Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Here's a great suggestion from Hillary Burgess:
I often hear from professors that students sometimes complain more than they thank. Since I've received so much support for my recent projects (and am in the midst of writing many, many thank you notes), I thought I'd pass along this idea.
To boost your spirits, especially since it's tending toward stress time, what about taking 5-10 minutes to thank someone on your faculty or one of your own professors from your law school days or, better yet, your ASP mentor? Thank someone from your past who would never in a million years expect a thank you note now.
It'll make both you and that person feel good right now; but more importantly, those memories are the ones that carry us and our own mentors through the tougher moments. The letters I've received from former students – and even more so the notes I've received from parents of students – have really helped me sustain some sense of sanity when faced with a stack of papers or, worse, a failing or cheating student.
So thank a random person from your past today. Just a thought.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Do you know who some of the most generous, dedicated, caring, supportive, and knowledgeable people are at law schools? They are ASP professionals. I make this statement based on five plus years of observing all of you, participating in conferences, reading the listserv entries, reading blog entries from my fellow editors, and speaking with you in telephone conversations about a variety of topics.
ASP professionals are a treasure in legal education for their students, for their faculty and administrative colleagues, and for each other. Are we always paid our worth in gold (notice that I left my weight out of this question)? No. Are we always thanked for our expertise? No. Are we always given budgets and facilities that will allow us to have our ideal programs? No. But, despite any failings in these categories, our students (and law schools) know that they would suffer without our being there.
Just look at the wealth of knowledge we share regularly on the listserv to help each other have better programs for our students. Just look at the dedication of ASP professionals who serve on our AALS section, who write and edit the Learning Curve, who serve as my fellow editors and contributing editors for the blog, who have published in our field and other fields, who plan conferences, and who provide materials in conference presentations. (Speaking of dedication, have you noticed that Dennis Tonsing is still writing his wonderful, insightful entries from his post abroad?)
Thank you. I just want you to know that I am proud to have you as colleagues. I am proud to say that I am an ASP professional because of all of you. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, September 27, 2007
I have found this to be a wonderfully useful tool. It saves your time while providing an extraordinarily high level of feedback and/or instruction for your students. The tool? Microsoft’s “Sound Recorder.” It’s probably sitting on your hard drive right now. It’s easy to use … with a headset mike or just talking into your computer’s microphone. Did you know your laptop has a microphone built in? (Maybe yes, maybe no … ask your tech support helper if you can’t determine. If it doesn’t have one, ask for a mike to plug in.)
Suggested uses . . .
· Tip of the day, tip of the week – in an email sent to a specific person, specific group or all students, let them know that if they open the sound message they’ll receive a helpful tip by listening (for example) only 20 seconds. Send them something amazing so they’ll open the next one!
· If you are lucky enough to receive written student work from time to time, this is an excellent way to comment on it. In the body of your email, encourage the student to have a copy of her/his work on the desk, and make notations while listening to your vocal feedback. You’ll find you can say much more than you can write in margins … and you don’t need to make an appointment with the student to deliver the feedback. Result: more personalized help for more students in less time.
· You’ll find it’s a great way to encourage students to attend your presentations, others’ presentations, or off-campus conferences. Mention the conference in an email, and include “I’ve included a 20-second message about how this can help boost your GPA … just click here!”
· If you have the tech-capability at your school, you can store bunches of tips and information on a site that all students can access whenever they want.
Microsoft's is not the only recorder, of course. I use others as well ... but if it's on your computer already, this might be the best way to begin to get used to recording messages for your students.
Caveat 1: Keep the vocal messages short. Students don't want to listen to a rambling "tip." (I think it's different in the case of feedback on a piece of writing, however. Line-by-line positive feedback ... "This is a great way to introduce the rule of law! You should do this more often!" ... will keep them listening ... then you can slip in something like, "What would really help is if you included all four ways of proving malice ... here's how I would suggest you could do that...." A recording like this can go on for several minutes and keep the student's attention.)
Caveat 2: It’s critical not to overuse this method. Remember, emails are easy to delete without opening. (djt)
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Each week seems to fly by faster than the one before it. I keep thinking that the semester will hit a nice routine. However, study skills workshops have now joined student appointments, walk-ins, special projects, class sessions, and meetings on my calendar. It is times like these that I remind myself that ASP professionals also need to use stress busters. Here are some things to consider:
- Increase your number of hours of sleep each night by one to wake up more refreshed.
