Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Indiana Tech Law School Closing

See the Inside Higher Ed post here.

November 6, 2016 in Current Affairs, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 4, 2016

Not So O.K. Computer

I am bewildered by how some students approach their commercial bar prep class.  After paying a chunk of money for the class, going through three years of law school, and staking their personal futures on the idea of being employed as a lawyer, some students still fail to do everything the class tells them to do, fail to listen to lectures, fail to attend live classes, and fail to take advantage of practice opportunities.  Even if they do follow along with the class, they take advantage of the class's electronic features by running the lectures at 2 or 3 times speed or skipping sections.

For years, I've been trying to figure out the cause of this behavior, hoping that I could stop it.  For some of them, I suppose there might be depressive burnout and life events and students who didn't really want to be lawyers in the first place, so maybe there's not much that can be done there.  But for the rest of them who don't have an excuse like this, one would think that after all that time, money, and effort, that they'd be all over bar prep.  However, more often than I would like, this isn't the case.

So what is going on?  Ignoring the style of education most of our students receive in high school and college, I think a big part of the issue is the technological time we live in.  Everything is easy, and instantaneous.  On top of this, a large majority of students today grew up in a fairly consequence-free environment where everyone got a trophy and helicopter parents took care of their problems (as a side note, I never worry about college athletes, because they've already learned that not everything should be easy and that you can try "really, really" hard, but that's not going to guarantee you anything).

Basically, I think technology has taught all of us that things can and should be easy and we shouldn't worry too much about keeping things in our heads or the consequences of failing to do so.  I'm as guilty of this as anyone, even though I am, in the recent assessment of a 7th Grade cheerleader, an "old, fat, bald guy."  I have all my bills paid electronically.  I know no one's actual phone number or email (they are all automatically stored on my devices).  I don't have a map in my car and have only a weak understanding of the street names around here even after 5 years in Columbia. I can only imagine what I might have been like growing up with a lifetime of Googles and cell phones.  The other day, I told my kids a story about desperately trying to find a certain club when we were trapped in downtown Houston after a Pixies show.  By the look in their eyes, I could have been explaining to them how I witnessed the invention of fire.  They couldn't figure out why I just didn't look it up on my phone.  I had to explain that this was 1989.

If the problem is culture and technology, I suppose the question is what to do about it.  As of now, legal educators and companies seem to be going with the "easy, 24-hours, fun flow" model that most of society operates on.  There's games to help a student learn the law.  There's online programs that help with briefing cases, spaced repetition, note-taking, keeping focus by locking a student out of fun websites, lectures on demand, etc., etc.  However, bar pass rates continue to slip, so all of this ingenuity and personalized ease of use doesn't seem to be helping that much.

The easy-squeezy tech world genie is out of the bottle.  The question is, would law students be better off if educators tried to fight against the current flow of technology, or would that simply wash students away?  (Alex Ruskell) 

November 4, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Resources for ASP'ers

There are several resources that can provide ASP and bar support professionals with assistance. For those of you who are new to ASP, here are some organizations and websites that you want to know about:

Professional organizations and other resources for ASP:

  • Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Section on Academic Support: The upcoming annual meeting will be held January 3-7, 2017 in San Francisco. The annual meeting theme this year is "Why Law Matters." The sessions for our Section are scheduled: business meeting will be at 7:30 - 8:30 a.m. on Friday, January 6th with the program (Why Academic Support Matters) on the same date at 8:30 a.m. - 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, January 4th programs of interest include: The Section on Student Services program (Why Student Services Matters: Preparing Students for Leadership, Service, and Learning 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. and The Section on Teaching Methods program (Teaching Methods - Using Technology to Unlock Engagement and Learning 10:30 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. The Section on Legal Writing, Reasoning and Research program (Experiential Learning in Legal Writing Programs) is on Thursday, January 5th at 1:30 - 3:15 p.m. The Section on Balance in Legal Education program (Transformative Learning: Helping Students Discover Motivation, Values and Voice is on Friday, January 6th at 1:30 - 4:30 p.m. There are a number of Arc of Career, diversity, and legal education sessions that might also interest ASP'ers. The annual meeting information can be found at
  • Association for Academic Support Educators (AASE): The upcoming conference will be held May 23 - 25 2017 at Texas A&M in Fort Worth. The AASE website is
  • The ASP Listerv: The listserv membership is available to legal educators who are interested in ASP/bar topics. A recent post giving instructions to join the listserv is here.
  • The Law School Academic Success Project: This website is maintained by the AALS Section on Academic Support and receives ongoing funding from the Law School Admissions Council. The website includes sections for ASP'ers and for students. Student pages are available without registration. To see the additional ASP pages, you need to be employed currently at a law school in ASP/bar-related work and register. After you register on the site, please update the staff information for your law school to reflect current staff. The website is

Websites and listservs for ASP:

  • American Bar Association: The Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar will be of interest. The website for the Section is
  • Institute for Law Teaching and Learning: This consortium of law schools provides resources and conferences focused on best practices for legal education. The website is
  • Law School Admissions Council (LSAC): LSAC has long been a champion of the academic support profession and diversity in the legal profession. For many years, LSAC sponsored workshops and conferences for ASP'ers. The website is
  • National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE): The organization that brings us the non-state portions of the bar exam. The website is



November 2, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Do you know any curmudgeons at your law school?

Sometimes ASP'ers have to convince others regarding programmatic changes, added services, data collection, or other new ways of doing something. Maybe it is an initiative because of the ABA standards or other accrediting group for your law school's main university. Here is a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education on managing curmudgeons; although it discusses faculty curmudgeons, the points are more generally applicable: Tips for Managing Curmudgeons.

October 31, 2016 in Miscellany, Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Federal Court Backs Harvard in Law School Plagiarism Challenge

Inside Higher Ed included a short entry with a link to the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit opinion in the case here.

October 25, 2016 in Miscellany, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 21, 2016

If I Wanted a Clone Army, I Would Have Hitched a Spaceship to Kamino

At the University of South Carolina, we have a robust tutoring program.  It's extremely well-attended and student evaluations are almost uniformly excellent (usually, the biggest complaint is that the tutoring sessions are late in the afternoon, which is somewhat unavoidable because of the First Year Schedule).  I believe a large part of the program's success is that my most important hiring criteria is whether I believe a potential tutor can handle tutoring without my constant supervision.

Years ago, I attended a conference where a professor was talking about her tutoring program.  In that school's set-up, all tutoring decisions, handouts, presentations, etc. were made by her.  She said that she spent the majority of her time managing the tutors and warned us that if we wanted to start tutoring programs, we'd probably find ourselves in the same boat.

When I inherited the tutoring program at South Carolina, I thought about that presentation and worried I wouldn't be able to focus on my own workshops, individual meetings, bar prep, etc. if I had to spend all my time watching the tutors.  Then I had an epiphany.  I realized that if I hovered over them and made them do exactly what I told them to do, I'd have 18 "mini-mes" running around, which seemed fairly pointless.

I read somewhere that advertising doesn't work until you hear about something three different ways -- for example, a product advertised on television, in a newspaper, and then recommended by a friend.  I think about the tutors the same way.  A student may not truly understand something until they study it in several different ways and in several different formats (for example, professor, book, me, commercial outline, tutor).

I do have fairly regular group meetings with the tutors, sit in on their tutoring sessions now and then, give them materials and ideas they may choose to use, and speak with them over email or in my office, but I don't hover.  I've trusted them, and so far, none of them have let me down. 

The basic rules for tutoring are that the tutors are not to shadow teach or replicate what is done in the classroom.  They must follow any and all directions given by the professors of the class they tutor for, send me weekly updates of what they are covering, keep roll, alert me to any students who seem really lost, and base the majority of their tutoring sessions on going over practice problems.

