Tuesday, August 20, 2019
As a Matter of Course
It is the start of the school year, and we are welcoming new classes of students to begin their courses of study in law school. Each course of study will comprise a score or more individual courses in particular subjects, and we hope that in due course every student will consume and fully digest a rich multi-course legal banquet. Of course.
Our versatile word "course" is derived from the Latin word "currere", meaning "to run" or "to flow". In all of its varied uses, it alludes to a sense of movement and progress, and this is particularly fitting when we think of the course of a law student's passage from matriculation to graduation. They arrive at school, eager and perhaps a bit awed as they imagine themselves advancing, starting off slowly, developing the knowledge, skill, and judgment of an attorney as they make their ways along, and then racing to the finish line to collect their prizes.
To many incoming 1L students, law school may seem like a watercourse -- like a channel through which they will be carried, sometimes swept through dizzying rapids, other times dragged through muddy waters of confounding breadth, ultimately to squeeze past a perilous bar and then be deposited at the port of Career, where their next adventure begins. In this view, all students need to do is learn to paddle, avoid rocking the boat, and make use of their brains and perseverance, and they will arrive at their destinations.
But there are better courses for comparison. Law school is best considered like a racecourse or a golf course -- not because their structures are more precisely analogous, but because of the way successful performers approach them. Sure, great sports performers make the most of their talents and training. But before they begin a race or a tournament, they get to know the course. A runner will trace out the course route, measuring the flats and the hills, and will plan out her pacing accordingly. A golfer will play or at least walk the course, making note of obstacles, slopes, and doglegs, and getting to know the feel of the greens. A skier will take practice runs down the course, developing a mental map so he can plan when to be cautious, when to be daring, when to push for speed. Knowing the course means they can make the best use of their skills and strategies over the long term.
So it is in law school. Week to week, month to month, semester to semester, knowing what it coming means students can expend their resources (time, attention, energy, etc.) more wisely. It means they can allow sufficient time to prepare for opportunities, or for challenges. It lessens the chances that they will wander out of bounds or run around in circles.
This is one of the reasons I love the start of the new academic year. It gives those of us in Academic Success a wonderful opportunity to provide something of immediate and long-term value to every new student we meet. We can walk them through the course! We can explain to them what a typical week will be like. We can preview all the major tasks of their first semester -- reading, attending class, outlining, midterms, legal writing assignments, practice tests, and final exams -- and help the students develop their own mental maps of the course. We can give them a bird's-eye of the entire tournament: the timing, value, and effort required of the opportunities and expectations they will encounter over the next few years. And we can do all of this for them painlessly -- not in response to an individual's frustration or anxiety or poor performance. It's the best part of the year, because we can give our students something they all can use, whether or not they have come into law school having learned the lesson that so many champions have learned: Successful performers don't see the course as running and carrying them along with it. They see the course as something they themselves run.