Truly learning to think like a lawyer is a profoundly good thing. Without those who are willing to devote themselves to the intellectually and morally hard work of defining precisely the contours of justice, the nation is left to the murky reasoning of casual thinkers or, worse, to the calculated thinking of those who have no moral bearings.
So we have a duty to help our students understand what thinking like a lawyer is and what it should be. Some, of course, will fail altogether to master it; and some will master its mechanics without seeing the moral substance in which it must be rooted.
Most, however, will learn to think like lawyers in the best sense of that phrase. Because of them, our profession will always be something more than a collection of tricksters and illusionists.
That's something to be thankful for; and here's another: we have the privilege of helping them get there. Not a bad way to spend our lives, is it? (dbw)
October 29, 2005
Amy Jarmon, Assistant Dean for Academic Success at Texas Tech School of Law, posted a thoughtful comment about Mario Mainero's recent blog entry. I'm posting it here so y'all will be sure to read it. Thanks, Amy!
I thoroughly agree with Mario (at least I assume that mwm is Mario)about the importance of listening to our students to become more aware of the truth of their hearts and thus better equipping oIurselves to help. In my first career, I spent 17 years working with undergraduates before I switched to law school and law practice – 10 of those higher ed years in academic support. After working with thousands of undergraduates, I found that few academic problems were solely academic. Most of the academic problems were linked in some manner to personal, medical, family, or financial problems.
With law students, I have found that the same is often the case. Having been an ASP professional at two law schools as well as Acting Assistant Dean for Law Student Services at one of those, I have talked with many students about the disruptions, hardships, and tragedies that they have faced outside the classroom. In fact, I think it is a miracle that some of my students do as well as they do (probation or just over the required 2.00) under their circumstances.
The law students with outside problems often tell me that they appreciate not only my academic advice but also my willingness to listen. For some of them, ASP is a "safe harbor" where they do not have to put on a brave face. They know that I ultimately care about them as people as well as law students.
Obviously, we need to refer appropriately to psychologists, doctors, and other professionals. I keep those lists handy. But, I find that my students are more willing to accept a referral to those others if I have listened to their worries and fears. My willingness to listen fosters their willingness to trust my referral as being for their ultimate benefit.
October 26, 2005
From Counselor at Law to Just Plain Counselor
Reading the last two excellent pieces by Professor Stillman got me to thinking about how I got into Academic Support, and to what extent my over twenty years as a litigator prepared me for moments like those she has shared with us.
I had been a member of the “Board of Advisors” to Whittier Law School and an adjunct teaching a couple of legal writing sections when I was asked to be part of the Dean search. During that search I met the man who eventually became Dean: Neil Cogan. His first week on the job, he asked to have lunch to talk about ideas he had that coincided with my background in statistics. Out of that conversation, he apparently decided I was the appropriate person to be the first Director of the Law School’s new Academic Success Program. Feeling some need for a change in the quality of life aspect of my career, I naively accepted the job.
Five months in, I had a moment like Professor Stillman’s. About 6:00 p.m. one day, an upper-level student came in crying. She had just learned that she failed several of her final exams. She told me that she took them when she was very distraught. Two days before her first exam, she caught her husband “in bed” with her best friend. I do not drink either coffee or alcohol, but one of my immediate thoughts was whether I should start. We spent quite some time that evening discussing the situation, what she thought she should do about her marriage, and how I would support her petition to be placed on academic probation so she would have the opportunity to repair her GPA. She then separated from her husband (against her family wishes, believe it or not), and over the next semester, we worked successfully to get her grades back where they should have been and to get her successfully graduated.
