Thursday, October 17, 2019
Ok...here's a thought experiment...
What person or name first comes to mind as the best learner of all time?
Feel free to blurt it out...
Perhaps Albert Einstein?
Or Marie Curie?
Or maybe the great scholar, teacher, and mathematician Hypatia?
Well, according to cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik (U.C. Berkeley), it turns out that "...babies are the best learners in the universe." A. Gopnik, The Ultimate Learning Machine, Wall Street Journal (Oct 12, 2019)
In fact, as a research psychologist, Dr. Gopnik explains that the key to successful development of artificial intelligence requires that computers learn to learn to learn and think like human babies. Id. And, that's very difficult for machines to do. Id. Computers are brilliant in processing lots and lots of data but not nearly so good as babies and toddlers in accurately making sense and judgements about the world around them with very little data to boot. Id. And, most of the time, we have very little data, too.
Take law school for example.
We read perhaps a handful of cases on intentional torts. Perhaps a few on contract formation or consideration. A few more about equal protection. And, out of just a few experiences we are suppose to generalize, to synthesize, to figure out what intentional torts are all about, or contract law, or equal protection analysis.
So, that begs the question.
Perhaps we as legal educators might also learn a few things about how to learn by also exploring how babies learn to learn...and learn so expertly and so quickly with so little knowledge at the start [since we too --in our work with law students --often given our law students very little to go on to figure out "the law."].
According to Dr. Gopnik, babies learn through the process of making a mess. Or, as Dr. Gopnik accentuates, "MESS," which is an acronym that stands for building models about the world that they observe, curiously exploring the world around then, and learning in social experiences with others. Id.
For example, with respect to models, toddlers and even babies can construct common sense models about such topics as physics and even psychology. Id. With respect to psychology, even a one-year old baby, when seeing an adult drop a pen, will try to help pick up the pen for the adult out of apparent empathy for the other (but not if the adult was seen by the baby intentionally dropping the pen). Id. You see, little toddlers have already learned through curious observations about gravity and even about human intentions too. Id.
With respect to exploring the world, "[babies] are insatiably curious and active experimenters. Parents call this 'getting into everything.'" Id. Toddlers love to explore, to test out everything, to take things apart and to try to put them together. Id. It's this sort of "playful experimentation" that is another secret to the ability of children to learn so adeptly. Id.
The final factor relates to learning in social contexts. Babies learn by observing people around them, who have the benefit of often times years of experiences, by trying to imitate them. But there's even more. Take the situation of toddlers learning to tie sneakers. Id. Try as you might, it turns out that it is very difficult to teach computers to learn to tie sneakers [I think it would take lots of mathematical code!]. But children learn to tie shoes by watching others, focusing on the purpose of the task and not just the steps, which leads to learning. Id. That's something that's just plain difficult for machines to do.
In fact, computers can't generalize very well at all from limited data (i.e., they aren't very good at creating accurate common sense models); they don't really experience the world around them (except to the extent that humans pre-program computers to "act" in particular ways; and they don't have an ability to watch what others are doing (and extract out of those observed activities what purposes might be lurking in one's activities).
So, that takes us back to law school. What can we learn about learning the law from babies?
First, as law students read cases (or even before), students can create models or theories about what might lay ahead as they read case after case (or what principle or principles might hold them together). In short, law students can formulate hypotheses about what they are preparing to read.
Second, as law students work on learning, students should be encouraged to tinker with the cases, to explore them, to be curiously playful. In particular, law students can imagine different facts, different judges, and whether those sorts of changes might change outcomes.
Third, as law students learn to solve legal problems, faculty should explore with them how they solve legal problems, perhaps walking through reading essay questions and then even writing out answers in real time, with students then having the opportunity to practice themselves by trying to imitate what they watched experts perform. And, students should be encouraged to think about the purpose behind solving the legal problems and reading the cases.
I know. There's a lot of deep cognitive science behind learning. But, perhaps the key to learning is not quite as difficult as we (or at least I) sometimes make it out to be. Life is complex; perhaps learning is not so complex; perhaps it's one of life's beautiful secrets that we - as legal educators and as law students - can learn from the smallest among us.
So, next time you see a baby, pay attention; there are important life lessons to be learned!
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween. In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.
Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement. Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve. Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve. But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.
The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution. It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks. The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected. Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week. With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming. A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them. It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.
But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable. And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week. Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills. Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.
After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings. Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
It's never too late to make a difference…a positively meaningful difference...to improve academic performance for students, and, in particular, for underrepresented students.
You see, as demonstrated by social science research from psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, a sense of belonging - as a valued participant within a cooperative learning community - is critical to academic success.
Indeed, belonging changes lives.
And, there's more great news.
According to the research, just a "brief social-belonging intervention" can make all the difference. A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. And, that brief intervention is especially valuable for African-American students. Id.
So, here are the details, at least as I paraphrase the research findings.
Preliminarily, the researchers hypothesized that a brief intervention in the first week of undergraduate studies - to directly tackle the issue of belonging in college - might make a measurable impact with respect to academic performance and health outcomes. As background, previous research had suggested that a lack of a sense of belonging was particularly detrimental for academic success in college.
The research intervention was threefold.
First, the researchers directly shared survey information with students, showing that most college students "had worried about whether they belonged in college during the difficult first year but [they] grew confident in their belonging with time." Id.
Second, the students were encouraged to internalize the survey messages about belonging by writing a brief essay to describe "how their own experiences in college [in the first week] echoed the experiences summarized in the survey." Id.
Third, the students then created short videos of their essays...for the express purpose of sharing their feelings with future generations of incoming students, so that participating students would not feel like they were stigmatized by the intervention (but rather that they were beneficially involved in making the world better for future generations of incoming students - just like them). Id.
According to the research results, surveys in the week following the intervention indicated that participating students sensed that the intervention buttressed their abilities to overcome adversities and enhanced their achievement of a sense of belonging.
And, the impact was long-lasting, even when participating students couldn't recall much at all about the intervention.
The researchers then used the statistical method of multiple regression to control for various other possible influences.
As documented by their research findings, the intervention was particularly beneficial for African-American students - both in terms of improving GPA and also for improving well-being. In short, a brief intervention led to demonstrable benefits with students outperforming such traditional academic predicators such as standardized admission test scores. That's big news.
That brings us back to us ASPers!
As ASPers, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful interventions...by sharing the great news about social belonging.
But, there's more involved than just sharing the news.
Based on the research findings, to make a real difference for our students, our students must not just see themselves - in the words of the research psychologists - as just "beneficiaries" of the intervention...but rather as "benefactors" of the intervention. Id.
In short, the key is to empower our law students with tools to share with future generations of students what they learned about adversity, belonging, and overcoming…and how to thrive in law school.
Wow! What a spectacular opportunity…and a challenge too!
P.S. Here's the research abstract to provide a precise overview of the research findings:
"A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health."
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
July 2019 bar exam results are not due to be released in New York for a few more weeks, but already here in Buffalo we have glad tidings, for one of our students took the Florida bar exam and has learned that she has passed. What a thrill! One that will soon be experienced by many others across the land.
Is there anything else that prompts the same surreal combination of pride and relief? In an instant, a person’s very definition changes. They go from not possessing a certain authority to possessing it (at least after other formalities are met). Is it any wonder that the storied Jonathan Harker, wandering alone in a foreign land and distracted by the strangeness of it all, forgot for a moment his own momentous achievement?:
What sort of place had I come to, and among what kind of people? What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked? Was this a customary incident in the life of a solicitor’s clerk sent out to explain the purchase of a London estate to a foreigner? Solicitor’s clerk! Mina would not like that. Solicitor—for just before leaving London I got word that my examination was successful; and I am now a full-blown solicitor!
Harker’s momentary pleasure at the memory of his bar passage is soon dampened, however, by the cold foreboding of the great estate he stands before – and no wonder, for only a few minutes later he meets the master of that castle, who greets him with the words, “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! . . . I am Dracula. . .”
Whatever horrors Harker had to face next, at least he had made it past the doubt and anxiety that many people feel while waiting for their bar results to be revealed. Consider the unfortunate Mitch McDeere, the latest Harvard Law graduate to be hired by the high-end Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. One autumn afternoon, Mitch is called unexpectedly into an urgent meeting:
Lambert, Avery, and what appeared to be most of the partners sat around the conference table. All of the associates were present, standing behind the partners. . . . The room was quiet, almost solemn. There were no smiles. . .
“Sit down, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said gravely. “We have something to discuss with you.” . . . He frowned sincerely, as if this would be painful. “We’ve just received a call from Nashville, Mitch, and we wanted to talk with you about it.”
Poor Mitch immediately guesses what this is all about:
The bar exam. The bar exam. The bar exam. History had been made. An associate of the great Bendini firm had finally flunked the bar exam. . . . He wanted to speak, to explain that he deserved just one more chance, that the exam would be given again in six months and he would ace it, that he would not embarrass them again. A thick pain hit below the belt.
“Yes, sir,” he said humbly, in defeat.
Lambert moved in for the kill. “We aren’t supposed to know these things, but the folks in Nashville told us that you made the highest score on the bar exam. Congratulations, Counselor.”