- Go out to eat lunch occasionally so that you get a break rather than eating hurriedly at your desk.
- On the days that you pack a lunch, close your door so that you can have some undisturbed down time without questions and walk-ins (and indigestion!).
- Take the stairs to give yourself a bit of exercise during the day.
- Walk to a meeting on main campus instead of driving for some exercise as well.
- Mark off project time on your calendar during each week so that you can have uninterrupted time to focus.
- Break your "to do" list into smaller steps so that you have a greater sense of accomplishment crossing off stages of a larger project.
- Do a few relaxation exercises throughout the day to ease your computer posture.
- Remind yourself at the end of a day of three ways that you helped make a difference for your students.
- Read some inspirational sayings or scriptures each day to promote a positive outlook.
- Talk to five students in the student lounge and encourage them - you will feel better for it.
- Limit the number of hours you will stay late or the work you will take home so that you have more time for yourself and your family.
- Make a crock pot your best friend for your nutritional freedom from "what's for dinner" decisions.
- Pick an empty day on your calendar in two weeks time to keep clear from appointments and treat yourself to a vacation day (even if you will just sleep late and stay at home).
- Attend a conference with your wonderful ASP colleagues to get renewed and supported in your work.
- Telephone someone who will be happy to hear from you and will not ask you for anything at all.
Ahhhh...I feel better already. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, August 6, 2007
I cannot believe that it is actually August 6th. Where did the summer go? I remember May 13th and hooding ceremony as taking place yesterday.
If you are like me, you still have miles to go before you are ready for the fall semester (my pardon to Robert Frost). I have had a very productive summer, but there always seem to be more projects than hours. However, I have concluded that having so much more to do is a result of loving my job and wanting to be better at it each day. I want to excel for my students, just as I encourage them to excel.
If you think about it, we are blessed in the ASP profession. We spend each day helping students succeed. We spend each day learning new study and exam strategies from diverse students. We have great books to read by ASP experts to guide us to new strategies, paradigms, etc. We are surrounded by a learning community with people who actually want to learn. We are surrounded by colleagues with fascinating experiences and specialties in law. And, we get to share our students' successes.
As I look across my office, I see my framed poster from the 1980 opening of the U.S. Education Department. It reads, "Learning never ends."
So, the summer may have flown by me. But, I have been busy learning. And, I hope my learning never ends. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
My neighbor's son just graduated from high school, and he stopped my wife the other day and asked question that surprised her, mostly because he of the way he asked it. He is not an emotional guy, and he is not one of those people who needs to hear a thank you when he pitches in to help out someone else. Nevertheless, he began to tear up a little and asked my wife, "Do they ever let you know they are grateful for all that you have done for them?"
My children are in their twenties, so my wife and I have been through high school graduations and sending children off to college, so my wife understood his question and the disappointment that underlay it. My wife assured him that they do, eventually, in one way or another, let you know they understand all the hard work and love that went into raising them; it is just that they usually do not do it until they are long past high school.
I taught high school for a number of years before attending law school, and I saw the same thing with my students. A few high school students will express gratitude to their teachers during commencement, but the malls are not teeming with those students. High school students mostly go on to college and the rest of their lives without saying thanks to the teachers who gave so much time and sweat to teaching them skills essential to their future success.
After I had taught a while, however, I found that former students, five or ten years down the road, would stop by just to say, "Thank you for all that you did." The longer I taught, the more often that happened. One time, I ran into a former student who ten years earlier had taken every opportunity to let the teachers and administrators know that he thought that our school was a waste of his time. That day, however, he told me that he had decided to go into teaching. He told me he had spent some time coaching kids in a summer baseball league and that he had suddenly realized what it was we had been trying to do for him all those years before. He said he decided then that he wanted to spend his life doing the same thing and that he was now teaching high school.
It took time to hear those kinds of things from high school students because students generally have to experience success for a while before they start to look back over their lives to see who contributed to that success. Until I had taught for a few years, most of my former students just were not old enough to be reflective about the people who had been there for them when they were young.
I suspect the same is true for those of us who work in academic support. I have worked in the field for only a couple of years now, and I have already had a few students go out of their way to say thanks, probably because law students are more mature than their high school counterparts; but few have expressed that genuinely deep gratitude that I still hear every so often from my former high school students.
Law school graduates are busy celebrating the end of law school, preparing for and worrying about the bar exam, moving on in their lives and careers. Down the road, I suspect some will come back to express a deeper gratitude, just as high school students go back to let their teachers know that things are going well and that they hope they have made their teachers proud, just as children one day realize just how much was required of their parents.
