Monday, September 20, 2021
One of the ways we support our students who are on academic warning or probation is to require them to take a second-year course in Legal Analysis and Methods. The title is vague enough to appear on a transcript without stigma to the student and, as a side benefit, it also gives us a lot of latitude in what we teach in the course. In my section of Methods, I teach study and exam skills as well as a smidge of legal writing, a dash of argumentation, and a bissel of statutory construction/interpretation. I also conference with students one-on-one towards the beginning of the semester to check in on an ungraded “getting to know you” assignment and to try to understand how they got stuck, I mean were fortunate enough to enroll, in this class.
I had a set “script” for these conferences. At the beginning of each conference, we discussed the ungraded assignment (there is written feedback for everyone as well). I thanked each student for doing a great job in our simulated legislature class last week (seriously, the Massachusetts legislature could learn from them). Then, I asked about the other classes they are taking to see where there might be stress points.
Finally, I ask about the elephant in the room, “How do you find yourself on Academic Warning/Probation?” I intentionally use the passive voice. If a student says they had some “personal problems,” I do not ask for details, I just ask if the issues are resolved (or resolving), and if our Dean of Students’ office is aware of them just in case they need some higher power intervention. If a student says they had issues on exams, I make a note of the type of exam it was for future classes on exam skills. Now granted, I knew some of the students coming into these conferences because we met regularly last year. Other than now knowing how tall they really are and confirming that they do indeed have legs, I didn’t need to hear how they got here, but I did need to know how they were doing now.
This year, like all years, I take notes of these meetings. As I flipped through the legal pad for these conferences after meeting with my 22 students, I saw one word show up at the end of my notetaking for every single student, “Zoom.” This was the always part of the answer to how they found themselves in academic trouble.
Zoom or remote learning wasn’t the whole problem for most students: it was Zoom plus. Students told me that last year was not academically successful because of Zoom plus: ADD, ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, having COVID, having a family member with COVID, having a chaotic living situation, having a bad internet connection, and so on. But remote learning was, as one student put it, “at least 30-40% of the issue.” Everyone in the remote learning situation-those of us teaching and the students learning- were all trying our best. The bottom line is that remote learning does not work for everyone. These students were concerned that when they take the bar, they will not have learned enough in their first-year classes to get them into a passing range. They felt that they were building their law school houses on weak foundations. This is a valid concern. Going through two (or three for evening students) more years of law school feeling like you are perpetually trying to overcome a deficit will also take a toll on confidence.
I am not saying that remote learning is universally negative either. I had students last year that thrived in a remote learning environment, as well as students who were very nervous about returning in-person because of the pandemic. Remote learning allows broader access for students; I think that is the promise of remote learning going forward. A student can, for example, attend a law school in a place they cannot afford to move to (like Boston) or attend school when health or family issues might otherwise prove an insurmountable barrier. And this is not even close to a complete list of pluses.
Yet, the students who preferred remote learning are just simply not the students I am seeing in academic distress right now. I am not asserting that my 22 student class is a representative sample of all law students but they are mine to teach and I need to know where things fell apart for them before they came to me. The current in-person situation has pluses and minuses as well. Students report that are much happier to be back in-person--but also stuck in a position of navigating the 2L curriculum with a 1L understanding of law school culture. Some of them have spent less time in the building than the 1L students who came to school before classes started for orientation-- a few more cracks in the foundation that will need filling. One student thought that being called an upperclassman was laughable because they felt they had very little to offer the incoming class in terms of wisdom and “the ways” of law school. And yet, they hoped that the expertise they did have was, and would continue to be, obsolete. I hope so too.
As academic support folks, we know there have always been (and will most likely be) students who are in academic distress. Some have had family issues, relationship issues, a failure to understand the time investment etc., but it seems that today’s students have all of these troubles plus Zoom.
 Bissel means just a little bit in Yiddish, https://www.dailywritingtips.com/the-yiddish-handbook-40-words-you-should-know/