The room exploded with laughter and cheers.
Surprise! Not what Mitch was expecting. Unfortunately, Mitch’s satisfaction is nearly as short-lived as was Harker’s, for less than two pages later, in John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitch McDeere meets an FBI agent who explains that the Bendini firm is mostly a front for the criminal activities of the Chicago Mob, and that attorneys who try to leave the firm always end up dead.
Dracula and The Firm were both sensationally popular novels, which suggests that there is something highly resonant about the notion of passing the ultimate test of professional ability, only to be led directly into a world of evil and mortal danger. I suspect some people enjoy the irony – He’s supposed to be so smart, but he wasn’t smart enough to avoid the King of the Undead or the Capo di Tutti Capi – and other people appreciate the moral question – Does mere intellectual knowledge even matter when a person is faced with a threat to his life and soul?
But law graduates might see yet another layer to these tales: After all this hard work to pass the bar, over three crushing years in law school and ten blistering weeks of bar preparation, is my “success” just going to take the form of an indenture to forces that seek only to exhaust my vitality to feed their own appetites? True, most attorneys do not end up working for vampires or gangsters, but even a wholesome job for a decent employer can feel like purgatory to someone whose interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere. When our students are no longer our students, when they have taken and passed the bar and are out there gainfully employed, is that the end of their stories?
There might be a brief frisson in thinking so. Isn’t that why people read suspense stories? But if there are two last messages we can leave our students with, they are that passing the bar is both an ending and a beginning, and that the skills they’ve learned in meeting that particular challenge will be skills they can use in meeting future challenges as well. If they can pass the bar exam, they can overcome anything – a misfit job, a toxic employer, even a threat to their lives and souls.
And Jonathan Harker and Mitch McDeere are evidence of this, because they each survive their ordeals. In both Dracula and The Firm, the heroes triumph by relying on three core competences – the same three competencies we emphasize in preparing our own students to pass the bar and to perform well in practice: knowledge of the law, application of sound personal judgment, and reliance on a network of support. Harker escapes from Dracula's castle by finding an unconventional route to freedom and judging that the risks of flight are smaller than those of remaining in place. Once he makes it back to England, he uses his legal skills to locate Dracula's hidden lairs, documented in a tangle of deeds and conveyances, and then he teams up with a band of friends to track down and eliminate the fiend and his minions. McDeere has the good sense to realize that neither the firm nor the FBI has his safety or best interests at heart, and, turning to a small group of family members of those previously hurt by the mob's activities, devises his own plan to use the legal tools he has learned to escape from the gangsters while passing along the evidence needed to bring down the Bendini firm. Sure, this is all fiction and fantasy, but fiction is often popular because it provides another way of telling a truth.
To everyone who finds out in the next few weeks that they have passed the bar examination: Congratulations, and may the rest of your life be just as successful. Know that you have the ability to make it so.
Thursday, September 26, 2019
Common wisdom often suggests more is better...at least when it comes to passing the bar exam. But, just like more medicine is not always better for one's body (and even poisonous when taking too much), perhaps undertaking more bar-tested subjects as a law student is not associated with increasing bar passage results, at least for those most at-risk of not passing the bar exam. And, perhaps avoiding experiential learning courses is not necessary for students most at-risk of not passing the bar exam. Indeed, the latest forthcoming empirical research is all about exploring common conceptions about the relationships among experiential learning, taking bar-tested electives, and bar exam outcomes.
To evaluate these questions, we turn to two empiricist law professors - Robert Kuehn at Washington University and David Moss at Wayne State University - who have just released "must-read" research analyzing often-expressed narratives about the impacts of experiential learning and bar-tested elective courses on bar exam outcomes. Robert Kuehn and David Moss, A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes, 68 J. Legal Educ. (2019) (forthcoming).
First, the authors evaluate the hypothesis that law students should refrain from taking too many experiential learning courses (such as clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), most likely based on the belief that experiential learning crowds out doctrinal learning.
Second, the researchers evaluate the hypothesis that law students should take more bar-tested subjects rather than fewer to boost ones' promise of bar exam success, particularly for those most at-risk of not passing bar exams.
Their research is robust, using regression analysis to evaluate such variables as LSAT scores, UGPA, first-year LGPA, graduating LGPA, experiential learning courses (clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), and bar-tested elective subjects [regression analysis allows researchers to control or take into account the influence of other variables in order to observe whether experiential learning credits and/or bar-tested course work are associated with improved bar exam outcomes].
As indicated in their republished table below, their research spans an impressive 10 year time span, examining first-time bar exam results, for 3891 law school graduates from Washington University and Wayne State University.
Given the depth and breadth of the professors' research, their findings provide food-for-thought for these two questions, at least based on their law school populations, as to whether law students most-at risk of bar failure based on LGPA should take fewer experiential learning courses and/or more bar-tested elective subjects.
As an initial observation, with respect to LSAT scores, both law schools observed relatively consistent LSAT means throughout the course of the ten-year period despite a general downward trend in bar passage rates beginning in or around 2013 and 2014. Consequently, at least based on their law school populations, bar exam declines appear to be unrelated to LSAT admission decisions since LSAT scores remained relatively flat throughout the ten-year research period.
With respect to experiential learning courses, the authors observe that both law schools have seen astounding increases in the number of experiential credits hours that their students are taking over the ten year period, which is not surprising given the American Bar Association's 2014 requirement mandating increased experiential learning requirements in order for law schools to satisfy more recent accreditation standards.
Nevertheless, despite the occasional claim suggesting that law students are taking too many experiential courses, which might compromise bar exam results, the researchers found that there was no statistical association between increases in experiential learning credits hours and bar exam performance (to include those students most at-risk of bar exam failure). Thus, the authors suggest that law schools should not counsel students to avoid experiential learning opportunities.
With respect to bar-tested elective subjects, the authors observed that both law schools have found that more recent bar takers are taking fewer bar-tested subjects than in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found a modest correlation between taking bar-tested subjects and bar exam outcomes but only for those students with LGPA's that placed them most at-risk of bar exam failure.
However, critically, the authors observed that that was an apparent sweet spot in the number of bar-tested subjects taken by at-risk students such that there was no statistical benefit in at-risk students taking more than the approximate average number of bar-tested subjects at each school (just four electives out of fourteen bar-tested subjects for Washington University students and just seven electives out of nineteen bar-tested subjects for Wayne State students).
In other words, in my reading of their research based on their populations of bar exam takers, law schools might counsel at-risk students to take a handful or so of bar-tested subjects but also advise them that they need not take the entire panoply of bar-tested elective subjects (as more than the average has no empirical benefit of improving bar exam outcomes). And, we should not at all fear encouraging at-risk students from actively participating in experiential learning courses, whether in the form of clinics, internships, and/or simulation courses.
In short, there's much room for curricular exploration by at-risk students without compromising their bar exam outcomes...and that's good news worth thinking about as we meet with our students about their curriculum choices.
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Last year, one of my international students brought to me a response she had written to a mid-tern exam question. She was wholly perplexed, because the professor had given her a low score on this particular response, and yet, even in looking at the notes the professor had written on her paper, she could not fathom where she had gone wrong. Bizarrely, the more the two of us discussed her essay, the more confused I became about why she had written what she had written. Finally, and wholly by accident, I stumbled across the source of the trouble. At one point the exam question referred to someone being "served", and my student had not recognized this usage as being connected with "service of process". The latter term she understood, but she read the off-hand and abbreviated statement that "X was served" as some form of hospitality, not legal action. ("Have some tea!") This was partly because English was her second language, and undoubtedly also partly because she did not grow up watching movie and TV shows in which frumpy anonymous operatives walk up to the protagonists, slap envelopes against their chests, and say, "You've been served!" For much of our discussion, it had not even occurred to me that this could be a source of confusion, and of course there was no way the student could have known it herself.
I thought about this episode last week, when I was attending a conference hosted by the NCBE, in which some of the presenters were discussing the ongoing evolution of the development of MBE and MEE questions. Part of that evolution includes the elimination, or at least minimization, of the use of terms whose meaning was not tied to the practice of law and might not be recognized by all of the examinees. An example given involved a torts question involving a car that had been damaged in a collision. In the original question, the defendant was identified as "Union Pacific", and it was apparent that the rest of the question was written with the assumption that examinees would recognize Union Pacific as a company that operated railroads, and that therefore the collision under consideration was between a car and a locomotive. The newer, improved version of the question simply referred to the defendant as "a railroad company", thus providing the information needed for proper analysis to all examinees.
Discussion at that point livened up a bit, as presenters and participants brainstormed about other terminology that question writers should considered changing in order to make their questions more accessible. These tended to fall into a few categories:
- References to people, businesses, locations -- generally, things that could be identified with proper nouns -- that might be recognized by some people (but not all people) as possessing some characteristic relevant to the legal analysis. For example, a question that named Gregory Hines as a plaintiff in a case in which his feet were injured might reflect the expectation that examinees would recognize Hines was famously a dancer, and that therefore a foot injury might generate greater damages to him than to an average person. A question that mentions "Reno" might rest on the assumption that everyone knows Reno is in Nevada and gambling is legal there.
- References to technology, fads, or news items from two or more decades ago that most of us who were alive and adult at that time would instantly recognize, but the significance of which might be totally lost on people currently in their 20s. A question that depends on the operation of an answering machine or the effect of a slap bracelet may only be accessible to a portion of the testing population.
- Specialized terms for everyday objects that nevertheless are not commonly used in conversation. A question that depends on knowing the difference between a banister and a balustrade, or between a lintel and a gable, is probably going to lose a portion of the examinees.
It can be hard, when writing exam questions or practice questions, to resist the temptation to make a clever reference or to give examinees the chance for a moment of recognition. But our tests are not supposed to be tests of any vocabulary but legal vocabulary. If an examinee misses the opportunity to demonstrate that he knows the appropriate rule, and can apply it skillful to relevant facts, because he did not have access to the full meaning of the fact pattern so that he could recognize the issue that leads to that rule, then the examinee has been unfairly denied a chance to shine.
Monday, September 23, 2019
The most important knowledge teachers need to do good work is a knowledge of how students are experiencing learning and perceiving their teacher’s actions. ~ Steven Brookfield
I love innovative pedagogy. Tools like mind maps, retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and self-directed leaning strategies have been game changers in higher education. I am always looking for ways to enhance and improve my teaching. But innovation is an enhancement to, and not a replacement for, the most basic tenets of quality classroom teaching. In this series of weekly blog posts, I will address teaching basics that are the telltale traits of effective teachers.
- Know your audience
We cannot afford to make assumptions about the knowledge or background of the students in our classes. Recently, I attended a conference planned for academic support and bar prep professionals. The first few hours of the conference were devoted almost entirely to explaining basic components of the bar exam. I concluded that the presenters either underestimated the skill and experience of the audience or failed to tailor a previously used presentation for the present audience. My perception of audience reaction to the content and delivery was a combination of polite appreciation, genuine curiosity, and suppressed rage. As audience participants, we have both the luxury and opportunity to make critical assessments of the projected and realized learning outcomes. But a seat on the other side of the podium also yields an enlightened perspective on effective learning strategies.
Rather than disconnect myself entirely from the redundancy of the content presented, I used the time to introspectively examine whether I had made the same mistakes. To my deep chagrin, I had. Insert hand raise emoji. I teach an early bar prep course, enrollment in which is restricted to students in their final year of law school. Because I cannot cover all the bar exam subjects in the time allotted for class, I select a few subjects. Routinely included in my course coverage are Property, Torts, Evidence, and Criminal Law. Although I intentionally include required courses, and stray away from electives that not all students will have taken, I failed to thoroughly research my audience this semester. In so doing, I did not discover, until after class had begun, that two students in my class had not yet completed the required course in Evidence.
One student was concurrently enrolled in Evidence and my course, the other had decided to wait until next semester to complete their requirements. I gut-wrenched at the thought of their polite, yet passive, frustration with me as I assigned practice questions testing hearsay - a topic with which they had no prior exposure. Of course, there are many law schools who do not require coursework in Evidence, and a corresponding number of students who learn/study the evidentiary rules for the first time during bar prep. Pedagogically, however, had I taken the time (actually a lot of time) to review the transcripts of the students enrolled in my class, I could have scheduled assignments that equally serve and challenge them all. Even though time consuming, doing my homework on my audience is just as important as being well studied in the subject matter that I teach. Suddenly my frustration with another’s seeming underestimation of my knowledge base was supplanted with embarrassment by my own overestimation of my students’.
Thursday, September 19, 2019
With a hat tip to Prof. Chris Lasch...
This week, a federal judge issued an order, finding that the New York State Board of Law Examiners is not immune under the Eleventh Amendment in a civil action by a bar exam applicant who was twice denied testing accommodations, alleging violations of federal disability law. T.W. v New York State Board of Law Examiners, Memorandum and Order, September 18, 2019, U.S. District Court E.D New York, Case 16-CV-3029 (J. Dearie).
According to the brief facts as stated in the court's memorandum of its order, the plaintiff failed the New York Bar Exam in her "first two tries, causing her to lose a lucrative job...and undermining her job prospects to date," although the plaintiff subsequently passed the New York bar exam when she was finally provided testing accommodations.
The plaintiff raises two federal statutes in support of her claim that the New York bar examiners violated her rights in failing to twice provide bar exam accommodations. First, the plaintiff asserts violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which, roughly speaking, prohibits discrimination by any program or activity that receives federal final assistance. Second, the plaintiff asserts violation of the Americans with Disability Act ("ADA"), which, broadly speaking and in relevant parts, prohibits discrimination by programs and activities by any public entity.
The New York bar examiners filed a motion to dismiss, contending that the federal court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over both of the plaintiff's federal statutory claims in that the State contends that the plaintiff's claims are barred by sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, which, in general, prohibits suits in federal court against states absent an exception (two of which were raised by the plaintiff in response to the defendant's motion to dismiss).
First, with respect to the ADA statutory claim, the plaintiff asserted that Congress properly abrogated (or removed) state sovereign immunity when Congress adopted the ADA statute.
As indicated by the Court (and as tested in law school exams and bar exams too), Congress can remove sovereign immunity provided that Congress uses unmistakably clear language and provided that Congress adopted the statute at issue pursuant to congressional power to remedy and deter constitutional violations under Congress's post-Civil War 14th Amendment Section 5 power.
With respect to this issue, the New York bar examiners argued that Title II of the ADA was not enacted pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority as the commerce clause power, in and of itself, is constitutionally insufficient for Congress to abrogate state sovereign immunity. Despite the interesting constitutional arguments over this issue, the Court did not reach the constitutional issue with respect to the ADA, explaining that the plaintiff's claim under the Rehabilitation Act was sufficient to resolve this case because the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA have the "same legal standards and remedies." Thus, the Court focused only on whether to dismiss the plaintiff's claim under the Rehabilitation Act for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on Eleventh Amendment immunity.
Second, with respect to the Rehabilitation Act claim, the plaintiff asserted that the State waived its constitutional right under the Eleventh Amendment to not be sued in federal court when the State accepted federal funding for some of its state court programs.
As the Court stated in its decision, the Rehabilitation Act requires states to waive sovereign immunity as a condition of receiving federal funds for state programs for lawsuits brought in federal courts for violations of the Rehabilitation Act. Consequently, the Court next focused on whether the state waived its constitutional rights when the New York court system received, in part, federal funding.
In brief, the Court held that the New York bar examiners had waived sovereign immunity protections from lawsuit in federal court under the Rehabilitation Act because the New York bar examiners were organized as a sub-entity of the New York court system, which did receive federal funding, and therefore, the plaintiff's claim of violation of the Rehabilitation Act by the New York bar examiners could proceed to the next stage of litigation as the court has federal question subject matter over the plaintiff's claim.
With respect to this issue, the decision is a bit complicated and is fact intensive, as illustrated by the Court's citations out of Wisconsin, which indicate that the Wisconsin bar examiners are distant separate entities from the Wisconsin court system. In such cases, the particular government entity must intentional waive its sovereign immunity rights by receiving federal funding, which, apparently, the Wisconsin bar examiners did not.
Nevertheless, with respect to New York, the Court ruled that the New York bar examiners were a sub-compnent agency of the larger state court system such that the New York bar examiners are subject to lawsuit in federal court based on the Rehabilitation Act. As such, the Court denied the New York bar examiners motion to dismiss. Consequently, the plaintiff can proceed with a claim against the New York bar examiners in federal court for violation of the Rehabilitation Act.
For those of us in the academic support field, that raises an interesting question because, anecdotally, even in states using the identical Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), it seems as though there are wide differences with respect to granting disability testing accommodations. But, before you counsel students to sue state bar examiners in federal court for potential violations of the Rehabilitation Act, its important to underscore that that a case in federal court might well turn on a deep analysis of the organizational and legal structure of the bar examiners, specifically, whether they are a sub-entity of a state agency that is the recipient of federal funding. Many or some state bar examiners might not receive any federal funding and might well be independent of a state agency that does receive federal funding such that federal litigation might be precluded against state bar examiners.
Finally, for those of you working with law students (or bar exam applicants), this is a great case to raise with them because it interweaves federal civil procedure and constitutional law. Indeed, this is a problem ripe for a bar exam question. And, for those law students preparing for midterms in civil procedure or constitutional law, this is a great practice problem to test one's analysis.
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Four weeks into the semester, the reports of law dreams are starting to trickle in.
For those who have never experienced this phenomenon, law dreams are the bane of the conscientious law student. (I've never had a report of a classic law dream from a devil-may-care student.) The law dream doesn't resemble your garden-variety exam dream, in which students dream they are sitting down to take a Corporate Taxation exam when they haven't even finished Contracts, let alone registered for any upper-division courses. No, the classic law dream, as I've experienced it and as students describe it, involves involuntarily wrestling with legal concepts during sleep. After a full day of conscientious studying, you lay yourself down to sleep, hoping to feel rested and refreshed in the morning. You drift off to sleep, and suddenly your unconscious brain is wrestling with the reason Palsgraf wasn't decided on the basis of duty, why it matters which ship "Peerless" the cotton from Bombay was loaded on in its passage to Liverpool, or whether to treat consent or its lack as an element of the tort or as a defense. These dreams feel like they last forever, and students wake up feeling drained by the mental struggle.
Exhausting as law dreams may be, it may be some comfort to know they serve a useful function. Tons of research now shows how important sleep is not only for health but also for memory consolidation, with different areas of the brain consolidating long-term memory and procedural memory. Sleep after learning is essential to save the short-term memories into long-term memory, and new research also suggests that sleep is needed before new learning so the brain is receptive to new memories. But what about those law dreams? One influential paper suggests that "Type I" thought-like dreams are the result of memory replay as data is transferred from short-term working memory to long-term memory during non-REM sleep (those are the law dreams), while "Type II" dreams during REM sleep are the more familiar non-linear dreams. Remember the old jokes about sleeping with your book under your pillow to learn? Some researchers now advocate using sleep for active problem-solving by focusing on a problem before going to bed. There's even a technique called "lucid dreaming" which allows sleepers to gain control over the progression of their dreams as they practice awareness that they are actually dreaming and make choices about what will happen in the dream. Lucid dreaming, though, is only possible if you have regular healthy sleep.
Now, go to bed.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
I have to make a confession. Last week, I admitted that - as a law student - I was a proverbial "deer-in-the-headlights" when it came my time to face an ambush of socratic questioning. Confessions of a Socratic Deer (Sep 5, 2019). In retrospect, I think that some of that was due to my method of class preparation, namely, I tried to memorize as much of the case materials as I could so that I could regurgitate the cases when called upon (an impossible task, mind you!).
Now, looking back, I think I should have focused, as indicated in the final point of last week's blog, on preparing for classes by preparing my own questions about the cases assigned as reading, writing:
"As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney." Id.
That's when I got super-excited about the super-short case preparation checklist from the Royal Court of Justice for the Kingdom of Bhutan. Royal Bhutan Case Preparation Checklist (2018).
It's just two pages long but jam-packed with informative tips and questions that, in retrospect, would have made a mountain of difference in my law school learning, not to mention my confidence in the face of potential socratic questioning.
As the Royal Court explains in its document entitled "Briefing a Case," case briefing in preparation for court [and classes of course] is critically important for lawyers [and law students] because the process of case briefing "...organizes ones thinking and forces one, point by point, to consider all the important elements of the decision. Id.
To paraphrase, the Royal Court's checklist focuses one's mind on 8 steps:
- State the parties of the case and what they want.
- Provide a brief synopsis of essential facts.
- Briefly describe the procedural history of what happened.
- Find out the issue or issues.
- Figure out the holding/decisions of the judges.
- Explain the court's chain of reasoning using IRAC analysis.
- State the ultimate order of the court in disposition of the case.
- Voice your analysis. Id.
In my opinion, the first 7 steps are the means to an end with the end lying in step 8 - voicing your analysis.
As the Royal Court indicates its checklist, in the last step about voicing your analysis, explore the significance of the case, figure out how the case relates to others that you have read, identify the case's place in history, ponder what the case shows you about judges, courts, and society in general (to include its impact on litigants, both now and in the future), unpack both the explicit and implicit assumptions of the court, and engage in a thoughtful debate the "rightness" of the decision to include its persuasiveness and logic. Id.
I know that that sounds like a lot to take in. But, learning the law requires learning legal analysis and learning legal analysis requires digging in deeply into the cases assigned for each of your classes. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time in law school re-reading cases, trying to memorize them, rather than trying to see the patterns in legal thought and persuasion and, best yet, voicing my own analysis of them.
In short, as I reflect on my own law school experience, the key to case briefing and class preparation, it seems to me, is to take on the role of Socrates yourself, prior to class, in which you probe and ponder the cases assigned. As a bonus I can promise you, you'll learn to think like a lawyer and, more importantly, you'll be the sort of attorney to which your clients will be mighty grateful because you honed your skills and sharpened your analysis in law school (rather than with them).
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
I was in my office, polishing that day's lecture for my 1L class, when the alien appeared soundlessly outside my door, as tall and dazzling as the ones I had seen on the news. They had been on Earth for two weeks now, appearing one by one or in small groups -- at the United Nations, in research laboratories, in churches and legislatures and boardrooms and newsrooms -- each time sharing a book, or a piece of art, or a technological contraption, describing briefly the gift they were giving, and then disappearing has suddenly as they had come. The world's armies and scientists had confirmed that a huge spacecraft was parked at the L4 point in the moon's orbit, and it was presumed that was the aliens' home base. But no one knew how they were coming down to the planet. Or why, precisely.
My alien was huge -- as he stepped into my office, he had to bend forward stiffly to fit through the door frame, and even then his broad shoulders brushed the door jambs on each side. It was like watching a rockslide. But once inside, he lifted his craggy head and smiled. With his chalky skin, and an enormous row of teeth that shimmered like the effervescent material of his robes, he looked like a James Bond villain who had repented and joined a Las Vegas monastery.
"You teach," he said, in a deep stony voice that seemed to simultaneously ask and answer the question. I nodded dumbly. He then pulled from a fold of his robes what looked like a dark packet of some kind, and held it out to me. As I took it, I realized it was a book, hand bound in rich Corinthian leather, with words embossed in silver across the front: TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS.
"What is this?" I said aloud, not to the alien but to myself. I looked up at him, and with a nod he let me know that it was permissible to open the book. I ran my hand over the cover -- I had never felt a volume so warm, so soothing, like a puppy's belly -- and I lifted the book to look at the words inside. Then I felt the strangest sensation. The characters on the page made no sense at all to me; they might have been Cyrillic or katakana or Ge'ez jumbled together for all I knew. But somehow, touching that warm cover, I knew what the text meant. I knew what I was meant to do -- that afternoon, in class, with the entire 1L class before me. I would --
A sudden high-pitched gasp interrupted my reverie, and I reflexively slammed the book shut. In the hallway, eyes agape, stood my student assistant, Patty. She looked from my alien to me and back again, not sure what she should do next. Before I could say either "Run!" or "Come in!", the alien resolved the situation. He growled, "Teach, you," and then vanished. It was like a light bulb burning out -- a brief flare, and then instantly the room seemed darkened by his absence. But he left the book.
Patty ran in. "Professor MacDonald, was that an alien? What did it leave you?" She came around to my side of the desk, like a referee repositioning herself, so she could read the cover.
"It says, 'TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS,'" I pointed out. "That's what I do. I think it's a gift to help me do more for my students." I flipped open the book, turning the pages without touching the cover. "The language -- well, it all looks like gibberish to me. But the book . . . spoke to me somehow. I'm taking it with me to class this afternoon."
Patty's brow wrinkled. "I can't read any of this, but it looks like it might be some kind of code." She pulled out her phone. "Can I scan the pages? Maybe I can figure out what it says."
I nodded, and Patty snapped images of the two visible pages. I turned the rest of the pages slowly, giving her time to capture the entire text. It didn't take long. The pages were large and the font small, so there were only about forty pages total. Patty never touched the cover, so I don't think she "felt" the meaning of the book the way I did. But I thought that might be better -- perhaps, uninfluenced by that perception, she might be able to come up with a more precise, more literal translation of the text. I told her of my intention to bring the text to my 1L class that afternoon, and Patty, who enjoyed British crossword puzzles, happily left to try to crack the code.
Two hours later, I was standing at the podium at the front of our largest classroom, getting ready to teach the entire class of first-year law students. Since the start of the school year, I had been introducing them to the particular challenges and expectations of law school, with the goal of making sure that each of them would be fully prepared by the end of the semester for the final exams that would determine their GPAs, and perhaps their fates. Mine was the only class in which every 1L student was enrolled. This was a boon, because it gave me the chance to introduce Academic Success and the resources available there to all of our students. It gave me an opportunity to lay for every student the groundwork for successful performance, no matter how much familiarity they had had upon matriculation with the practice of law, law school, or even just basic sound study habits. But it was also a challenge, because it meant holding the attention of, and delivering value to, 150+ students with different aptitudes, different levels of familiarity or experience, and different degrees of confidence in their abilities. I would lose some of those students if I moved too quickly, and I would lose some of those students if I moved too slowly, and I wasn't sure there was a pace that would keep everyone engaged.
But today! Today I had the book, and it was telling me how TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS, and as the second hand swept around the face of the clock at the back of the room, bringing us closer and closer to the official start of class, I began to salivate with anticipation. I knew this would be . . . delicious.
The hand crossed the 11, and as it neared the 12, I opened my mouth and took a full breath. Gripping the book, I prepared to begin. But just as the red hand reached its zenith, a door at the back of the room slammed open, and Patty stumbled in, breathless and wild-eyed, clutching a batch of paper in one hand. Every head in the room swiveled to look at her, but she looked past them all. Her eyes found me at the podium, where I had instinctively pulled the book to my chest, and she called out. "Professor MacDonald, put it down! You can't use that book! IT'S A COOKBOOK!"
There was a jittery fluttering, like the sound of 150 startled sparrows, as the students all turned their heads back to me.
"Um, not exactly," I said. "It's more like a menu."
The sparrows rustled uneasily, as if they were about to fly.
"But look," I continued, turning to the students, "you're not on the menu. It's a menu for you. Look, all teachers know a bunch of recipes that we can use to help this student construct a useful case brief or to help that student learn to support her analysis with facts. And if I'm working one-on-one with a student, or working with a small group of students who are all craving the same helping, it's great to be able to focus on a particular recipe. But with a big group like this, I have to do more than just work through one recipe at a time. The students who have already mastered that recipe, who've had their fill of that dish, will stop paying attention. Sure, there are some basic recipes I have to make sure everyone knows, because maybe there are some students who thought they had learned it already, but they are actually missing some ingredients. Or maybe they just never learned it. But to keep everyone else in the class engaged, I have to put those recipes in the context of the wider menu. Are there variations that people can try once they've mastered the basic recipe? Maybe variations for particular occasions or circumstances? Are there more advanced recipes that build on the basic recipe? I can't teach these all in this class, but I can let you all know they exist."
The students relaxed, nestling in their seats.
"In a big class like this, it helps to move back and forth between the recipes and the menu. To make sure everyone knows how to do certain things, but also to remind people that there are always more recipes to learn if they feel they've already mastered the basics."
"Ohhhhh." It was Patty, in the back of the room, examining the papers in her hand. "I see where I went wrong. A menu, not a cookbook! And yet--"
There was a flash, and then the alien was there in the back of the room, standing next to Patty. Over the excited murmuring of the class, I heard his gravelly voice say to Patty, "You clever. Only human to decode Kanamit script. Come to our ship. We would like to toast you." He offered her his hand. She reached up to take it.
Before I could warn her, there was a flash, and they were both gone.
Thursday, September 5, 2019
I'm a deer in the headlights. Throughout law school, I lived in what I'll call a perpetual state of "socratic fear." I muddled through classes for the first weeks of law school, never called on but ever so fearful. But, my day finally came. I was called to state the facts of the case and the issue at hand. What case? I couldn't recall. What issues? I didn't have any notion. Frozen and stuck, I stumbled badly. It's as though my mind went wildly bank despite my over preparation.
I never did get over my fear of the socratic method. Throughout all three years of law school, I was the quiet one. Indeed, I felt like I was the only one who was afraid to be called on by a professor. And, as you might have guessed, I definitely didn't voluntarily to speak in class. It was just too risky. Instead, I piled up as much fodder as I could in an attempt to barricade myself from making the dreaded "eye-to-eye" contact with my professors. That was a surefire way, it seemed to me, to be called on. So, I lived with my head buried throughout most of law school, looking down, not up.
But, there's great news for me (and for you!).
You see, we are not the only ones...at all...with "socratic fear." Indeed, according to survey research out of Europe based on language-learning courses in which students are called on to to speak on the "fly" as they learn foreign languages (much like law students are often put on the spot to answer questions in front of peers about cases), many students are just like us - they feel anxious when put in the spotlight to speak in class with the teacher. Alessia Occhipinti, Foreign Language Anxiety in In-Class Speaking Activities, University of Norway (2009) (published student research thesis). Not surprisingly, the survey results suggest that the level of anxiety increases, like a hot autumn day with the noontime sun directly overhead, as the level of personal interaction increases from individual work silently alone at one's desk without being called upon...to group activities and presentations in front of the class...to individual spotlight activities interacting directly with professors. Id.
That got me thinking because, prior to law school, I had no fears of speaking in class, whether language classes or even military pilot training (where students are called in "stand-ups" to explain how they would handle an unanticipated emergency situation to a safe conclusion).
In other words, there seemed to be something lurking in the law school educational experience that poked holes in my once courageous voice.
As I scan back to the past, it wasn't due to a lack of preparation but perhaps to a lack of knowing what was coming (which I suspect is the root of much of our anxieties and fears). And, to be honest, we (or at least I!) also fear being found out to be a fraud, to have been wrongly admitted to law school (or so we feel), that we don't belong at all in law school (and soon everyone will know the truth when they witness us self-destruct...right in front of the class of our peers as the professor interrogates us).
But, as I think about my own law school experience, and in talking with scores and scores of law students, here's what I've gleaned as suggestions about how to handle the stresses and strains of the socratic method. I just wish I had known them when I was a law student.
- Everyone (or most of us) are afraid of speaking in class.
- Just because you have trouble speaking in class, doesn't mean that you don't belong in class. In fact, it might really mean the opposite. That you, like the rest of your classmates, are human beings with shared worries and concerns.
- Talk with someone. Be open with classmates in particular. Be the first to break the ice with trusted friends. Reach out to student affairs, academic success professions, and even your professors. As a suggestion, ask your law school faculty about their own experiences with socratic questioning when they were students (and what suggestions they might have for you to overcome your concerns).
- Realize something extremely important. As far as I can tell, there's absolutely no association between speaking in class and serving as a first-rate attorney. Indeed, although I was overcome (gripped) by fear throughout my law school moot court experiences, I loved speaking in courts as an attorney. Here's why. I knew that the judges wanted to have conversations with me. Simply put, judges were asking me questions because they wanted to learn what I was thinking, they wanted to see things from multiple perspectives that they might have missed in their own preparations for oral arguments, etc., they were dependent on me (us) as attorneys to educate them about our clients, our cases, and the governing law. In short, based on my own experiences, oral argument in court is much more about having a conversation with the judge(s) rather than a battle with professors who, most likely, have already pre-determined most of the answers to their questions.
- Prepare for class with questions. As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney.
- Repeat no. 4. There's no relationship between socratic success and legal success, so far as I can tell. Rather, great attorneys think before they speak, often times rephrasing the questions, and sharing with courts what's on their mind and how that relates to the cases at hand.
Monday, September 2, 2019
Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. — Louis L’Amour
Scholarly writing is the professional currency of academia that buys the respect and recognition that is needed to advance. In some career tracts, writing and publication are required. In others, optional writing can be easily pushed to the back burner of an otherwise busy day, week, year . . . career.
It is a challenge, to say the least, to find time to write when you have skills courses to teach that require multiple formative assessments over the span of the semester. On top of a course load with more grading and feedback expectations than other faculty may experience, ASPers typically have endless days with a steady stream of student appointments and walk-ins. But then there’s summer. NB: In ASP world, “summer” can be that eight to 17-day period between the bar exam and new student orientation where we: build our new class preps, learn about changes to the bar and prepare presentations to our faculty and administration re the same, or possibly squeeze in a week to tend to a home project or health condition that we’ve neglected all year.
Great idea, but who has time for it really? Honestly, we don’t have time to write with all the pressing demands on our time; but we can make time to write on topics about which we are passionate and knowledgeable. Joining a writing group, whether through AASE or on your university campus, is a great first step. As a member of a writing group, you will find opportunities to receive supportive guidance and feedback on your writing.
A possible second step is to use your own appointment/calendaring protocol to carve out one hour per day or a 3-hour weekly block for writing and self-expression. ASP writing can also be intimidating to those of us without a doctrinal area of expertise. But it does not have to be. There is no Blue Book rule that says ASPers must write about pedagogy, testing, or learning. We all have general levels of doctrinal expertise or we could not help students to succeed in law school and on the bar exam. It would not be a huge leap to expand on a favorite doctrinal area and research and write on ambiguous rules or inappropriate application of policy.
I’ve never done this before; I’m not sure how to. ASP writing might be most daunting to first-generation lawyers and law professors. It is important to not self-exclude oneself by concluding that you don’t know where to being or to question whether anyone would be interested in what you have to say. If you are not yet ready to submit a journal article, please consider the array of other outlets for your writing including, but certainly not limited to, The Learning Curve (published by the AALS section on Academic Support), Raising the Bar (published by AccessLex), the Law Teaching Blog (hosted by the Institution for Law Teaching and Learning), and your local bar journal newsletters and state bar publications. You can present your work-in-progress at conferences to get ideas to improve your work before submission. Pan this Blog and the ASP listserv for calls.
You do not have to know today what you will write, when you’ll make time to do it, or where you will be published. First things, first. Pick up a pen and notepad or blank journal that you’ve squirreled away in a dresser drawer. Pull out that laptop and create a new folder in your drive called “Writing”. And write. Just write. If you are an outliner, build an outline. If you don’t know where to begin write journal-style entries about a topic that you disagree with or strongly advocate for. Write about something that you’ve been trying to convince your faculty to adopt. Brag about something that your law school does better than everyone else. Write about something entirely non-legal (your kids’ learning process, your journey to patience, struggles with emotional well-being, etc.) and then make analogous parallels into law teaching and the needs of our students. Your first draft writing need not be perfect, polished, or persuasive. It can be deficient, descriptive, and underdeveloped. But it must be written to be improved and shared with the world.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
Much of the time, it seems to me, I am occupied with trying to reach the minds of our law students. But, perhaps that's putting the proverbial "cart before the horse." The cart, so to speak, is metacognition, or the process of learning to learn (practices such as spaced repetition and the implement of desirable difficulties throughout the course of one's learning). But, what might be the horse?