I say all of this because at the end of the year, teaching can seem like a thankless job sometimes. Students are not necessarily grateful for all of their professors' hard work, including the hard work of those of us in academic support. If you are new to the field, you may be a little dismayed that your students are not more enthusiastic in their gratitude, and you may wonder if anything you have done was really worth it to them.
I know we are not in this work so that we can have students thank us one day, but the gratitude of students can let us know our work was not in vain, so the thanks matter on some level. Anyone who serves others wants to know occasionally that the work was appreciated.
My experience, as a parent and as a teacher, tells me that the thanks will come someday. You will begin to hear from students, often long after they have gone; and they will let you know that they see all that you did for them. Some, maybe most, will never take the time to say it -- some children never tell their parents -- but most will think it, and some will say it.
What you are doing matters, and it matters to your students -- if not today, someday. Keep plugging along, thanks or no, because you are changing lives. One day, someone will stop you on the street or come up to you at a reception or maybe even drop by your office; and you will hear how much all that you did meant to him. You did not help him so that one day you would hear him say thank you; but when you hear it, you will see your work through different eyes. (Dan Weddle)
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Every August, I watch a new crop of first-year students milling around, waiting for orientation activities to begin. Some look confident, others a little anxious; some talk, and some sit quietly, avoiding conversations; some seem nonchalant, others cautiously excited. As a group, they seem ready for what's coming as their first year begins.
And I always think to myself, "They're about to get hit by a train, and they don't even know they're on the tracks."
It is true, of course. They are about to be hit by a train they have not anticipated, even if someone has warned them ahead of time. Until you have been to law school, you just can't get it. You can know it will be challenging; you can know that it will take hard work and long hours. But you can't really know what is about to hit you until it hits you.
Some might say that law school itself is the train, driven by professors who delight in driving it over unsuspecting students who cannot possibly hope to compete with scholars that have devoted much of their adult lives to mastering their particular areas of law. Students understandably believe that to be so, and many lawyers believe it was true of their own law school experiences.
I do not think the train is law school itself, however. I cannot deny, of course, that some law professors have a sadistic streak or a simply arrogant streak that leads them to belittle those who cannot play at the same level as they. Those professors, in my experience at least, are a small minority. Most law professors genuinely want their students to learn; and while they may be demanding teachers, they are not deliberately cruel.
So what is the train that runs over first-year law students? It is the law itself. The law demands students to develop new thinking skills, new learning strategies, new attitudes about the complexities of life, and a new respect for the pitfalls of shallow reasoning. The law requires an intellectual humility at the outset because it constantly engages perplexing but important questions of justice. The law requires precision and care in the balancing of rights and duties, responsibilities and harms. It grants no room for sloppy or cavalier thinking.
It may seem that law school is the culprit, but it seems so only because law school provides for most students their first encounter with the demands of the legal profession. The train that hits them is an unavoidable and exceptionally challenging learning process qualitatively different from much of what they have encountered in their schooling to that point.
The good news, however, is that they will master the law, insofar as one may do so in three years. By the end of their law school careers, they will have caught the train that hit them, and they will have learned not only how to ride it; they will have learned how to drive it. In a short three years, they will have gone from generally dumbfounded and often shell shocked to generally competent and appropriately confident in the very endeavors that seemed so daunting in the first months of law school.
As a result, at commencement I am able to sit back and think, "Ladies and gentlemen, the train is yours." (Daniel Weddle)
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Several people have sent me items that relate to students studying law. So, I thought I would share them with you. Natalie Tarenko, Texas Tech School of Law's Writing Specialist, sent me two offerings:
- Repetition is the mother of learning. Russian proverb
- Skill is not won by chance. Growth is not the sport of circumstance. Skill comes by training; and training, persistent and unceasing, is transmuted into habit. The reaction is adjusted ever to the action. What goes out of us as effort comes back to us as character. The alchemy never fails. 'Let no youth,' says James, 'have any anxiety about the upshot of his education whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out . . . .' The main quotation is from a 1925 commencement speech at Albany Law School by Justice Cardozo titled "The Game of the Law." Cardozo attributes the inner quotation to James, probably Henry or William.
Norman Otto Stockmeyer, Professor Emeritus, from Thomas M. Cooley Law School shared with me the following quotes from his TWEN site:
- Writing is thinking made visible. Joe Kimble
- The beginning of knowledge is learning to call things by their proper names. Chinese proverb
- The point of a question is to get you to think, not simply to answer it. What Smart Students Know
- You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
- Assumpsit happens (Prof. Stockmeyer teaches Contracts.)
