Wednesday, October 9, 2019
As Bill MacDonald reminded us in yesterday's post, this is the time of academic potential and progress. It's also the time of raw nerves. While there's no panacea, there's a good starting place -- and that's talking it out. (And a little patience and humility help, too.)
In the first flush of excitement at the beginning of fall semester, we all tend to be on our best behavior. Faculty and staff want to show 1Ls that they chose the right law school; 1Ls and transfer students want to show the law school that its faith in admitting them was justified. Every person -- whether faculty, staff, upper-division student, or incoming student -- wants to put her or his best foot forward. It is the honeymoon phase of law school. At the end of the semester, as final projects wind up and exams loom, and as we have come to understand each others' foibles, we are too engaged in the big stuff to pay much attention to minor shortcomings. Like a long marriage, there is a sense of understanding and acceptance, even when we acknowledge that the relationship may not be not perfect.
But the middle of the semester? That's when mannerisms which at first seemed charmingly awkward now grate on your nerves. That's when the workload, initially so manageable, now seems to loom over every hour of the day and night, weekday and weekend. That's when instructors, instead of praising every good-faith effort, now critique openly or press for more concise and precise answers in the classroom and for more tightly-reasoned, well-constructed written work product. That's when the e-mail deluge threatens to overwhelm every person in the law school, with every message being urgent and needing immediate attention, even while you must attend more mandatory meetings and respond to more. So the stress level goes up, and up, and up, and tolerance for others can plummet.
In A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student (which I'd submit is also a pretty good guide to being an ASPer), Paula Franzese suggests, "Give everyone and everything the benefit of the doubt. . . . People will rise or fall to your level of expectancy about them. When someone disappoints you, simply say to yourself, 'She wasn't in her right mind just then. She'll get back to good.'"
To Professor Franzese's wise words, I'd add a second piece of advice, which is to go to the source. Did the professor (or student) say something which seemed inappropriate? Are they doing something that is making it hard for you to do your best? If it feels safe, try talking with them directly.
If you don't feel safe, the conversation cannot be direct. For example, if a person screams in your face and punches a fist through the wall, or invades your personal space and growls, "I know where you live, and I'm watching you" (both happened to me in my law school career), you cannot have a safe direct conversation.
Notice I didn't say "If it feels comfortable." Because hard conversations are often uncomfortable, but having the direct conversation often makes matters better. So if a person made an insensitive remark, or someone is wearing so much body spray you can't be in the same room, or if an instructor is piling on what seems to be an excessive amount of homework, or -- well, you can fill in scores of other examples -- then the best way to address the problem is usually the direct approach. Go talk with them, and listen to them. Assertive speech and active listening aren't just skills for the classroom -- they are skills for life, and for the practice of law. Act on the assumption that most people are of good will and don't want to offend you or sabotage your work. Moreover, the folks who have (usually inadvertently) caused you discomfort will appreciate hearing from you first-hand rather than hearing of your disgruntlement from others. They can apologize or explain directly to you, rather than involving others or going through layers of bureaucracy. So respect yourself and respect others by talking with them. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised.