Tuesday, May 5, 2020
One thing that most of us probably don't full appreciate until we miss it is degree to which we rely on predictability. When things are going well, it is often largely because so many things are doing just what we expect them to do, without us having to think about it. When every paycheck is direct deposited, when every mocha latte tastes just like you like it, when your spouse kisses you every morning and your favorite TV show is on every evening, it's all part of one grand comfortable life. It is not simply or even primarily the easy and convenience that makes it comfortable. It's the reassurance that comes with knowing that, and understanding how, cause leads to effect. Things happen because we make them happen, or if not, at least we expected them to happen, and all that generates confidence and a sense of efficacy.
Suddenly we enter an alternative universe in which supermarkets run out of the most basic, boring staples, like flour; in which basic medical precautions like hand washing might be useless because you were unknowingly infected two weeks ago; in which jobs and income just disappear for even the most conscientious employees; in which graduating with a degree, even with honors, from a decent law school may not even be enough to permit you to take a bar examination, let alone begin earning a living. All of these are aggravating, and some have potentially dire consequences. But taken as a whole, their greatest effect on us may be that they are contradicting our assumptions about how the world reliably runs.
Trust is like a vitamin. When we haven't got a minimum daily requirement -- when there are too many things in our lives that we can't rely on -- it's like a psychic scurvy. Instead of bruising easily and losing our teeth, we panic easily and lose our self-confidence. The cortisol levels in our bloodstreams shoot up, because in an unpredictable world we always have to be prepared to fight or flee. We can't concentrate, we are easily rattled, we might even suffer illness because of it. It's hard. We need to be able to rely on some things to perform well.
This is one of the reasons that humans invented lawyers in the first place. We needed more people we could trust to rely on. We needed people who could develop frameworks of predictable rules so that we would not feel that conflicts were resolved arbitrarily. Lawyers are a testament to the human craving for reliability.
And in order to make lawyers that clients can rely on, we need to teach students to rely on themselves, on their own capabilities and judgment. And this does not happen overnight. First we teach them that they can rely on others -- on their professors to teach them how the law works and on mentors to show them the ropes -- then that they can rely on systems, like legislatures and administrative bodies, and then ultimately on themselves. You know these rules and how to apply them. You understand how to navigate bureaucracy, at least enough to find your way through any new one you encounter. You know how to come up with solutions, how to suggest them to other interested parties, how to negotiate a compromise. You're a cause that has effect, because you are a lawyer.
Even with everything going well in law school, though -- and it may not be, at least not for every student, given the range of burdens that they are shouldering -- when the rest of the world is telling you that you can't eat in your favorite restaurant, that the only available toilet paper is the Want Ads section of your local paper, and it may be more than a year before you can begin working, it can be really easy to spend all your time on edge, trembling at the unclear implications of every announcement from the school or your state bar examiners. And when it is easy to be that anxious, it is usually hard to study, focus, work efficiently, and present yourself to the world as a new lawyer.
So, lately, I've been thinking of how Academic Support professionals are kind of like psychic vitamin supplements. In a world in which everybody feels that so many things are less reliable now, we are telling our students, "Look, you can trust us. We'll explain the right answer; we'll send you feedback on your writing; we will find and share information you might not be able to access yourselves. But we will also teach you that you can trust yourselves. You're learning the rules you need to learn. You're developing the writing and analytical and persuasive skills you need as tools to cause the effects you want. You're going to develop the judgment that makes a good counselor, and some day other people will come to rely on you."
All of that messaging is what we do on a good day. Lately, I feel like I have had to up my game to extra strength multivitamin levels. Making myself available for conferences more frequently; responding to emails super-promptly, before students can feel ignored; finding additional resources for students in increasingly dire straits because of the current crisis. Maybe this is really the core of what Academic Support does best at times like these: by actions that show our students that they can rely on us, we help them see they can rely on their professors, on the law, on the system, so that they can better learn to rely on themselves.