- If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it. John Searle
- To know the law is not merely to understand the words, but as well their force and effect. Justinian
- We do brain surgery here....You enter with a skull full of mush, and leave thinking like a lawyer. Professor Kingsfield in Paper Chase
- Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself. Chinese proverb
- There are no answers without questions. Fidelity Investments advertisement
- "Learn" is an active verb. Dennis Tonsing's 1,000 Days to the Bar - But the Practice of Law Begins Now
- Out of the facts arises the law. Old adage
No doubt, all of you could add more sayings to the collection! (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
I have a section of the bulletin board in my study aids library where I post a quote for the students to consider. Having collected quotes for several years now, I thought some of them might be of use in your work with students. Here are the ones that I use most often:
- If you study to remember, you will forget; but, if you study to understand, you will remember. Unknown
- You'll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind. Irish Proverb
- Borrowed brains have no value. Yiddish Proverb
- Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence. Abigail Adams
- Every step you take is a step away from where you used to be. Brian Chargualaf
- There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving...and that's your own self. Aldous Huxley
- You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it. Charles Buxton
- It's not the time you put in, but what you put in the time. Burg's Philosophy
- Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff that life is made of. Benjamin Franklin
- Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is the only cash you have, so spend it wisely. Kim Lyons
- The leading rule for a lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Abraham Lincoln
- If you nurture your mind, body, and spirit, your time will expand. You will gain a new perspective that will allow you to accomplish much more. Brian Koslow
- Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. Ralph Waldo Emerson
- You can eat an elephant one bite at a time. Chinese Proverb
- To succeed, we must first believe that we can. Michael Korda
- Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Thomas A. Edison
- Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. Confucius
- Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes. George Soros
- A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else. John Burroughs
- Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. Thomas A. Edison
- We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt
- Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly. Langston Hughes
- Stress is an untransformed opportunity for empowerment. Doc Childre and Howard Martin
- It's not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it. Hans Selye
- People who cannot find time for recreation are obliged sooner or later to find time for illness. John Wanamaker
- Laugh every day. It is like inner jogging. Unknown
If you have favorite quotes that you use with your students, please share them with me! (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
We are all well aware of how tired our students are at this point in the semester. However, we need to remember to take care of ourselves as well as them. Most of us are probably feeling a little "shop-worn" as the semester slides into final exams.
Have you noticed that almost every committee is trying to get one or two more meetings in before the end of classes? Are many of your deadlines converging to the same one or two days? Is there at least one dinner, reception, or other end-of-the-year event scheduled every week? If you are a student organization advisor, are you involved in semester wrap-up and training of a new set of officers?
Yes, I have accomplished many things already in this last rush to hooding ceremony. And, I have a number more to accomplish. I am often glad that my profession gave me skills for time management, stress management, and project management. But, I must admit that I would not mind a slower pace at the moment.
However, just as I begin to tire, I am reminded of the importance of what we do each day as academic support professionals. If I get really drained of energy, I pull out a file that I have added to over the years. The file includes thank you notes, Christmas cards, e-mails, and other items sent to me by students who wanted to let me know that I made a difference.
I really enjoy my law students - not only as learners, but as people. Being a cheering squad of one when they need it has definite rewards. Their accummulated successess (even the tiny ones) remind me of why I do what I do. Just this week, my students gave me several reasons for ignoring my tiredness and waking up with new energy.
All of you have the same reasons for an infusion of new energy in your role. But, in case you are wondering during this frenetic time why you do what you do, here are some reminders of what makes our work so rewarding:
- Seeing a student smile for the first time in days because an exam study schedule has emerged during an appointment.
- Having a student drop by to relate excitedly that the grade on the returned midterm was a good one.
- Creating solutions with a student for a problem that was believed by the student to be insurmountable when the appointment began.
- Providing a student with an awareness about learning styles that has immediate practical implications for success.
- Helping a student keep perspective on grades in the scheme of life.
- Sharing the celebration with a student who has gone from less than a 2.0 GPA one semester to over a 3.0 GPA for another semester several academic terms later.
- Seeing a stressed student's pleasure at finding a Laffy Taffy at the bottom of the candy bucket in the study aids library.
- Having a student drop by for a five-minute pep talk because academic support is seen as an encouraging place.
