Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The Inside Higher Ed daily news update last week had a post that I thought might interest our readers: Trigger Warning: Academic Standards Apply. The author looks at the therapeutic and consumer models of higher education in response to a student's comment that academic standards cause stress and anxiety for students. The post resonated with me not only because of my observations about student perspectives on work, but also because of the observations made by Alex Ruskell, one of our Contributing Editors, in his post on March 3rd: Work Is a Four-Letter Word. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, March 9, 2017
It's the middle of the academic semester for most of us.
That often means midterm exams or filling out bar exam applications or working on that summer job hunt. In the midst of so much to do with so much competition for achieving success, it's easy to feel out of place. To be overwhelmed. To sense that I don't really belong in law school or that I can't succeed.
When that sort of self-doubt starts in, it's time to step back and gain perspective about who you are, your strengths, your character, and your purpose. You see, too often I am comparing myself against the wrong benchmark (others!), and, in doing so, I'm trying to be someone who I am not. And, that's mighty stressful because it is awful hard (i.e., impossible) to be someone else! So, instead of trying to measure success based on what others are doing, step back and get some perspective about who you are.
Not quite sure about how to get some perspective?
Well, there's a great video clip that illustrates the point quite well. It involves a boy struggling to hit a baseball. When it seems that all is lost, that he just can't manage to connect the baseball bat to the ball, he takes a pause...and...in that moment of pause...he realizes something brilliantly radiant about what he is good at. So, if you happen to feel like you are not quite hitting the mark in law school, take a moment to enjoy this short video clip. I promise, it will warm your heart and bring a smile to your face. And, in the process of taking a pause, you'll be reminded of a great truth -- that success is a matter of perspective (and not at all a matter of competition). http://www.values.com/optimism
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
We have passed the midpoint in classes now at my law school. This coming week is our Spring Break. A number of students have told me that they have paper drafts, midterms, presentations, or other projects due the week after Spring Break. Now that we are on the downward slope of the semester, more and more students are looking stressed.
I live in West Texas. It is a semi-arid, agricultural area - noticeable once you get beyond the city limits with all the non-indigenous trees and green lawns. When the cotton is not planted and covering the fields, the South Plains can look pretty stark. Flying over this region now will confront you with almost a lunar landscape effect: irrigation circles in the unplanted fields, a land-grant grid, canyons, and scrawny mesquite trees and brush.
And March winds. Lots and lots of winds. And dust blown up by those winds on some days. And enormous tumbleweeds blocking my driveway (my garage off a paved alley skirts a mesquite pasture).
And today, smoke from the wildfires approximately two hours to our north. I live on the southwest edge of town. When I left for work, the smell of smoke was slight in my house, but hit me as soon as I opened the garage door. The sky was an odd gray; the sun was orange behind the smoke. As I drove into campus (a 15-minute drive northeast), the smell of smoke became much stronger. The sun was now a strange yellow with blurred edges.
My thoughts turned to the folks farther north. To the first responders fighting the wildfires. To the farmers and cattlemen concerned about their land and herds. To the small towns that are potentially in the way if the winds kick up more and shift the wrong way.
In short, the stress and anxiety of law school are manageable in light of what could be happening in our lives. It is often hard in the fish-bowl environment of law school to remember the cares of the world outside our doors - our very insular academic world.
I hope my students regained their perspectives today. There are stress situations that are unpredictable and life-threatening. Law school stress may be self-imposed and can often be successfully managed with scheduling, curbing procrastination, and seeking help from many resources. Law school is tough. But life can be tougher. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, February 23, 2017
It’s a great time for you - as this week’s bar takers - to reflect, appreciate, and take pride in your herculean work in accomplishing law school and tackling the bar exam.
Let's be direct! Bravo! Magnificent! Heroic! Those are just some of the words that come to mind…words that you should be rightly speaking to yourself…because…they are true of you to the core!
But, for most of us right now, we just don’t quite feel super-human about the bar exam. Such accolades of self-talk are, frankly, just difficult to do. Rather, most of us just feel relief – plain and simple relief – that the bar exam is finally over and we have somehow survived.
That’s because very few of us, upon completion of the bar exam, feel like we have passed the bar exam. Most of us just don’t know. So now, the long “waiting” period begins with results not due out for most of us for a number of months.
So, here’s the conundrum about the “waiting” period:
Lot’s of well-meaning people will tell you that you have nothing to worry about; that they are sure that you passed the bar exam; and that the bar exam wasn’t that hard…really.
Really? Not that hard?
Really? You know that I passed?
Really? There’s nothing for me to worry about?
Let me give you a concrete real life example. Like you, I took the bar exam. And, like most of you, I had no idea at all whether I passed the bar exam. I was just so glad that it was finally over.
But all of my friends, my legal employer (a judge), my former law professors, and my family kept telling me that I had absolutely nothing to be worried about; that I passed the bar exam; that I worked hard; that they knew that I could do it.
But, they didn’t know something secret about my bar exam. They didn’t know about my lunch on the first day of the bar exam.
