Tuesday, October 24, 2023

A Note on Academic Support Face Time

When I began teaching in the ASP field in 2007, the most common academic support method involved schools stationing a person in an office near areas frequented by students.  This method sought to capture “walk-ins” when students randomly ventured past the office and realized that a chat with the ASP designate would be helpful.  Although many in the field also met with individual at-risk students regularly, that was a tricky task because most schools lacked formal mechanisms to require or strongly compel at-risk students to participate.

But the field has moved towards a more classroom-based model, with support courses taught by instructors and supplemented with individual meetings.1  Despite this, vestigial assumptions about the nature of academic support linger, and performance evaluations sometimes anachronistically focus on the degree to which the ASP faculty member’s office is open and bustling with walk-in business.  This assumption about the necessity of face time ignores the reality that remote academic support has many benefits. 

First, institutionally prohibiting remote academic support and presuming that ASP faculty should focus on walk-ins risks watering down effectiveness.  While being available to all students is important, ASP effectiveness needs to be efficient if law schools need the program to “move the needle.”  Spending hours with the student destined for law review, who already has the self-regulation skills to make use of every available resource, means spending fewer hours with truly at-risk students.  Using remote work by appointment to cordon off time for at-risk students allows academic support faculty to focus more on those needing the help. 

Second, the misunderstanding of ASP methods means that those in the field must be in the office, at best, five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Because so much of ASP work happens outside those hours, with (very) late-night phone calls during bar prep season not uncommon, requiring ASP face time makes a 60-70+ hour a week job even more taxing, ensuring burnout and turnover.

Third, remote academic support helps preserve at-risk students’ privacy.  Because few law schools provide faculty with BigLaw partner-sized offices, meeting semi-privately with struggling students risks putting them in the awkward situation of being spotted by passers-by.  This drives students away and hinders intervention.  Because closing the office door is not a wise practice, a Zoom meeting allows students to position themselves in a place where the conversation can be truly private.  Although there are ways to mitigate or eliminate this problem in an in-person setting, remote meetings can be a tool for accomplishing this, too.

Fourth, remote meetings allow scheduling flexibility that makes academic support more, not less, available to struggling students.  If the in-person 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. model is required, meeting with many students simply is not possible.  Part-time students with jobs often cannot meet until after 5 p.m., and meeting in person with, say, 10 such students a week in the office leaves the academic support faculty member working 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. in-office hours (at best) five days a week.  By contrast, remote meetings open availability to busy students who might otherwise not be available for support.   

Lastly, remote academic support has pedagogical benefits.  Most of my student meetings entail giving feedback to individual students on the exam-like essays they write for my courses required for students in the bottom 20% of the class.  This means going through the essay line-by-line pointing out analytical strengths and weaknesses.  Using Zoom, I can mark up the essay with comments in advance, share that Word doc on Zoom, and go through the comments as both the student and I have our eyes on the same document.  Using the “cognitive think-aloud”2 teaching method, I can edit the paper in front of the student live, delete analytically weaker portions, and replace them with stronger points as the student observes.  Then, I can encourage the student to chime in and contribute to the live reconstruction of the analysis.  While the in-person version of this is certainly viable, I have found that the Zoom approach has its benefits.   

None of this is to say that academic support should be entirely remote.  Establishing in-person rapport and trust with at-risk students is key to creating a relationship that fosters student success.  But regular remote work is both feasible and desirable.  At a time when so many excellent academic support faculty are leaving the field due to burnout, and the ratio of advertised positions to available candidates makes hiring nearly impossible, retaining talented ASP faculty is crucial.  Law schools can foster a more humane work environment by encouraging ASP faculty to work remotely two or three times a week.  Doing so will allow schools to attract and retain ASP faculty candidates who can serve their students well. 

Louis Schulze, FIU Law


1  I do not mean to suggest that the "walk-in" model is necessarily bad.  For some schools, relying solely on this method is a good fit, primarily those with low academic dismissal rates and strong bar passage.  But schools that academically dismiss more than a small handful of students or whose bar pass rates are not optimal should likely employ more proactive measures to support their students instead of or in addition to the "walk-in" model.

2  Cognitive think-aloud protocols "involve the teacher vocalizing the internal thinking that they employ when engaged in literacy practices or other areas of learning." 


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