Giving the tutors freedom has led to some great work.  The other day, I watched a tutor session with over 60 students (attendance is voluntary) where the tutor had them all break into groups to make-up hypos and then try to answer them for each other.  The discussion was lively (for 4:30 on a Wednesday) and lightbulbs seemed to be going off everywhere.  I didn't tell the tutor to do a session like this -- he came up with it on his own, and it was great.

That's not to say there haven't been minor points problems I've had to address.  For example, one tutor had the unfortunate habit of cussing during his presentations without realizing he was doing it.  Another had the habit of trying to ingratiate himself with the students by using  jokes that started out with "I don't mean to offend anybody, but ..."  He believed being an "equal opportunity offender" made it O.K., so I had to nip that in the bud. Another tutor made the offhand comment that a professor was "spunky," which the professor was pretty annoyed with once she heard about it.  However, all in all, there haven't been any major issues where I have had to fire or reprimand a tutor.

I've also had a few minor problems from the students being tutored.  Over the years, a few students, especially weaker ones, have wanted tutors to basically reteach them concepts outside of class or make outlines for them.  Sometimes these students complain to me that the tutor isn't doing his or her job because they won't do these things.  I simply point out the rules I've put in place for the tutors, and the complaint dies away.

I've been really proud of the tutoring program in this format, and I believe it's done a lot to help struggling students. (Alex Ruskell)


October 21, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 30, 2016

Law School Action Comics


(Alex Ruskell)

September 30, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sad News: Death of Dan Bernstine, LSAC President

Many ASPers have been involved with LSAC committees, workshops, and other aspects over the years. Below is an announcement regarding the sad news that LSAC's President, Dan Bernstine, has passed away.

Dear Colleagues,

I apologize if you have received this sad announcement more than once. It is with overwhelming sadness that I have the unfortunate task of telling you that Dan Bernstine, President of LSAC, has passed away at his home. As soon as we have more information about arrangements, we will communicate that information to you.  

While our concern right now is with helping all of Dan's friends and colleagues to deal with his loss, I want to assure you that the Board and I have complete confidence in the senior management team that Dan built.

Please do not hesitate to contact me.



Chair, LSAC Board of Trustees

September 27, 2016 in Academic Support Spotlight, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Foreign Students and Class Participation

Many of our law schools have exchange or L.L.M. foreign students enrolled in our courses. Our educational system (both undergraduate and legal) is very different from the educational backgrounds of many of these students. Adapting to the U.S. educational system is compounded by adapting to the U.S. legal system as well. It is not unusual for foreign students to tell me how very difficult the transition is for them.

I can empathize because I had to adjust to the British legal system and language when I cross-qualified as a solicitor for England and Wales - and I already spoke American English and came from a common law country! It was hard to think in two versions of English and make the mental switches to a very different common law legal system. Most of our foreign students are adjusting to an entirely different language and from civil law to common law!

A recent Inside Higher Education post addressed the participation in class aspect of the adjustment for foreign students. The post provides food for thought and practical tips as we try to help these students adjust to the very American emphasis on class participation. Read the post here: Helping Foreign Students Speak Up .     (Amy Jarmon)

September 25, 2016 in Diversity Issues, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 23, 2016


I have reached the age where I have a lot of "back in my day" thoughts.  EDM makes my head hurt.  Modern movies are terrible.  I hate how connected people are with phones.  I hate ball parks named after corporations.  What was so wrong with the original pop tart that we had to fancy it up with the toaster strudel?  

Law schools have had a few rough years in the popular press and imagination, and the struggles of law students seem to hit a blog or newspaper more or less every day.  I read all of it.  A criticism that bothers me is when someone says, "a law student who needs _____________ to be a lawyer shouldn't be a lawyer."

First, it's an easy, flip, and reductive statement.  Second, the hubris of making such a flat declaration about someone else's talents or abilities based on one factor is stunning.  Third, it's just another version of "back in my day," the implication being that the person making the statement became a lawyer (or entered some other profession) without that particular need.