At the risk of revealing a closely held secret, my first day of the bar exam actually started out on the right foot, so to speak. I was on time for the exam. In fact, I got to the convention center early enough that I got a prime parking spot. Moreover, in preparation for my next big break (lunch), I had already cased out the nearest handy-dandy fast food restaurants for grabbing a quick bite to eat before the afternoon portion of the bar exam so that I would not miss the start of the afternoon session of the bar exam.
So, when lunch came, I was so excited to eat that I went straight to Burger King. I really wanted that “crown,” perhaps because I really didn’t understand many of the essay problems from the morning exam. But as I approached Burger King, the line was far out of the door. Impossibly out of the door. And, it didn’t get any better at McDonalds next door. I then faced the same conundrum at Wendy’s and then at Taco Bell.
Finally, I had to face up to cold hard facts. I could either eat lunch or I could take the afternoon portion of the bar exam. But, I couldn’t do both. The lines were just too long. So, I was about to give up - as I had exhausted all of the local fast food outlets surrounding the convention center - when I luckily caught a glimpse of a possible solution to both lunch and making it back to the bar exam in time for the afternoon session – a liquor store. There was no line. Not a soul. I had the place to myself. So, I ran into the liquor store to grab my bar exam lunch: two Snicker’s bars. With plenty of time to now spare, I then leisurely made my way back to the bar exam on time for the start of the afternoon session.
But, here’s the rub:
All of my friends and family members (and even the judge that I was clerking for throughout the waiting period) were adamant that I had passed the bar exam. They just knew it! But, they didn’t know that I ate lunch at the liquor store.
So when several months later the bar results were publicly available on the Internet, I went to work for my judge wondering what the judge might do when the truth came out – that I didn’t pass the bar exam because I didn’t pack a lunch to eat at the bar exam.
To be honest, I was completely stick to my stomach. But, I was stuck; I was at work and everyone believed in me. Then, later that morning while still at work computer, the results came out. My heart raced, but my name just didn’t seem to be listed at all. No Scott Johns. And then, I realized that my official attorney name begins with William. I was looking at the wrong section of the Johns and Johnsons. My name was there! I had passed! I never told the judge my secret about my “snicker bar” lunch. I was just plain relieved that the bar exam “wait” was finally over.
That’s the problem with all of the helpful advice from our friends, employers, law professors, and family members during this waiting period. For all of us (or at least most of us), there was something unusual that happened during our bar exam. It didn’t seem to go perfectly. Quite frankly, we just don’t know if we indeed passed the bar exam.
So, here’s a suggestion for your time right now with your friends, employers, law professors, and family members.
1. First, just let them know how you are feeling. Be open and frank. Share your thoughts with them along with your hopes and fears.
2. Second, give them a hearty thank you for all of their enriching support, encouragement, and steadfast faithfulness that they have shared with you as walked your way through law school and through this week’s bar exam. Perhaps send them a personal notecard. Or, make a quick phone call of thanks. Or send a snap chat of thankful appreciation. Regardless of your particular method of communication, reach out to let them know out of the bottom of your heart that their support has been invaluable to you. That’s a great way to spend your time as you wait - over the course of the next several months - for the bar exam results.
3. Finally, celebrate yourself, your achievement, and your true grit....by taking time out - right now - to appreciate the momentous accomplishment of undertaking a legal education, graduating from law school, and tackling your bar exam. You've done something great, and, more importantly, something mightily significant. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 16, 2017
As you make your final tune-ups in preparation for your bar exam next week, remember, anxiety is normal. So, please don't fret the "butterflies."
But, as I can attest due to my own exam stress, that is "easier said that done." So, let me offer a technique or two that I use when dealing with a question that I can't seem to figure out how to even begin to answer.
First, I don't try to get a perfect answer. Rather, I treat each exam question as an opportunity to demonstrate my ability to solve legal problems. In other words, I remind myself that I don't have to be right or correct to pass the bar exam; rather, I just have to demonstrate legal problem-solving abilities, something that we have all worked for several months to cultivate in our bar preparation work.
Second, no matter how difficult the exam, I focus on maintaining a winning positive attitude...by realizing that all of the test-takers are facing the same challenges (and therefore the same stresses). That's right. If the problem seems difficult for you (and me), it is difficult for all of us!
Third, I use a simple "3-step plan" to give me a friendly "push-start" to get my mind around how to solve a problem. So, here are the steps, steps that you might try yourself when you find yourself a bit perplexed on how to begin answering a problem:
1. Grab hold of the call of the question and re-write it as an issue statement (e.g., The issue is whether the contract between Pratt and Delta is valid.).
2. Add material facts to your issue statement (e.g., The issue is whether the contract between Pratt and Delta is valid when the defendant failed to sign the contract.).
3. Now, you are ready to organize an answer...because you see (identified the trigger facts) that constitute the big issue (i.e., a statute of frauds problem here).
Let me offer one more "stress-busting" exam tip that you might incorporate in the midst of your bar exam.
That's right. Don't spend all of your time - for hours on end - hunched over your bar exam questions.
INSTEAD, GET SOME FRESH AIR!
LEAN BACK IN YOUR CHAIR...AND BREATHE!
It's amazing but just leaning back in your chair, as the commander of your own "bar-ship" as you read and navigate your way through exam questions, can make a whale of a difference because the action of leaning back brings valuable oxygen to your body...to empower your mind...to do the work that is before you. And, if you really want to take it to the next level, while you are "leaning back," why not just put your hands behind your head to form a "soft pillow" of comfort and confidence. You can picture the move. Just visualizing the move might bring a smile to your face. And, that smile is a bit of relaxation in the midst of taking your bar exam. So, nicely done! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 9, 2017
I just came out of a great conference. However, it wasn't a great conference because it made me feeling better. In fact, I left the event realizing how far I often fall short of the mark as a teacher. But, it was great...in the sense that I learned (or perhaps re-learned) some key principles...that I can bank on in trying to BECOME a better teacher.
So, let me cut to the chase. Based on the principles shared by conference leader Dr. Maryellen Weimer, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, I started to think that I might be trying too hard to teach my students. That's right. I might be trying so much to help my students learn that I leave very little for them to do, which is to say, that I leave them no room for learning.
You see, according to Dr. Weimer, I can't actually "learn anything for my students." Rather it's my students that are the learners. And, to be frank, learning is just plain hard work. It's messy. Its discomforting. It's even downright excruciating sometimes. But, I often don't want my students to feel that sort of uncomfortable frustration that is required to generate real learning. Or, as Dr. Weimer put it, "we are often doing a lot of the hard messy work of our students" by making decisions for them, which, if true, means that our students are not truly learning. In short, we are just teaching them to be dependent on us rather than coaching them to succeed as independent learners, to put it in my own words.
So, my sense is that my students need less of me as a teacher and more of me as a coach. They need me to step out of the limelight, to give them fresh air to try, to let them work hard and ponder mightily as they grapple with the course materials. That's because learning is personal. It therefore requires lots of practice. It requires deep engagement in the materials. It requires sometimes (or even often) failing.
But, as Dr. Weimer pointed out, my students often do not see me fail. Instead, they often see me demonstrating how to succeed (i.e. teaching!). But, I didn't learn the materials through success. Rather, I learned the materials through lots of rough 'n tumble practice (and that means through lots of trials, errors, and downright embarrassing mistakes).
So, Dr. Weimer encouraged me (us) to open up with our students, to admit our mistakes, to let our students have empowered agency to personally engage with the materials. In short, it's time for me to teach from the sidelines, and, that means that I am not "making the big plays for my students." Instead, I am their coach on the sidelines and they are the players moving the ball downfield as learners. That's a game that I am excited about watching. Oh, and by the way, taking Dr. Weimer's words to heart, I admitted to my students just today that I have made lots and lots of mistakes on the path to learning how to become a lawyer, and it was through walking through those experiences that I truly learned. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
At various points in a given semester, students find themselves unmotivated for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons include managing financial pressures, dealing with academic challenges, feeling lonely, suffering from stress, and experiencing racism, sexism or some other “ism.” There are several articles and other sources that address intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and how to engage students. However, I am always seeking innovative ways to encourage and support students.
Monday marked the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017, an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Most institutions of higher education commemorate this day with a variety of activities. Institutions have a variety of programs which include breakfasts, lunches, dinners, artistic expressions, marches, community service, and speeches. Students attend the various programs but for others this is simply a day off and an opportunity to either rest or get ahead academically.
This year, I am an advisor to a student group and based on my interactions with this group of students, it was imperative for me to find different ways to re-motivate these students. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a great opportunity to encourage them by drawing examples from his life and encouraging students to partake in at least one activity. For students, there are a number of qualities and values they can draw from his life as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, an activist, a well-educated and accomplished man of color, his commitment to society, his ability to stay true to his convictions, and the ease with which he communicated, encouraged, and rallied those around him. Reflecting on all that he was able to accomplish with the challenges of his time, we should all be courageous in the face of adversity and preserve our hopes, dreams and aspirations. (Goldie Pritchard)
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Wow. At long last, final exams are over...sort of.
For most of us, we have a very difficult time with uncertainty in general, which is particularly exasperating as we wait - sometimes for weeks - for our grades to arrive.
So, despite the festive times of this month, we often find ourselves unable to relax, to enjoy the season, and to simply wind down and rest.
Nevertheless, there's a simple way - in just a flash of a moment - to help break free from the many stresses and strains of the past few weeks of final exams. Why not try out, today, the "smile loop?" It sounds, sort of, fun, doesn't it? So, here's the scoop (and the science too):
You see, according to an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein:
"Smiling produces neural messaging in your brain that makes you happier. Some studies have shown that when we smile our facial muscles contract, which slightly distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. And, when we smile at someone, that person tends to smile back. So, we've created a feel-good loop." http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-fall-back-in-love
For those of you that are not scientists (that's me!), the short scoop is that smiling brightens not just our days but the days of those around us. And, it sure seems to me that smiling at another person gets us on the right track to thinking about others rather than worrying about the past few weeks of final exams (with its lingering wait for grades).