Well, a number of possibilities come to mind. There's been much research of late on the relationship between growth mindsets in predicting academic achievement. But, I think that there's another horse at play, a factor that might even serve as a necessary precondition for the development of such mindsets as grit, resiliency, and a growth mindset. In my opinion, that prerequisite is a well-formed sense of belonging...as empowered members of a vibrant learning community.
I love that word "belonging." It's chocked full of action with its "ing" begging us to be fully embraced (and to embrace others), despite all our blemishes and surprises. And, it starts with the prefix "be," which resonates and comes only alive within the present ongoing moments of community with others, indicating that this is something that we enjoy in the here and now rather than later. And, it's all-encompassing of the person, with its incorporation of the word "long," reminding me of arms outstretched, to be overtaken in the presence of others, to be accepted as we are...fully and completely (and to stretch our hearts around others within our midsts). In other words, the word "belonging" is full of action.
So, that brings up a few questions.
First, is belonging even much of a problem in law schools?
Second, what sort of spark might lead to the type actions that can then develop into a well-spring of belonging for our law students as members within learning communities?
Well, with respect to the first question, as Prof. Victor Quintanilla documents according to research at the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE): "[W]orries about belonging are endemic to law school." http://lssse.indiana.edu/tag/belonging/ That's the bad news. And, in my opinion, that's why many fall to the wayside. It's not because of LSAT scores or a lack of motivation. It's just darn difficult to succeed when you don't feel like you are a part of something, that you belong within the community, that you are welcome and embraced as vital law school participants.
But, there's great news to be had. Indeed, as Prof. Quintanilla further explains, the quality of one's relationships with students, faculty, and administrators significantly predicts one's sense of belonging in law school...and the strength of one's sense of belonging significantly predict's one's academic performance even controlling for traditional academic predicators such as LSAT scores. Id. In other words, "law school belonging is a critical predictor of social and academic success among law students." Id. (Quintanilla, et. al, in prep). And, that's great news because - as educational leaders in academic support - we can serve in the frontline of developing, strengthening, and securing our students in positive relationships with others throughout our law school's learning communities.
That brings me to our final quandary. How might we actually empower our students to be in vibrant relationship with others in law school?
In my own case, it means that I need to listen to my students. That I need to frequently pause to take in and hear and observe what's happening to my students, not as students, but as people. It means that I need to step up to the plate, so to speak, to proactively engage with my students. Nevertheless, with so much on our ASP plates, that sure sounds hard to implement.
So, here's an easy way that we might share with our students in order to help spark relationships that can then lead to a sense of belonging. It's called the "10/5 rule." Next time you're at your law school, when you come within 10 feet of another person, break out a brief smile. It doesn't have to be much, but it does have to be sincere. Then, when you're within about 5 feet of that other person, briefly recognize them with a short "howdy" or "hi." That's it.
You see, according to social science research, such actions of a brief smile lead to a sense of belonging, a feeling of inclusion, even, amazingly, if the other person doesn't even recall seeing your smile. See The Surprising Benefits of Chit Chat, Eye Contact, and a Hello for Law Students & ASP (and the 10/5 Rule)!
So, please join me in sharing a smile. It's a great way to not just brighten your day but brighten the lives of those around you. Indeed, who knows? Perhaps that brief smile that you just shared today (or will share in just a bit) will lead another to smile, and then another, and then a whole circles of smiles. And, isn't a circle of smiles the sort of spark that can create relationships that can lead to belonging and therefore might even help to empower successful learning? (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Last year I wrote a post about "simulation training" that described the benefits of rehearsal and practice under conditions that are as close as possible to performance conditions. When preparing for a final exam, for example, taking practice tests under exam conditions of strict timing and silence in a room similar to the room in which you will actually be tested can help you score better on the actual exam. The improvement seems to be linked to the reduction of unfamiliar stimuli and the association of familiar conditions with execution.
Given the demonstrable benefits of creating consistency between exam practice and exam execution, I would have presumed that a similar effect might have been observed with respect to the precursors to exam taking -- namely, study and memorization. If it makes sense to practice taking law exams in silence and in one particular environment, wouldn't it also make sense to learn all the rules, exceptions, and examples under the same conditions? In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey suggests that may not be the case.
Learning facts like rules of law is different from learning how to perform tasks like timed essay writing, largely because of the different roles of background stimuli. When learning tasks, the consistent quality of background stimuli is important, because it helps provide a comfortable environment that we associate with the task. While this is also somewhat true when learning facts, it turns out that the quantity of stimuli is of relatively greater importance. An absence of stimuli makes it more difficult to memorize material. In one experiment, students were asked to memorize a list of forty words. While they studied, the scientists played either jazz or classical music in the background, or, alternatively, no music at all. Students who studied while listening to jazz had the highest rates of recall when tested while jazz played in the background, and those who studied while listening to classical did best when tested while classical was playing. When each of those groups of students were tested while listening to different music, or to no music at all, their rates of recall were cut roughly in half. But the students who studied in silence did not have higher rates of recall when tested in silence. Their recall rates were also about half that of jazz listeners who were tested with jazz, or classical listeners who were tested with classical.
The explanation seems to be that, when we are learning facts, it helps to have some level of background stimulus. The external stimulus seems to provide a framework within which learners can organize and attach meaning to the facts they are learning. Thus, when the external stimulus is present at testing time, it is easier for the test takers to access the facts for recall, because they have access to the framework in which they learned them.
Most professors, however, do not allow students to crank tunes during exam administration. Not even smooth jazz. And duplicating the silence of testing conditions will not be as helpful for memorizing the rules as it is for applying them, since silence does not provide the necessary external stimulus. So how should students learn their rules and examples?
Carey suggests that the best strategy for this kind of rote learning is to work in a variety of different environments. He points to another word-memorization experiment, one in which subjects were asked to study in two separate, ten-minute sessions. Some subjects spent both sessions in an untidy basement room. Others spent both sessions in a windowed room overlooking a green courtyard. And a third group of subjects spent one session in one of those rooms, and the other session in the other room. When all subjects were tested for recall later in a third room (a classroom), those in the last group, who had studied in two different environments, had 40 percent higher rates of recall. While no one knows for sure, the theory is that those who studied in two different rooms had the benefit of two different sets of external stimuli, and thus built two different, overlapping "frameworks" within which they learned the words. Having two different frameworks provided additional memory access points that might be used in the neutral third environment.
So what are the lessons for law students? First, we should help them to recognize that there should be different study strategies for learning and memorizing rules and facts, versus developing one's skills in applying those rules. Second, we can suggest that students add some variety to their study environments when they are performing more of the basic rote memorization (such as at the start of the semester, when they are first learning the relevant rules). Encourage them not to spend all their time in the same spot in the library, but to break up their study into chunks of time spent in different milieus -- spending some time in the library, some time outdoors, perhaps some time in a coffee shop (especially one playing jazz or classical music). Students who associate the learning of the same rules to different external stimuli will be more likely to be able to recall those rules under any set of external stimuli, or even when there seems to be no external stimuli at all.
Thursday, August 22, 2019
I hear voices. Not all of the time, mind you. But, definitely at the most inconvenient of times...like when I'm trying to read! [I think this is called sub-vocalization.] You see, I can only read as fast as I speak (and I don't tend to speak very fast unless I'm excited or nervous, which I often am, particularly when I'm trying to digest dense legal materials).
Indeed, when a student asks me to work with them through any reading passage (whether a case, a statute, or a multiple-choice problem or essay prompt), I really want to go in hiding, into a "sound chamber" so to speak, so that I can read slowly and not so-silently, as I work out the meaning of the text through hearing - in my mind - the words as they become alive, the punctuation marks as they spring up from the page into my voice, and the paragraph breaks as they give me time to catch my breath.
In short, if you haven't caught the gist of what I am saying, I feel like I am a poor reader because I am a slow reader.
Now, I suspect that most students don't sub-vocalize when they read, i.e., they don't hear voices when they read. Nevertheless, I gather that most first-year law students (and perhaps most law students in general) feel like they read too slow. If so, then you're exactly like me (and I'm supposed to be an expert at critical reading, particularly in reading legal texts, etc.).
But, before I get too far, in my opinion, rushed reading is not reading. To paraphrase Socrate's famous line that the "unexamined life is not worth living," an "unexamined case" is not worth reading. In other words, in law school, it's not how fast you read but what your learning about the law and legal problem-solving as you read. To cut to the chase, reading is about examining the cases and the statutes and the legal texts assigned in law school. And that takes time, lots of time. Or, to put it more bluntly, reading is really about "cross-examining" those legal materials, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments and analysis, and then forming your own opinion about the merits of those arguments (and how you might use those arguments in the future to solve hypothetical problems posed on mid-term exams and final exams).
That gets me to the next question. How might I teach reading?