Whenever a commentator questions certain things schools do to help law students, I think about "back in my day" and how I studied for the bar.  I had to go all the way across Austin (on a mule, uphill both ways, in the snow, with an onion on my belt) and sit in a hot warehouse for several hours with a couple of hundred people and listen to live lectures.  Although some of the lectures were O.K., many of the lectures were horrible from an easy-to-follow/easy-to-pay-attention/not-rather-be-eaten-by-rabid-weasels standpoint.  One lecturer in particular had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of jokes involving America's Greatest Living Thespian Keanu Reeves.  There is nothing wrong with jokes and I loved the original Point Break and My Own Private Idaho, but the jokes were not funny.  It might have been a brilliant display of Kaufman-esque anti-humor, but I was too freaked out and tired by the looming bar exam to be more than put off by it.

Despite the Keanu jokes, without that forced structure of getting up, driving, and sitting there, I wonder how I would have done on the bar exam.  Because of how brutal I found the entire thing, if I could have, I probably would have studied and watched lectures at Barton Springs pool.  I'd probably have started every day at 11 and stopped at 5.  Studying on Fridays would probably be out.  I doubt I would have written out any practice questions or done any practice exams.  I probably would have simply relied on my history of being very good at standardized exams to get me through.  

When I actually sat for the exam, I had pneumonia and the woman sitting next to me cried the entire time (not because of my pneumonia).  Without the enforced structure, I wonder if I would have passed under those circumstances.  As it was, I had been forced to learn the bar material so well that I could have been on fire and still passed.  However, I doubt I would have put myself in that position if I had been left to my own devices.  I think I was "a law student who needs to be forced to sit in a warehouse and listen to Keanu jokes to be a lawyer" and, despite that need, I think I turned out to be a pretty good one.

I understand why some observers say that "a law student that needs _______ to be a lawyer shouldn't be a lawyer," but very few people can succeed in an endeavor without help.  For 25-year-old me, I think I needed the help of that warehouse.  For my students, it might be giving them extra help, handing them physical books, going over practice questions with them, etc., but I do not believe that needing a particular type of help is any kind of inherent disqualification to being a lawyer.

(Alex Ruskell) 

September 23, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Are you a new ASP/bar prep professional who needs to subscribe to the listserv?

For those of you who are new professionals in ASP/bar prep at your law schools, signing up for the ASP Listserv is done in the following manner. These instructions were sent to me by Stephen Sowle at Chicago Kent (he runs the listserv) in August 2015. If you run into problems after you have tried to subscribe, I would suggest that you contact him for assistance at (Amy Jarmon)

To sign up for the ASP listserv, follow these steps:

Address email to
No subject
In the body of the message enter: subscribe ASP-L your_first_name your_last_name title school_name
your_first_name is your first name,
your_last_name is your last name
title and school_name are optional

September 19, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Counterpoint to Laptop Bans

Much has been said about the positives of banning laptops in the classroom. Proponents of the ban position have pointed to studies that support handwriting over typing notes.

The Chronicle of Higher Education contained an article this week that does not buy in to the studies and takes a more moderate approach: No, Banning Laptops Is Not the Answer.

In that article is a link to a May blog post on The Tatooed Prof that also supports a different approach to classroom technology: Let's Ban the Classroom Technology Ban.



September 18, 2016 in Miscellany, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

ABA Journal Articles "Bar Fight" and "Accreditation Question"

If your copy of the September 2016 ABA Journal has landed in your mailbox, you may want to turn to pages 48-55 to read the article by Mark Hansen entitled "Bar Fight." The online article appears here.

In the same issue, you will find on page 67 a brief article written by Stephanie Francis Ward about the ABA's problems with the Department of Education. The online article appears here

In an article found in Inside Higher Education, an update on UNT and Ave Maria and accreditation is found here.

September 10, 2016 in Bar Exam Issues, Miscellany, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 9, 2016

Student Evaluations and Academic Success

For my programs and the programs involving my tutors, I always hand out student surveys at the end.  I imagine everyone does this.  Usually, it's a nice lift to the spirits, with comments like "you rock!" or something funny like "more candy!"  However, there are sometimes a few negative comments, and those negative comments always seem to revolve around the bedrock, yet admittedly boring topics of time management, note-taking, and case reading.  These comments tend to say something along the lines of "we already know how to manage time!" or "we already know how to take notes!"  I'm sure some of the students do know how to do these things (I hope so, anyway), but plenty of them do not, and plenty of them are going to be hurt by not knowing how to do them.  Consequently, these comments don't end up being particularly useful.

However, I've been wondering if the real value in these types of student comments is not in evaluating my program, but in evaluating the students making them.

Since I am a one-person shop, I try to target my efforts at the students who are most in need of my services.  At the beginning of the school year, I don't have a lot of information regarding which students may struggle.  For the first semester at least, I depend on professor and tutor referrals and students voluntarily coming in for help.

From my experience, the top students attend everything, take advice, and never give negative comments, even if a topic is clearly something they've already mastered and even if they are probably bored silly.  A lot of times, I'll look out at one of my voluntary lectures and see a wall of top students sitting in the front row, when they're not the ones I'm worried about at all.

We just did evaluations of the Orientation program, and the few complaints were about presentations on time management, note-taking, and reading and were the exact same "we already know how to do this!"  That being said, I've already had several students come in asking for help in these areas.  But I've been wondering about the ones that complained.  Because the evaluations are anonymous, I do not know who they are, but will they be the ones in the bottom of the class?  Will I be reaching out to them in the spring after a disastrous fall?  

(Alex Ruskell)

September 9, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

AALS Balance Section's October Topic Call

The AALS Balance Section’s next topic call features Alli Gerkman, Director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, speaking about  ETL’s ground-breaking report on the foundations that are necessary for new attorneys.  The report - based on 24k+ respondents from 37 states and over 70 practice areas - shows that new lawyers are successful when they have a broad blend of legal skills, professional competencies, and most importantly, characteristics that comprise the "whole lawyer."  Here are the details of our call.


AALS Balance Section Topic Call

Foundations for Practice: the Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient Presented by Alli Gerkman, Director, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers


October 6, 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time


Call (712) 432-0850, access code 422626#


Foundations for Practice: the Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient Report


Our speaker Alli Gerkman will provide a brief overview of the report and how the findings were used in the summer session and orientation at Sturm College of Law.  The call will then focus on the participants' comments, reactions, and questions, along the following topics:

  • Is your school in some way implementing the findings of Foundations for Practice into the school learning outcomes or a course/program?
  • What suggestions do you have for a toolkit of resources that Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers is developing to help use the Foundations for Practice in law school curricula/programs?
  • Other comments, reactions, and questions welcome!


September 6, 2016 in Meetings, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 5, 2016

Happy Labor Day

Best wishes to all of our colleagues and students as everyone enjoys a holiday from classes. How nice that it comes within a couple of weeks of the beginning of school so everyone can recharge a bit after a fast start-up! Say a fond farewell to summer and embrace the new semester wholeheartedly.

September 5, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

More on Trigger Warnings

The discussion of trigger warnings has continued in recent issues of The Chronicle of Higher Education because of recent events at the University of Chicago. This past week The Chronicle published a guide to trigger warnings that summarizes what has been going on at colleges and universities on this issue. The link is here: A Brief Guide to the Battle Over Trigger Warnings.

August 30, 2016 in Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Would an Alex by Any Other Name Make A Difference?

There's a new article in the ABA Journal called "Should Students Call Law Professors By Their First Names?"  At the start of every school year, I wonder about this issue.