I had the chance to put smiling to the test in very unforgiving circumstances over the course of the past few weeks as a volunteer attorney. There's a little Greek island just a few short miles off the Turkish coast. Because of its locale so close to Turkey, thousands of people have been fleeing on small inflatable boats across the Aegean Sea to escape persecution, calamity, and in some cases war in their native countries - from Syria to Iran to Iraq to Afghanistan to South Sudan - with the hope of receiving refugee in the European Union. I talked with a man, his wife and his adorable small children that risked it all traveling by land from Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey only to be finally living for months in a small UNHCR tent in a refugee camp on the island of Chios.
Despite the lack of resources and the uncertainty of still waiting - for months on end - to receive as of yet an asylum hearing, he smiled. And, then his children smiled. Why, his whole family smiled. In the cold of the wind swept coast of this little island refugee camp, we all smiled...together. He and his family may not have had much to give but they gave something immeasurably priceless...they shared smiles with me.
Let me say, this was not unique. As I walked through the refugee camp with a number of refugee-seekers, even though we often didn't speak the same language, we were able to communicate in ways that are often richer than words. Over and over, refugees would just come up to me with big generous smiles and warm handshakes of greetings. Memorably, a small Syrian boy grabbed my hand one day by the lunch tent as a group of young people were dancing, asking me to join in the footsteps and singing.
You see, smiles are not just a trick to make your life better or happier. No, no at all! Rather, smiles are the sweetness of life itself in helping us to make the world a little better for others. So, as you wait for final exam grades to come in, be of good courage and share smiles with those around you. Who knows? That brief smile might get you up and dancing!
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
As my students wrap up the semester and head home, they are filled with excitement. Students recognize that they survived the semester although at various points and particularly during the exam period they viewed this feat as impossible. Smiles on their faces and relief felt from completing exams provide glimmers into their true selves which were previously masked by stress and the rigors of law school. Some students are not quite excited because they are filled with concern about the results of their efforts, grades, and the desire to go through a complete postmortem of their preparation and exams. My job is to calm concern, remind students that they have no control over the results that are now in the hands of their professors and stressing about the results changes nothing about how quickly they will receive the results and what the result will be. I say to them with enthusiasm: “All you can do now is enjoy your break!”
Here are my two recommendations to students for the holiday season:
(1) Take a break
Catch up on sleep and enjoy family and friends, if possible. Catching up on sleep is imperative. You probably abused your body and sacrificed sleep as you prepared for exams. Please give yourself a few days to catch up on sleep and to simply be lazy. This is the best time for that. Here is a good resource for an 8 hour deep sleep music or peaceful music for relaxation and meditation: Sleep, Meditation, and Relaxation Music
(2) Plan for next semester
Plan for when you will start the gradual transition to reading and preparing for next semester’s classes so you are not overwhelmed. Set a date and time when you will complete specific tasks. If you are a 3L, this may be the ideal time to plan for your bar application and bar review process. This may also be the time, while at home, to assemble all of the necessary documentation you might need as you prepare to apply for the bar exam, if you have not already. (Goldie Pritchard)
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
As exams and paper deadlines approach, it is easy to procrastinate. Here are some clues that you are not using your time wisely and missing out on oomph in your studies:
- You have alphabetized your casebooks and study aids on your bookshelf, sharpened three dozen pencils, hole-punched two hundred documents for pretty color-coded binders, made 1000 tabs for your code book, and straightened the drawers of your desk - but you have not actually studied yet.
- Your apartment is spotless after you have done spring cleaning (after all you did not do it in April): scrubbed all baseboards, dusted every nook and cranny, washed all drapes and throws, polished the wood floors, shampooed the carpets, cleaned out closets, and polished the porcelain surfaces to a gleaming finish.
- You have focused on Christmas shopping (Black Friday and Cyber Monday were just a start) and scoured every store for presents for family, friends, family pets, friends' pets, neighbors, neighbors' pets, distant relatives, the mailman, the cute barista at Starbucks, etc.
- You have decided to decorate and ready your apartment for the holidays: put up your tree, hung the wreaths, strung the outdoor lights, made popcorn or construction paper chains to festoon your evergreen, baked cookies, hung stockings with care by the chimney, and wrapped endless packages in perfectly coordinated ribbons and paper.
- You paint the living room, dining room, bedrooms, and kitchen, then redo the kitchen backsplash with an intricate mosaic that takes hours to finish, replace all countertops and the sink (you always wanted one of those farmhouse models), and decide to go shopping for new stainless steel appliances for the perfect look.
- You write actual letters to every high school and college friend you every had (after all what says happy holidays like a handwritten missive), talk for hours on the telephone with every relative, review the 2000 emails in your inbox to see what might need deleting, and read every piece of junk mail that lands in your real-world mailbox.
- You set a goal to study right after you watch every episode for all seasons of Downton Abbey or become world champion on your favorite gaming indulgence whether that is Pokémon Go, solitaire, or the latest really cool video game.
