Monday, June 17, 2019
Beard: n. a person who carries out a transaction for someone else in order to conceal the other's identity. – Oxford Pocket English Dictionary
It is a common practice for high-stakes gamblers to use a beard, a trusted acquaintance, when placing a bet. Beards keep the identity of the “shark” gambler unknown and preserve the odds. Celebrities and people who want to conceal their dating partnerships also use beards to maintain an expected public persona and to preserve their privacy.
The true role of a beard is to control or influence audience perception. Our job in academic support is to influence the perception and actions of the students we serve. ASP behind the beard allows us to fulfill our mission of student service and advancement. Behind the beard our message is not altered or concealed, only the messenger is.
My real-life experience behind the beard looks like this. For weeks, I preached and pushed a certain commercial tool to my bar takers. I negotiated a substantial discount for their purchase. I offered weekly incentives, provided demonstrations, and all but swore a blood oath that this tool would increase their chances of passing the bar. Crickets. I asked a recent bar taker to share her experience with the tool. She made one social media post that echoed verbatim my message. Within minutes of the post, I received multiple inquiries about the tool and sign-up confirmations.
Today’s law student does not respond to the pedagogy of the past. We may tell our students what is best for them academically and make recommendations for learning tools to support their development. And we may be right. But until our students “hear us” and find credible our advice and recommendations, our words fall on deaf ears. We can strategically use the peer learning model and employ student tutors, fellows, and former students to promote our messages by sharing what has worked for them to positively influence the actions of current students.
Thursday, June 13, 2019
If I recall correctly, the line went something like this: "The world is filled with lonely people waiting for others to make the first move." At least, that's my recollection of the saying from the wonderful movie entitled "The Green Book," which I happened to have the opportunity to watch on my flight while traveling to the Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) Conference a few weeks back. Little did I know at the time the tremendous impact someone would make by reaching out to me at the AASE Conference in Seattle.
You see, it was the final day of the three-day conference. With just a few more presentations available, I thought it best to focus my remaining time on bar prep sessions because that's my primary job. But, while mingling in the hallways of the law school building at Seattle University, I got a friendly tug in another direction. A person - who I had only briefly talked with at the conference - came marching and smiling right up to me and encouraged me to go to her presentation, which was set to start in a matter of moments. The warm-hearted invitation got me. Oh my golly, am I ever glad that I went! Her presentation was earth-shattering. It was the sort of talk from the heart that brought tears and promise.
Here's a brief snapshot.
The presentation was entitled "Academic Skills Invented by Necessity - the Untapped Potential and Creativity of Disabled Learning, and Inclusive Teaching." Professor Karen Wade Cavanagh's story was featured as part of a documentary by Oprah Winfrey in 2015 entitled "Belief:" http://www.bu.edu/law/featured-in-oprah-winfreys.
In short, Karen suffered a traumatic brain injury in a boogie boarding accident. In her talk, Karen showed photos of her rescue. Twice Karen was brought back from the brink. Life for Karen has since necessitated numerous surgeries and rehabilitation. Much was starting over from scratch. But, that hasn't stopped her (or others either).
Here's as an example...
Post-accident, while moving on a sidewalk in a wheelchair on her way to school, Karen was at an impasse. You see, due to crumbling infractures, many of the intersections at city crosswalks were no longer graded to allow rolling back up. Karen went down to cross the street...but couldn't get back up due to curb. Stopped in the roadway in the crosswalk, Karen noticed joggers and walkers run and walk past her, up the curb, and back onto the sidewalk. So, what did Karen do? She stuck her thumb out to the next passer by. That jogger came alongside and pushed her up and over back onto the sidewalk. Success. She was soon at school.
Life has tough spots for all of us. But, as Karen's story reminds us, it's sometimes difficult for us to see the tough spots that others are facing.
The first lesson I learned is that when I am in a tough spot, I need to just go ahead and stick my thumb out.
The second lesson I learned is to keep my eye out for others. Try to look at life from their perspective, not mine. And, be ready to reach out to others.
Life is not meant to be lived alone but rather in community with others. To be frank, as an ASP'er, I often tend to approach the issues that my students are having from my vantage point, usually with the idea that a particular academic study tip might be of help. But, I am often too quick to the draw with suggestions such that I miss seeing what is really going on. That's because I am too quick to talk instead of listen. But, in my experience, most of the time, so-called academic issues are not academic at all. They are life issues instead. And, life issues requires me to open up, to be vulnerable to others, and to live within the perspective of others (and not just myself). In short, being an ASP'er requires me to live life in "being" with others. I think that is what it means to not just be an ASP'er but truly a human being too. (Scott Johns).
P.S. Thanks Karen for making a mark that will live with me forever!
Monday, June 3, 2019
Don't let compliments get to your head and don't let criticism get to your heart. -- Lysa TerKeurst
The other day we held a bar workshop at my school. At the end of the session we collected evaluation forms from the students. I could hardly wait until the students were all out of the room to look at their written comments. A colleague and I sat at the edges of our seats to read what the students wrote about “our” workshop. As we thumbed through the evaluation forms, we read an abundance of smile-generating comments like: Good, Good, Excellent, Learned something new, Would recommend this session to others, and Glad I came. But our smiles askewed when we reached the one comment that read this session was longer than I expected and the presentation was poor.
Of the many laudatory comments, only one offered anything other than praise. And yet that one evaluation form is all that we focused on for the rest of the afternoon. My colleague and I became defensive and responded to the anonymous feedback as if talking to the student who submitted it. I suspect that our reaction was not atypical in the academic support teaching profession. We probably reacted in the same manner that many professors do as we review our course evaluation forms, student emails, or other summative feedback. We focus almost blindly on what someone did not like at the expense of commentary reflecting the effectiveness of our teaching and service.
So many of us in academic support or other teaching professions may put too much weight on the criticism and not enough weight on the compliments. Perhaps it is because we invest so much in the success of our students and the excellency of our programs that we forget the role that criticism can play in our own professional development. As this summer’s bar prep gets rolling full throttle, I’ve made a promise to myself to not let my view of the forest be impeded by one tall tree. While I am providing my students with daily affirmations, I pledge to affirm and nurture myself and my wellbeing. In doing so, I will be better able to service my family and my students who depend on me. As you read your course evaluations and performance reviews this summer, challenge yourselves to take criticism with a grain of salt (or a bottle of wine) and be thankful for the wonderful learning opportunity that the feedback provides.
Thursday, May 30, 2019
Last week at the annual Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) Conference, Professor Paula Manning shared an analogy about learning that gripped my mind and heart.
You see, as Professor Manning reminded us, working out to get in shape is tough work. Building muscles, well, takes daily pain. It requires us to push ourselves, to lift beyond what we think we can, to walk further than we think we can, and to run harder than we think we can. And, it requires us to work out nearly everyday. Moreover, as Professor Manning related, the next day after a heavy workout can feel just downright aching. "Oh do those muscles hurt." But, we don't say to ourselves: "Wow, that hurt; I'm not going to do that again." No, instead, we say to ourselves: "That was a really great workout; I'm building muscle." In short, we are thankful for the temporary pain because we know that it will benefit us in the future.
But, when it comes to learning, as Professor Manning reflected upon, we often tend to not view the agonizing daily work of learning as beneficial in the long term. Rather, if you are like me, I tend to avoid the hard sort of learning tasks, such as retrieval practice and interleaving practice, for tasks which, to be frank, aren't really learning tasks at all...because they aren't hard at all (such as re-reading outlines or highlighting notes, etc.). But, if you and I aren't engaged in difficult learning tasks, then we aren't really learning, just like we aren't really building muscles if we just walk through the motions of exercise.
So, for those of you just beginning to embark on preparing for your bar exam this summer, just like building muscles, learning requires building your mind to be adept at legal problem-solving by practicing countless multiple-choice and essay problems on a daily basis. In short, the key to passing your bar exam is not what you do on bar exam day; rather, it's in your daily practice today that makes all the difference for your tomorrows.
As such, instead of focusing most of your energies on watching bar review lectures, reading outlines, and taking lecture notes, spend most of your learning in problem-solving because that's what you will be tested on this summer. Big picture wise, for the next six weeks or so, half of your time should be spent in bar review lectures, etc., and the other half should be spent working through practice problems to learn the law. So, good luck in working out this summer! (Scott Johns).
Monday, May 20, 2019
As my career in ASP winds down, I have reflected on what I have learned over the years. Here are a few things that strike me as important lessons learned from discussions with my ASP/bar prep colleagues, observations of our profession over time, and my own experiences:
- ASP and bar prep work have gained more recognition through the years. LSAC supported us early on. AALS recognized our efforts with a section designation. Changes to ABA standards brought more attention to our roles. More law schools now have programs, but there is still work to be done if all law students are to have access to full-time, funded services.
- ASP/bar prep started its work to increase academic and bar success for minority students. With the pressures of stigma and backlash, many ASP programs opened services to all law students. Although programs may still have minority components within the services, the broader law school population has now become the focus. Declining admissions (and the resulting decline in applicant credentials in some cases) and ABA emphasis on bar passage rates have continued the pressure for services to be available to all law students. Let us not forget our original purpose of supporting diversity as our roles expand.
- The work we do is not just about grades or bar passage. We teach skills that impact our graduates throughout their lives. We teach skills resulting in better lawyering and more satisfying living. Among the skills we teach are learning strategies, legal reasoning, problem solving, organizing work, managing time, managing stress, and avoiding procrastination.
- We need to be careful that we do not just jump from the "hot topic or solution of the month" to the next hot topic. It is tempting, but ultimately shallow. There is no magic wand available for ASP or bar prep. Learning, memory, and legal reasoning are complex topics with layers of nuance. To those three, we must add the topics of diversity, motivation, procrastination, learning disabilities, time management, work management, stress management, resilience, grit, mindset, and mental health - also very complex and nuanced. I could easily list another dozen topics that relate to our work. We need to investigate deeply to understand the nuances, remain open to intertwined concepts, and build successful strategies over time.
- The numbers game is not all that matters. It is nice if large numbers enroll in courses or attend workshops, but numbers alone do not tell the story. Our work regularly impacts on an individual level. We need to remember that assisting one student at a time is valuable. Let us not forget the merit of one-on-one assistance during our law schools' demand for numbers to tout.
- We need to provide alternative methods for students to access our services. Some services may involve mandatory appointments, workshops, or courses. However, even mandatory offerings may not reach all students who need help or may fail to reach them at the time when they are most receptive. We need to continue to explore different ways to reach students where they are and when they are receptive to services. The possibilities are endless, but include appointments, workshops, packets, handouts, email tips, podcasts, blog posts, YouTube videos, Facebook, Twitter, intranet pages, pop-up events, and walk-abouts.
- We need to remember that each student is unique. One size does not fit all, no matter what theory suggests. Each student comes with individual strengths, weaknesses, challenges, motivations, educational backgrounds, and experiences. We cannot forget the individual when we consider our repertoire of theories, generalities, and strategies.
- We need to ask questions and listen to the answers. I learn some of the best strategies from students explaining what they have discovered. In the search for the combination of strategies for each student, we need to explore with the student what works, does not work, needs to be modified, or needs to be tossed.
- We want students to succeed and are personally involved in their learning. However, ultimately the student must implement the strategies, eschew bad habits, and work to achieve success. Despite our best efforts, some students will not reach their full academic potential and may even fail academically or fail the bar repeatedly. It exemplifies the old adage of leading a horse to water.
- Working 60-70 hours per week (and often more) is the temptation in ASP/bar prep because we want to implement new programs, stay up with professional development, be available to students, show up at events to support them, and answer emails at all times of the day and night. However, working at such a pace leads to burnout and ultimately does not help us or our students. We need to model the work-life balance that we regularly recommend to our students.
- Have faith in your own expertise and the" best practices" that match your law school's culture. The variety of law schools means that one size does not fit all. Be open to ideas and weigh their value for your law school situation. ASP/bar prep colleagues are willing to share ideas and expertise - usually for free. Read the Law School Academic Support Blog, post queries on the Law School Academic Support listserv, attend AASE and AALS conferences or other regional workshops, and reach out to experienced colleagues. However, be wary of anyone who tells you there is one and only one (that is, the individual's own) path to "best practices" in ASP/bar prep; that viewpoint is just not accurate.
- No matter how dedicated and expert we are in our work, our law schools have to provide the facilities and resources for us to do our work well. Without commitments for space, budget, staffing, support services, and equal status, we will be limited in achieving the greatest results for our students. Talk is cheap. It takes actions from each and every law school in support of our ASP and bar professionals to make a difference.
ASP/bar prep work is challenging, impactful, rewarding, and gratifying. We can be proud of what we do each day. What we accomplish is important. We need all law schools to recognize how important our work is for our students' academic success and for their futures. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, May 9, 2019
In light of the rough and tumble bar passage declines over the past half-dozen years of so, numerous blogs and articles have appeared, trying to shed light on what factor or factors might be at play, running the gamut from changes in the bar exam test instrument, changes in law school admissions, changes in law school curriculum, etc. In addition, the academic support world has righty focused attention on how students learn (and how we can better teach, assist, coach, counsel, and educate our students to "learn to learn"). Indeed, I often prowl the internet on the lookout for research articles exploring potential relationships among the social (belonging), the emotional (grit, resiliency, mindset) and the cognitive in relationship to improving student learning.
Nevertheless, with so much riding on what is really happening to our students in their law school learning and bar preparation experiences, I am a little leery about much of the research because, to be frank, I think learning is, well, much more complicated than some statistical experiments might suggest.
Take one popular issue...growth mindset. Studies appear to demonstrate that a growth mindset correlates with improved test scores in comparison to a fixed mindset. But, as statisticians worth their salt will tell you, correlation does not mean causation. Indeed, it maybe that we ought not focus on developing positive mindsets but instead help our students learn to learn to solve legal problem and then, along the way, their mindsets change. It's the "chicken and the egg" problem, which comes first. Indeed, there is still much to learn about the emotional and its relationship with learning.
Take another popular issue...apparent declines, at least with some segments of bar takers - in LSAT scores. Many argue that such declines in LSAT scores are indeed the culprit with respect to declines in bar exam outcomes. But, to the extent LSAT might be a factor, by most accounts, its power is very limited in producing bar exam results because other variables, such as law school GPA are much more robust. In short, LSAT might be part of the story...but it is not the story, which is to say that it is not truly the culprit. Indeed, I tend to run and hide from articles or blogs in which one factor is highlighted to the exclusion of all else. Life just isn't that simple, just as learning is not either.
So, as academic support professionals indebted to researchers on learning, particular cognitive scientists and behaviorists, here are a few thoughts - taking from a recent article in Nature magazine - that might be helpful in evaluating to what extent research findings might in fact be beneficial in improving the law school educational experience for our students.
- First, be on the lookout for publication bias. Check to see who has funded the research project. Who gains from this research?
- Second, watch out for positive statistical results with low statistical power. Power is just a fancy word for effect or impact. If research results indicate that there is a positive statistical relationship between two variables of interest, say LSAT scores and bar exam scores, but the effect or impact is low, then there must be other latent factors at play that are even more powerful. So, be curious about what might be left unsaid when research results suggest little statistical power.
- Third, be on the guard for research results that just seem stranger than the truth. They might be true but take a closer look at the underlying statistical analysis to make sure that the researchers were using sound statistical tests. You see, each statistical test has various assumptions with respect to the data that must be met, and each statistical test has a purpose. But, in hopes of publishing, and having accumulated a massive data set, there's a temptation to keep looking for a statistical analysis that produces a positive statistical result even when the most relevant test for the particular experiment uncovers no statistically meaningful result. Good researchers will stop at that point. However, with nothing left to publish, some will keep at it until they find a statistical test, even if it is not the correct fit, that produces a statistical result. As a funny example, columnist Dorothy Bishop in Nature remarks about a research article in which the scientists deliberately keep at it until they found a statistical analysis that produced a positive statistical result, namely, that listening to the Beatles doesn't just make one feel younger...but makes one actually younger in age.
- Fourth, do some research on the researchers to see if the research hypothesis was formed on the fly or whether it was developed in connection with the dataset. In other words, its tempting to poke around the data looking for possible connections to explore and then trying to connect the dots to form a hypothesis, but the best research uses the data to test hypothesis, not develop post-hoc hypothesis.
Here's a link to the Nature magazine article to provide more background about how to evaluate research articles: https://www.nature.com. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
Occasionally I find myself in the surprising position of encouraging students to take on more debt. It's a odd situation for someone who is customarily espouses frugality. For law students, minimizing student loan debt not only reduces stress but also opens the door to a wider range of practice choices when maximizing income isn't the primary driver for employment choices.
Sometimes, however, I find students so fearful of taking on additional student loan debt that they deny themselves opportunities which would pay abundant dividends in the long run. For investors, putting a portion of one's portfolio in stock funds, even though they carry higher risk, ultimately pays off better than socking everything away in a savings account. But I'm running into more students nowadays who, fearful of increasing debt, are doing the equivalent of stuffing dollar bills under the mattress. One student, for example, eschewed any legal practice experience during summers or the academic year, choosing instead the immediate paychecks coming from work in the hospitality industry. While the income stream meant that s/he graduated with less debt than many classmates, s/he found it an uphill battle to land legal employment after graduation with no practice experience. Some reject out of hand the possibility of taking plum summer positions in a field they are passionate about if it would mean paying extra rent in another city for a month or two. Even decisions as mundane as choosing local housing can have an impact: I've known students who have settled so far out in their quest for cheap housing that the long commute saps the time and energy they should be devoting to law school.
Law school is an expensive proposition, but students get to choose whether to make it a money pit or a worthwhile investment. When I suspect students are being penny-wise and pound-foolish, I encourage them to do a cost-benefit analysis, focusing on the long term with their goals in mind. Extraordinary opportunities often carry short-term costs. Keeping your eyes on the prize, would this opportunity provide a great experience to learn, to grow, to interact with expert lawyers? Will it provide an unparalleled opportunity to let you explore your passions? Will it pay dividends in helping you become an extraordinary lawyer? If so, it's probably worth the the relatively minimal amount it will add to your student loans. Be frugal, certainly, but take advantage of opportunities to suck the marrow out of your law school experience.
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
There are some weeks when I'm pretty sure that no one else at my law school talks more than I do. Given that law schools are full of lawyers, this is a pretty audacious claim. But two or three times each semester, I encounter a perfect storm of ASP responsibilities -- I have classes to teach, I meet with the students from those classes for one-on-one discussions, I participate in administrative meetings, and I have drop-in visits from or appointments with other students seeking individual counseling -- and my entire work week, from morning to night, is chockablock with lectures and chats and debates and advising. Usually, by Tuesday afternoon, I can feel my vocal cords growing fatigued and irritated. I have discovered that if I just try to soldier on, then before the week is out, those little laryngeal muscles will seize up like an old pick-up truck engine, and suddenly I will be flapping my jaw uselessly, with nothing but a breathy wheeze coming out.
It is very hard to explain to a student how to think like a lawyer when you sound like a strangled serpent.
The fact is that teachers of all kinds are among those most at risk for developing voice problems. This might in part be because they work in schools, which are really just giant Petri dishes for the cultivation of upper respiratory infections. But the biggest threat to our voices could merely be overuse. Vocal cords are really just small, thin muscles, and we make them work to produce sound by forcing air between them until they vibrate audibly. Every syllable we utter arises from a bit of violence we do to our selves. Too much violence can damage the vocal cords, sometimes even permanently.
So it makes sense to try to find ways to treat our vocal cords more kindly. There are many things you can do to ease the strain you impose on your voice box. Some might become permanent habits; others you can use when you start to feel a little raspy, or maybe even just before a garrulously busy week starts:
- Keep your vocal cords moist. When vocal cords become dehydrated, they are more easily irritated. So drink plenty of water -- keep a cup or bottle on hand in the office or wherever you might expect to have to speak at any length. Also, certain chemicals, like alcohol, caffeine, and some cold medicines, can dry out your vocal cords. All things in moderation, generally, of course, but when you know you've got a talk-heavy week coming up, you might want to take a pass on coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)
- Avoid irritants. The effects of too much talking can be intensified by agents that make the vocal cords more sensitive. Cigarette smoke, both first- and second-hand, is an obvious example. But in addition to thinking about what you breathe, you should also consider what you eat. Aromatic and spicy foods carry the risks not only of irritating the throat on the way down, but also causing stomach upset and reflux that might also irritate the throat on the way out. Of course, food is not supposed to go down the windpipe, so direct irritation of the vocal cords is less common (though possible). A bigger issue is irritation of the throat above the larynx, which can lead to coughing, which directly assaults the vocal cords. Similarly, it is a good idea to avoid milk and dairy products, not because they are directly harmful, but because they can coat the throat, prompting you to try to clear it, which can also irritate the vocal cords. (If you ever feel the urge to clear your throat with a rumbling bark, hold off, and instead see if you can clear the irritation by opening your mouth wide and alternately breathing deeply through your nose and then exhaling, steadily and forcefully but not explosively, through your mouth, making the "h" sound as you do.) Of course, try not to get sick, too, because illness can be an irritant.
- Rest your vocal cords. It is often right to remain silent, but during busy times, it may not always be possible. Still, what you do outside the office can help rest your voice as well. When work is vocally busy, try to avoid scheduling other responsibilities that might require extensive speaking. Get rest at home -- minimize conversation and get good sleep. In the long term, regular exercise can help develop stamina, even in the vocal cords, so that you can talk longer before your throat starts to feel irritated.
- Soothe your throat. Along with having water at hand, keep some cough drops, mints, or even certain fruits at hand. Eating or sucking on these will stimulate the production of saliva, which keeps the vocal cords moist. Also, consider drinking herbal teas with soothing ingredients like chamomile or slippery elm bark. Traditional Medicinals "Throat Coat" is a pleasant choice.
- Use healthy speaking techniques. Since in many cases we are not going to be able to avoid frequent speaking, it's a good idea to learn how to speak in the least irritating way for your vocal cords. Sit up straight and don't slouch; good posture opens up the airway and relieves pressure on the larynx. Avoid yelling, and avoid whispering -- both put unnecessary stress on your vocal cords. Instead, try always to speak in a conversational tone of voice, but try to take deep breaths and to exhale using your diaphragm and your chest to produce sound, not just your throat. This takes some of the strain off your vocal cords. Finally, if you do lecture, don't eschew the use of a microphone, when available. Yes, your stentorian voice can reach the back of the lecture hall, but you may pay for it later when you are trying to reach to person seated across the desk.
Thursday, April 25, 2019
Sometimes, okay, oftentimes, I feel like a turtle. Yes, I have feet (and arms?) and a nice study neck. But, mostly, as an academic support educator, I often feel like a gigantic "paper weight," living under a big shell, lumbering along without seemingly making much of a difference. Of course, that's not true at all, because, in the world of academic support, the big differences are not in our programs or our pizzazz but in the individual lives that we so often touch, inspire, motivate, and uplift (and the students that touch, inspire, motivate, and uplift us too).
Nevertheless, I've decided to take a very little tiny step - in sticking my neck out beyond my shell - to proactively involve my colleagues in our work (and myself in their work too). I'm going to invite my friends to join me at next month's Academic Support Conference, hosted by Seattle University, from May 21 to May 23, 2019. Association of Academic Support Educators Conference In fact, I'm going to talk it up - big time - with my staff and faculty colleagues. Frankly, it's time for me to live adventurously, to stretch myself, to live boldly in community with my colleagues Consequently, I'm inviting all of my law school faculty and staff colleagues to join with me at the upcoming national academic support conference. And, as a preview, I'm going to send them the conference schedule along with a few tantalizing morsels about what's on the agenda, such as:
• Can Law Schools Have It All: ASP as a Checkbox or Mechanism for Change
DeShun Harris, Camesha Little &Yolonda Sewell
• Using Data to Encourage Student Engagement
Kevin Sherrill & Kate Bolus
• How Dreamers Dream of Becoming A Lawyer: Where DACA and Bar Pass Meet
Micah J. Yarbrough
• Best Practices for Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Case Study Veterans and Non-Traditional Students
Jane Bloom Grise
• Building Teams for Student Success
Kent D. Lollis, Russell McClain & Laurie Zimet
• Planting Seeds: Using Academic Support Skill Building and Language across the Curriculum
Marcia Goldsmith & Antonia Miceli
• An Introduction to Expert Learning (and teaching) for Law Students)
• What does it mean to teach legal reasoning
• Introduction to the Science of Learning
Louis Schulze & Jamie Kleppetsch
• Evolution of an Academic Support Program
• Next Generation Data Analytics and Individualized Intervention for Bar Takers
Mike Barry, Zoe Niesel & Isabel F. Peres
So, please join me in inviting your law school colleagues too! The more the merrier, as they say! And, I look forward to seeing you at next month's conference in Seattle (and I hope to introduce you to some of my many legal writing, career counseling, student affairs, clinical, and doctrinal colleagues)! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
The dog really did eat my homework. To be more precise, when I left my desk to fix a cup of tea, my four-month old puppy tore into my outline with joyous, tail-wagging abandon. Those pages that didn't turn into blobs of slobbery mush were ripped to shreds. I panicked, of course. Based on the nonchalant manner in which the professor had conducted the class, I had assumed the exam would be a policy-discussion cakewalk. Too late I realized that while classes were casual, the professor's exams were rigorous. My case briefs were chicken-scratch; my class notes, almost worthless. And the outline the dog destroyed? Well, it wasn't exactly "my" outline; it was a photocopy of a friend's outline because I'd been "too busy" to create my own. And since I had borrowed it only three days before the exam, in those days before e-mail attachments made routine information-sharing easy, I didn't feel like I could count on my friend's good graces to give up her original for the several hours it would take me to copy it again. I had an emergency on my hands.
To be sure, life has its share of genuine emergencies, the gut-wrenching, out-of-the-blue occurrences that shake our world to its foundations. And when these happen the best thing is to let someone at the law school know as soon as you can. But many, perhaps most, of the emergencies we encounter in the law school context, whether as students or instructors, stem from the combination of unexpected circumstances plus our own lack of foresight. We can mitigate the effect of these circumstances by prudent practices. Perhaps you've heard the acronym PPPPPP -- Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Proper prior planning can indeed help weather most law school exigencies.
Computer mishaps are nowadays probably the most common law school emergencies. The hard drive crashes, the computer is dropped, the wifi network goes down, printers jam, and suddenly we lose precious work product or can't access needed materials. Consistently creating backups and having alternatives are the keys to mitigating any computer problem.
Using a cloud storage and file synchronization service like Dropbox is the easiest way to provide consistent backups, but because even the best systems fail occasionally, it's wise to periodically check that backups are actually being made. Those reluctant to trust documents to the cloud can effectively back up with encrypted thumb drives or external hard drives. In time-crunch situations like putting the finishing touches on a brief, even e-mailing critical documents to yourself works. When using physical backups, it's prudent to use multiple devices in different locations and to rotate them: for example, you can keep one encrypted thumb drive in your backpack, one in your vehicle, and one at home.
Just as important as backing up current documents is saving versions of your documents through time. Most of us have had the experience of either accidentally deleting a large chunk of material from a document or deliberately cutting out a sections of what seems like extraneous material, only to realize later we wanted the section back. So it's a good practice to save documents under a new name at least daily by adding the date or a sequential number so you can retrieve mistakenly deleted material from an earlier version of the document. At this time in the semester, for example, many students are filtering their outlines down to the essentials. When you use your capsule outline in tackling practice problems, you may find that you were over-enthusiastic in pruning rule statements or even left an important concept entirely out of your capsule outline. Having your earlier, more expansive outline to draw from can save you hours of work.
A good way to mitigate emergencies is to have alternatives in mind given the certain knowledge that things don't always work as they should. Are old exams easily accessible on the web? Figure that the school's internet may go down, and download them to your own computer so they are available when you need them. Does everyone in the law school use the same two printers when legal writing assignments are due? Chances are that your legal writing faculty does not accept "the printer jammed" as an excuse for late papers. Scope out alternatives across campus, or print out your near-perfect brief at home so you can have something to turn in on time even your last minute perfect brief gets stuck in the law school printer queue. Is arriving on time critical for a meeting, exam, or interview? Leave home early enough so you can cadge a ride if your car breaks down or stay calm in the midst of a traffic jam.
Prevention, of course, is the best cure. Learning and reviewing day by day, week by week, practicing problems, diligently doing interim assignments, building and refining your own outlines over time -- keeping a steady schedule of good habits can put you in a place where a total computer melt-down has limited effect because you already have have learned and practiced the material throughout the semester. Otherwise, you just have to hope the dog doesn't sneak into your study.
Thursday, April 18, 2019
Perhaps you've heard the phrase "Too big to fail." Well, that might be true, at least according to some, with respect to some business enterprises in the midst of the last recession.
But, at least from my point of view, that saying is not true at all with respect to student study tools and outlines. In my experience, too big of an outline can lead to less than stellar final exam results.
Here's why...There's a learning concept called "useful forgetfulness."
As I understand the educational science behind useful forgetfulness, it is in the midst of the filtering process - in which we decide to trim, shorter, collapse, and simplify our notes and outlines - that best promotes efficacious learning because the decision to leave something out of our outline means that we have made a proactive decision about its value. In short, the process of sorting the important legal principles from the not-so-important leads to active and enriching learning.
Nevertheless, for most of us, we are sorely afraid about leaving anything out of our outlines because we often lack confidence that we can make such filtering choices about what is important versus what is not important. Consequently, we often end up with massive 50 plus page outlines in which we know very little because we have not made hard reflective decisions to prioritize the important. So, here's a tip to help with trimming your outline down to a workable size to best enhance your learning.
First, grab a piece of paper and hand-write or type out, using both sides of the paper, the most important things from your outline. If you think a rule might be important, don't put it in your outline yet because you can always add to your study tool later. Instead, only put the rule down in your mini-study tool if the legal principle immediately jumps out to you as critically important.
Second, take your mini-study tool on a test flight. Here's how. Grab hold of a few essay problems or multiple-choice questions and see if you have enough on your "one-pager" outline to solve the problems. If a rule is missing, just add it. And, as you practice more hypothetical problems in preparation for your final exams, feel free to add more rules as needed. And, there's more great news. In the process of seeing a rule that might be missing from your mini-study tool, you'll know that rule down "cold" because you will have seen it applied in context. So, feel free to have less in your outlines because, with respect to study tools, less can indeed be more! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
In the busy-ness of the end of the term, it's important for all of us -- faculty, staff, and students -- to stick to the basics. And the most basic of all basics is to get sufficient sleep.
Let's just talk about the brain. Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers fame (and also author of the lesser-known but magnificent A Primate's Memoir), posits that sleep helps cognition in three major ways. First, it restores energy. The brain, it turns out, is an energy hog. While it comprises only about 2% of the body's weight, it uses about 20% of the body's energy, with two-thirds of that energy going to firing neutrons. Wonder why you feel so tired after intensive thinking? -- you are actually churning through enormous amounts of energy. This energy is restored in slow wave sleep. Second, the REM sleep in which dreaming occurs consolidates memory. High levels of the class of hormones known as glucocorticoids elevate stress and disrupt cognition. Glucocorticoid levels, however, plummet during sleep, especially REM sleep. So cognition can be enhanced simply allowing the brain to work its way through learned material when these hormone levels are at their lowest, by getting a good night's sleep. Because REM sleep consolidates memory so well, those who study, sleep overnight, and take a test the next afternoon do significantly better than those who study the morning before a test. Finally, REM sleep improves assessment and judgment, especially in complex circumstances, perhaps by exercising lesser-used neural pathways during those wild and crazy dreams. This allows the brain to establish wide networks of connections instead of simple one-lane pathways, leading to deeper, more nuanced thinking. Indeed, Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker suggests that the most significant cognitive benefit of sleep lies not in strengthening the memory of specific items but in assimilating small bits of knowledge into large-scale schema.