- Eating cookies, cakes, chocolate, and other unexpected goodies left as thanks.
- Drinking morning coffee from a mug presented as a thank you gift.
- Watching a student who has struggled finally walk across the stage for the traditional hooding ceremony.
- Talking with grateful parents who know that academic support helped their student survive first year or finish law school successfully.
- Greeting new babies, seeing wedding photos, hearing about vacations, learning of job offers, and sharing all the other joyful moments in students' lives.
- Remembering what it was like to go to law school when academic support professionals were few and far between.
So, have a good night's sleep tonight. Indulge in one of your favorite meals. Wear your favorite outfit tomorrow. And, get ready for making a difference one student and one day at a time. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, March 23, 2007
Law school can be a place where confidence goes to die. A student comes into law school believing she can excel and finds herself struggling near the bottom of the class, not entirely certain what went wrong. The effort was there; the time and energy were there; but the good grades were inexplicably out of reach. After a couple of semesters, all she knows to do is to tough it out. So she slogs on towards graduation, reminded every January and June that she is not what thought she was.
Ask her how she's doing, and she may pretend not to care about the disappointments. Get her to be honest, and she'll just shrug because she is discouraged and has lost faith in herself.
Even so, like most law students, she will hang in and graduate; and, like most law students, she'll maintain through it all a genuine desire to be a good lawyer, whatever her grades and whatever her rank.
And here's the great thing: she will indeed be a good lawyer, even an excellent lawyer. But she doesn't know that now. She knows about GPA's and class ranks and lucrative offers to the top ten percent.
Eventually, she will learn that preparation wins the day in the real world of practice, not GPA's. She will find that not all great lawyers were great law students. It will dawn on her one day that, as a matter of simple mathematics, 90% of the lawyers out there did not graduate in the top 10% of the class.
Of course, she can't see any of that now. All she sees is the closed-in world of law school, the immediacy of another set of exams. That isn't all bad, I suppose; she needs to focus on the task at hand. But it couldn't hurt if we took a minute to help her see down the road a little, just so she knows that she still has every reason to be confident. (dbw)
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
This year, among many resolutions made in the haste of New Year’s Eve, I resolved to cook more and order in less. However, in the wake of a cold and rainy three day weekend at home with three children (who seem much smaller and less destructive outside the house), I caved. Yet, despite my lack of resolve, I found it an educational experience nonetheless. Why? Because my fortune cookie held the Secret Essence of Academic Support (in its slightly stale and crumpled state). It said this: “correction is one thing, encouragement everything.” (It also informed me that my lucky numbers were: 5, 12, 17, 33, 36 and 45 and how to say the word “egg” in Mandarin).
In the last two days I have seen over twenty panic-stricken first year students. I have received some e-mails from professors confessing the large number of unsatisfactory grades they distributed this semester. Some professors are just not stopping to chat as usual. I knew it was coming, but, like the cold of winter, (which is finally here) I am always surprised when it arrives each year.
The first question the students ask me is always, “what did I do wrong?” Sadly, that’s probably the one question I cannot answer without more information. I could guess-and it would be a fairly educated guess-but the answer really lies in the conversation that students need to have with the professor that gave them the grade. Why speculate when the actual truth can be easily uncovered? Students, however, are extremely reluctant to do this and while I understand why, it needs to be done.
Often I can convince a student to make an appointment with a faculty member with a small and simple truth: let’s find out what the problem was, make a plan and fix it. If the problem was the multiple choice questions, then we’ll practice those; if it is was issue spotting, then we’ll practice that and so on. And I think the part of that simple truth that is most effective in relieving students of the despondency that comes with unsatisfactory grades is the plan making.
Facing the music (that is, looking at the exam itself) is only the first step, because it involves correction, and it is (as the wise and crunchy cookie tells us) only one thing. What we can do in Academic Support for our students is provide encouragement, and that, says the cookie, is everything. (ezs)
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Do you ever have the student who comes to your office and acts as though nothing you say is useful? You have gone to the trouble of offering your help, but he behaves as if he has been summoned to the principal’s office for a lecture. Or perhaps you have had the student who listens intently to all you have to say yet spends the semester doing none of the things you suggested and is back the following semester asking your advice.
Those encounters can be really disheartening because they make us feel that our efforts are having no impact. They can trigger bouts of insecurity because they make us feel that our efforts are somehow deficient. They can trigger resentment because they make us feel that our efforts have been wasted.
