Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Like my colleagues, I am thinking ahead to the new school year even as my attention is consumed by those preparing for the bar exam three weeks from now. Last year at this time I was thinking mainly about scheduling and content and skills development, and how to tweak and rearrange my classes and workshops to make them more effective. This year, I find myself thinking at least as much about stories as about skills.
Part of this cogitation is driven by my conversations of late with students dealing with varying degrees of anxiety about the bar exam. I ask them how they are doing and what has led them to whatever position they currently find themselves in, and their narratives fall broadly into two categories. Some students tell me kinetic stories about what work they have done, what challenges they have faced, and what strategies they have employed. They may not have conquered every problem that has come up -- in fact, that's usually why they are talking to me -- but they still see themselves as the protagonists who are driving their stories and pursuing some kind of prize. Other students, even some with objectively similar obstacles, tell their stories in a different way. They are still the centers of their own stories, but things keep happening to them (poor performance on a practice test, illness, misunderstanding, etc.), and they are just doing what they can to cope. These latter folks are not doomed, by any means; they are, in fact, often quite capable. But they do seem to feel more anxiety and doubt than the more protagonistic students. So part of what I am wondering is whether it might be possible to cultivate that sense of protagonism by using language that highlights one's sense of agency and potency, from the very start of law school. Perhaps by using less language about "what will happen" and "what you will encounter", and more language about "what you will learn to do" and "how others have overcome difficulties", I can shift students' perspectives in a more empowering direction.
Another aspect of storytelling that has become clearly significant over the past year is how students perceive their stories in relation to their law school -- their fellow students, their class as an entity, their professors, their administration, and their alumni community. At the start of my 3L pre-bar prep course this spring, I felt it was very important to intentionally and repeatedly talk about our class as a team. We were there to support each other, I said, because we had common goals as individuals and as a group. Each student wanted to pass the bar exam in July -- that much they knew going into the class -- but, I pointed out, each student should also want to see everyone else in the class pass, too. Teamwork might mean going a little further to help our classmates in a pinch, but it also means we've got a bunch of other people in our corner, willing to do the same for us. The faculty, the administration, and the alumni want to see them succeed, too, because their success makes everybody look better, and because we've invested so much energy and faith in them. And if the class does notably well as a group on the bar exam, their pass rate becomes public information that makes them all look like part of a stellar crop of new lawyers.
At times I felt almost like a goofy cheerleader telling this story, and encouraging my students to tell that story about themselves as a team. But it seems to have paid off. This summer we are seeing notably higher rates of participation and completion of assignments in summer bar prep courses. Recent graduates are spending more time together, on and off campus, and I've been talking to far more of them in my office and on the phone than last summer. Just telling a story of teamwork isn't enough -- the school has also had to walk the walk, by providing additional resources and guidance to students -- but it is clear that intensifying our characterization of getting ready for the bar as a communal effort has had a positive effect.
This is another thing I am wondering about, as I move forward with plans to work with our new incoming students. How can I tell that story of the law school as a team in a way that will stick with these new students for three intensive years? Is there a way to cultivate that story in the face of the known competition for grades in the first year? Is there a way to keep that story from becoming trite and from being tattered by cynicism? I think there must be. It's not just the telling of the story that makes it work; it's also acting the story out, and making it seem real because it could be real.
So, while I will be working on better ways to improve students' analytical and time management skills this fall, I will also be thinking about better ways to tell them stories -- about themselves as individuals and as part of this new community -- that they can believe in. Stories that they will want to carry on telling themselves.