Thursday, October 17, 2019
Ok...here's a thought experiment...
What person or name first comes to mind as the best learner of all time?
Feel free to blurt it out...
Perhaps Albert Einstein?
Or Marie Curie?
Or maybe the great scholar, teacher, and mathematician Hypatia?
Well, according to cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik (U.C. Berkeley), it turns out that "...babies are the best learners in the universe." A. Gopnik, The Ultimate Learning Machine, Wall Street Journal (Oct 12, 2019)
In fact, as a research psychologist, Dr. Gopnik explains that the key to successful development of artificial intelligence requires that computers learn to learn to learn and think like human babies. Id. And, that's very difficult for machines to do. Id. Computers are brilliant in processing lots and lots of data but not nearly so good as babies and toddlers in accurately making sense and judgements about the world around them with very little data to boot. Id. And, most of the time, we have very little data, too.
Take law school for example.
We read perhaps a handful of cases on intentional torts. Perhaps a few on contract formation or consideration. A few more about equal protection. And, out of just a few experiences we are suppose to generalize, to synthesize, to figure out what intentional torts are all about, or contract law, or equal protection analysis.
So, that begs the question.
Perhaps we as legal educators might also learn a few things about how to learn by also exploring how babies learn to learn...and learn so expertly and so quickly with so little knowledge at the start [since we too --in our work with law students --often given our law students very little to go on to figure out "the law."].
According to Dr. Gopnik, babies learn through the process of making a mess. Or, as Dr. Gopnik accentuates, "MESS," which is an acronym that stands for building models about the world that they observe, curiously exploring the world around then, and learning in social experiences with others. Id.
For example, with respect to models, toddlers and even babies can construct common sense models about such topics as physics and even psychology. Id. With respect to psychology, even a one-year old baby, when seeing an adult drop a pen, will try to help pick up the pen for the adult out of apparent empathy for the other (but not if the adult was seen by the baby intentionally dropping the pen). Id. You see, little toddlers have already learned through curious observations about gravity and even about human intentions too. Id.
With respect to exploring the world, "[babies] are insatiably curious and active experimenters. Parents call this 'getting into everything.'" Id. Toddlers love to explore, to test out everything, to take things apart and to try to put them together. Id. It's this sort of "playful experimentation" that is another secret to the ability of children to learn so adeptly. Id.
The final factor relates to learning in social contexts. Babies learn by observing people around them, who have the benefit of often times years of experiences, by trying to imitate them. But there's even more. Take the situation of toddlers learning to tie sneakers. Id. Try as you might, it turns out that it is very difficult to teach computers to learn to tie sneakers [I think it would take lots of mathematical code!]. But children learn to tie shoes by watching others, focusing on the purpose of the task and not just the steps, which leads to learning. Id. That's something that's just plain difficult for machines to do.
In fact, computers can't generalize very well at all from limited data (i.e., they aren't very good at creating accurate common sense models); they don't really experience the world around them (except to the extent that humans pre-program computers to "act" in particular ways; and they don't have an ability to watch what others are doing (and extract out of those observed activities what purposes might be lurking in one's activities).
So, that takes us back to law school. What can we learn about learning the law from babies?
First, as law students read cases (or even before), students can create models or theories about what might lay ahead as they read case after case (or what principle or principles might hold them together). In short, law students can formulate hypotheses about what they are preparing to read.
Second, as law students work on learning, students should be encouraged to tinker with the cases, to explore them, to be curiously playful. In particular, law students can imagine different facts, different judges, and whether those sorts of changes might change outcomes.
Third, as law students learn to solve legal problems, faculty should explore with them how they solve legal problems, perhaps walking through reading essay questions and then even writing out answers in real time, with students then having the opportunity to practice themselves by trying to imitate what they watched experts perform. And, students should be encouraged to think about the purpose behind solving the legal problems and reading the cases.
I know. There's a lot of deep cognitive science behind learning. But, perhaps the key to learning is not quite as difficult as we (or at least I) sometimes make it out to be. Life is complex; perhaps learning is not so complex; perhaps it's one of life's beautiful secrets that we - as legal educators and as law students - can learn from the smallest among us.
So, next time you see a baby, pay attention; there are important life lessons to be learned!
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween. In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.
Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement. Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve. Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve. But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.
The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution. It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks. The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected. Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week. With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming. A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them. It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.
But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable. And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week. Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills. Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.
After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings. Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
It's never too late to make a difference…a positively meaningful difference...to improve academic performance for students, and, in particular, for underrepresented students.
You see, as demonstrated by social science research from psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, a sense of belonging - as a valued participant within a cooperative learning community - is critical to academic success.
Indeed, belonging changes lives.
And, there's more great news.
According to the research, just a "brief social-belonging intervention" can make all the difference. A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. And, that brief intervention is especially valuable for African-American students. Id.
So, here are the details, at least as I paraphrase the research findings.
Preliminarily, the researchers hypothesized that a brief intervention in the first week of undergraduate studies - to directly tackle the issue of belonging in college - might make a measurable impact with respect to academic performance and health outcomes. As background, previous research had suggested that a lack of a sense of belonging was particularly detrimental for academic success in college.
The research intervention was threefold.
First, the researchers directly shared survey information with students, showing that most college students "had worried about whether they belonged in college during the difficult first year but [they] grew confident in their belonging with time." Id.
Second, the students were encouraged to internalize the survey messages about belonging by writing a brief essay to describe "how their own experiences in college [in the first week] echoed the experiences summarized in the survey." Id.
Third, the students then created short videos of their essays...for the express purpose of sharing their feelings with future generations of incoming students, so that participating students would not feel like they were stigmatized by the intervention (but rather that they were beneficially involved in making the world better for future generations of incoming students - just like them). Id.
According to the research results, surveys in the week following the intervention indicated that participating students sensed that the intervention buttressed their abilities to overcome adversities and enhanced their achievement of a sense of belonging.
And, the impact was long-lasting, even when participating students couldn't recall much at all about the intervention.
The researchers then used the statistical method of multiple regression to control for various other possible influences.
As documented by their research findings, the intervention was particularly beneficial for African-American students - both in terms of improving GPA and also for improving well-being. In short, a brief intervention led to demonstrable benefits with students outperforming such traditional academic predicators such as standardized admission test scores. That's big news.
That brings us back to us ASPers!
As ASPers, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful interventions...by sharing the great news about social belonging.
But, there's more involved than just sharing the news.
Based on the research findings, to make a real difference for our students, our students must not just see themselves - in the words of the research psychologists - as just "beneficiaries" of the intervention...but rather as "benefactors" of the intervention. Id.
In short, the key is to empower our law students with tools to share with future generations of students what they learned about adversity, belonging, and overcoming…and how to thrive in law school.
Wow! What a spectacular opportunity…and a challenge too!
P.S. Here's the research abstract to provide a precise overview of the research findings:
"A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health."
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Some people arrive at law school with a particular passion such as helping immigrant communities, or aiding small businesses, or supporting victims of domestic violence or abuse. Given that I had no specific passion but only a yen to be useful to ordinary people, it was a relief to get a judicial clerkship, since the clerkship allowed me put off the decision about "what to do when I grow up" a little while longer. At the court, every month the judicial clerks would divvy up the cases newly assigned to our chambers in a totally informal process; as long as we got an approximately equal workload, our justice didn't care which clerk took a case. The court was a great experience, as I got to see not only good and bad lawyering but also cases running the gamut from criminal to workers compensation to water law. I still didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up, but our monthly allocation of cases gave me some clue as to what I didn't want to do. Corporate law? Shudder. Election law? No thanks. Family law - no, PLEASE, I'll take any number of workers compensation cases to avoid family law. By the end of my clerkship, I knew for certain a large number of areas in which I didn't want to practice, which still left a broad universe of possibilities to consider as I moved ahead.
Today I was talking with an upper-division student about her future. A diligent person, she had just attended "Pizza with the Prosecutor," one of a series of events put on by the Career Development Office to introduce students to a variety of available career paths. While other students had emerged enthusiastic about careers in criminal law in general and with the local prosecutor's office in particular, this student was shaking her head as though trying to rid herself of a bad dream. "Well," she said, "that was informative. I definitely know I don't want to be a prosecutor. And half of life is figuring out what you don't want to do."
In any life transition, we spend a lot of time figuring out what not to do. As I've met with 1Ls over the past month, I've been struck by how often they related their experiences in figuring out what not to do. Sometimes, of course, this was because they initially ignored, or didn't believe, or didn't listen to the largely consistent messages conveyed by faculty, staff, and successful upper-division students about how to engage in the practice of being a successful law student. More often, though, they were experimenting and working through different ways of reading, reviewing, outlining, writing, and managing their time. Read two weeks ahead? No, that didn't work -- I spent so much time reviewing that I was doing the work twice. Prepare all my meals for the week on the weekend so I wouldn't have to cook on school nights? No, I know that works for other people, but I was just exhausted from cooking all day and got so bored with my meals that I ended up going out to eat. Retyping my notes after class? That worked, but only once I figured out it was best to write down a summary and then look over my notes and add highlights: when I read through my notes before retyping them, it took hours because I was trying to make everything perfect. Exercising between classes? It seemed like a good idea, but I barely made it to class on time, so I switched my gym time to early morning, which is better even though I'd rather sleep in. Do practice problems? I tried going to the old exams first, but I got so intimidated that I decided to concentrate for now on working through the problems in the notes and questions. As an ASPer, I'm happy to see students engage actively in this type of self-regulated learning that will improve their effectiveness and satisfaction in practicing the skills of successful law students.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
July 2019 bar exam results are not due to be released in New York for a few more weeks, but already here in Buffalo we have glad tidings, for one of our students took the Florida bar exam and has learned that she has passed. What a thrill! One that will soon be experienced by many others across the land.
Is there anything else that prompts the same surreal combination of pride and relief? In an instant, a person’s very definition changes. They go from not possessing a certain authority to possessing it (at least after other formalities are met). Is it any wonder that the storied Jonathan Harker, wandering alone in a foreign land and distracted by the strangeness of it all, forgot for a moment his own momentous achievement?:
What sort of place had I come to, and among what kind of people? What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked? Was this a customary incident in the life of a solicitor’s clerk sent out to explain the purchase of a London estate to a foreigner? Solicitor’s clerk! Mina would not like that. Solicitor—for just before leaving London I got word that my examination was successful; and I am now a full-blown solicitor!