At those times, it is good to remember that everyone wastes another’s efforts somewhere along the line. We have all ignored the time, effort, and even friendship that others have offered; and we have no real excuse for having done so. Yet still we do it.
I think it may be simply a part of being human. Self-involved, we look past the gifts in front of us, ignore the time and energy expended on us, underestimate the importance of the efforts made on our behalf. We do not do so because we are mean-spirited. We usually do so because we are blind to what is ours for the taking, looking for a better answer, or at least an answer that better suits our short-sighted desires. In other words, we do so out of run-of-the-mill ignorance and self-centered ingratitude.
So why be surprised or disheartened when some of our students ignore or even scorn our efforts? They are just being human, thinking they know more than they do and dismissing sound advice in their ignorance. As Ellen Suni often says, they don’t know what they don’t know. Most of the time, their ingratitude stems from their frustration at falling short in an endeavor – schooling – that has never been a challenge to them before. It is only human that they resent our suggesting that they need help. It is only human that they believe they need do nothing more than work a little harder or find professors who “grade more fairly.”
It is also human to wake up at some point and realize what has been offered. Sometimes it is too late; sometimes it is just in the nick of time; and, I suppose, sometimes it never happens. Most of the time, it is somewhere in between. Most of the time, despite their embarrassment and their natural tendency to cover it with a sham confidence and indifference, they actually learn from us.
It is also human to do what we sometimes do: to let the few obscure the many who show their appreciation by taking our help seriously. Most students are grateful for the help we give, and most put it to good use. We should resist our natural reactions to those who do not and remember that even those who seem to waste our efforts learn more than they let on. Sometimes they are just busy being human. (dbw)
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
We have reached a time in the semester when first-year students are beginning to become especially discouraged. In most schools, the students have received grades on at least a couple of legal writing assignments and on one or more midterm exams. Their grades often do not reflect their effort because the competition is tougher than what they faced in undergraduate programs and because legal reasoning requires the development of new skills. As exams approach, their confidence may be flagging badly.
As a result, this time of year is a good time for us to go out of our way to encourage students. Ironically, nearly all of those students who are struggling right now will be much more competent a year from now and will go on to be fine attorneys. They need to know that the hard work will pay off in the end and that their present frustrations will ease as they become more comfortable with legal reasoning. Many, perhaps most, simply need more experience with legal analysis and help with strategies to engage the material effectively and to demonstrate their learning more effectively on law school exams.
That deficiency in skills, however, actually provides perhaps the greatest source of encouragement. The good news for students is that their current struggles have little to do with innate ability and much to do with skills that can be learned. In other words, today's performance need not define them or their futures because the skills are within their reach.
We can encourage them by reminding them that they can master legal reasoning and that they can master the learning strategies required for law school success. They will get better and better at legal reasoning over the next three years, and we are there to help them master unfamiliar learning strategies. In fact, one day many will actually wonder what it was that was so difficult about the first year. That day for many will be as soon as next fall.
This is a great time to let them know that they can and will master what seems so far beyond their reach today. They will not be entirely convinced, but we can give them a ray of realistic hope; and they can begin to focus their energies on the process of mastering new skills. They can begin to let go of the normal and very human tendency to beat themselves up over setbacks that they believe, at the moment, are most likely explained by their own intellectual inadequacy. (dbw)
Thursday, August 3, 2006
"My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that 'achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others, and that's nice, too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.' " – Helen Hayes (US actress [1900 – 1993])
Good advice for first-year students. It isn't the grades or the rank; it's the learning that matters. High grades and high ranks are nice, but it's the learning that carries the day when a client's interests are on the line. (dbw)
 From The Quotations Page, www.quotationspage.com
Friday, July 14, 2006
Last week, I wrote here about my "getting stupid" as I took on the directorship of my school's ASP efforts a year ago. What I described is the phenomenon that when otherwise competent people take on new, complex responsibilities they can experience a temporary drop off in skills they had earlier mastered. I was surprised by how much the phenomenon affected me as I tried to get my mind around a host of new responsibilities.
I was equally surprised by something more pleasant, however. My students started getting smart. As part of my new responsibilities, I was working with 2L's and 3L's who were in academic difficulty, and I was startled by the dramatic improvements they experienced in both grades and classroom performance.
I was introducing the students to the strategies found in the several academic support books that are available and to strategies and materials graciously given to me by ASP folks around the country. I expected to see an improvement in students' learning as I helped them refine their class and exam preparation strategies, of course; but I was surprised at how much they improved.