Generally, most people at the law school, from my colleagues to my students, call me "Alex."  When I first started working in ASP, that's what I thought I should be called.  I thought it made me more approachable and would make students more likely to accept or seek out my help.  Also, it's how I think of myself, and when I was in college, I thought it was really cool that one of my professors went by "Mr." when he could have been "Professor" or "Doctor."  To me, the gesture was egalitarian and punk rock, and it actually made me more receptive to what he had to say.  

However, from time to time, one of my colleagues says I shouldn't go by "Alex" and that I'm being too low key and casual.  As far as I know, my choice to be "Alex" hasn't led to destructive over-familiarity or lack of respect to myself or anyone else.  I could see how it might, but every time I think about being more formal, I get an image of Dr. Evil complaining that he "didn't spend six years in evil medical school to be called 'mister,' thank you," which kind of derails the entire thing.  

There's every possibility I'm wrong in the way I'm thinking about this name thing and whether "Alex" is more comfortable and effective than "Professor" or "Mister" of "Director."  Although I said they could, a lot of students don't use my first name, and I couldn't say I was necessarily comfortable with using first names as a student.  When I was graduating college, my favorite professor told me that I could call him "Kirk" now that I was a graduate.  I couldn't get used to it, so I joked around that I would call him "Snake" (during a hike, we had decided that would be his biker name, if he was a biker).  Twenty-something years later, I still call him "Snake."  As far as I remember, I called only one law professor by his first name, and that was because we spent a lot of time working on a symposium together, and that's what he asked to be called.  For my masters degrees, I called fiction writers and poets by their first names, but that was standard with everyone.  

I'm sure I'll wonder about this next year.  So far, I've never decided to change.  Part of it is that I believe ASP serves a different purpose and has different strengths and weaknesses than your average law class, but part of it is that I think I'd ultimately be less useful to struggling students if I put in place some sort of formality I didn't feel comfortable with.  In the immortal words of Popeye, "I yam what I yam," and possibly this is a good enough reason to go by "Alex" as any.  (Alex Ruskell)  


August 26, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

ABA Press Release on Premium Memberships for Law Students

American Bar Association
Communications and Media Relations Division

Release:          Immediate

Contact:           Priscilla Totten
Phone:              202-662-1094

American Bar Association introduces premium memberships for law students

CHICAGO, Aug. 23, 2016 — Law students can now upgrade their free American Bar Association membership to Premium Membership to access exclusive benefits and savings.

Premium ABA members save $250 on BARBRI Bar Review; get $25 off West Academic case books and study guides; and receive a free legal ethics course outline from (a $29 value).

“We’re excited to connect law students with the tools they need to succeed in law school, pass the bar and launch their legal careers,” ABA President Linda Klein said. “These benefits help alleviate some of the costs of law school education and joining the profession.”

Premium members are eligible for Law Student Division leadership opportunities and to compete in the Law Student Division’s four annual professional skills competitions. They will also have the opportunity to connect with lawyers and other ABA legal professionals for networking and resume review. Additionally, Premium members receive a free “ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC)” e-book and discounts on the print and annotated hard copies.

Premium Membership is only $25, and offers all of the benefits of Free Membership.

Free Membership includes five ABA Practice Specialty Groups (a $50 value); a three-month subscription to (a $72 value); access to ABA Advantage Member Discounts; and a subscription to the Law Student Division’s “Student Lawyer” magazine.

All law students are eligible for Free Membership and can upgrade to Premium Membership at any time.

To join for free or upgrade to Premium Membership, visit

With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. View our privacy statement online. Follow the latest ABA news at and on Twitter @ABANews.


August 23, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Sensitivity and the Modern Law Student

Whenever I lecture, I put together a PowerPoint of different pictures emphasizing one point or another I am trying to make.  A few years ago, I put up a picture of a clown to go along with my statement that "No one you actually want to be friends with thinks you're a bozo if you mess up when you are called on in class.  They're just happy they weren't the ones called on."  After the lecture, a student came up and asked if it would be possible to add a "trigger warning" if I was going to put up any more clown pictures.