Harker’s momentary pleasure at the memory of his bar passage is soon dampened, however, by the cold foreboding of the great estate he stands before – and no wonder, for only a few minutes later he meets the master of that castle, who greets him with the words, “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! . . . I am Dracula. . .”
Whatever horrors Harker had to face next, at least he had made it past the doubt and anxiety that many people feel while waiting for their bar results to be revealed. Consider the unfortunate Mitch McDeere, the latest Harvard Law graduate to be hired by the high-end Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. One autumn afternoon, Mitch is called unexpectedly into an urgent meeting:
Lambert, Avery, and what appeared to be most of the partners sat around the conference table. All of the associates were present, standing behind the partners. . . . The room was quiet, almost solemn. There were no smiles. . .
“Sit down, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said gravely. “We have something to discuss with you.” . . . He frowned sincerely, as if this would be painful. “We’ve just received a call from Nashville, Mitch, and we wanted to talk with you about it.”
Poor Mitch immediately guesses what this is all about:
The bar exam. The bar exam. The bar exam. History had been made. An associate of the great Bendini firm had finally flunked the bar exam. . . . He wanted to speak, to explain that he deserved just one more chance, that the exam would be given again in six months and he would ace it, that he would not embarrass them again. A thick pain hit below the belt.
“Yes, sir,” he said humbly, in defeat.
Lambert moved in for the kill. “We aren’t supposed to know these things, but the folks in Nashville told us that you made the highest score on the bar exam. Congratulations, Counselor.”
The room exploded with laughter and cheers.
Surprise! Not what Mitch was expecting. Unfortunately, Mitch’s satisfaction is nearly as short-lived as was Harker’s, for less than two pages later, in John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitch McDeere meets an FBI agent who explains that the Bendini firm is mostly a front for the criminal activities of the Chicago Mob, and that attorneys who try to leave the firm always end up dead.
Dracula and The Firm were both sensationally popular novels, which suggests that there is something highly resonant about the notion of passing the ultimate test of professional ability, only to be led directly into a world of evil and mortal danger. I suspect some people enjoy the irony – He’s supposed to be so smart, but he wasn’t smart enough to avoid the King of the Undead or the Capo di Tutti Capi – and other people appreciate the moral question – Does mere intellectual knowledge even matter when a person is faced with a threat to his life and soul?
But law graduates might see yet another layer to these tales: After all this hard work to pass the bar, over three crushing years in law school and ten blistering weeks of bar preparation, is my “success” just going to take the form of an indenture to forces that seek only to exhaust my vitality to feed their own appetites? True, most attorneys do not end up working for vampires or gangsters, but even a wholesome job for a decent employer can feel like purgatory to someone whose interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere. When our students are no longer our students, when they have taken and passed the bar and are out there gainfully employed, is that the end of their stories?
There might be a brief frisson in thinking so. Isn’t that why people read suspense stories? But if there are two last messages we can leave our students with, they are that passing the bar is both an ending and a beginning, and that the skills they’ve learned in meeting that particular challenge will be skills they can use in meeting future challenges as well. If they can pass the bar exam, they can overcome anything – a misfit job, a toxic employer, even a threat to their lives and souls.
And Jonathan Harker and Mitch McDeere are evidence of this, because they each survive their ordeals. In both Dracula and The Firm, the heroes triumph by relying on three core competences – the same three competencies we emphasize in preparing our own students to pass the bar and to perform well in practice: knowledge of the law, application of sound personal judgment, and reliance on a network of support. Harker escapes from Dracula's castle by finding an unconventional route to freedom and judging that the risks of flight are smaller than those of remaining in place. Once he makes it back to England, he uses his legal skills to locate Dracula's hidden lairs, documented in a tangle of deeds and conveyances, and then he teams up with a band of friends to track down and eliminate the fiend and his minions. McDeere has the good sense to realize that neither the firm nor the FBI has his safety or best interests at heart, and, turning to a small group of family members of those previously hurt by the mob's activities, devises his own plan to use the legal tools he has learned to escape from the gangsters while passing along the evidence needed to bring down the Bendini firm. Sure, this is all fiction and fantasy, but fiction is often popular because it provides another way of telling a truth.
To everyone who finds out in the next few weeks that they have passed the bar examination: Congratulations, and may the rest of your life be just as successful. Know that you have the ability to make it so.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
I have to make a confession. Last week, I admitted that - as a law student - I was a proverbial "deer-in-the-headlights" when it came my time to face an ambush of socratic questioning. Confessions of a Socratic Deer (Sep 5, 2019). In retrospect, I think that some of that was due to my method of class preparation, namely, I tried to memorize as much of the case materials as I could so that I could regurgitate the cases when called upon (an impossible task, mind you!).
Now, looking back, I think I should have focused, as indicated in the final point of last week's blog, on preparing for classes by preparing my own questions about the cases assigned as reading, writing:
"As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney." Id.
That's when I got super-excited about the super-short case preparation checklist from the Royal Court of Justice for the Kingdom of Bhutan. Royal Bhutan Case Preparation Checklist (2018).
It's just two pages long but jam-packed with informative tips and questions that, in retrospect, would have made a mountain of difference in my law school learning, not to mention my confidence in the face of potential socratic questioning.
As the Royal Court explains in its document entitled "Briefing a Case," case briefing in preparation for court [and classes of course] is critically important for lawyers [and law students] because the process of case briefing "...organizes ones thinking and forces one, point by point, to consider all the important elements of the decision. Id.
To paraphrase, the Royal Court's checklist focuses one's mind on 8 steps:
- State the parties of the case and what they want.
- Provide a brief synopsis of essential facts.
- Briefly describe the procedural history of what happened.
- Find out the issue or issues.
- Figure out the holding/decisions of the judges.
- Explain the court's chain of reasoning using IRAC analysis.
- State the ultimate order of the court in disposition of the case.
- Voice your analysis. Id.
In my opinion, the first 7 steps are the means to an end with the end lying in step 8 - voicing your analysis.
As the Royal Court indicates its checklist, in the last step about voicing your analysis, explore the significance of the case, figure out how the case relates to others that you have read, identify the case's place in history, ponder what the case shows you about judges, courts, and society in general (to include its impact on litigants, both now and in the future), unpack both the explicit and implicit assumptions of the court, and engage in a thoughtful debate the "rightness" of the decision to include its persuasiveness and logic. Id.
I know that that sounds like a lot to take in. But, learning the law requires learning legal analysis and learning legal analysis requires digging in deeply into the cases assigned for each of your classes. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time in law school re-reading cases, trying to memorize them, rather than trying to see the patterns in legal thought and persuasion and, best yet, voicing my own analysis of them.
In short, as I reflect on my own law school experience, the key to case briefing and class preparation, it seems to me, is to take on the role of Socrates yourself, prior to class, in which you probe and ponder the cases assigned. As a bonus I can promise you, you'll learn to think like a lawyer and, more importantly, you'll be the sort of attorney to which your clients will be mighty grateful because you honed your skills and sharpened your analysis in law school (rather than with them).
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
I knew what I was getting into when I decided to get a puppy. Or so I thought.
It took two years from deciding I wanted a dog until I got my puppy. I had done my homework. I reread the classic works on raising, socializing, and training dogs, searched for updated information about my breed, carefully researched breeders in a three-state area, reviewed the genetic tests they conducted and the background of their dogs, asked dozens of questions and evaluated breeders by the questions they asked me, examined their reputations and their planned litters, and finally made a careful selection.
Moreover, I had appropriate experiential background. Having raised eight dogs of this rather headstrong breed over the past four decades, I was confident in my ability to excel in handling a puppy this time around. I budgeted for the expense of visiting the breeder several times, purchasing the puppy, and paying veterinary bills. I restructured my schedule so I could feed, walk, train, and socialize the pup. And I was lucky to have a partner willing to cover during the times I couldn't be there. I was as ready as ready could be.
And then the puppy came home. While I had lots of experience with willful dogs, it had been a dozen years since I'd had a puppy, and I wasn't as prepared as I thought. Sure, I anticipated housetraining accidents and chewed furniture and midnight whining, but there was more. Because she had been the alpha in her litter, my pup was far more dominant, aggressive, and demanding than any dog I'd previously had. She didn't respond to the gentle but firm corrections I had successfully used on four previous generations. At 12 weeks old, she developed a condition I'd never seen or heard of, urinating every minute for hours on end: the emergency visits to the vet hospital weren't in my budget, let alone my schedule. Feeding and walking her at lunchtime took more time than I'd planned. My vision of long bonding walks and romps in the dog park fell victim to the reality of a local threat of parvovirus. Bringing this puppy into my life disrupted everything. I fell behind at work, missed meals, and grew cranky because I couldn't go out for a movie or jump on the treadmill for a good workout. A dozen years ago, interrupted sleep didn't bother me much -- now it did. I'd thought of myself as a competent dog parent, but now I was just exhausted and teary. I wondered if I'd made the right choice in getting a puppy at this time in my life.
About this time of year, 1Ls who thought they'd done everything right start wondering if they made the right choice in coming to law school. For those facing this self-doubt, coming to law school wasn't a last-minute whim. Most put a year or more into the decision to pursue the study of law, researching and visiting schools, evaluating programs, comparing costs of tuition and fees and housing, enlisting the support of family and allies, and often working at law firms to get an idea of their future. They faithfully did the assigned summer reading and participated actively in orientation activities. They anticipated the disruption of the first few weeks and the stress of public speaking and the Socratic method. They knew what they were getting into.
And yet -- even given their careful preparation, the reality of even the most supportive law school throws a wrench into their lives. Persons who always considered themselves competent students are shocked to find how long it takes to read only a few pages and how difficult it can be to plumb the complexities of what seems to be a straightforward case. Students who as undergraduates reveled in reading Supreme Court decisions can be unnerved by the complexities of personal jurisdiction or the seemingly arbitrary nature of what is the offer and what is the acceptance in a contract. Minor writing or hearing or vision issues, heretofore largely ignored, suddenly become consequential. Heretofore strong relationships can be strained as students put long hours and most of their energy into a new way of perceiving the world. All this disruption can make 1Ls doubt the wisdom of choosing law school.
The good news for students who doubt the wisdom of their decision to attend law school is that they almost certainly made the right choice. In my experience, those for whom law school is wrong know it immediately. That's not to say that personal, financial, medical, and family circumstances don't sometimes require students to set new priorities and leave law school. But when students bring up existential doubt about their ability to do the work of a law student, it usually means they care deeply, that they are doing all they can to be good at something that is meaningful and precious to them. It can be a struggle, a time of huge disruption and occasional sleepless nights. The Honorable Michael Oths, president of our state bar commission, has said "Struggle should be embraced in recognition of the reality that navigating law school is difficult. The same is true for the practice of law." But it's worthwhile. Just like helping your puppy become a wonderful companion for years, after a few months of struggle.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
I was in my office, polishing that day's lecture for my 1L class, when the alien appeared soundlessly outside my door, as tall and dazzling as the ones I had seen on the news. They had been on Earth for two weeks now, appearing one by one or in small groups -- at the United Nations, in research laboratories, in churches and legislatures and boardrooms and newsrooms -- each time sharing a book, or a piece of art, or a technological contraption, describing briefly the gift they were giving, and then disappearing has suddenly as they had come. The world's armies and scientists had confirmed that a huge spacecraft was parked at the L4 point in the moon's orbit, and it was presumed that was the aliens' home base. But no one knew how they were coming down to the planet. Or why, precisely.
My alien was huge -- as he stepped into my office, he had to bend forward stiffly to fit through the door frame, and even then his broad shoulders brushed the door jambs on each side. It was like watching a rockslide. But once inside, he lifted his craggy head and smiled. With his chalky skin, and an enormous row of teeth that shimmered like the effervescent material of his robes, he looked like a James Bond villain who had repented and joined a Las Vegas monastery.
"You teach," he said, in a deep stony voice that seemed to simultaneously ask and answer the question. I nodded dumbly. He then pulled from a fold of his robes what looked like a dark packet of some kind, and held it out to me. As I took it, I realized it was a book, hand bound in rich Corinthian leather, with words embossed in silver across the front: TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS.
"What is this?" I said aloud, not to the alien but to myself. I looked up at him, and with a nod he let me know that it was permissible to open the book. I ran my hand over the cover -- I had never felt a volume so warm, so soothing, like a puppy's belly -- and I lifted the book to look at the words inside. Then I felt the strangest sensation. The characters on the page made no sense at all to me; they might have been Cyrillic or katakana or Ge'ez jumbled together for all I knew. But somehow, touching that warm cover, I knew what the text meant. I knew what I was meant to do -- that afternoon, in class, with the entire 1L class before me. I would --
A sudden high-pitched gasp interrupted my reverie, and I reflexively slammed the book shut. In the hallway, eyes agape, stood my student assistant, Patty. She looked from my alien to me and back again, not sure what she should do next. Before I could say either "Run!" or "Come in!", the alien resolved the situation. He growled, "Teach, you," and then vanished. It was like a light bulb burning out -- a brief flare, and then instantly the room seemed darkened by his absence. But he left the book.
Patty ran in. "Professor MacDonald, was that an alien? What did it leave you?" She came around to my side of the desk, like a referee repositioning herself, so she could read the cover.
"It says, 'TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS,'" I pointed out. "That's what I do. I think it's a gift to help me do more for my students." I flipped open the book, turning the pages without touching the cover. "The language -- well, it all looks like gibberish to me. But the book . . . spoke to me somehow. I'm taking it with me to class this afternoon."
Patty's brow wrinkled. "I can't read any of this, but it looks like it might be some kind of code." She pulled out her phone. "Can I scan the pages? Maybe I can figure out what it says."
I nodded, and Patty snapped images of the two visible pages. I turned the rest of the pages slowly, giving her time to capture the entire text. It didn't take long. The pages were large and the font small, so there were only about forty pages total. Patty never touched the cover, so I don't think she "felt" the meaning of the book the way I did. But I thought that might be better -- perhaps, uninfluenced by that perception, she might be able to come up with a more precise, more literal translation of the text. I told her of my intention to bring the text to my 1L class that afternoon, and Patty, who enjoyed British crossword puzzles, happily left to try to crack the code.
Two hours later, I was standing at the podium at the front of our largest classroom, getting ready to teach the entire class of first-year law students. Since the start of the school year, I had been introducing them to the particular challenges and expectations of law school, with the goal of making sure that each of them would be fully prepared by the end of the semester for the final exams that would determine their GPAs, and perhaps their fates. Mine was the only class in which every 1L student was enrolled. This was a boon, because it gave me the chance to introduce Academic Success and the resources available there to all of our students. It gave me an opportunity to lay for every student the groundwork for successful performance, no matter how much familiarity they had had upon matriculation with the practice of law, law school, or even just basic sound study habits. But it was also a challenge, because it meant holding the attention of, and delivering value to, 150+ students with different aptitudes, different levels of familiarity or experience, and different degrees of confidence in their abilities. I would lose some of those students if I moved too quickly, and I would lose some of those students if I moved too slowly, and I wasn't sure there was a pace that would keep everyone engaged.
But today! Today I had the book, and it was telling me how TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS, and as the second hand swept around the face of the clock at the back of the room, bringing us closer and closer to the official start of class, I began to salivate with anticipation. I knew this would be . . . delicious.
The hand crossed the 11, and as it neared the 12, I opened my mouth and took a full breath. Gripping the book, I prepared to begin. But just as the red hand reached its zenith, a door at the back of the room slammed open, and Patty stumbled in, breathless and wild-eyed, clutching a batch of paper in one hand. Every head in the room swiveled to look at her, but she looked past them all. Her eyes found me at the podium, where I had instinctively pulled the book to my chest, and she called out. "Professor MacDonald, put it down! You can't use that book! IT'S A COOKBOOK!"
There was a jittery fluttering, like the sound of 150 startled sparrows, as the students all turned their heads back to me.
"Um, not exactly," I said. "It's more like a menu."
The sparrows rustled uneasily, as if they were about to fly.
"But look," I continued, turning to the students, "you're not on the menu. It's a menu for you. Look, all teachers know a bunch of recipes that we can use to help this student construct a useful case brief or to help that student learn to support her analysis with facts. And if I'm working one-on-one with a student, or working with a small group of students who are all craving the same helping, it's great to be able to focus on a particular recipe. But with a big group like this, I have to do more than just work through one recipe at a time. The students who have already mastered that recipe, who've had their fill of that dish, will stop paying attention. Sure, there are some basic recipes I have to make sure everyone knows, because maybe there are some students who thought they had learned it already, but they are actually missing some ingredients. Or maybe they just never learned it. But to keep everyone else in the class engaged, I have to put those recipes in the context of the wider menu. Are there variations that people can try once they've mastered the basic recipe? Maybe variations for particular occasions or circumstances? Are there more advanced recipes that build on the basic recipe? I can't teach these all in this class, but I can let you all know they exist."
The students relaxed, nestling in their seats.
"In a big class like this, it helps to move back and forth between the recipes and the menu. To make sure everyone knows how to do certain things, but also to remind people that there are always more recipes to learn if they feel they've already mastered the basics."
"Ohhhhh." It was Patty, in the back of the room, examining the papers in her hand. "I see where I went wrong. A menu, not a cookbook! And yet--"
There was a flash, and then the alien was there in the back of the room, standing next to Patty. Over the excited murmuring of the class, I heard his gravelly voice say to Patty, "You clever. Only human to decode Kanamit script. Come to our ship. We would like to toast you." He offered her his hand. She reached up to take it.
Before I could warn her, there was a flash, and they were both gone.
Saturday, August 31, 2019
Everyone knows the saying the early bird gets the worm. I remember hearing it throughout my childhood. I understand the idea that getting an early start to the day. However, does getting up early really matter? I think I can spend just as much time, or more, than anyone else while still starting later? Are worms really a finite commodity where the second, third, or 10am riser won't get breakfast? I firmly believe the saying is pure propaganda by corporate elites to squeeze even more out of workers (firmly may be a stretch).
Robin Sharma advocates that everyone should wake up at 5am. His newest book is The 5am Club, and he argues the first hour of the day using his 20/20/20 formula will dramatically increase productivity. The formula includes 20 minutes of exercise, 20 minutes of reflecting, and 20 minutes of learning. Sounds great, but I think I can do the same thing at 8am. Scott Bedgood at Success Magazine tends to agree with me. He was skeptical, but as a journalist, he was willing to put the formula to the test. Read Scott's article about his experience.
In the end, Scott does think the 5am hour leads to more productivity. 2 people may not be enough to convince me. I think I will do more research before my 5am start, but the idea of more productivity is appealing. I will pass it along to my students though.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
Much of the time, it seems to me, I am occupied with trying to reach the minds of our law students. But, perhaps that's putting the proverbial "cart before the horse." The cart, so to speak, is metacognition, or the process of learning to learn (practices such as spaced repetition and the implement of desirable difficulties throughout the course of one's learning). But, what might be the horse?
Well, a number of possibilities come to mind. There's been much research of late on the relationship between growth mindsets in predicting academic achievement. But, I think that there's another horse at play, a factor that might even serve as a necessary precondition for the development of such mindsets as grit, resiliency, and a growth mindset. In my opinion, that prerequisite is a well-formed sense of belonging...as empowered members of a vibrant learning community.
I love that word "belonging." It's chocked full of action with its "ing" begging us to be fully embraced (and to embrace others), despite all our blemishes and surprises. And, it starts with the prefix "be," which resonates and comes only alive within the present ongoing moments of community with others, indicating that this is something that we enjoy in the here and now rather than later. And, it's all-encompassing of the person, with its incorporation of the word "long," reminding me of arms outstretched, to be overtaken in the presence of others, to be accepted as we are...fully and completely (and to stretch our hearts around others within our midsts). In other words, the word "belonging" is full of action.
So, that brings up a few questions.
First, is belonging even much of a problem in law schools?
Second, what sort of spark might lead to the type actions that can then develop into a well-spring of belonging for our law students as members within learning communities?
Well, with respect to the first question, as Prof. Victor Quintanilla documents according to research at the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE): "[W]orries about belonging are endemic to law school." http://lssse.indiana.edu/tag/belonging/ That's the bad news. And, in my opinion, that's why many fall to the wayside. It's not because of LSAT scores or a lack of motivation. It's just darn difficult to succeed when you don't feel like you are a part of something, that you belong within the community, that you are welcome and embraced as vital law school participants.