Some came to me only a few weeks into the first semester and reported that, for the first time in their law school careers, they understood what was going on in class and could accurately anticipate where the professor was headed during class discussions. Nearly all those who worked with me experienced dramatic improvements in their grades.
What I found intriguing was that all of these students had been working very hard for a year or more, with little success. Simple adjustments and adoption of a few learning strategies turned them completely around. They found out that in fact they had been smart enough to excel in law school all along.
The problem was not with their motivation or intelligence; it was with their study strategies. They had been exerting great effort but spinning their wheels. A few adjustments allowed the wheels to gain traction, and they were off to the races.
I know it was not some brilliance on my part that had the effect because all I was doing was showing them techniques I had learned from others. What I was witnessing was the powerful effects of the learning strategies that have been identified and developed by the ASP community.
So if this is your first year in academic support, take heart. While you will find the new responsibilities daunting (and you may even "get stupid" at times), you'll find the impact in your students' lives among the most satisfying experiences of your teaching career. The good news is that you do not have to figure all of this out on your own. Many good texts exist, as well as ASP websites, conferences, and the materials of ASP veterans who are eager to share their materials and expertise.
If you are new to academic support, welcome to an immensely satisfying area of law teaching and a great, sharing ASP community. You will find that those who have gone before you are wonderful resources, and you will likely be surprised at how fast your students "get smart." (dbw)
Thursday, July 6, 2006
This last year as director of academic support was my first involvement with a year-long ASP program, and one of the strangest and most unexpected things afflicted me: I suddenly became incompetent in things I normally do well. I found, for example, that I made stupid mistakes in writing letters and emails, sometimes in really important letters and emails that I had edited several times. And I have been teaching writing at one level or another for twenty-five years! At one point, I sent an email announcing a deadline for applications to a program; and within the few paragraphs of the email and its attachment I gave three conflicting deadline dates, not one of which was the actual date I intended to convey.
I would have concluded that senility had finally set in with a vengeance, but I remembered that the phenomenon is often common among first-year law students. Studies have revealed that when trying to master high levels of especially complex and challenging material or skills, people often experience a temporary drop off in their existing skills. Because of the overwhelming nature of the new learning they are encountering, law students find similar drop offs in skills that earlier in their academic lives they had acquired with a significant level of mastery.
Taking over our academic support activities at UMKC presented a very steep learning curve for me, not only about the theories and methods associated with effective learning in the law school context, but about the simple mechanics of our existing support programs. I found that in trying to juggle all of those aspects of the job, along with preparing for my normal classes, I suddenly became stupid about the most routine kinds of activities.
The phenomenon was terribly unsettling at times and made me frequently question whether I had any business doing what I was doing. That same phenomenon afflicts many, if not all, of our first-year students.
We need to remember to tell our students that such reactions to the stress of their new endeavor are only temporary and that they are not an indication of anything other than the intensity of the learning curve. Half the battle in getting through the first year of law school is knowing that one's struggles are common and to be expected. Knowing that "getting stupid" is a normal response to unfamiliar pressures can take some of the sting out of the experience and replace it with a realistic hope that old skills will return once the new skills begin to settle in. (dbw)
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Every conversation I have with my grandmother, who is 97 and lives alone in an apartment in the Bronx (the proverbial Jewish grandmother who still makes the best chicken soup ever), ends with me saying, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow;” and her answering, “Please god, I should live so long.”
I have the same conversation with my first year students around this time of year. “Don’t worry,” I say, “it will be much easier next year.” They answer: “if I’m still here.” I wonder if the whole first year experience is about whether students feel that they belong at law school. Law school is a major decision, and one that sets you on a clear, defined path. This is writing, “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up” in ink and not crayon. (Practicing law is not the only option a student has with a law degree, but I think a lot of students fresh out of college see it that way.)
Unlike European university systems, we don’t really ask students to make big decisions about their future until they graduate from college. We do require some forethought, i.e.: you shouldn’t necessarily choose philosophy as a major if you want to be a structural engineer (and I am by no means certain that this is entirely true…). But, for the most part, coming to law school may be the first decision a student makes about a concrete future. And that is scary.
I think first year law students spend a lot of time contemplating their decision: what if I made a mistake? What if I am not as smart as everyone has told me so far? What if I can’t do this? What if I hate law school? Perhaps, first year law students wonder most often, “do I belong here?” And sadly, they see their first year exams as the oracle that will answer all their fearful questions. But, exams are not the answer. They are merely a tool and never the finished product.
