Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Paper and Fire
A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.
When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.
What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.
But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.
Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.
At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.