Tuesday, January 7, 2020
The word "resolute" originally got its meaning from the basic meaning of its root verb, "resolve", which was "loosen" or "dissolve". (When Hamlet was depressed about his father's death and thought about joining him, Shakespeare had him wish, "Oh, that this too too solid flesh / Would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew".) So "resolute" initially meant "dissolute" or "infirm". Over time, "resolve" came to take on another meaning, a nuance of "solve" that implied "clarifying" or "freeing from doubt" in a definitive way. As a result, "resolute" also developed a new meaning -- that of "determined" or "firm". So: "resolute" can mean either "infirm" or "firm". It's a word that can mean the opposite of itself, like "sanction" (which can mean either "approve of" or "disapprove of") or "cleave" (which can mean either "adhere" or "separate"). Such words are called contronyms, auto-antonyms, or, in a nod to the two-faced god of transitions and doorways, Janus words. And Janus, of course, is the source of "January" -- the month in which resolutions are made. Coincidence?
Still, there is something droll about the way "resolution" can mean both "a firm declaration or undertaking" and "a dissolution or relaxation". It is like a vast image out of our lexical spiritus mundi, reminding us that simply vowing improvement is no guarantee of success. This is a time of year when a portion of our clientele is highly motivated to change because of the confluence of the New Year, the new semester, and the receipt of disappointing and/or surprising grade reports. We want to take advantage of that impetus, but we also have to find a way to tactfully remind those students that the road to the lowest quartile is paved with good intentions. Here are some suggestions that can help:
- Shift the focus from results to actions. A student who focuses on end results ("I am going to get an A in Property this semester!") or even intermediate results ("I am going to finish all of my reading before every class!") may be setting themselves up for failure if they do not articulate what altered actions will lead to the desired results. Talk them through an assessment of why they did not achieve these results in the prior semester to help them uncover the practical steps they will need to take to achieve them in the new semester. A commitment to start one's reading assignments one hour earlier in the day, for example, is clearer and easier to initiate than simply vowing, without a plan, to complete all reading assignments.
- Beware defensive resolutions. Sometimes students will recognize that they need to make a change in behavior, but -- consciously or unconsciously -- they see that the change that would be most effective is not desirable to them. To avoid that change, they might articulate a different change in behavior -- one that seems to them more achievable or less painful, and usually one that does demonstrate some effort being undertaken, so that it "feels" worthwhile. A student anxious about their essay-writing skills, for example, might promise to create a more detailed and comprehensive course outline next semester. Pressing students to undertake the more meaningful tasks, and applying our expertise to help determine and explain to them what those commitments would be, can be one of our most helpful contributions.
- Suggest ways to monitor compliance and progress. While stress and anxiety can be powerful motivators for change, they can also sap people of the self-assurance and determination that helps them to execute those changes. How common it is for all of us to adopt a new gameplan for life, one with obvious benefits, only to let it fall by the wayside when life kicks into high gear and we fall back into old habits. One of the best ways to support people who are trying to make a change is to find ways to make it easy for them to see how consistent and successful they are being -- it can provide the kind of positive feedback that leads to a virtuous circle, a behavior that reinforces its own existence. Checklists and diaries are ways to do this on their own; buddy systems and regular check-ins with Academic Success are ways to enlist outside help.
- Minimize the sense of "all-or-nothing". When the stakes are high, as they often are in law school, people sometimes see the world in absolute terms. This is often unrealistically constraining. A commitment to briefing every case read, for example, can quickly come to feel like an impossible task if a student misses briefing just one case per class each week, because after a few weeks they may be a dozen cases behind and feeling like they can never catch up. Some students -- not all, but some -- might just give up at that point, out of anxiety or a sense of futility. To help fight this outcome, help the students to see the benefits of the changes they have successfully made, especially in comparison to the situation in which they would have found themselves originally. This task can be easier if you have previously helped them to focus on actions and given them some ways to monitor their progress, so that, even if they do not do everything they had wanted, it will not be hard for them to recognize that the progress they did make was worthwhile.
This is a great time of year for re-evaluation, goal-setting, and developing new habits -- many students are primed for these by the turn of the calendar! But, by their nature, resolutions can be firm or infirm. The best way to nudge them towards the former is to help students make them much more than just resolutions.