The first year of law school is the hardest for a number of reasons. We ask students to learn a new language and then become extremely fluent in it. We assign thousands of pages of reading in this new language and expect them to not only remember it all, but derivatively use it to answer other questions. Most of all, we ask students to go months and months without feedback on their progress, and then evaluate almost the entire academic year on the basis of a three hour exam. This is particularly difficult when you question everyday whether attending law school was the right choice. There are very few external cues to affirm a student’s choice to come to law school
Another factor in the mix is money. A law student, even one who does not continue beyond the first year, may have accrued a tremendous amount of debt. I remember, during my first year, asking myself exactly how smart could I be to pay someone to torture me and then pay interest for years and years on top of that. Not so much smart, I thought.
The reality is that there will be students who won’t be here next year. I can’t say every student makes it through their first year, but most will. And to the students who I will see next year, I say this, “It will be better. I promise.” I do remember vividly, at the beginning of my second year, feeling like I owned the place. And now that I’ve paid back most of the loans, maybe I do. (ezs)
Saturday, May 6, 2006
My wife gave me a ring the day I graduated from law school. I had never had a class ring before and had never really cared about having one until then. After three years of law school, however, I wanted that one.
It symbolized all that we had given up and all that I had poured into obtaining that degree. It reminded me that I had not been fooling myself when I decided to take on law school, that I had really been able to do it after all. It reminded me of the faith my wife had shown in me over those three years, never wondering if we had done the right thing or if I would do well.
During the bar exam, I deliberately stopped every so often, looked at the ring, and told myself, "Even if I fail this exam and never get to practice law, I earned that law degree and that fact can't change."
For those who never doubted their ability to succeed in law school, they will probably find it tough to relate to such feelings. But I didn't enter law school sure of my success, and even at the end I couldn't shake that "smoke and mirrors" feeling, that feeling that I somehow I had been getting away with something all along and that eventually I'd get caught and that everyone would finally know that I had no business going to law school.
In a couple of hours, I will watch another class walk across the stage to receive their diplomas and hoods. It will be their turn to bask in that glow of success that attends such ceremonies. Many of them, I suspect, will marvel, as I did when I graduated, that it all worked out, that law school wasn't beyond them after all. They will all be able to drop the anxiety and stress of the past three years and take a moment to relish the fact that they have earned law degrees and that nothing can change that fact.
The bar exam will be here soon enough, and those first years of practice will be upon them, with all the same fears and self-doubt.
Today, however, all those things should be in the distance. For a day or two, they deserve to look back and see what they have accomplished and forget about the challenges to come. They deserve to relish the unalterable fact that no matter what happens next, no one can ever rob them of the right to say, "I earned a law degree." (dbw)
Sunday, March 26, 2006
My friend Ellen Swain (Vermont Law School Academic Success Program Director) recently directed me to an interesting ABA Journal article.
In Discontented in the Law, author Jill Schachner Chanen explains: "It’s no secret that law and job satisfaction don’t always go hand in hand, but a recent survey shows just how miserable some lawyers really are, especially those newer to the practice. ... The reason boils down to work-life balance, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement Foundation. The struggle to find that balance is especially pronounced among lawyers in supervised or nonmanagerial positions, the survey found."
Consider this: what do students learn in law school?
If they don't learn to "balance," then their learning of legal concepts, analytical processes, preferred methods of citation, and tax regulations is for naught.
Excellent law students become excellent lawyers. Miserable law students (even those—or maybe especially those—with high GPAs) become miserable lawyers.
Ms. Chanen writes that Milwaukee lawyer Christina Plum, chair of the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, also is not surprised by findings in the survey (mentioned above). "It’s hard for me to imagine a lawyer not having to struggle to balance work with all of the other choices in their lives," she says.
Yes, it is a struggle. But it would be far less of a struggle if students spent their (pardon me, please) 1000 days in law school practicing how to achieve this balance.
This, I believe, is the most critical message of academic support. Yes, students, you need to learn how to read casebooks. Follow the exercises in Ruth Ann McKinney's book. You need to learn how to brief cases. Check out the examples in Bridging the Gap. You need to learn rules, strategies, and so much more. But if you don't learn "balance," it is all for naught. Spend three hours outside of class for every hour in class. That's 60 hours each week, right? Sleep eight hours each night. 56? That gives you 52 (awake) hours each week for the other stuff of life. Use it. Or lose it.
If we don't make this message explicit to our students, we are doing them a disservice. (djt)