When I first started in academic support, I taught case briefing but not case reading, most likely, because it seemed to me that by briefing a case I had read the case. I'm not so sure now. That's because most case briefs (at least most of my case briefs) are composed of just bits of quotes and paraphrases of what the court said...rather than my evaluation of what the court said (or didn't say). Indeed, as Professor Jane Grisé writes, "critical reading is about 'learning to evaluate, draw inferences, and arrive at conclusions.'" J. Grisé, Critical Reading Instruction: The Road to Successful Legal Writing Skills, 18 W. Mich. Univ. Cooley J. of Prac. & Clinical L. (2017) (quoting L. Christensen, Legal Reading and Success in Law School: An Empirical Study, 30 Seattle U.L. Rev. 603, 603 (2007). Thus, because critical reading is about learning, it is something that can be taught. Id. Consequently, based on Professor Grisé research, let me offer the following suggestions on how one might teach critical reading, particularly reading cases that are jam-packed into the massive casebooks that comprise the bulk of reading in law school.
- First, confess. Set the stage for learning by sharing the worries and frustrations that you had (and perhaps still have) as a legal reader. Let students know that it wasn't a natural skill for you (or for anyone for that matter). Rather, critical legal reading is a skill that is developed, like muscles through exercise, bit by bit, in which we can all learn.
- Second, model pre-reading strategies. Share with students some of the ways that you engage in reading, even before you begin to read, by, for example, figuring out the purpose of the case by placing it in context with the prior and later assignments based on the case's position in table of contents and it's placement in the course syllabus. Then, get to know the players. Learn something about the case from the case caption, figure out the stage or setting for the case by talking through the information gleaned from the citation, etc., picture yourself as another judge or advocate for one of the parties, hypothesize how you might use this case in the future when it comes to exam time, skim through the case to capture the sorts of sections of the case and its organization (either by looking at headings or by skimming the paragraphs), and then poke around at the very end of the case to see what the court decided. Indeed, that's my favorite pre-reading strategy: Peeking at the end before I begin. That gets my focus jumpstarted!
- Third, read with gusto. Reading takes energy and focus, so if the time doesn't feel quite right, wait. But then, when you are reading to go, read the case facts - not as fiction - but recognizing rather that the facts involve real people and entities with real struggles. After all, cases often come to the court because people couldn't resolve hard-felt (and heart-felt) disputes on their own. As you read, look up words that you don't know. Write the meaning of those words, in your own words, in the margins of the text. Rather than highlighting lots of phrases that you think are important, make a notation on the text as to why you think that phrase or sentence might be important. Feel free to draw pictures or make paraphrases to help you capture the meanings of the words. If something seems unclear, it probably is, to you and to most of us. So, go back to those sections, in which the court often times doesn't explain its analysis, and make inferences (guesses) as to what is going on. Realize that the most (and perhaps all) cases are subject to different interpretations. Be creative to scope out connections with previous readings. Look for patterns. Dialogue with the materials. Question them, indeed, interrogate the court. Don't let the court baffle you. Instead, be on the lookout for mistakes that the court might have made in its analysis. In sum, talk back to the court and with the court as you read.
- Fourth, reading doesn't stop after you read. Instead, after reading, be an explorer to construct your own meaning of the case. As a suggestion, compile a list of questions that you would like to have asked the court or the advocates. Summarize in your own words what you think the case stands for (and why it was assigned for your course). Evaluate the case as to whether its reasoning was puzzling, or startling, or settling (and why). Conjure up different facts to test how the decision might have been impacted in different circumstances. Finally, synthesis a one sentence or phrase statement for what you've learned from the case, such as: "Vosburg (involving a schoolhouse kick) stands for the proposition that people are liable for battery even when they don't intend to harm anyone as long as they intended the contact because the purpose of battery is to protect people from - not just harmful contacts - but from all contacts that interfere with another's bodily integrity as a co-human being."
Now, before I let you go, just one more word about speed. You don't get faster at reading cases by trying to read fast. Rather, over time, much like water as it heats slowly on the oven range, using these strategies won't feel like an improvement...at all. Instead, if you're like me, you feel like its taking lots more of your time, energy, and perspiration to learn to be a critical legal reader. And, it is! But, by going slow, conversationally with the text, through practice in pre-reading strategies, then reading the text with robust gusto, and finally polishing off the reading by making sense and connections with the text for future use, you'll end up becoming a faster reader without even trying.
Much like learning to ride a bike, if you are like me, you fall lots and get lots of bruises along the way. That's because learning is hard difficult work. But, just like learning to ride a bike, once you get the hang of it, you'll be well on your way to being a better legal reader (and a better advocate on behalf of your clients in the future). (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
It is the start of the school year, and we are welcoming new classes of students to begin their courses of study in law school. Each course of study will comprise a score or more individual courses in particular subjects, and we hope that in due course every student will consume and fully digest a rich multi-course legal banquet. Of course.
Our versatile word "course" is derived from the Latin word "currere", meaning "to run" or "to flow". In all of its varied uses, it alludes to a sense of movement and progress, and this is particularly fitting when we think of the course of a law student's passage from matriculation to graduation. They arrive at school, eager and perhaps a bit awed as they imagine themselves advancing, starting off slowly, developing the knowledge, skill, and judgment of an attorney as they make their ways along, and then racing to the finish line to collect their prizes.
To many incoming 1L students, law school may seem like a watercourse -- like a channel through which they will be carried, sometimes swept through dizzying rapids, other times dragged through muddy waters of confounding breadth, ultimately to squeeze past a perilous bar and then be deposited at the port of Career, where their next adventure begins. In this view, all students need to do is learn to paddle, avoid rocking the boat, and make use of their brains and perseverance, and they will arrive at their destinations.
But there are better courses for comparison. Law school is best considered like a racecourse or a golf course -- not because their structures are more precisely analogous, but because of the way successful performers approach them. Sure, great sports performers make the most of their talents and training. But before they begin a race or a tournament, they get to know the course. A runner will trace out the course route, measuring the flats and the hills, and will plan out her pacing accordingly. A golfer will play or at least walk the course, making note of obstacles, slopes, and doglegs, and getting to know the feel of the greens. A skier will take practice runs down the course, developing a mental map so he can plan when to be cautious, when to be daring, when to push for speed. Knowing the course means they can make the best use of their skills and strategies over the long term.
So it is in law school. Week to week, month to month, semester to semester, knowing what it coming means students can expend their resources (time, attention, energy, etc.) more wisely. It means they can allow sufficient time to prepare for opportunities, or for challenges. It lessens the chances that they will wander out of bounds or run around in circles.
This is one of the reasons I love the start of the new academic year. It gives those of us in Academic Success a wonderful opportunity to provide something of immediate and long-term value to every new student we meet. We can walk them through the course! We can explain to them what a typical week will be like. We can preview all the major tasks of their first semester -- reading, attending class, outlining, midterms, legal writing assignments, practice tests, and final exams -- and help the students develop their own mental maps of the course. We can give them a bird's-eye of the entire tournament: the timing, value, and effort required of the opportunities and expectations they will encounter over the next few years. And we can do all of this for them painlessly -- not in response to an individual's frustration or anxiety or poor performance. It's the best part of the year, because we can give our students something they all can use, whether or not they have come into law school having learned the lesson that so many champions have learned: Successful performers don't see the course as running and carrying them along with it. They see the course as something they themselves run.
Thursday, August 15, 2019
I love to talk, yap, and chat. The more the better. And, that's a problem. A very big problem, at least with respect to my work as an academic support professional (ASP). I'll explain, but first, a bit of a story to set the stage...
As mentioned in a recent blog entitled Obstacles or Opportunities, I'm on the slow mend after an accident this summer, in which I fractured my back. Since the accident, I am mostly using a walker to navigate the world upright, step by step, as the fractures heal.
Not long ago, my spouse took me to the public library (in addition to talking, I love to read!). It started out as a perfect day, with me hobbling straight ahead, walker in action - right up to the newly released books. I felt like I was in a heavenly garden, with rows and rows of new books.
Now, before I move on, you've heard of the saying that "you can't judge a book but its cover." Well, as a bit of background, I'm not allowed to "BLT" right now (with my upper-body brace trying to restrain my back from further injury). That means no bending, lifting, or twisting (not that I could twist at my age even if I wanted to).
But, the books that were most shiny to me were "bottom shelvers." Nothing was in arm's reach without offending the entire medical community...by bending, lifting, and twisting, too. Immobilized, I gave up on books that day because, even though the covers looked enticing on those bottom shelves, I couldn't be sure that the titles were indeed profitable since I couldn't poke around the table of contents, the forward, and a few pages in-between. I left empty handed because I don't get books based solely on the covers.
That brings me back to the world of academic support. You see, when I first began serving as an academic support person, I set out to read all of the books and the literature, or at least as much as I could, to figure out how to best teach our students the necessary skills to be successful as learners. Things like reading, note-taking, participating in classroom discussions, time management, creating study tools or outlines, and exam reading, analysis, and writing. But, to be frank, I didn't learn what I now consider the most important skill at all, until - unfortunately - many years (and students) had past. In short, I didn't learn to be a listener first and foremost. In fact, rather than really listening to my students, I was quick to the draw to provide suggestions for them to implement, assuming that I knew the source of the problems or issues that my students were facing. I wanted to be a source of wisdom rather than what is really wise, listening first before speaking. How did I realize the errors of my ways? Well, it happened due to the fortuitous circumstance of getting to know and work a bit with Dr. Martha (Marty) Peters, Ph.D., Emerita Professor of Law from Elon University.