But, there's great news to be had. Indeed, as Prof. Quintanilla further explains, the quality of one's relationships with students, faculty, and administrators significantly predicts one's sense of belonging in law school...and the strength of one's sense of belonging significantly predict's one's academic performance even controlling for traditional academic predicators such as LSAT scores. Id. In other words, "law school belonging is a critical predictor of social and academic success among law students." Id. (Quintanilla, et. al, in prep). And, that's great news because - as educational leaders in academic support - we can serve in the frontline of developing, strengthening, and securing our students in positive relationships with others throughout our law school's learning communities.
That brings me to our final quandary. How might we actually empower our students to be in vibrant relationship with others in law school?
In my own case, it means that I need to listen to my students. That I need to frequently pause to take in and hear and observe what's happening to my students, not as students, but as people. It means that I need to step up to the plate, so to speak, to proactively engage with my students. Nevertheless, with so much on our ASP plates, that sure sounds hard to implement.
So, here's an easy way that we might share with our students in order to help spark relationships that can then lead to a sense of belonging. It's called the "10/5 rule." Next time you're at your law school, when you come within 10 feet of another person, break out a brief smile. It doesn't have to be much, but it does have to be sincere. Then, when you're within about 5 feet of that other person, briefly recognize them with a short "howdy" or "hi." That's it.
You see, according to social science research, such actions of a brief smile lead to a sense of belonging, a feeling of inclusion, even, amazingly, if the other person doesn't even recall seeing your smile. See The Surprising Benefits of Chit Chat, Eye Contact, and a Hello for Law Students & ASP (and the 10/5 Rule)!
So, please join me in sharing a smile. It's a great way to not just brighten your day but brighten the lives of those around you. Indeed, who knows? Perhaps that brief smile that you just shared today (or will share in just a bit) will lead another to smile, and then another, and then a whole circles of smiles. And, isn't a circle of smiles the sort of spark that can create relationships that can lead to belonging and therefore might even help to empower successful learning? (Scott Johns).
Thursday, August 22, 2019
I hear voices. Not all of the time, mind you. But, definitely at the most inconvenient of times...like when I'm trying to read! [I think this is called sub-vocalization.] You see, I can only read as fast as I speak (and I don't tend to speak very fast unless I'm excited or nervous, which I often am, particularly when I'm trying to digest dense legal materials).
Indeed, when a student asks me to work with them through any reading passage (whether a case, a statute, or a multiple-choice problem or essay prompt), I really want to go in hiding, into a "sound chamber" so to speak, so that I can read slowly and not so-silently, as I work out the meaning of the text through hearing - in my mind - the words as they become alive, the punctuation marks as they spring up from the page into my voice, and the paragraph breaks as they give me time to catch my breath.
In short, if you haven't caught the gist of what I am saying, I feel like I am a poor reader because I am a slow reader.
Now, I suspect that most students don't sub-vocalize when they read, i.e., they don't hear voices when they read. Nevertheless, I gather that most first-year law students (and perhaps most law students in general) feel like they read too slow. If so, then you're exactly like me (and I'm supposed to be an expert at critical reading, particularly in reading legal texts, etc.).
But, before I get too far, in my opinion, rushed reading is not reading. To paraphrase Socrate's famous line that the "unexamined life is not worth living," an "unexamined case" is not worth reading. In other words, in law school, it's not how fast you read but what your learning about the law and legal problem-solving as you read. To cut to the chase, reading is about examining the cases and the statutes and the legal texts assigned in law school. And that takes time, lots of time. Or, to put it more bluntly, reading is really about "cross-examining" those legal materials, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments and analysis, and then forming your own opinion about the merits of those arguments (and how you might use those arguments in the future to solve hypothetical problems posed on mid-term exams and final exams).
That gets me to the next question. How might I teach reading?
When I first started in academic support, I taught case briefing but not case reading, most likely, because it seemed to me that by briefing a case I had read the case. I'm not so sure now. That's because most case briefs (at least most of my case briefs) are composed of just bits of quotes and paraphrases of what the court said...rather than my evaluation of what the court said (or didn't say). Indeed, as Professor Jane Grisé writes, "critical reading is about 'learning to evaluate, draw inferences, and arrive at conclusions.'" J. Grisé, Critical Reading Instruction: The Road to Successful Legal Writing Skills, 18 W. Mich. Univ. Cooley J. of Prac. & Clinical L. (2017) (quoting L. Christensen, Legal Reading and Success in Law School: An Empirical Study, 30 Seattle U.L. Rev. 603, 603 (2007). Thus, because critical reading is about learning, it is something that can be taught. Id. Consequently, based on Professor Grisé research, let me offer the following suggestions on how one might teach critical reading, particularly reading cases that are jam-packed into the massive casebooks that comprise the bulk of reading in law school.
- First, confess. Set the stage for learning by sharing the worries and frustrations that you had (and perhaps still have) as a legal reader. Let students know that it wasn't a natural skill for you (or for anyone for that matter). Rather, critical legal reading is a skill that is developed, like muscles through exercise, bit by bit, in which we can all learn.
- Second, model pre-reading strategies. Share with students some of the ways that you engage in reading, even before you begin to read, by, for example, figuring out the purpose of the case by placing it in context with the prior and later assignments based on the case's position in table of contents and it's placement in the course syllabus. Then, get to know the players. Learn something about the case from the case caption, figure out the stage or setting for the case by talking through the information gleaned from the citation, etc., picture yourself as another judge or advocate for one of the parties, hypothesize how you might use this case in the future when it comes to exam time, skim through the case to capture the sorts of sections of the case and its organization (either by looking at headings or by skimming the paragraphs), and then poke around at the very end of the case to see what the court decided. Indeed, that's my favorite pre-reading strategy: Peeking at the end before I begin. That gets my focus jumpstarted!