That incident caused me to think about whether I was qualified to do this job. After all, I was certainly academically qualified, and I had taught legal writing in some form for years, but first and foremost, I was a trial lawyer, not a psychologist or Marriage and Family Counselor! In fact (and please don’t tell my students), I skipped a few of my psychology classes in college because they were on Monday nights in the fall. Eventually, though, I came to realize that students are like clients: they do come to you for advice, and sometimes the advice is non-academic, just like sometimes the advice to clients is non-legal. Professor Stillman is right. It takes learning to listen, not just to the words, but also to the unspoken thoughts, dreams, and fears that students, and clients, have. Sometimes, in listening for those unspoken things, we can finally hear the truth in our students’ hearts and be better equipped to help them solve their academic issues as well. (mwm)
October 17, 2005
Sacrifice vs. Compromise
I know we have been discussing sacrifice lately here on the ASP blog, but I felt while reading the posts that a woman's perspective would be different. I have had female students ask me about how to plan a career and a family simultaneously and whether it is possible. My answer is always the same: I'll let you know when I've figured it out myself.
I have never worked at a law firm, only for the government or in academics. When we moved to Boston about seven years ago, I interviewed at a medium-sized firm and the woman interviewing me asked if I thought I could bill 1,800 hours a year. After some quick math, I told her no. I know she caught me looking at the pictures of her children on her desk and understood the questions I wanted to ask her. How does she do it? And more importantly, why?
As I've mentioned before on this blog, I have three small children (8 yrs. old, 5 yrs. old and almost 8 mos. old) and I work full time here in ASP (which for us is actually only four days a week). My law school experience (ungraded since I went to Northeastern) did teach me that hard work was valuable and self-esteem producing. I was totally into the "sacrifice" idea then and I firmly believed that I was going to have to be very responsible as a lawyer because my clients would be looking to me for important information and advice. And I was this very responsible lawyer for a number of years: working late to get my subpoenas out, prepping witnesses and carrying a staggering caseload as a NYC prosecutor.
But then I had a child, and another, and yet another. And now I feel (despite appearances – for anyone who knows what I really look like) stretched thin. I have made sacrifices on both ends – my career and my family. I often feel that nothing gets 100% of my attention, that at best, I have only 95% to give and only rarely. I pray it will rain on Saturdays so soccer is cancelled (I suppose I owe divine thanks for the last two weeks...). I wonder often if I am doing anything to best of my ability.
Don't get me wrong, I feel entirely devoted to my students. I want them all to succeed and get every last benefit of law school. I want them all to be confident and competent attorneys who will pass the bar the first time. But I also remind them at orientation that they need to remember who they were when they walked in the door to the law school, because in three years you could easily forget who that was. So I advise them to continue painting or hiking or baking or whatever it is that reminds them of who they are. I have even prescribed a day off every now and then for perspective. I remind them to call their mothers and walk their dogs.
Perhaps, (and this is a big one) women have never had the luxury of defining themselves almost completely by their profession once there is a family. Do I dare to tell students that after my first child was born, being a lawyer went from my career to my job? Perhaps that is the sacrifice I chose and they will choose differently.
Certainly practicing law is a very noble and responsible profession. But what we should not sacrifice is the inherent humanity of a profession that helps with the entire cycle of life: from birth through death. Our clients are people (mainly) and our actions as attorneys will impact their lives. I regularly advise my students to work hard and not make excuses that wouldn't hold up in court, but the truth is if we had perfected this profession, we wouldn't all be practicing. (ezs)
September 10, 2005
Keeping Dreams from Coming True
On August 24, I posted a referral to lawyer/author Julie Hilden's article featuring advice to first-year law students. That post included:
Julie Hilden, a Yale Law grad, having also earned an MA in creative writing from Cornell, lives in New York city. After practicing law for several years, Ms. Hilden now writes (creatively) full time ... in 2003 she published 3 a novel which (according to one reviewer on Amazon.com) "...is both beautiful, and disturbing ... definitely not for the faint of heart ... extremely graphic [with] gut-wrenching scenes...."
Never having thought of myself as "faint of heart," I bought "3." As of this morning, I have not finished reading the book, and my gut is already wrenched. Nevertheless, I had enough energy this morning to blog.