More energy for the brain to work, better memory, and better ability to put things into a larger perspective. Sounds like a winning combination for everyone. Let's ditch the late nights and catch some Z's.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
This time of year sneaks up on us like the holidays in December. It seems like only yesterday we were welcoming students back for spring semester. We blink, and then poof! Final exams are less than three weeks away. And before they start, we have so much to take care of. Drafting final exams, for one thing. But, at the same time, staying on top of our current classes -- in particular, at least in my case, pushing feedback on written assignments out to students so they can make use of it as they prepare for finals. Plus the approaching end of the semester often means a traffic jam of administrative work, as committees and working groups hasten to complete projects before a big chunk of their members leave for sabbaticals, holidays, or other teaching gigs over the summer.
When it gets crazy busy like this, it is important to set aside at least a measure of our thought and energy for that portion of our student population that might otherwise get lost in the background noise. Sure, part of what makes us so busy are the students we've developed relationships with -- those who regularly seek us out because of anxiety or confusion or a habit of pursuing every advantage -- and part of it may be required meetings with students on academic probation. We'll see those folks without much extra effort on our parts. But there are other students who could use our help who might not put themselves on our radar screens. Maybe they are shy; maybe they are overconfident; maybe they are just underestimating how much they have to do to get ready for the approaching finals. Maybe they feel so busy that they can't make time for us.
These are often students, not currently in academic difficulty, for whom a little support, guidance, or intervention will have a far more significant positive effect this week than it would have if it were delivered when the student showed up at the threshold to our office, panicking, a few days before finals. So, even though we are busy, making the effort to identify and check in with these students now makes good cost/benefit sense.
If you have not already done so, consider taking some time over the next few days to:
- Go through your calendar or appointment records from the fall and early spring and make note of any students who have sought help in the past, but from whom you have not heard for a while. Send them quick e-mails, asking them how they are doing and inviting them to drop by or make an appointment if they'd like to talk about preparing for the end of the semester.
- Check in with faculty (especially those teaching 1L courses) to ask if there are any students they have concerns about whom they haven't already referred to you. At this point, spring midterms are probably all completely graded, and those professors may have information they didn't have at the start of the semester.
- Remind the students (again, especially 1L students) in class or via social media or your school's information portal how close they are to the end of the semester, how busy your office gets at this time of year, and how wise it is to come to see you sooner rather than later if they have any concerns.
When we are this busy and things are moving towards a close so quickly, reaching out to students in the grey area can demand a bit of mindfulness. But even one fruitful meeting with a student now might be more effective than a flurry of desperate conferences the week before finals. That would be time well spent.
Saturday, April 13, 2019
We are getting ready to register for courses for the next academic year's two semesters. Rising 2L advisees are meeting with their academic advisors to plan their course selections (and alternate courses in case they get waitlisted). As always, the rumor mill is generating a lot of static that has this group of newbies to registration somewhat perplexed.
There are some advisees who ignore the rumor mill entirely. There are other advisees who take every word as gospel and stress. Here are some tips to sort the wheat from the chaff during the course registration process:
- Be cognizant of the actual academic policies and procedures at the law school. What are the graduation requirements that must be met? What are the credit-hour ranges allowed each semester? What are the prerequisites for advanced courses, clinics, externships, etc.?
- Remember that each student learns differently from other students. You have preferences for subject matter, teaching styles, course formats, test formats, and more. Ask multiple upper-division students about courses/professors to get a variety of perspectives. A professor/course that would be perfect for you may not be another student's choice.
- Use the resources you have available to learn more about the courses. The professor teaching the course is your best source if you want to know more beyond the catalog description. Ask about topics that will be covered, types of readings/exercises for class, assessments in the course, and more. Talk to concentration and dual-degree advisors if you want more specifics on those options. Attend meetings regarding clinics, externships, journals, internal/national competition teams, and other options. Talk to your career development office about coursework/experiences for career paths you want to consider.
- Balance your course schedule wisely for your strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. If you are not good at business/math oriented courses, then income tax and commercial law in the same semester may be a killer. Two major paper courses may be fine if you are a very strong writer. If you are weak in legal research, then you may want to take an extra legal research seminar before you take your capstone/advanced writing course.
- Balance elective and required courses. Explore legal topics that you are curious about or may be interested in practicing. Take required courses 2L year that are needed as prerequisites for interesting advanced elective courses. If you have specific career goals, also consider concentrations or dual-degrees as you register.
- If you are registering for 2L year, think about what requirements and electives will be left for 3L year. Will that give you a balanced schedule for those last two semesters? If you are a rising 3L, think about the balance between your final fall and spring semesters.Will you have extra job-hunt or part-time-job commitments to balance in?
- Consider your commitments outside of class when choosing a balanced schedule. Do you commute a long distance each day? Will you be working? Do you have family commitments? Will you be an organization officer? Will you try out for competition teams or write-on for a journal?
- Be true to yourself in your selections. Test the "everyone should aspire to" advice against your own values, goals, and gut. If you know you want to be a transactional lawyer and do not want to litigate, then ignore pressure to take elective litigation courses and instead focus on courses that will benefit your goals. If you really do not have any desire to write on to a journal and would turn down the opportunity if offered, then do not force yourself to enter the write-on competition. If working at Big Law is your idea of a total nightmare, then pursue coursework that will be beneficial to a small or mid-sized firm in the geographical area you want. If you are set on solo practice, then take electives in law office management, law practice technology, and other practical areas.
- Remember that no course you take will be a total waste of time. You hone your legal reasoning skills in every course. If you take a course you think you want to practice in and ultimately decide you despise it, then you have gained insight into what not to practice. If you take a course you are unsure of and fall in love with the content area, then you have discovered an interest that may point to advanced coursework and a career.
- It is okay if you do not have any idea what you want to do after your J.D. degree. There are areas of law to explore and find out. Many law students discover their passions during 2L and 3L year. So take required and elective courses with an open mind!
- Do not despair if you do not get your "perfect" schedule. Through waitlists and add/drop period, you may get to tweak your schedule over the summer and into early fall semester.
I went to law school knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my law degree - I changed my mind. By the end of 1L summer I had discovered a new passion in a previously overlooked area of law. During 2L and 3L years, I discovered other potential areas of interest. The law is so expansive that the options are almost endless! (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 10, 2019
There were no two ways about it -- the saint looked like she had scabies. Under my hands, the mixture of red oxide, Mars orange, yellow ochre, and chromium green produced a blotchy face, one that looked scabbed with pustules and rotting skin. I looked around the room. The same traditional colors in the hands of others produced a face that was serene and luminous. Frustration welled up inside me, and it took everything I had to keep back the tears that threatened to spill out. I was following the rules Father Damian had given us, yet what I was producing could hardly be called an icon; it was more like an amateurish cartoon. It wouldn't have bothered me so much if the others at this retreat were accomplished artists, but my peers were amateurs like me -- people from all walks of life and all religious traditions, taking a week off from their busy lives to learn an ancient art form and contemplative practice by "writing" an icon. Some were inspired by faith, some by art, some only by the idea of doing something different for a week.