Dr. Peters would meet - one by one - with students struggling with multiple-choice analysis. Rather than handing out sage advice (after all, she has a Ph.D. in educational psychology!), Dr. Peters would instead ask students to work through each question that they missed - slowly - reading and navigating and pondering the problem to see if there might be anything at all, any patterns or words or pauses that might have helped them reach the correct answer. Then, Dr. Peters would move on to the next question missed. And, the next question, and then...the next question, etc. She remained completely silent. Observing. Hearing. Listening. Watching. Finally, towards the end of one hour counseling sessions, Dr. Peters simply asked students what suggestions they might have for themselves in order to more successfully analyze multiple-choice questions next time. In short, she asks students to share what they had learned. The anecdotal results were simply miraculous.
First, students felt empowered; sorrowful countenances started to be reshaped as possibilities of hope and a future in law. I know that it sounds a little (okay...a lot) dramatic, but it was unbelievably apparent as students started to actually believe that they could be law school learners, that they could help shape their destinies, that they might actually belong in law school as part of the learning community and future attorneys. That's because it was they themselves who came up with the answers and the solutions to their learning conundrums (rather than the experts). In short, students started to become experts in their own learning.
Second, most students quickly realized that their analytical problems were not with the multiple-choice problems themselves or with the law but rather related to reading. For the most part, they were missing clues, often because they didn't think that they could actually successfully solve the problems. Rather than misreading problems and legal materials, students started to develop both their confidence and their competence as critical legal readers. For helpful critical reading tips, see Jane B. Grisé, Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond (West Academic 2017); see also, Jane B. Grisé, Teaching First-Year Students to Read so Critical that They Discover a "Mistake" in the Judicial Opinion, The Learning Curve (Summer 2014) (available at: https://uknowledge.uky.edu).
Third, in the next batch of multiple-choice problems later that week, scores skyrocketed. No exaggeration! Here's why. Before, many students were answering problems that were in their heads but those weren't really the problems on the practice sets or the exams. In other words, students were often solving problems that didn't exist. Now, they were poking and prodding and probing the fact problems and the issues carefully with confident "critical reading eyes," evaluating words and phrases and debating their meaning and possible legal import.
After working with Dr. Peters for a few days, I realized the most important lesson of my ASP life. It sort of leaped out of my heart and into my mind. Scott: "Talk less; listen more!" Now, before I start to hand out suggestions and advice, I try to ask my students first what suggestions they might have to improve their own learning. In short, I try not to judge my students by what I think might be their problems and issues but I rather try to let my students co-create with me a learning atmosphere in which to empower and liberate them...to be the true experts for their own learning. So, next time you see me, please stop me from talking so much! It's really quite a problem for me.
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
I entered the academic support field with the goal of keeping law students from making the mistakes I made in law school. In the yin and yang of my first year, I think I might have made every mistake possible. Here are some of the things I wish I'd known as a 1L.
You can make it as well as anyone else. I don't care if you're 16 or 65, just got out of college or finished college three decades ago, are the first in your family to get past high school or come from five generations of lawyers, went to nationals in debate or fear speaking in public. You belong here just as much as the rest of the class.
You're not better than anyone else. Congratulations if you graduated from an Ivy League school or worked 20 years as a top-level paralegal in a high-powered law firm or rose to prominence in the military or a corporation. Those experiences are enriching and will add depth to your understanding. Your classmates who attended community college or were river guides or worked the floor in a big box store bring equally valuable perspectives. If you have a tendency towards having a swelled head, ditch it now.
You don't have to study 100 hours a week to make it. Honestly, that's what our Dean of Students recommended at my convocation. I hope I was the only person stupid enough to follow his advice. Sufficient exercise, adequate sleep each night, and a day of rest each week, combined with a sustainable study schedule, will help you learn far more than putting in non-stop 15-hour days.
What you did as an undergraduate isn't good enough. Skimming the reading, doing an assignment at the last minute, just doing what's assigned and no more, and cramming at the end of the semester were adequate for many folks as undergraduates. They don't cut it in law school. Even if you keep your head above water doing this in law school, you won't gain the deep understanding that good lawyers need.
If you don't understand a case, don't read it over and over without a strategy. One how-to-go-to-law-school book I read suggested reading cases six or eight times superficially to make the salient points sink in. Baloney. But don't read once and give up, either. Talk with your academic support professional about effective reading strategies. Previewing, talking back to the case, and asking questions might seem artificial and stilted, but they are some methods expert readers use to understand -- and as a lawyer you must be an expert reader.
Ask questions. Even if you're shy. Especially if you think your question is stupid. There's no shame in not understanding. Asking for help is something that good lawyers do, all the time. And chances are that your classmates will heave a sigh of relief when you ask something that they were afraid to ask, or when you expose a problem that they didn't even see.
Learn to seek and welcome criticism. Opposing counsel and judges will point out every weakness in your case and every place your argument doesn't hold water. So use your time in law school not only to develop a thick skin, but also to actively seek out oral and written feedback, positive and negative -- on your case briefs, on your outlines, on practice exams, and on legal writing assignments. Taking critiques seriously will make you a better lawyer.
Be open to learning in new ways. You're lucky to be going to school at a time when the ABA mandates that every law school offer academic support to its students. Taking advantage of your school's academic support (variously known as Academic Success, Skills, Excellence, Achievement, and similar terms) will help your first year's experience be more efficient, effective, and enjoyable.
You're not here to learn the law. You're here to become a lawyer. Sure, you will be learning a lot of rules, just like a beginning medical student has to learn a lot of basic biochemistry and molecular biology. But just like a medical student is training to heal the human body, you are using the raw material of rules to learn how to use facts, words, and ideas to promote an orderly and just resolution of disputes. When you start to get bogged down and think all you're doing is memorizing, step back and think about how real people are affected by what you're learning. Use law school to practice becoming a great lawyer.
Be happy. Law professor Paula Franzese writes, "[L]ife will meet you at your level of expectation for it." If you expect to be miserable in law school, you will be. If you expect to be happy and fulfilled, you will be. Approach everything you do with a positive attitude, and 1L year will be a great stepping-stone not only to your life as a lawyer but to your life as a person living with purpose and joy.
Thursday, August 1, 2019
In an instant, my end-of-summer plans changed. I was supposed to celebrate the end of the bar exam by backpacking with my spouse. Instead, I'm learning to stand, hobble, and walk around a bit with the aid of a wheelchair and a walker by my side. In the aftermath of an accident on the way to visit my mom in the hospital, of all places, I ended up in the hospital with multiple lower back fractures. I'm told that I need to wear a back brace (sort of like a upper-body cast to immobilize my back) for the next three months. It's given me a new appreciation for those with limited mobility or other challenges.
Interestingly, while feeling sorry for myself, I told the physical therapist that I was sad that I couldn't go backpacking because I had worked so hard, throughout the winter, spring, and summer, to train for the grueling trek. In response, the physical therapist stated matter of factly that had I not been exercising for all of those many previous months, I would not yet be standing or walking. In other words, my training was not for naught. Indeed, that training has been a big blessing in retrospect.
It seems like life - with its many unanticipated circumstances - seems to so often derail us. I'm fortunate. I'm at home now resting and recovering. It's not what I hoped for but the accident has given me a new appreciation for others. Like the team of rescue workers. I never saw them. I couldn't open my eyes due to the pain. But, they were there, and that's all that mattered. Present. Helping. Encouraging. And at the hospital, the emergency room staff and the nurses, and the CNA's and the transporters and the doctors. Wow; they worked as a team. As I regained my senses, I noticed that everywhere my stretcher bed was pushed in the hospital, from X-rays to CT scans to MRI's, people asked their coworkers - not if they could help - but rather, how they could help. That's real teamwork.
Now that I am back home, I'm starting to realize that my world has gotten a lot smaller...and yet a lot bigger too. It's become smaller in that I can't just hop a car or take a bus and go where I'd like to travel independently. It takes teamwork to get my moving. But, it's a lot bigger because I'm seeing things that I never noticed before. Like the many obstacles that are so often in the way of those who live and move in wheelchairs. In other words, I'm starting to notice the world, at least a bit, from the vantage point of others. And, I'm starting to appreciate the small things in life, like a beautiful yellow butterfly that seems brush against the morning window greeting me with a hardy hello. You see, obstacles can bring opportunities.
That brings me back to law school. It's orientation week (or soon will be) for new 1L students. As I think about how to relate to them, I wonder if too many years have passed such that I no longer know the excitement of the first day on campus, or the fear of whether I will fit in, or the uncertainty of whether I will even be up for the task of law school. So, as I reflect on my accident, I think that the challenge for me as an academic support professional is to just be present to my students, to hear them out, to encourage them, to help them turn obstacles into opportunities for learning. As I end this post, let me also say one more thing. All of us are holding back something; we all have obstacles in our paths. But most of the time, I don't take the time to get to know the others in my life, which means that I don't really let them become part of my life (nor let them become part of my life). As this new academic year begins, my aim is to be present; simply present. To be listening to them; to hear them out. To encourage them and to help them know that they belong. Step by step. Welcome to the new year! (Scott Johns).