Ms. Hilden's article (referenced above) described her wunnelle experience. This week, I visited with many wunnelles at different law schools, and was treated to their description of the experience (contemporaneous rather than recollected). This morning, when I read from pages 57 and 58 of Ms. Hilden's "3," I was struck with the similarity between those contemporaneous descriptions and the prenuptial dream of Ms. Hilden's featured character (a woman of about the same age as many of our wunnelles ... early twenties).
The night before we marry, I have a dream. I am underwater, just beneath the surface of a running river that would carry me away were it not for the crooked black tree branch I hold. The branch extends toward me through the water, like a hand reaching down.
The surge of the blue-green water is strong and unrelenting, and my hold on the branch is uncertain, slippery. I should be moving along it hand over hand, like a child twisting in the air, legs trailing, across the span of a jungle gym. I should be closing in on the shore, moving into the shallower water, so that I can break the water's surface and take a breath.
But I am not, I cannot move forward at all. My hand cannot even fully get purchase on the branch's mossy skin. So rather than getting closer to the riverbank, I only slide farther out along the branch's length, deeper into the water.
Underwater, I do not even hear the crack of the breaking branch. All at once I lose my grip, and I only hear the water rushing. I only feel it move my body wherever I am destined to go. The water engulfs me, and as I drown, I feel at peace. I do not bolt awake, the prospect of my own death does not jolt me into the waking world. The truth is that I am comfortable, drowning.
The preceding paragraphs weave very nicely into the fabric of the novel. The similarity between the night-before-the-wedding dream and a standard reaction to law school is __________ (fill in the blank … “frightening” occurred to me).
I’m drowning,” is a frequent complaint among first-semester law students. “All I want to do is keep my head above water—I feel completely overwhelmed.” These aquatic metaphors ("to whelm" is to submerge) are apt. Often, law students find themselves awash in a flood of uncategorized information—facts and theories disconnected from, alien to, often at odds with their intuition, their preconceived ideas, their personal experiences.
As the flood continues, the vortex begins to drag them down.
Just as hopeless drowning swimmers—and Ms. Hilden's fictional dreamer—succumb to the raging surf and surrender control to this powerful force of nature, too many wunnelles capitulate to the perceived inevitability of their loss of control. This is the passive reaction. This is the reaction that keeps law students from achieving their “personal bests” during their first semester. They’ve heard it’s hard, they encounter the proof of the difficulty of law school during the first three weeks—they feel "overwhelmed."
What they don’t realize is this: they are (nearly) all great swimmers ... it's just the unfamiliarity with this environment that throws them off.
The "dream" concept is also apropos. "A series of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations occurring involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep" ... this is a "dream." Substitute the phrase "the first three weeks of law school" for the word "sleep" and you will be reminded of conversations you have had with students these past few days.
At an Academic Support conference a few years ago, when I asked someone, "What is it, exactly, that we do?" I received this response: "We help make people's dreams come true." True enough, when the "dream" is an aspiration. There are some dreams—ideas and sensations that occur involuntarily in the mind—that we want to help not come true. (djt)
August 24, 2005
Advice to First-Year Law Students
The first thing I like about this article was this: I searched for the word "survival" and discovered it wasn't there.
The second feature I enjoyed? The author's emphasis on learning the language of the law: "If I had realized that the law was going to be a new language for me, I think I would have been much more patient with myself. Knowing and accepting the great difficulty involved in learning this new language, the considerable amount of time required to master it, and the steep learning curve confronting new students, can be very helpful."
An admission follows: Bingo is ubiquitous. "In my law school, games of Bingo were sometimes played - with the squares representing the students who spoke up in class. I heard once that my own name was in the center of a board. That can hurt - but on reflection, not so much. Silent detractors are kind of pathetic."
This might be a good (quick) read for some of your struggling wunnelles.
Julie Hilden, a Yale Law grad, having also earned an MA in creative writing from Cornell, lives in New York city. After practicing law for several years, Ms. Hilden now writes (creatively) full time. Her regular law column appears in FindLaw.com's on-line magazine Writ and on CNN's Law Center. Her first book, a memoir, was entitled The Bad Daughter (1998); in 2003 she published 3, a novel which(according to one reviewer on Amazon.com) "...is both beautiful, and disturbing ... definitely not for the faint of heart ... extremely graphic [with] gut-wrenching scenes...." Doesn't this description sound like some students describe law school? (djt)
August 23, 2005
Grieving - Part III
The recent posts on "grief" attracted this response from Denise Riebe, Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law School . . .
I thought the grief topic was an excellent one to address on the blog. I have several comments, all of which you're welcome to send along to anyone that might benefit.
First, I think that we often try to overlook losses and the grieving process. And, often we try to limit "grief" to death situations.
In fact, it is natural for every single type of loss we experience in life to be followed by a grieving process. Other than death, losses may include the loss of a dream, the loss of a friend, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a goal, the loss of one's self-image (I thought I was "smart"), the loss caused by infertility or miscarriage ... the list is long.
Unfortunately, life is filled with losses, and the grieving response is a natural and healthy response (healthy because it helps you deal with and work through a loss and move on).
Support for working through a loss is also crucial. For those without a friend or family they can rely on for support, professional counseling is essential. It's also important to note that, in many situations, the persons that one would naturally rely on for support (example: close family) are unavailable. Why? They, too, are grieving.
I've heard that Hospice organizations have excellent grief group sessions -- where those who have experienced the loss of a loved one can be supported and work through their grief with others experiencing the same thing.
Thanks again for addressing a very important topic.
August 22, 2005
Grieving ... a Student Perspective
Yesterday, I posted an article on grieving over the loss of a loved one. The posting struck a chord with a law student who had experienced enormous losses during law school. With the writer's permission, I post the student's letter . . .
My name is ______, and I will soon graduate from _____ Law School. Unfortunately, I have first-hand experience with grieving in law school. My mother died from a rare disease on my second day of orientation, and my father died 7 months later from cancer. The word "difficult" obviously does not adequately describe that time for me.
I found it helpful that the school immediately expressed sympathy and support. During that first meeting, the administration also clearly explained my options. Because I wanted (needed) to be in (city) with my father while he was in hospice at home, it meant I necessarily had to miss some classes. The administration let me know that if I missed more than a certain number of classes, it would be up to each individual professor as to whether I would be allowed to sit for the final in that class. While this caused me concern, I let it go almost immediately because I realized my first semester of school would either be a wash and I would have to reapply or I would make it through somehow. The school's position was clear, so I didn't have to worry about it and could concentrate on being with my family.
I made it through that time, though I didn't do as well as I felt I could have. But I was able to grieve and say goodbye, and that was the most important thing. The rigors of academics and my parents' strong desire that I finish law school helped me to get on with life. I anticipate a second form of grief to accompany my unwinding after I take the bar in February. I actually look forward to that time.
I'm not sure how many schools have an internal policy on how to deal with grieving students, but from my perspective it should be required. A carefully considered procedure can make all the difference for a student during this kind of tough experience. We have enough to deal with, and the administration has a duty to make that time easier, rather than inadvertently causing more anxiety.
A Law Student
August 21, 2005
From time to time, I encounter students who are having academic difficulty caused or exacerbated by circumstances outside of the law school adventure. One of those circumstances is death. What do you say to the student who has lost a parent, a sibling, a child?
Today I read "Stress, Change and Loss," the draft of an article by Stephen Marsh, a Texas lawyer who has experienced devastating family tragedies. This article represents one person's point of view about what hurts and what helps.
"If you are on the outside, helping someone who is experiencing grief," Mr. Marsh writes, "express sympathy and feel free to express that you do not know what to say. The statement 'I'm so sorry, I don't know what to say, but I want you to know that I am so sorry and I wish I could do more. We are praying for you and thinking of you...' is just fine. It is truthful, honest and direct, doing no harm and much good."
I was not able to find the article in its finished (published) form. If you are able to find it on-line, please send it along, and I'll include it on the blog.
Does anyone else have some advice to contribute for students dealing with grief? Send me an e-mail and I'll post it here. (djt)