Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The End and Not The End

There is something awesome and fitting about the way the first semester ends just before the winter solstice.  Here in Buffalo, where the late December days are a full hour shorter than they were in Southern California, the astronomical landmark is particularly noticeable.  It is not hard to imagine what it must have been like for those early tribes of humans, tens of thousands of years ago, who first figured out the significance of the shortest day of the year.  It meant the start of winter, to be sure, a time when food supplies had to be husbanded and starvation was always a risk.  Simultaneously, though, it was also a time of plenty, when freshly slaughtered livestock and newly fermented beverages meant feasting and jollity.  And there was reason for celebration, as the solstice meant that the days were once again growing longer.

It is an odd balance, one that has been reached in cultures around the world: holding simultaneously the beliefs that something -- the season, the harvest cycle, the year -- is coming to an end, and that this is really a signifier of continuation and refreshment.  We hold out for the holidays like marathoners stretching for the finish line, while at the same time taking comfort in the knowledge that we get another lap around the course.

For those of us working in Academic Support, this knowledge is invaluable.  Every new year -- calendar or academic -- means adding to our repertoires, tweaking our syllabi, reviewing and responding to our results.  We preach active learning and continuous improvement to our students, and every year we can model these habits to our own students.

In fact, for some of our students, this is a key lesson for them to learn.  Whether it was because they were influenced by a school system that always focused on the next test, or because they were raised without role models who could show them the value of a long-term vision, some students approach the end of the semester the way they might approach the end of an acute illness -- with a sense of gratitude for reaching the conclusion of their struggles, and a feeling of relief that they won't have to think about it any more.

There is, of course, a deserved sense of accomplishment at reaching any milestone, like (especially for 1L students) the end of the fall semester.  But one thing we can do for our students is help make sure that they see this accomplishment in context -- that they recognize that they will face similar challenges, again and again, while they remain in law school, but that they will also be able to take something from this past semester that will help them face those challenges more successfully.  We can remind our students that the winter break is not only a great time for diversion, relaxation, and recharging, but also an opportunity for reflection about what worked and what didn't work, what they enjoyed and want to pursue, and what they want to plan ahead to avoid.  We can also welcome them back in January with a reminder that, even though it is a new calendar year, they are still engaged in the same exciting, fruitful pursuit they were following the previous season, and connecting that semester with this one is a good way to get more out of both.

Best wishes for the coming new year!

[Bill MacDonald]


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