Making his rounds through the room, the monk reached my table and thoughtfully contemplated my poplar board with its rough strokes, uneven lines, and errant splotches. "You've got the basics," he said. "Don't be afraid." And with a few deft brushstrokes, the scabies disappeared from the saint's face. "It's the practice. We use traditional pigments, and we follow rules so our boards don't warp and the icon has depth that draws the eye through, as though it were a window. A lot of the foundational work seems invisible, but it's important. It seems counterintuitive to use these colors that seem harsh and discordant. But as you build it up, layer by layer, you're adding depth and meaning. You'll make mistakes -- sometimes huge ones. But there's rarely a mistake you can't recover from. Work at it, and you'll be an iconographer."
- It seems to start with chaos, but as I work at it, it starts to make sense.
- Some people are better at this than I am. That's OK. I can rejoice in their successes.
- Enjoy this community of diverse people who came together for a common purpose.
- Take time to share. Take time to laugh.
- If I want to do this, I belong here.
- If I practice, I will get better.
- It's OK to ask for help when I need it.
- Just because it's not perfect doesn't mean it's not good.
Every day when I look at the imperfect icon hanging on my wall, it reminds me of how hard learning can be, both for me and for my students. How critical it is to accept our stumbling and know the struggle is worthwhile! As the poet Wendell Berry said, "It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."
Thursday, April 4, 2019
I asked my classes this question today: "How did you learn to ride a bike?"
The students then turned to their small groups and the class lit up with stories and smiles and anecdotes as they shared their memories about learning to ride bikes. Here are some of the things I heard:
• I started out with training wheels.
• No one helped me so I decided to try riding on the grass so that I wouldn't get hurt when I fell.
• I just kept getting back up, one fall after another and one bruise after another.
• Without my knowledge, someone gave me a big push and away I went!
As a class, here's what we realized about learning. Not one of us learned to ride a bike by reading about riding a bike, or watching You Tube videos about bike riding, or creating a study tool on bike riding. No. Instead, to a "T," all my students said that they learned to ride bikes, well, by learning to ride bikes. And, most of us had help along the way.
The same is true with learning the law. We don't really learn the law by reading about the law. Instead, we learn the law by problem-solving with the law. But, far too many students - understandably - don't feel ready to practice final exam problems because they feel like they don't know enough law. So, here's some tips to get you learning by doing in preparation for your final exams.
Start with training wheels and practice on the grass.
Here's what I mean.
Instead of trying to test yourself through past exam problems, open up your notes, outlines, and casebook and work through problems as best you can, untimed, with the goal of learning the law through past exam problems.
Just like learning to ride a bike, you'll experience a lot of cuts and bruises along the way as you review your answers. But, you'll get better and soon you'll be able to ride without your training wheels (notes). And, you might start doing some tricks, too, like jumping off the curb, something that a few days or weeks previously was terrifyingly trepidatious. You see, the key to tackling your fears about taking final exams is to take final exams before you take final exams. So, as you prepare for your exams this spring, make it your aim to practice final exams, slowly and open book. One pedal at a time. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.
When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.
What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.
But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.
Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.
At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
Perhaps you are like me (or your students). As I confessed to my own students in class today, I spent three years in law school never making eye contact with professors. I was just too scared to be called on. I didn't feel smart enough (and I certainly never really understand the professors' questions.). So, I hid...for three years.
That experience left me feeling lonely and isolated, as not part of the profession. Looking back, I realize now that most of my fellow students felt the same. Oh how I wish that I had opened up, just been a bit human instead of machine-like, and shared from the heart. But, to be honest, I wasn't willing to reveal my deep-felt fears. Consequently, I now try to share with my students about my own experiences as a law student and what I've learned in order to better help them.
That brings me to a thought. In my early days as an academic support professional (ASP), I spent much of my time focused on teaching skills (reading, case briefing, preparing for class, taking notes, time management skills, synthesizing course materials into outlines or study tools, and exam writing, etc.). I still teach those skills, but my focus is much broader now because the skills by themselves do not make for learning. Rather, it seems to me that there is a social/emotional component to learned that is equally important. And, the research seems to back up my hypothesis.
In particular, as recently reported by Dr. Denise Pope, a researcher and cofounder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, it seems that student engagement is the most important factor correlated to academic success, future job satisfaction, and overall well-being. Saturday Essay, Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2019. According to Dr. Pope: "The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative." Id.
So, what is student engagement? In short, according to studies by Gallup-Purdue as reported by Dr. Pope, there are several key experiences of engagement that can make a lifetime of difference for our students. Here's the list, as published in Dr. Pope's essay:
"• Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting
• Working with professors who care about students personally
• Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals
• Working on a project across several semesters
• Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning
• Being active in extracurricular activities". Id.
Nevertheless, as Dr. Pope relates, few students report experiencing that sort of engagement with only 27 percent of students experiencing strong support from professors who cared about them and only 22 percent having a mentor to encourage them. In other words, most college students, in my own words, feel disconnected and disembodied from school. That was certainly me throughout much of law school. Nevertheless, there was one professor, later in my law school studies, who took an interest in me. That professor ended up writing my letter of recommendation for my first job as a lawyer - a law clerk in court. In other words, looking back, I made it through law school because someone believed in me...even when I didn't believe in myself.
That gets me thinking about our roles as academic support professionals. Much of learning can seem mechanical (case briefing, memorization, IRAC, etc.), but the stuff that sticks only sticks when it's socially experienced in an emotionally-positive and engaged academic community. So, as we build our programs, I try to remember my purpose is not to create an award winning program but rather to help people believe in themselves as learners and experience the wonderful thrill of being part of something that is greater than themselves. At least, that's my ambition, one student at a time. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, March 21, 2019
I'm a "deer in the headlights" type of person, or, at least that's what I feel like when someone asks me a question. In fact, at a recent conference, I embarrassingly just stared blankly when someone I've known well said "hello."
And, as you can imagine, I spent much (well, all) of law school in the "quiet mode," never speaking unless directly called on in class and often times with my eyes cast downward to avoid making what seemed to me "dangerous eye contact."