Do you think I am kidding? All of these scenarios reflect procrastinating law students I have known with very little exaggeration in the details. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, November 10, 2016
According to research referenced by columnist Elizabeth Bernstein, vulnerability can be a great thing. Although being vulnerable is often seen as a sign of weakness, something to be avoided at all costs, it can actually operate to produce wonderful things in our lives. As case in point, Ms. Bernstein paraphrases Dr. Hal Shorey, a psychologist, as stating:"Vulnerability can also humanize you, facilitate learning, and enable optimal problem solving." In short, real learning requires us to be vulnerable. But, what is vulnerability? "Psychologists and social scientists define vulnerability as the courage to show up and be seen and heard when you can’t control the outcome." http://www.wsj.com/articles/you-took-an-emotional-risk-now-what-1478536377
Ouch! That's how I felt throughout most of law school…out of control...but not at all courageous. And, as I'll explain below, that's because I spent most of my time preparing for exams by creating giant study tools rather than practicing exam scenarios. But, I'm getting ahead of myself here...
Stepping back, how does the courage to be vulnerable relate to law school learning?
Let me give a suggestion. The "safe" thing to do to prepare for law school exams is to do what everyone else is doing: grab your lecture notes, get hold of your case briefs, and create massive gargantuan outlines of all of your subjects…and...if you still have any time left before exams, read through a few old final exams to get a sense of the subject. But, if you are like me, when I read through exams (or even just outline a few old exams), I sort of convince myself that I understand it, that I could write it, that I actually know what I am doing. And, here's the rub. That's not learning but rather just presuming that I know how to answer final exam questions. So, here's the key.
Rather than spending the bulk of your time over the course of the next several weeks or so creating massive outlines, reorient your time so that most of your final exam preparation efforts are focused on what you are actually going to be tested on in your final exams, namely, solving legal problems. That means that you should be reading, conversing, debating, outlining, writing, re-thinking, and re-writing old practice exams. It will be hard. It will not feel good. It will not feel safe. In fact, you'll probably feel like you don't know enough to start practicing exam problems. But, if you wait until you think that you know enough to start practicing for your final exams, you will run out of time to practice final exams. And, because you are not tested on creating great study tools but rather solving final exam problems, it will be both too little and too late to do much good if you just create study tools. So, be brave by being vulnerability. Grab hold of some old final exams from your professor. Take a stab at them. Try writing out answers. Input what you learn into a study tool. Then go see your professor for feedback. It will be hard to ask for help, to show your work to your professor. That's because it requires you to accept that learning requires vulnerability. But, you'll be might glad that you did.
Finally, in case your professor or your law school doesn't have old final exams readily available, do not give up…at all. Instead, there are lots of free resources through your Academic Support Professionals, your Dean of Students, and even on the internet. As a suggestion, here's a website that consolidates old bar exam essays, point sheets, and answer guides for a whole host of subjects to include Criminal Law, Torts, Contracts & Sales, Property Law, Constitutional Law, Evidence, Criminal Procedure, all arranged by date of the exam and…here's some great news…by subject matter too! Old Bar Exam Essays By Subject Matter So have at it by opening yourself up to focusing your final exam preparations on practicing lots of exam problems intermixed with creating your study tools. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Life is filled with ups and downs but how do you manage your emotions? Some students are working on their final legal writing assignment, signaling that exams are fast approaching for all students. Around this time of the year, various student organizations and institutional entities have programming to help students manage stress. We have a range of activities available to our students. Activities include “Game Night” which allows students to gather together to play various board games to de-stress. Each semester, there is a “De-stress” day which includes ice cream and opportunities to pet dogs from the Veterinary Medicine School; this is a hit with our students. We have “Mindfulness” Tuesdays and “T’ai Chi and Qigong” Tuesdays led by two of our professors. There are several offices such as the Office of Student Engagement, Diversity Services Office, and Academic Success Program where students can seek assistance and direction on how to manage stress.
I find it important to explore a number of mediums of delivering important information to students. The video below addresses stress relief tips in a quick, quirky, and informative manner. “WellCast” explores physical, mental, and emotional paths to wellness. While many of the videos on WellCast are geared to a younger audience, a few of them apply to an adult audience. We can always use some animation in our life! (Goldie Pritchard)
Monday, October 31, 2016
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.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
A herculean ASPer is an academic support professional who is perceived to have extraordinary powers which allow her/him to overcome every difficult task pertaining to a law student’s academic and bar success. These powers often exceed normal human power and capability; they are superhuman. This is my fictional description that I believe describes the perception of many academic support professionals and sometimes even how these professionals perceive themselves if they took the time to reflect.
Academic support professionals are problem solvers who are willing to put in the time and effort to help guide students as they navigate their law school learning and bar exam preparation processes. This means that we are simultaneously juggling interactions with several different students, with several different needs, and at a variety of points in their individual progression. We help students manage emotions and address non-academic needs. We are creative individuals who are flexible enough to adapt to individual student progression and process. Doing this type of work is what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going.
While we might appear or perceive ourselves as superhuman and herculean in nature, I have found that at various points in the semester and the academic year responsibilities require more careful attention to time management. This can be difficult for someone who generally has difficulty saying “no”, values helping, and is solution oriented (speaking only for myself). Whenever I find myself in such a predicament, I have to remind myself of what I advise students concerning managing their time and balancing responsibilities, particularly at demanding stages of the semester. Here are the three things I try to keep in mind:
- Learn to say “no.” Only take on commitments you know you have time for and you truly care about. Although there are so many tantalizing opportunities, you still need to be effective in what you are doing and deliver a respectable product or service. This is the hardest thing to do. Be real with yourself and choose quality over quantity.
- Turn essential tasks into habits. Everything you want to accomplish each day results from repeated actions and developed routines. Start small with a manageable task and work from there. If you are required to produce regular written documents, then you may need to establish a set time and write regularly for that period of time. This means weekly or daily writing with time limits for completion.
- Personal fulfillment should be the goal. Enjoy and evaluate whatever you are doing. We can get so busy making sure we get everything done that we do not stop and smell the roses or appreciate what we do. You Only Live Once (YOLO). You do not get back the hours and minutes that have passed so do not experience regrets. Be open to opportunity and embrace your passions.
All the best as we work on ourselves to better help others work on themselves! (Goldie Pritchard)
Thursday, October 20, 2016
The Surprising Benefits of Chit Chat, Eye Contact, and a Hello for Law Students & ASP (and the 10/5 Rule)!
In follow-up to yesterday's excellent post on tackling fear by Prof. Pritchard, I…unfortunately...spent most of my three years in law school in fear. In fact, I felt like I was the only one that was without roots, without a sense of presence, without wholeness in law school. But, since then, I now know the truth…many of us as law students feel alone and in fear.
Apparently, there is something called the 10/5 rule that might have helped me. The 10/5 rule is used throughout the hotel and hospitality industries to help strangers feel welcome. And, because many law students feel as though they are strangers throughout law school, I wonder whether the 10/5 rule might help law students overcome fear and loneliness to become instead empowered as partners with others in a community of learners.
So, here's the nut and bolts of the 10/5 rule:
It starts when you are ten feet away from another person. Just make eye contact with a friendly smile. That's it.
Then, when you are five feet away, just add a friendly "hello" with perhaps a quick expression like "Wow; that's a big casebook you're carrying."
You see, according to freelance writer Jennifer Wallace: "Chitchat is an important social lubricant, helping to build empathy and a sense of community." http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-benefits-of-a-little-small-talk-1475249737 Often, though, we underestimate the importance of small talk.
According to a 2014 study, Professor Nicholas Epley and Ph.D. student Juliana Schroeder conducted experiments on commuter trains in Chicago in which participants were grouped into three cohorts: some were told to engage in polite conversations with strangers, some were told to avoid conversations with strangers, and some (as a control group) were asked to engage in conversations as they normally do. Interestingly, the rule-breakers - those in the group that actually broke the "social rules of the commuter" by engaging in small talk with strangers - reported significantly more positive experiences and no less productive time as they commuted. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/nicholas.epley/EpleySchroeder2014.pdf
In another study conducted on a campus setting of 40,000 students, researchers evaluated whether an eye gaze and a friendly smile might make any difference with respect to students' sense of belonging. In the experiment, the authors had a research experimenter randomly walk past college students in which she either avoided eye contact, engaged in eye contact, or engaged in eye contact accompanied by a friendly smile. Trailing the experimenter was a research associate who then surveyed each passerby. Without tipping the students about the experiment, the research associate asked each student to evaluate their sense of belonging. Surprisingly, even when students were not aware of the research experimenter's contact with them, students who were greeted with an eye gaze reported a greater sense of belonging (with the highest reported benefit by those greeted with both an eye gaze and a smile). As the authors indicate, "simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion." http://pss.sagepub.com/content/23/2/166
These results seem to validate the 10/5 rule. So, why not put to practice the 10/5 rule in law school. Looking back, I wonder whether, if I had practiced the 10/5 rule as a law student, I would have developed connections with others in law school (and put fear and loneliness aside). Perhaps I just need to start greeting others with an eye gaze and a brief "howdy." In light of this research, our small interactions with our students might be the bridge to help our students not just survive in law school but thrive. So, here's to "breaking the rules" and smiling with you! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Have you ever locked yourself out of an office, a car, an apartment or home? I sure have, and plenty of times. The worst was a Friday night at a carwash - after having just finished washing a car - with a bunch of cars lined up behind me to get into the carwash. Very stressful! But, that's not the point.
Rather, there are two ways to view the situation.
First, I might feel like I'm just plain out-of-luck, unless I get an expert - like one who has the master key to cars - to let me in.
Second, I'm not going to let this stop me, at least not without a good-hearted try.
Our responses are different in the two cases based on our approaches or mindsets to the stressful situation.
