Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Diving into Spring...

I spent yesterday at a collegiate swim meet. It was indoors for those of you wondering just how crazy we are in Massachusetts (not quite there yet). I sat with an alum of my son’s team, and as a relative newbie (he’s a freshman), I asked a lot of questions about the etiquette and process of this kind of competition. My son is a walk-on to the team (maybe a dive-in?), and he didn’t swim in high school, so my knowledge of swim meet procedure fossilized somewhere in late middle school. My alum guide was very patient with me (she is planning a demeanor-appropriate career in clinical psychology).

As much as I was excited to see my son (he’s my youngest and college has hit me hard), swim meets are not the most pleasant spectator sport. First of all, it is hot-and humid--I could hear my hair frizzing, the “seats” in the viewing gallery are hard (and without backs), and it is incredibly loud in a space that seems intended to warp and amplify sound. Having spent time underwater in my lifetime, I was surprised at the way coaches were cheering for their swimmers although it seemed like the swimmers would be unable to hear them (as their ears were mostly in the water) or see them (as they had to look straight ahead or at the ceiling for the back strokers). I asked my kind college swim meet guru who was in that position just a few years back if the swimmers could even hear the cheering. She confirmed that you really couldn’t hear it, nor could you really see the folks on the side of the pool jumping up and down and urging you to go faster.

But, every single person on the side or end of the pool was either a current swimmer or coach (who has no doubt had competitive swimming experience) and thus must have known that the swimmers couldn’t hear or see them. To me, this is almost the team sport definition of altruism: cheering for someone who couldn’t see or hear you just because they are your teammate. It is true that everyone wanted to win the swim meet, but each individual swim was neither victory nor loss defining.

In a way, Academic Support folks are the coaches on the side of the pool. As students start to come see us (or are asked to see us) with their fall grades, we will review their performance and coach them on their form, their entry, their turns, their methods between exams (meets), and their finishes.  We will tell them that grades are not defining (and they might not believe us, and they are, sadly, somewhat right about that).

First, we will consider entry. We will go back to beginning of how students handled the competing tasks of the semester and look for cleaner and more efficient ways for them to get into the material. Then we will look at the course of the semester in terms of study methods, outlining, juggling responsibilities, and time (and resource) management. Finally, we will discuss how to push to the finish. We will work towards personal records rather than pure wins.

Getting students to understand that you are on their team in helping them succeed is pivotal in this process. Like college athletes, our students may have had other coaches who taught them differently; or may have been told that they have natural talents that will propel them through challenges. Some students will blame outside circumstances for poor grades-and while this may be true in some circumstances[1]- it is often not  a helpful mindset. Students need to see that there are things that they can control that can be tweaked (or entirely overhauled) in order to perform better. Pools may have warmer or colder water than where you practice, but you can be ready for these issues if you prepare. The issues students have can be input issues like reading, outlining, engagement in class; or output issues like exam writing or multiple choice methods. And we need to remind them that they valuable members of our community/team. Everyone in law school belongs on the team and (this one is not easy to see) we all win when we do our personal best.

In the meantime, I’ll be sweaty and frizzy and yelling my support to all the students who were hoping for better grades whether they see me or not. 

(Liz Stillman)


[1] Family emergencies, medical emergencies, mental health, financial issues, disruptions during the exam, and many other things happen-and they can change exam outcomes. However, it is very unlikely, especially in a school (like ours) that uses blind exam grading, that personal animus or even annoyance on the part of faculty is a factor in a final grade.


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