You see (and perhaps you are like me), I just never thought I had much of anything to say in law school. And, I still often feel sort of out-of-place in the midst of so many learned scholars, educators, administrators, and students.
That's when I came across an encouraging article by columnist Sue Shellenbarger entitled: "Overcoming the Terror of an Impromptu Speech" The column provides handy concrete steps that one can take to help overcome fears in both conversations and in responding to questions, something that I suspect many law students (and faculty, administrators, and community members also fear).
Here are a few of the tips and observations that I found most helpful. First, that many of us fear speaking publicly, whether in front of a large group or with a supervisory figure (such as a professor or senior administrator or boss). In other words, it's human to be afraid of speaking in public. Second, that being spontaneous in conversations and in responding to questions actually takes preparation and practice, which is something that we can all develop. In fact, the article provides helpful steps and guidance for handling questions and conversations. Finally, the tip that has been most helpful to me is to use self-talk, namely, to tell myself that "I'm excited for the opportunity to speak, for the chance to have a conversation with you, for the opportunity to respond to your question, etc."
In my own case, rather than waiting for people to say "hello" to me, I'm trying to make the most of every encounter, whether by saying "hello" to someone I don't know as they join me in the elevator (and asking them about what they are learning), or whether, as one of my colleagues tonight challenged me, saying "great job" to one of my students or colleagues in recognition of their accomplishments. You see, for me personally, it's in the midst of just taking these little steps that is helping me to no longer feel like the "deer in the proverbial headlights" but rather joined into and belonging to a vibrant community of learners. And, if you happen to fear conversational encounters and public speaking as I do, I hope this helps you too (and for your students also). (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
One of the most stimulating -- though, at times, overwhelming -- aspects of working in Academic Success is the necessity of performing in all the rings under the law school circus tent. In the same day, we can be teaching substantive law, providing feedback to help improve a student's writing and legal analysis, coaching another student on skills like time management or effective study, and counseling other students who are anxious, unmotivated, discouraged, or overconfident. To me, the counseling portion seems to be the most draining. Even when it is not taking up the greater part of my week -- and that is not always the case -- working with students' emotions, their self-awareness, their conceptions of what they are capable of, and their unrecognized assumptions requires high levels of energy and attentiveness. Anything that might make that part of the job easier without shortchanging my students would be gratefully welcomed.
To that end, I've been reading an interesting article called Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems, written by the psychologists Gregory M. Walton and Timothy D. Wilson (Psychological Review (2018), 125(5), pp. 617-655). The authors explain that much of what either restrains or enhances our achievements does so because of how we perceive it, ourselves, and/or our place in the world. For example, a student who perceives her professor's probing Socratic questioning as demonstrating confidence in the student may learn more, and feel more confident about what they have retained, than another student who perceives the professor's intense questioning as disdain or ridicule. Much depends on the subjective meaning that a person has assigned to himself ("I am clever/I am stupid/I am not good at math"), to his environment ("The professor doesn't like me/This subject is useless in the real world/That law firm only hires students in the top 5%" ), and to the interactions between the two ("I always screw up on multiple-choice questions/There's nobody in this class who would be willing to share notes with me/If I go to office hours the professor will think I can't handle the material.") The article points out that many of the techniques that have been demonstrated to produce lasting behavioral change with comparatively little effort on the part of coaches or intervenors do so because they help to change ineffective subjective meanings that the student had used previously into meanings that are naturally more likely to produce good results. For example, incoming African American college students participated in a one-hour discussion section at the start of the school year, in which stories told by former students were used to convey the idea that it is normal to feel, at first, that you "don't belong" in college, and that after a while that feeling goes away. Participating students had higher grades over the next three years than did similar students who did not join the discussion session. Walton and Wilson call these techniques "wise interventions" because those who used them are aware of ("wise to") the maladaptive meanings that some subjects have adopted, and therefore can more successfully change those meanings.
This is a dense and rich article, one I will have to return to a few times here, but today I wanted to point out three of the five general principles the authors suggest characterize a "wise intervention". These three principles are all about how to effectively change maladaptive assigned meanings, and I think they can help us in Academic Support as we try to find new ways to help our students make the most of themselves and their environments.
The first principle is that in order to effectively alter ineffective perceptions, the explanations we offer in exchange have to be detailed and specific. It was not enough, for example, to say to incoming college students, "College is tough on everyone. You'll get over it." Instead, researchers used the detailed stories of former students to illustrate the specific feelings that incoming students often experience, and the journey that those students went through, so that the incoming students could more clearly relate to and remember those stories when they encountered similar feelings. Similarly, in law school, it may not be enough just to tell 1L students that law school is going to be harder than any educational experience they've had in the past. Instead, we need to tell our own stories, and the stories of other law students and alumni, to better illustrate some of the specific obstacles that were faced and then overcome. Having those details to recall can help insure that 1L students will interpret their setbacks and difficulties as part of the usual law student experience.
Another principle is that, once we help students to generate more useful interpretations of themselves and their environments, these interpretations can lead to further recursive change in the future. A student introduced to the concept of the "growth mindset", for instance, may at first only accept its existence in a certain context, like the ability to memorize content. However, as the student experiences success in that context, it becomes more likely that she will start to apply the growth mindset concept in other realms, such as making oral presentations or writing effectively under time pressure. This is one of the chief benefits of a wise intervention: because of the possibility of recursive change, a comparatively small effort on the part of a counselor or coach can produce a lifetime of benefits.
However, the possibility of such recursion depends in part on a recognition of a third principle: the fact that the meanings that people assign to themselves and to their worlds all operate within complex systems of past experiences, present conditions, and future expectations. In practical terms, this means that merely changing a student's meaning-making is not likely, by itself, to take root and produce extensive future benefits; there must also be some kind of change to the system in which the student operates. It is not enough, for example, to get students to see that they have the analytical tools they need to respond properly to multiple-choice questions, and that such questions are not simply an opaque collection of "tricks", unless we also provide those students will access to practice questions upon which to apply their new view of the genre, along with answer explanations so the students will be able to confirm that the analytical approach is indeed the most effective. Changing your students' interpretation of themselves or of the law school environment should always be either in response to, or accompanied by, some kind of practical change to the rest of the system in which they operate, in order to give the students the opportunity to test and cultivate their new understandings.
This last bit is the part I want to incorporate more into my own teaching and advising. Whenever something seems to click for a student and they seem to recognize a possible new way of interpreting the world, that's a spark. Academic success depends not just upon generating such sparks, but also upon providing kindling so that the spark doesn't go out.