Thursday, May 19, 2022

Living Courageously

After a couple of very difficult years for our students, ourselves, and the world, author Elizabeth Bernstein writes: "Now, it's time to push ourselves outside our comfort zone."   Bernstein, E., "It's Time to Restore Excitement to Your Life," Wall Street Journal (May 18, 2022).    But how?

Well, Bernstein suggests taking a few chances in your life to be, well, different, challenged, growing, or, to put it in my own words, a bit quirky.  That doesn't mean that you have to quit your job and go tackle Mount Everest but it does mean that change requires, well, change.  It requires us to take a courageous step to try something new. And, because that something is new, it will be uncomfortable.  But living a life of comfort is not necessarily the best life of all, for us or our students, because living in comfort means that we are not being challenged and growing.

As a start, Bernstein suggest picking out some small adventures.  Perhaps having a conversation with someone that you're uncomfortable with (for me its bosses).  Or perhaps it's saying hello to the person behind the counter at the coffee shop and asking them about how they are doing.  Maybe its just a smile (because a smile is never, frankly, just a smile).  Those little things, you'll never know for sure, might be just what the "doctor ordered" to help someone else have a bit of a brighter day.  

You see, adventures are not meant to be lived alone.  Or, as someone from church recently told me, love without relationship is no love at all. So, love boldly.  Live courageous.  And, if you see me at the upcoming AASE conference, feel free to invite me to share in an adventure with you.  I could use a helping hand. We call could, I suspect.  (Scott Johns).

May 19, 2022 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Out of Place But Not Really Out of Place?

Sometimes, if truth be told, we often feel out of place. That was never truer than when - a few years back - I interviewed for my first law school academic job, hoping to earnestly pursue a career as a legal writing professor.  As those who know me know, that didn't pan out. But for perhaps not the reasons that you might image.

The interview trip started off uneventful.  I flew across the country and the law school put me up in a very nice hotel just a block from campus.  All seemed well, that is, until the next morning - the day of the interview.

With an early start, I had a nice breakfast and went back to the room to suit up, so to speak, for the interview, dressed in my finest linens (not really that fine but the best I had).  Shirt, socks, pants, etc.  With just shoes to go, I sat down on the bed and grabbed my two black shoes. The first one went on smoothly but not the second.  You see, I had mistakenly grabbed two black shoes...for two left feet.  

Panicked, I tried my best to take a few steps around the room, most uncomfortably. But the show had to go on.  So I tumbled out the hotel, hailed a taxi for what was supposed to be a quick walk to campus to try to save my feet as best as possible, and made it to the law school on time for my all-day interview, as you might imagine, a bit tussled.

Frankly, the interview went much better than I expected, that is, until the library tour.  

You see, libraries, at least to me, are like big canyons of exploration, with shelves upon shelves of books.  With normal shoes, navigating such canyons ought not be too cumbersome. But with two left feet, I wasn't sure I could maneuver. I might just find myself boxed in by an apparently impenetrably canyon. That's because left shoes point right, making right turns quick tame. But if forced to turn left, I thought, I might just have to put myself in reverse and back out.  Well, to cut to the chase, I survived the library tour no worse for the wear. All right turns as had it.

Then came lunch.  

Now, for those of you not in academics, the lunch talk is whether one gathers before the faculty, with the faculty munching while you are talking, presently some fabulously creative and elucidate lecture on some astonishing topic of interest to legal educators.  I gathered my balance and took off full steam ahead with my topic, but I couldn't help notice the stares.  Lots of them.  And not quite at me at all. Rather, the faculty seemed entranced at staring at my feet. 

Not one to be stared at, I just didn't quite know what to say, so I just finally blurted out that, "yes, I have two left feet."  Needless to say, in a crowd of academics, that didn't seem to even get a nibble of laughs.

I ended up, to my surprise, getting a job offer but needless to say went elsewhere.  But I did learn something important about myself.  Not to take myself too seriously.  That's it's okay to not be perfectly put together (I never am). That I've sort of made peace with myself that I am just, well, quirky, as one person recently told me.

And I think that is quite good to know because, if the truth be told, there are no ordinary people.  There are no normal people. We are all, in some ways and in marvelous ways, out of place but right in place where we belong.  As CS Lewis put it, we are all extraordinary.

So as I share this story, I hope it helps you to be at home wherever you find yourself, and that it helps you help others be at home too in your presence and in your communities too. That's something extraordinary wonderful to share with each other. (Scott Johns).

April 21, 2022 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 7, 2022


I read a recent article about memorization. What caught my attention was the headline: "Why We're All Forgetting More Things Right Now."  

According to the article, "[o]ur brains are like computers with so many tabs open right now....This slows down our pressing power, and memory is one of the areas that falters." (Quoting neuroscientist Sara C. Mednick).  As I look at my computer screen right now, that's not only my brain but my computer too.  It might just be that the reason that we have difficulty creating and retrieving memories is that we aren't focusing our attention on the tasks at hand.

In summary of the article, here are four tips to improve memorization and memory:

  • First, don't force memorization because frustrations then creep in and "override the parts of our brains that retrieve memories." Id. Instead, "take some deep breaths to calm your brain down and try again." Id.
  • Second, don't multi-task.  Id. In my own words, if a task is important, it deserves all of us, not just part of us. So practice paying attention and put yourself in a position to remove distractions.
  • Third, develop brain calmness.  Id. That means taking breaks, meaningful breaks, with others, with yourself, in nature, and get sleep because sleep "clears out the toxins that can clog [our] mental processing." Id.
  • Fourth, "be socially present." Id. The article talks about approaching "conversation intentionally." Id. That requires a lot out of us, but those around us deserve our attention - completely and fully. And, I'd add, approach reading and learning and problem-solving in law school intentionally conversational.  Take with the cases as though the judges are present before you. Speak out your study tools and outlines.  Challenge yourself with flashcards or other problems.

So, take pauses, be kind to yourself and others, when present be really present, and put away the distractions.  

Sometimes I think that is why writing is so beneficial for me.  It takes focus, attention, and being truly present with the task at hand. It's also why I run from writing so often.  I suppose, like many, I like to go from experience to experience, never really seeing, or really experiencing at all.  That's not exactly the right path for a rewarding memory or life.  (Scott Johns).

April 7, 2022 in Advice, Learning Styles | Permalink | Comments (0)

Great Things

I just blurted it out in class yesterday, not quite knowing what I was saying: "To do great things you must do great things."  You see, I think many of us - me especially - think that I can do great things without really doing great things.  That they just sort of happen, so to speak.  That blurt got me musing about legal education.

Take bar prep. Preparing for the bar exam takes great effort.  But it takes more than effort. It takes focusing attention, work, and learning on those activities that are most optimal for growth and leaving behind those activities that merely feel like learning but are not. And, it takes relying on others who have gone before us, for materials, lessons learned, and advice.

Take law school. Many of us - at least for me when I was in law school - checked all the boxes but didn't really understand what I was doing nor even why.  Great education leaves us changed for the better.  It doesn't settle in like a comfortable pillow.  Rather, a remarkable educational experience challenges us, makes us uncomfortable about what we think we know because, the more we learn, the more we come to know that we have so much more to learn.  As my mom used to tell me in response to what she suggested I teach my students, she said to "teach them to see things from the other persons' shoes." Sound advice but not necessarily easy to do.

Take academic support and bar passage programs.  For many institutions, ASP and bar passage work is compartmentalized.  It's something of a side show.  A box checked, or, as recent post described it, non-contextualized.  That's like trying to build something great without demanding something out of all of us.

One of my colleagues suggested to me that our role as legal educators should focus on three objectives:

  • Developing professionally competent attorneys.
  • Preparing our students to successfully pass bar exams.
  • Ensuring that our students have meaningful employment in their chosen fields.

If we do those three things well, in community with each other and our students, we will have done great things...together.  But, that takes the entire community cooperatively engaged in great things, little or big, to ensure that the great things happen for our students.  It's a big job for all of us but it's a job that ought not be on the shoulders of solely any of us because we all have a role to play regardless of our job titles, program responsibilities, or rank. 

That's something that plays out in military aviation.  The pilots, so to speak, are the faces of aviation. But the planes don't fly without all of the other participants fully committed and fully engaged, fueling the airplanes, maintaining the airplanes, paving the runways, controlling the skies, etc.

There's a saying that comes to mind. There are no solo pilots, even in military jets.  We all fly together or we don't fly at all. Let's fly together so that we can fly higher than ever.  (Scott Johns).



April 7, 2022 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 24, 2022


A couple of years ago, my mom's doctor took me politely aside to give me a little bit of advice about memory loss with my mom struggling with dementia.  That counsel was worth more than the doctor could ever know. The neurologist shared that in some ways my mom's world was getting smaller, day by day and bit by bit, losing memory of the past and not thinking about the future.  But, rather than fret, the doctor told me that the present is what is always with my mom.  Make it the best for her.  The doctor told me to celebrate the little things, the daily things, the smiles of the present as the past fades and the future loses enticement for my mom.  

As I look back, that was some of the best advice I had ever received.  It was a gift because most of the time, I ignore the present, letting my past failures hold me back from the here and now and my future worries taking away the enjoyment of the moment at hand.  In some ways, my mom's view of life shrunk but in other ways, it expanded dramatically because she was fully alive in the present, much more so that I am (and I suspect many of us are).  So many of us are so worried about the future that we can't live fully in the present, and so held back by the past, that we don't let the present free us to be more than who we were yesterday.  

It's a lesson that I am trying to live.  Take more time in the moment, to smile, to enjoy one another, to laugh a bit and to cry a bit, to share in relationship with others.  Put simply, we only have the present.  But oh what a gift! Let's make the present full of life - for our students, our communities, and ourselves too. It's a wonderful present to give to ourselves and to share fully with each other. (Scott Johns).


March 24, 2022 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Secret Sauce - Not So Secret

As author Kathryn Rubino poses: "What if I told you there was one thing you could do in your 1L year that would improve your grades in all your classes?" Rubino, K., One Thing Can Improve All Your Law School Grades, Above the Law (May 2, 2016). Frankly, that sounds too good to be true.  