In the first case, I just give up and wait for help. And, while I wait, I start to simmer over negative thoughts, such as: "I can't believe I did this again" or "How could I be so careless?" Despite my stewing over my situation, my situation doesn't change. I'm still waiting for others to bring the master key. I'm not growing and I'm not learning.
In contrast, in the second case (or at least while waiting for help), I decide to take a try at getting into my car. So, perhaps I grab hold of a paperclip, stretch it out, flex it a bit, poke it around the lock, and hope (or imagine) that I will trip the locking mechanism to open the car door, even without my key. It might not work…or…it might work! But, regardless of the outcome, I still try, and, in the process, I feel bits of excitement, some positive vibes, that at least for the moment take my mind away from blaming myself for the situation or telling myself that I'm plum out of luck, and, instead, I re-direct my energies to finding a solution, a pro-active way out of my predicament.
Interestingly, research scientists are starting to discover some very exciting things about stress and mindset.
First, stress is common to all of us. It's part and parcel with the human experience. Indeed, according to the scientists, to try to avoid stress is not just impossible but downright harmful to us. So, we shouldn't run from it…at all.
That brings us to the second point. Stress is critically important in helping us grow as a person and even as a learner. In fact, it's not really true that stress kills; rather, it's our mindset to stress that determines whether it harms the body or rather it builds up the body and mind. Indeed, biologically speaking, the right mindset to stress produces the chemical and biological reactions necessary for learning.
Third, our current mindset about stress is not fixed in stone at all. Rather, our approach to stress can be changed - through even very short video clip interventions - where we learn to reframe our approaches to stress so that we see "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" about the impact of our mindset approach in determining whether stress is beneficial or not.
You see, according to the scientists, it is our mindset to stress (and not the stress itself) that determines whether stress produces good outcomes or harmful outcomes. According to the experts, our bodies are hardwired not to avoid stress but rather to grow through stress. For example, let's take exam stress. The student that learns the research about mindset and stress prior to an exam (i.e., that stress can actually be a good experience because stress can be mind-enhancing, mind-activating, and mind-growing, thus leading to positive growth in learning) performs much better than the person who believes that stress harms one's abilities to tackle an exam.
Let's make this concrete. If you are like me, when I take exams, my heart starts pounding and my lungs start breathing in gulps. I could view that as a bad sign. If I do, I'm in trouble. Or, I could recognize that my body is reacting to a stressful situation in precisely that way that it was made to react. In fact, my increased heart and respiration rates are actually working together for good - my good - to bring me to a more alert state, with much more oxygen than normal, to help my brain perform better than ever, and just in the knick-of-time for me to tackle that exam that is before me.
Want to know more? Try these resources. For a quick overview, take a look at psychologist Kelly McGonigal's article "How to be Good at Stress." Ted Ideas: Good At Stress
For a short 3-step approach to turning stress into a positive, see the article by psychologist Alia Crum and performance coach Thomas Crum entitled "Stress Can Be a Good Thing if You Know How to Use it" in the Harvard Business Review. Stress as a Good Thing
Finally, for the scientific details, please see psychologists Alia Crum and Peter Salovey's research article "Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response." Rethinking Stress
It's something to think about…stress and our mindset. (Scott Johns)
Monday, October 10, 2016
We are almost exactly halfway through our semester's classes. It is the point in the semester when some students exhibit their stress by complaining about everything and everyone in their paths.
What they do not realize is that their focusing on negativity only adds to their stress rather than relieving it. Venting feels good momentarily. (Let's face it, we all vented at times during law school.) But some students go beyond mere venting and get stuck in a consistently negative attitude which can solidify into low productivity, low skill levels, or a blame game.
By stepping back and re-thinking the situation to recognize a more positive approach to this academic challenge, students can turn initial frustration into a quest for improved grades, professionalism, and competence. Negative students stay negative, and sometimes angry. Positive students are those who can regain perspective.
Here are some examples that show the negative and positive attitudes (these are all based on real law student comments):
- Negative 2L student: If I had been in the easy section of the class last spring, I would not have gotten a D grade. The professor did not teach well. Positive 2L student: I got a D in the course. At first I was angry about the grade, but then I realized that 60 other students in the same section did better than I did on the exact same exam. Can you help me learn some new strategies for studying and for taking exams?
- Negative 2L student: I have worked for my attorney father for the last three summers, and he never complained about my writing. The legal writing professor who gave me a D+ does not know what he is talking about. Positive 2L student: I worked during three summers for law firms, but now I realize the expectations are higher for law students than undergraduate interns. I plan to attend the extra writing workshops this fall to improve my skills since my legal writing grade was disappointing.
- Negative 2L student: The law school registration system stinks. I really wanted to take the 2 p.m. section of a course, but the 3Ls got all the slots. It is only offered every other year, and I was not about to get out of bed to take it at 8:00 a.m. Positive 2L student: I was sad to have to take the 8:00 a.m. section of the course because the later section was full and I did not make it off the waitlist. But hey, when I am working I'll have to be at the law firm early, and the course is important to me.