At first, I honestly thought the student was just messing with me and possibly trying to make some political statement about the validity of "trigger warnings" or something.  I quickly realized he wasn't.  Apparently, he was just really scared of clowns.

It would have been very easy for me to blow off the student's request or make some comment about living in the real world or toughening up if he expected to be a decent lawyer.  I could completely understand someone thinking that I should have done exactly that and that there would have been some educational value in me doing so.  I didn't have any more clown pictures on any of my other slides for the entire year, so it was basically a non-issue.

Still, I went back to my office without really saying much of anything and thought about it.  At heart, I thought the idea of a "trigger warning" for clowns was goofy and probably devalued the entire idea of a warning for things or concepts that might actually be deserving of some kind of warning.  But then I wondered why exactly I thought so?  Was I simply being arrogant in thinking that a trigger warning for clowns was dumb?  Was this an isolated weird case or the beginning of some slippery slope where I had to warn people about everything?  If I didn't honor the request, why wasn't I honoring it?  By honoring it, was I handing over power to the student that I shouldn't give him?  Did I really have a good reason or was I simply choosing not to listen?  Had I reached the age where I'm utterly convinced of the halcyon days of my own youth and thought that this generation should just freaking grow up and get off my lawn?

When I was in law school, my friend's wife was pregnant.  All 130 of us in our section knew it because he talked about it constantly.  Chris wore a beeper on his belt in case his wife went into labor while he was in class.  One day in torts, after we'd spent about an hour talking about accidents at birth and fetal defects and what not, his beeper went off.  None of us could believe that it had chosen to go off at that exact moment, including my professor, who suddenly looked a little green.  Chris stood up, looked at the beeper, and merrily said, "Well, I hope my baby isn't born dead!"  Then he bolted out of the room.  The baby was fine, but for at least 24 hours I think my professor was worried he had somehow cursed her. 

Once, I was giving a guest lecture on the law to about 200 high school students and one of the students asked me a question.  To answer it, I came up with a hypothetical on the spot revolving around drunk driving and a car wreck.  If I remember correctly, I used the phrase "guy gets drunk after football game, car plows into tree ..."  As I'm talking, I notice some of the students start crying.  A few get up and leave.  A couple of teachers come over and begin to comfort people.  

What I didn't know was that the week before my lecture the exact scenario had happened and a couple of students died.  Once I figured out what was going on, I apologized, back-tracked, and apologized some more.  But the lecture was done.  They weren't able to hear me anymore.  Remarkably, the evaluations they turned in for the talk were really positive, except for a few students who thought I "should have known" or "should have read the paper."  I knew that I really hadn't done anything wrong, but I still wished it hadn't happened.

Basically, the clown thing reminded me of the car crash thing and Chris's baby thing, and for about two weeks I fell down a second-guessing spiral of everything I was doing.  I had students read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (which is about a village stoning someone to death) simply because it was a classic story and I needed something short to gauge reading speed with.  Should I change it to something a little less violent?  I had them brief the "Ghostbuster" case and Mayo v. Satan and his Staff.  Could this be offensive to the deeply religious?  I used an example of a lifeguard and a child drowning to talk about negligence.  Had any of my students lost someone to drowning?  Should I come up with something else?

Ultimately, I calmed down and decided I didn't need to change anything, although I did get rid of the clown picture because it was pretty unnecessary, admittedly creepy, and it reminded me of Pennywise from Stephen King's "It."  

Academic Support helps all students, many of them vulnerable.  It has to be supportive and inclusive in a way that other parts of legal education probably don't need to be.  That fact is actually one of the things I like most about it.  I've turned the second-guessing into a habit, and if something sets off my radar, I either change it or ask a colleague if I'm being crazy.  So far, I haven't changed anything and I've been told I'm being crazy several times, but I think I've become a more effective educator by at least asking myself the question.

(Alex Ruskell) 




August 19, 2016 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)