"Well," as Rubino writes: "it isn't science fiction. There is...research from Dan Schwarcz and Dion Farganis at University of Minnesota Law School suggesting that law students who get individualized feedback from their professor in one subject are more likely to do better in ALL their classes (emphasis in original)."  Id. Still have doubts about the power of individualized feedback to really change lives? Well here's a link to the research so that you can make up your own mind:

In my own case, I sometimes forget the power that one can have in the individual moments.  As an academic support professional, sometimes I fear that I am looking in all of the wrong places, aiming for some momentous program that will change lives for the better. But sometimes the key to change is right in front of us, if we only look.  Just one 1L faculty member, providing individualized feedback to just their students in that one class, can have life-changing impact for that professor's students - across the board.  That's something to cheer about, and to get on board with too. (Scott Johns).


March 3, 2022 in Advice, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Divide to Conquer

I've been asking my students - a lot - to share with me what they are learning this semester.  Sometimes it takes the form of a few questions asked at the end of the class with one minute reflections submitted as "exit" passes. More often its a few days later via reflection exercises with answers submitted online.

One of my students recently boiled down what the student has been learning about learning to this: "Divide and conquer."  In explanation, the student shared that learning is most productive when it comes learning in "chunks."  I couldn't have said it better.  

Divide your learning into chunks, space learning out, practice lots, especially if you are getting ready for midterm exams, and avoid the all-night cramming sessions at all costs.

In short, take control of your learning by doing a little bit for each course every few days, in chunks.  

At first it won't feel very comfortable because, having taken a day or two off from the subject to work on other subjects, it will take lots of mental perspiration to bring it back to mind.

But, just like strengthening muscles, the learning happens because of the hard work and perspiration.  And, just like muscle building, it takes constant practice and work, day by day and bit by bit.  As one of our colleagues Professor Paula Manning put it, train your brain like you train your muscles for an athletic event.  That's a great way to think about it.  (Scott Johns).


February 17, 2022 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Big Plays - Small Steps

It's just a week and a half before the February 2022 bar exam.  For some of our bar takers, probably most, they are not sure, despite weeks of laboring studies, that they are ready, at all.  That's completely understandable, even natural.  So I have thought experiment.

I recently heard a speaker say that no one on the football field knows whether the next play will be the big one - the proverbial game changer.  Rather, each player lines up and gives it the utmost best, no knowing whether the next play will be the big one.

You see, big plays start just like small plays, step by step, push by push, and motion by motion.

I think it's a bit like that with the bar exam.  

For those of you taking the Feb bar exam, don't give up, on yourself, on your learning, and on your purpose.

Regardless of how you feel, step up each day, with courage, conviction, and curiosity, making it your aim to "move the ball forward" a little bit more, with each opportunity you take to practice another essay or a batch of multiple-choice questions. Stick with it.  And, when you fumble something, don't consider that as a step backward but rather as an opportunity to learn something that you didn't understand a few moments prior to that problem.  Keep growing; keep learning; keep on at it.

In short, don't stop learning.  Far too many people, I fear, with a week to go before the bar exam, start to huddle in the locker room so to speak, taking exams to see if they have a passing score yet.  

But your scores today do not determine your destiny tomorrow, unless you let them. So don't take practice questions as opportunities to test yourself, to prove yourself, but rather to learn.  Otherwise, in essence, you are giving up a week before the bar exam.  You are still in the game, the game of learning. Learn big. Live big, as if every opportunity is an opportunity to grow and learn, because it is.  You never know which question on your bar exam is going to be the game changer but, by preparing through lots of practicing with the purpose of learning, you're well-prepared to take the little steps that will be the game changer for you. Best of luck on your bar exam!  (Scott Johns).

February 10, 2022 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 7, 2022

Let's Face the Music

I have spent the last few weeks working with students who did not perform as well as they (or their doctrinal professors) thought they should on exams. While information on what went wrong on multiple choice exams is scarce (other than not choosing the correct answer), determining where things went awry on essay questions is diagnostic gold. So, like I am sure we all do, I tell students to go talk to the professors about their exams. This isn’t a novel idea to the students, but often the reaction I get is abject fear.  Here are some things you can tell students about the necessary post-mortem conversation:

  1. The Professor isn’t going to lower your grade. There is a lot of paperwork and sometimes even a faculty vote involved, so it is extremely difficult to change a grade in any direction. You are more likely to have the U.S. Supreme Court grant certiorari on an appeal than for a professor to change your grade based on this conversation.
  2. The Professor is very, very unlikely to raise your grade unless there is a clear mathematical error. See above (less paperwork and no votes when it is math).
  3. There may be some fiery hoops to jump through to get to this conversation. There are no three-headed dogs guarding the gates, but you may need to pick up your exam, check the class-wide comment sheets, check your individual grading rubric, and read any posted sample answers before you even attempt to sign up for an appointment.
  4. Jump through the aforementioned hoops and then make the appointment.
  5. Keep the appointment. Trust me, there is someone who could have used this appointment and by making it and monopolizing this time, you have an obligation (unless it is an emergency) to not waste it.
  6. Prepare concrete questions for the appointment-not, “what did I do wrong?” but more, “I see the rubric indicated that you were looking for a different restatement section here, can you explain why that one was more applicable than the one I mentioned?” Write these questions down because you will get flustered. Also, write down the answers because your relief that this meeting is over will erase the answers from your memory.
  7. This is going to be hard. There is no way (and no need) to sugarcoat it. Facing the reality that you did not do well is really hard and hearing the details is even harder.
  8. It is worthwhile-because the information from this meeting will form the basis of the plan that we will work on together to prevent the issues from reoccurring. The emphasis is on “we,” because you are not alone in this journey. ASP is with you.
  9. It is also worth noting that while the Professor is very unlikely to yell at you, belittle you, mock you, or tell you to leave law school altogether, you may see it that way in the heat of the meeting. Try to distinguish your inner voice from the comments and critique they are giving you. If you have done this and realize that the call is not coming from inside the house, please come tell me and we will make a plan to address it.
  10. Someday you will laugh about the fear you had going into this meeting. I recognize that today is not that day.

So, as Irving Berlin said in 1936[1], “Before the fiddlers have fled; Before they ask us to pay the bill; And while we still have the chance, Let’s face the music and dance.”

(Liz Stillman)


February 7, 2022 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Swallowed Up

I have a confession.  I realized today that I've spent most of the day letting the little things swallow up my day such that I let the big things lay waste.  I suspect that many students share similar experiences.  

Why is it that I lose such focus?  That email prompts capture my immediate attention?  That I can't seem to prioritize the important from the mundane?

Part of it has to do with me. I'm impulsive.  The other reason is that I haven't reminded myself of who I am and what I am supposed to do.

As one of my old Sunday school teachers used to say, don't read good books. Only read great books because if you waste your time on the good then the great never gets done.  

So I am writing to encourage us, me and you, to say no.  To take control over our time.  To prioritize the great.  To remember our purposes as we choose the activities of importance.  It's okay to let things go. But the things that we let go should be because we have chosen - wisely - to let them go rather than because, as happened to me today, I just let the day control me rather than me controlling the day.

Be of good cheer.  Tomorrow is almost here and by the time you read this tomorrow will be here.  Then, you might try what I try to do prior to every class. I remind myself of the there things that I hope my students will learn together with me because of our experience in the classroom.  That's a good day, a mighty fine day.  (Scott Johns).

January 20, 2022 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Rebuttable Presumptions

When I was in high school, and college and law school, I would tell my parents when I was nervous about exams like SATs, midterms, finals... And they would always answer, “you’ll be fine.” I’m not complaining about the faith they had in me, but even after I explained the reason for my extra concern, the answer remained the same. I was dismissed. It didn’t help me feel better in any way and certainly didn’t help me prepare for what was ahead.

Grades were released last week at my law school, and it has been…a lot. I can hear a lot of you nodding in agreement right now. In between extremely interesting AALS sessions, I spent hours speaking with students towards the end of the week. And like most of you, I met with students at all positions on the grade spectrum from, “I don’t know how I got an A-“ to “Am I going to get dismissed?”

Our list-serv has also been full of amazing emails and messages we [1]send students to get them through this time-all starting with the basic idea that “your grades do not define you.” I wholeheartedly agree that students are more than their grades and that their grades do not define them. Collectively, in the next few weeks, we will help students make study plans, assure them that they have more exam experience going forward, and remind them that we are here to help. We will give advice to talk to professors about exam performance, diagnose the issues or types of questions that plagued their exam, and offer practice materials. We will take action.

Yet, there is an elephant in the room: how can I tell students that they are not their grades and at the same time fail to acknowledge the reality that until they have some legal work experience, they may, in fact, be defined by their grades. I am telling them to transcend the grades at the same time I am helping them make plans to get better ones. They know, and they know that I know, that potential employers do care about class rank even I don’t agree with that as a bright line rule for granting interviews (and trust me, “don’t agree” is an extremely diluted way to express how I feel about that)[2]. I worry that I am being dismissive if I say it shouldn’t matter-or even worse-misleading some students to blame circumstances (or people) they cannot control for the grades they received. I absolutely know that some students are laid low by circumstances outside of their control (I had a student whose house burned down last year), but frequently students need to own (or adversely possess) the bad grades to make positive changes.

I think some of the hardest work I have done these past few days (and I assure you, my dance card is full today as well) is speaking to students who need to plead their case to a committee to be allowed to stay in law school (after one seemingly catastrophic semester). There is, per our academic rules, a presumption of dismissal (albeit rebuttable). We advise our students to share all the distractions, traumas, and circumstances that led to this situation. No doubt, this pandemic will be the underlying cause of trauma and academic distress long after we box up our masks and hope they get moldy in the basement from non-use.  More importantly, students need to tell the committee about the plans they have made to deal with these issues. I remind them to tell the committee that they are taking control over what is in their power to control and talk about their plans to ask for help when what is uncontrollable becomes too much. I assure them that asking for, and receiving, help is a sign of maturity and resilience-not weakness. And we should not forget that the next time these students take an exam, they will have an extra layer of stress added because they need to do better and are still frightened by how things went last time.

I will definitely tell students that things are going to be okay (and more often than not, they will be)-but it cannot be the only thing I tell them. I know students need to hear those words in my voice, but I also need to be certain that they will benefit from hearing it more than I will.

(Liz Stillman)


[1] Thank you to Melissa Hale, Susan Landrum, and Kirsha Trychta!

[2] I don’t even agree with ranking them, but that will be another post.

January 10, 2022 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Meetings, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 9, 2021

"Zoom Out" says Article

I'm caught in a trap of my own doing.  I'm the sort of person who is endlessly engaged in self-chat.  Dialogue that seems to spiral out of control.  I can't seem to stop myself from, well, talking with myself.  And it's mostly not good news.

That's when an article in review of a book entitled "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It," caught my attention.  According to article, there's a few tips that can help to "zoom out" so as not to focus "narrowly" on ourselves.

First, "add order" to your life.  If caught in a tangle of self-doubt and negative talk, take a moment to tidy up your workspace or your home, which helps to create the "sense that your future is controllable."  Id.

Second, don't fret if you engage in rituals to help calm your self-talk.  Rituals, according to the article, so long as they aren't used as in replacement of preparation, help to "settle the mind and increase confidence." Id.

Third, surround yourself with "greenery." "The mechanism by which nature replenishes our mental reserves is unclear, but studies show that viewing lush landscapes, walking in the woods or simply watching nature videos can reduce rumination, improve working memory and maybe protect health." Id.

Fourth, time travel mentally.  Try to picture where you'll be in a few years from now and the present might just not take on as much power in our lives.  "Perhaps the simplest distancing hack is to switch self-talk pronouns from first-person (I) to second- or third-person (you or he/she/they). In studies, distancing has increased academic motivation and reduced unnecessary worry."  Id.

Fifth, take on the view of the proverbial "fly on the wall," as an outsider, which allows us to distance ourselves from the self-talk and doubts that so often seem to trip us up and prevent us from seeing past the immediate.

Lastly, the article ends with a sort-of-surprising counterintuitive note.  Apparently, venting to others is not necessarily that helpful.  Perhaps a little dose but it seems that too much venting with others leads to just a big circle of venting.  Lots of hot air, I suppose.  I've been there before!

I haven't had a chance to read the book but based on the article's review, it sounds like this book might not just help a few of us but many of our students too, who are often wondering where they fit into the grand scheme of lawyering.  Here's the link for more information: Huston, M., "Chatter Review" Using Our Inside Voices, WSJ (Dec. 6, 2021). (reviewing Kross, Ethan, Ph.D., "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It").  (Scott Johns).





December 9, 2021 in Advice, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 2, 2021

It's Okay to Take It Slow Sometimes

There's an old story about a NASA engineer on the way to a big space launch of one of the Apollo moon rockets.

Living in Orlando, about an hour from the cape, the engineer was falling behind so he stepped on it, traveling as fast as he could on the highway.  Caught speeding, the engineer learned that perhaps the fastest way to the destination is not always the quickest.

That especially came to heart when the police officer asked the engineer: "What's the hurry?"  In response, the engineer said, truthfully: "I'm running late for a big moon launch."

In reply, the quick thinking cop said: "I just have one question to ask before I decide if I write you a speeding ticket.  If you died in a speedy crash today on the way to the launch pad, would NASA still launch?"

Hesitantly, the engineer - a bit embarrassed at the truth of it all - acknowledged: "Yes, NASA would still launch."

Consequently, the police officer wrote the ticket, saying that the rush wasn't worth the possible tragic cost of life and limb to the engineer or to others on the public highway.

Lesson learned:  

Too often we are speeding, recklessly traveling, when slow and pokey might actually be better for us and for all we serve.

So, ASP professionals, as you make plans for next year with this semester's final exams underway, take time to reflect on where you are going and how fast you are going.  And take time for yourself with your friends and your families.

Perhaps there's no better way to capture the spirit behind this lesson than with a poster, courtesy of Amber Dannis, assistant director of student affairs at the University of Denver.

When I first saw the saying, posted in the student affairs office, I was in a frantic rush. so it was nice to be given "permission" to unplug for for a bit.  Words of wisdom, I think.



Scott Johns


December 2, 2021 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 29, 2021

Idle Times

Every summer, our family rents a (dog friendly) house out on Cape Cod. Recently, we have been renting bicycles when we get there at a bike rental place called Idle Times. It isn’t fancy, but it is friendly--the name is welcoming and seems to be assuring us that we need not race or even labor much to get around on the bicycles. It is the kind of place where an old black lab lies in the overgrown seagrass and seems to will the kids trying out bicycles to go around him rather than move from his shady spot. It is idyllic-no false advertising involved. This past weekend (that started on a Wednesday-shouldn’t they all?) was also gloriously idle (aside from the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and latkes). I removed my laptop from the table (yes, the new one for those of you who have been following these posts) and didn’t return it to its spot until yesterday. And here I am on a Monday morning trying to jump start my professional brain after this lovely idleness.

Today is the last day of classes for us. While many might think that this is the beginning of a nice break for all academics, it is absolutely crunch time for ASP folks. There are students panicked about finals. They seem shocked that exams are almost upon us despite all the warning signs. I agree that by the time we develop our fall mojo, it is already Veteran’s Day-which was less than three weeks ago. Fall seems like a slow walk uphill to a sudden cliff, while spring semester seems like a cold, dark walk through a cave into the light. 

Nonetheless, we are about to begin our "reading days." I’m not sure how much time between classes ending and exams beginning is just right; I don’t think there is a one size fits all time period, but our 1L students have around 2.5 days.

Here is (some of) what I advise students to do now and during these days and the exam period:

  1. Get out of the law school building (we are all in one building here). The air is thick with stress and every little whisper will make you think someone knows something you don’t about a class you are in. I point out to our students that we are (in the fall at least) out of sync with our undergraduate and business schools, so their libraries might be a better place to study if a library is your preferred spot. At least the din there won’t make you feel unnecessarily inadequate. In pre-COVID times I would also recommend a coffee place (away from school) or even my favorite, the café at the Museum of Fine Arts (excellent place to study and wonderful place to be when you need a break from it).
  1. Make an exam plan. Work backwards from your last exam and plan reasonable study schedules for each day. Remember to add a teaser of the exam after the immediate one into your plan-so if Civ. Pro is on Thursday, you can take an hour and review a little Crim because that is next and so on.
  1. Attend to your hygiene and health! Seriously, this is going to be a marathon, pace yourself and be sure to stay hydrated. Don’t take unnecessary pandemic risks right now. Showering is important even if the alternative can help with social distancing.
  1. Practice writing answers and doing multiple choice questions: while reading carefully will be an important part of your exams, you will still need to produce an answer. You should practice essays often enough that IRAC is a muscle memory. Do enough multiple-choice questions that you are not confused by slight changes in terminology (because…gasp…sometimes doctrinal professors do not write their own questions). Remember, a good way to be prepared for exams is to be a PERP: Prepared for class, Engaged in class, Reviewing after class and Practicing. Ok, now I can see why this didn’t catch on, PERP is just not going to happen. But there is still hope for fetch.
  1. Handle different subjects with different strategic approaches: Civil Procedure is linear and chronological; Contracts is transactional; Torts and Criminal law just beg for making a chart with all the people and causes of action involved and so on…
  1. Just get started: if you are lost on the exam, start with something you can answer to get the brain engaged and then go back. However, do not go back and change any multiple-choice answers if you have already made a choice-it will not end well.
  1. Get out again-after the exam, leave the building. Do not discuss it with other people. I know that talking about a shared trauma can be therapeutic, but this will not be. I promise. Think about what you have done well on this exam and then move on with your plan. As Timon famously says in The Lion King, “You gotta put your past behind you.”
  1. When all the exams are over, enjoy the idle time.

(Liz Stillman)

November 29, 2021 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Curious Reading

The next weeks are fast paced for our students, as they finish projects, create and condense study tools, and practice problems in preparation for final exams.  But one thing often goes missing - reading.  And not just any sort of reading, reading curiously, carefully, and courageously.  I call these the "3-sees of reading."

That's especially apparent when doing exam reviews.

Often times, exams miss the point because, well, students miss the questions asked.  


Because students are often so worried about time or memorization that they don't train themselves to take care to read carefully, curiously, and courageously. That takes lots of practice with problems - using study tools as tools - and then reflecting and learning from what one produced through reflective practice.  That includes practice in reading curiously, carefully, and courageously.

I like what one person said:

"Practice makes possible." Turner, C., "Practice Makes Possible: What We Learn by Studying Amazing Kids," NPR (Jun. 1, 2016). 

In that article, the author in interviewing scholars Anders Ericcson and Robert Pool discovers that studies show that experts are not born but grown through deliberate practice.  Practice that makes possible.

That's true with reading, too. But not just any sort of practice.  It's practice with purpose. That's where we in ASP come in mighty handily.  We can help our students help themselves grow as readers, learners, and problem-solvers.  

For a few thoughts on what that might look like, take a look at the article cited above.  Or, to borrow the words of Prof. Liz Stillman, reflect on this thought: "Academic Support professors profess to assist pre-professionals become professionals using practices that produce prosperity." Stillman, L, Articulation (Nov. 8, 2021).  That makes me wonder, what sorts of practices do I use to improve the reading of my students? (Scott Johns).

November 11, 2021 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)


I'm constantly on the lookout for signs of bears, especially this time of the year when I hike.  That said, signs are often hard to spot for bears. Despite their lumbering sizes, bears are grazers, quietly hiding in brush, often within in plain sight, if only we could see the signs.

I think that also might be true of us, especially as to how we are doing as persons in community with others. As a recent blog post pointed out, teacher burn-out, including in the ASP community, threatens to undo the work that we do for others. Foster, S., Semester Nearing an End, so Exhaustion is Increasing (Nov. 7, 2021).

What to do about it?

Take care of yourself, take care of others, be caring of others, be caring of yourself.  

And, feel free when you see the signs, in yourself or others, to unplug.  We don't have to be all things to all people.  Frankly, we can't.  And, if your law school is asking that of you, then they really aren't respecting you as a person either or your students either.  So feel free to unplug. That's part of the human experience.

That's when this sign caught my attention, placed in our law school's student affairs office by Amber Davis, assistant director of student affairs.  I especially like this sign because, notice carefully, it is sitting in a chair, resting and yet speaking.

Sometimes it is in our moments of quiet that we can do the best for others and for ourselves.

So give yourself a break (and a big hug), even if for just a few minutes.  (Scott Johns).







November 11, 2021 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Making Explicit the Implicit -- Take the Road Less Traveled

Poet Robert Frost writes:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
                     - The Road Not Taken
With midterm exams over (or soon to be complete), students have a choice, a road to choose, a path to navigate. Indeed, regardless of one's exam results, much is to be learned.  
However, if you, dear student, are like me at all, I was (and still am) fearfully afraid of my professors. That's the road most of us take.
But there's another road one might take.  
It's  a road, as the poet suggests, that can make all of the difference. And it's not too late for you to take that road.  Reach out to your professors, indeed, seek them out.  Ask them to walk through your midterm exams with you, personally or in a small group.  Listen to them, converse with them, share your thoughts as you worked through your midterm exams, and let the conversation enrich you as you learn what you did that was outstanding (and why) along with concrete ways to improve (and how).
In particular, ask them to read through the question with you.  Most of the time, I find, that when people underperform on exams, it's because they knew too much but, in the rush of the moment, they wrote too hastily before they had properly read, identified, and analyzed the precise questions and issues raised.  It's as though we are primed to spill as much ink as possible in the hopes of making something stick.  But, much as in the practice of law, our best work happens when we take the time to deeply read, to curiously think through, and methodically organize our responses.  
In short, the way to improve is to learn and the only way to learn is to take the road less traveled, the road that opens up ourselves to challenges, that feels risky (and is), that feels lonely (and is), and that is not necessarily pleasant (it isn't).  However, it's a road that, in hindsight, you'll be mighty glad that you took. And, as a suggestion, grab a friend, go as a team, prepare together, share together and learn together.  Wishing you the best in your learning travels!  (Scott Johns).


October 21, 2021 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Hitting the Wall

In the musical Hamilton, Eliza tries to persuade her husband, Alexander, to take a break, “Take a break…Run away with us for the summer. Let's go upstate…There's a lake I know…In a nearby park. I'd love to go.”[1]  Alexander refuses to go and, no spoilers beyond this, it doesn’t end well.

Two weeks ago, on the first Monday in October, I asked my undergraduates why this time of year was so important, and one student said, “It’s spooky season.” I was trying to get at the Supreme Court getting back to work (on what very well may a spooky season of cases), but it is also, as ASP folks know, that scary time of year when our 1Ls hit a wall. I’ve stockpiled candy (easy this time of year), tissues, and some advice.

We all know that 1Ls have a moment of crisis when they lose their altruism about helping the world with their law degree and become caught up in a smaller world of grades, midterms, legal writing assignments, outlining, and the overwhelmingness of just showing up for class. Students lose sight of why they even came to law school to begin with. Surely, masochism wasn’t the reason mentioned in their application personal statements. Sometimes, students need to be reminded of their initial reasons for being a lawyer. A gentle reminder might be enough for some students. It never hurts to tell them that no one really comes to law school to be a law student, they come to become a lawyer. Being a law student is temporary. And while it seems counterintuitive to advise taking a break, that is the advice I often give them at this point in the semester.

This may be a perfect time for a student to take a small break (hours, not days). Midterms are over, legal writing is less intense (for the moment) and they have been doing the reading, briefing, and outlining for long enough that it isn’t all consuming. Honestly, if Boston was a drag queen, this time of year would be its death drop in terms of the weather and natural beauty. Soon enough, everything will ramp up again and often with larger consequences, but at this very moment, a few hours spent away from law school is doable.

To that end, I have “prescribed” a drive to a beach town about 40 minutes north of here with saltwater taffy, a giant rocky sea wall that is both walkable and climbable, and just sitting at the edge of the ocean and getting perspective. Need something closer? Walk down to the aquarium, smell the ocean, and watch the harbor seals frolic in the outdoor (free!) exhibit. Even closer? Walk the Freedom Trail (it is right outside the doors to our law school). Really, anything can be a break; the only rules are no books, no laptop, and no regrets. Time spent rebuilding yourself is priming the pump for students (and faculty). The investment will pay off.

So be on the lookout for students hitting the wall. Be their Eliza. I would always prefer my students took a break than get broken.

(Liz Stillman)


[1] © Lin-Manuel Miranda

October 18, 2021 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Making Trouble - Good Trouble

It's the aftermath of the first day of the AASE (Association of Academic Support Educators) Third Bi-Annual Diversity Conference, hosted by CUNY Law.  Unfortunately, my notes are a mess, much like life I suppose.  

But I managed to jot down some key thoughts from speakers and participants that pierced my heart today, leading me to reflect deeply on what I, personally and professionally, must do next, must be next.  