- Negative 2L student: Reading and briefing cases, taking notes, and making outlines is such a waste of time. I just use canned briefs, a class script, and others' outlines. Positive 2L student: Although reading and briefing and making outlines takes time, I learn the necessary skills and understand everything at a deeper level when I process the course material myself. Shortcuts do not give me the same results.
- Negative 1L student: I worked as a legal assistant in a law firm for three years, and my attorneys never asked me to do this ridiculous jurisdictional stuff that has taken up the first month. My civil procedure professor does not know what real-life lawyering is all about. Positive 1L student: I never did any jurisdictional stuff when I worked as a legal assistant for a law firm. But I realize that was probably because I was just asked to do the every day procedural tasks for litigation and not to think through some of those other issues.
- Negative 1L student: Law school should not be this much work and demand such a large commitment. My social life is taking a hit. And they expect me to study in the evenings and on the weekends! Positive 1L student: Being a lawyer is hard work and takes tons of commitment. Now is my chance to learn the skills that will make me competent in my future profession. I am up for the challenge of hard work because I want to be an excellent lawyer, not just a mediocre one.
- Negative 1L student: Professors do not tell us exactly what to memorize for the exam and are always discussing stuff that was not mentioned in the cases. I just want to know the black letter law to parrot back. Positive 1L student: Having to read and analyze cases will be a daily task as an attorney. Learning how to do it well is really important to me. The professors help me to synthesize the law and think about things that I would never have seen on my own.
- Negative 1L student: Legal research and writing assignments are too hard and expect too much. The professor does not tell me exactly what to write - even when I get a draft back. Positive 1L student: Legal research and writing are really hard because I have to research thoroughly and write so concisely. I realize our having to figure some of its out on our own prepares us for what it will be like on our first part-time jobs.
- Negative 1L student: The people in my classes are such nerds/losers/gunners/(fill in the blank). I am obviously superior because I do not have to work as hard as they do. Positive 1L student: There are a lot of really bright people in my classes. Some of them are a bit annoying. But most of them inspire me to produce my best work. I may be smart, but I am no longer a big fish in a small pond.
- Negative 1L student: Professors are posting practice questions that they expect us to complete on top of everything else! No way I want to do that extra work. Positive 1L student: Practice questions will allow me to see how this professor tests and to get feedback on my answers. After all, exams are all about applying the law to new legal scenarios. I'll do all the posted questions and more.
- Negative 1L student: The upper-division students hired by the professors are all running the weekly 1L sessions on the off days and times for class. No way I am getting up at 8 a.m. or staying on Friday morning after my classes are over. They should schedule more convenient sessions. Positive 1L student: What a luxury to have upper-division students who run extra sessions for the professors to help us with the classes. I can monitor my progress and understanding. I get to do more practice problems. And they have office hours, too!
- Negative 1L student: Professors should just tell us everything we need to know. Why should I have to go in and ask questions on office hours? Positive 1L student: My professors are good about answering questions and giving me feedback on outlines and practice questions. It means that I have to stay on top of the work and ask for help, but those things are just part of being responsible for my learning.
- Negative 1L student: The free food at the luncheon speakers is too repetitive and not what I like. Positive 1L student: Oh, wow! Another day without having to pay for lunch or bring it from home. Hmmm, what are dolmades? Guess I'll try it and find out.
Law school is tough, tiring, and sometimes frustrating. If the endeavor to become an excellent attorney can be remembered, many of the experiences can be re-evaluated for their career benefits and learning. No law student can be positive every day. But the ones who retain a positive attitude most days will find the law school experience less frustrating and more productive. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, September 26, 2016
Our student organization on animal law has brought dogs into the law school during several exam periods to de-stress law students. Other law schools have also done this type of pet therapy. Now USC is touting its new hire: USC "Hires" Full-Time Wellness Dog.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
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)
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
This the fourth full week of classes for our students and stress has already crept in. First year law students who were enthusiastic about the beginning of the law school journey are now working hard and trying to balance all of their responsibilities. More assignments are due in legal writing and doctrinal courses now include some challenging material. Students are trying to maintain their sanity and humanity while balancing the demands of their checklists and trying to do one or two things they enjoy. Moreover, students are trying not to be too distracted by the various news reports about tragedies and events in our backyards and around the world. With students feeling a number of emotions, self-care is essential.
Here are my top five self-care considerations:
- Check-in with your emotions. It is helpful to sit by yourself, quietly, and name what you are feeling. Don't judge your emotions but simply name them, claim them, and maybe even feel them so you can let go of the negative ones.
- Boogie down. Select your favorite upbeat tunes and dance or sing at the top of your lungs. This helps you reconnect with positive emotions and gets your body moving.
- Unplug all devices. For about an hour daily, turn everything off. Turn off your computer, put your cellphone on airplane mode or silent, and shut off all electronics with alarms or alerts.
- Be selfish. Weekly, do something just because it makes you happy. Have something to look forward to particularly if you have a very demanding week.
- Mute the negative. If you have negative people in your life or individuals who fill your social media feeds with sad or negative information you might want to mute them. You may have close or long term relationships with these individuals so you might not want to delete them. You can temporarily or permanently block their information and go from there.