So here's some of what grabbed my heart from today's conference. It's just one person's view.  And I realize I left out much. But, in case you weren't able to participate today, I share with the hope that what we learn together in community might truly be life-changing for so many of our students, left behind and hidden.

  • Be willing to and make the invisible visible.
  • Generosity of spirit.
  • Ask questions about the learning environment, culture, the institution.
  • Who's here? Who's not here? Who's rules? Who created them?
  • Be a sponge - absorb.
  • Be curious, especially about who's uncomfortable.  
  • Reach out to student groups. Don't wait for them to reach out to you. Be the instigator.
  • Build rapport and relationships.
  • Grow in humility.
  • Social Identify Mapping: A Tool - Use it! Share it!  Practice it! Live it!
  • Humble ourselves.  
  • Be willing to lose control so the others might grow and learn.
  • What's your definition of academic freedom? Who is it for? What does it serve? How does it help or hinder our students and their learning?
  • Are you living mission statements or mission? Truly?  Really?
  • Why so hard to talk about race?  What are you waiting for?
  • Crown Act - creating and crafting successful curricular ways to teach learning, build DEI, and grow in respect and appreciation for others.
  • A few possible communication principles for living, learning, and growing, together: "Vegas---Wall"
  • There's more to academics than academics - much more.
  • Pandemic Education - What worked? What didn't? What will you continue? Who did it work for? Who didn't it work for? How were you changed by it? How will you let what you learn positively impact your teaching and your students?
  • Don't be afraid to let your students see you, know you.
  • Create space for expression, for belonging.
  • Ask more questions.
  • Make Good Trouble--Yes, Be a Trouble-Maker!

Finally, thank you to the organizers and leaders of this conference - Professors Yolonda Sewell and Haley Meade - and all of the participants, speakers, and sponsors for giving so much of themselves to us for others. And thank you to Dean Hayat (CUNY Law) for your opening remarks and Dr. Spates (Kent State) for your keynote address. Truly inspirational. (S. Johns).

October 14, 2021 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Magic Formula of Legal Writing

When you Google “magic formula,” you get a series of articles all referring to the “Magic Formula of Investing” which is based on a book written by Columbia University Professor Joel Greenblatt[1]. That formula is often defined on websites as, “… a simple, rules-based system designed to bring high returns within reach of the average investor.”[2]

The first set of 1L legal writing memos were due over the weekend. For our students, it was a closed objective memo involving essentially two issues, three cases, and one overarching statutory rule. I must have discussed and drawn the chart that accompanies my magic formula for legal writing easily twenty times in just the past week, in person on a 3x5 post-it note, or over Zoom. I have shared my formula possibly thousands of times over the years. I would describe it as a rules-based system designed to bring good analysis within the reach of the average legal writer.

This is the “magic formula” that I share with my students:

  1. Start with a Rule. A well-synthesized, complete rule is the key to everything. Everything unspools from your rule. It shapes and orders your discussion of the cases and your analysis of the facts. The rule divides your small legal world into essentially yes and no. Some cases will fall on the yes side of the rule while others will be nos.
  2. Your rule may come from more than one source. Cases, statutes, regulations etc. may all be relevant.
  3. Do your research. You need to use cases on both sides of the rule divide.
  4. Talk about cases in the past tense-they have no value but historical value. Precedent is about the past and how it shapes the decisions that will be made in the future (stare decisis).
  5. Use the Facts, Holding, Reasoning (FHR) method of using cases in your writing. For example: In Claus, where a senior citizen was struck by a reindeer, the court held that the sleigh driver was not liable because plaintiff’s decedent was walking on the reindeer path. The court reasoned that "grandma" assumed the risk of walking on the path, and while the driver had less than ideal lighting conditions, a pedestrian on the path was not a foreseeable event. I know-I haven’t even decorated for Halloween yet and here I am putting a winter earworm in your head. I’m almost sorry.
  6. While this is somewhat formulaic writing, you can control your narrative. We all teach this, but possibly in different ways. Here is where the chart below comes in handy. In paragraphs where you are explaining the law in your writing, think of this as the space where you place cases on a spectrum created by dividing your world by the rule (this would be E paragraphs in CREAC, and the first part of the A in IRAC). You should place your cases (using the FHR format) on this “spectrum” and then when doing your analysis later on (or soon thereafter in IRAC), put the facts of your current “case” on the spectrum as well. The place where I put the circle is where the facts in front of you go-this is the sweet spot-the facts are not a slam dunk “yes” like case 1, but better than case 2--while still staying on the side of the rule you want to be on. The court cases closer to yours are your positive analogies because the facts are more similar, and you distinguish the cases on the far side of the rule. You only create this “distance” by having a full spectrum. The key here is that you, as the writer, get to lay out the spectrum.

Formula pic

Honestly, this is probably old news to most of you. But on the off chance that this rules-based system brings good analysis within reach of the students you are working with, I feel it was worth putting out there.  Some might say there is no magic in legal writing, but as for me and grandpa, we believe.

(Liz Stillman)




October 4, 2021 in Advice, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)