- Third, read with gusto. Reading takes energy and focus, so if the time doesn't feel quite right, wait. But then, when you are reading to go, read the case facts - not as fiction - but recognizing rather that the facts involve real people and entities with real struggles. After all, cases often come to the court because people couldn't resolve hard-felt (and heart-felt) disputes on their own. As you read, look up words that you don't know. Write the meaning of those words, in your own words, in the margins of the text. Rather than highlighting lots of phrases that you think are important, make a notation on the text as to why you think that phrase or sentence might be important. Feel free to draw pictures or make paraphrases to help you capture the meanings of the words. If something seems unclear, it probably is, to you and to most of us. So, go back to those sections, in which the court often times doesn't explain its analysis, and make inferences (guesses) as to what is going on. Realize that the most (and perhaps all) cases are subject to different interpretations. Be creative to scope out connections with previous readings. Look for patterns. Dialogue with the materials. Question them, indeed, interrogate the court. Don't let the court baffle you. Instead, be on the lookout for mistakes that the court might have made in its analysis. In sum, talk back to the court and with the court as you read.
- Fourth, reading doesn't stop after you read. Instead, after reading, be an explorer to construct your own meaning of the case. As a suggestion, compile a list of questions that you would like to have asked the court or the advocates. Summarize in your own words what you think the case stands for (and why it was assigned for your course). Evaluate the case as to whether its reasoning was puzzling, or startling, or settling (and why). Conjure up different facts to test how the decision might have been impacted in different circumstances. Finally, synthesis a one sentence or phrase statement for what you've learned from the case, such as: "Vosburg (involving a schoolhouse kick) stands for the proposition that people are liable for battery even when they don't intend to harm anyone as long as they intended the contact because the purpose of battery is to protect people from - not just harmful contacts - but from all contacts that interfere with another's bodily integrity as a co-human being."
Now, before I let you go, just one more word about speed. You don't get faster at reading cases by trying to read fast. Rather, over time, much like water as it heats slowly on the oven range, using these strategies won't feel like an improvement...at all. Instead, if you're like me, you feel like its taking lots more of your time, energy, and perspiration to learn to be a critical legal reader. And, it is! But, by going slow, conversationally with the text, through practice in pre-reading strategies, then reading the text with robust gusto, and finally polishing off the reading by making sense and connections with the text for future use, you'll end up becoming a faster reader without even trying.
Much like learning to ride a bike, if you are like me, you fall lots and get lots of bruises along the way. That's because learning is hard difficult work. But, just like learning to ride a bike, once you get the hang of it, you'll be well on your way to being a better legal reader (and a better advocate on behalf of your clients in the future). (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Writing across the curriculum guru (and now Vermont woodturner) Toby Fulwiler has written, "[A]ny act of sustained writing is an act of sustained thinking -- which is just plain hard work." Several years back, my National Writing Project cohort chose this quote as our watchword as we devoted ourselves to our own demanding writing projects and to learning how to inspire our students to do the same.
Fulwiler's quote came back to me today during a student panel for Orientation. Speaking to our incoming class, one of our 2Ls contrasted the mental effort of law school with her former profession as a bank auditor. No stranger to long hours and sustained effort, she told the 1Ls she had been unprepared for the higher level of mental effort required by law school. 1L year, she told them, didn't offer the times she had experienced in her former position where exacting but repetitious tasks might not require full mental effort. Instead, she was "on" the whole time she did the work of a law student, putting out huge amounts of mental effort, which was just plain hard work -- harder work than she had done before, harder work than she expected, harder work that demanded she give her absolute best every day. And it was worth it.
I love the promise of the beginning of a new academic year, infused with the excitement of those newly arrived and the passion of 2Ls and 3Ls enthused by their taste of lawyering work over summer externships and internships. The sustained thinking and just plain hard work involved in becoming a lawyer -- or being a lawyer, or being an academic success professional --is a cause for celebration, not shrinking, as long as that sustained work is accompanied with a passion for serving others and a commitment to living life as a whole, fulfilled person.
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
It is the start of the school year, and we are welcoming new classes of students to begin their courses of study in law school. Each course of study will comprise a score or more individual courses in particular subjects, and we hope that in due course every student will consume and fully digest a rich multi-course legal banquet. Of course.
Our versatile word "course" is derived from the Latin word "currere", meaning "to run" or "to flow". In all of its varied uses, it alludes to a sense of movement and progress, and this is particularly fitting when we think of the course of a law student's passage from matriculation to graduation. They arrive at school, eager and perhaps a bit awed as they imagine themselves advancing, starting off slowly, developing the knowledge, skill, and judgment of an attorney as they make their ways along, and then racing to the finish line to collect their prizes.
To many incoming 1L students, law school may seem like a watercourse -- like a channel through which they will be carried, sometimes swept through dizzying rapids, other times dragged through muddy waters of confounding breadth, ultimately to squeeze past a perilous bar and then be deposited at the port of Career, where their next adventure begins. In this view, all students need to do is learn to paddle, avoid rocking the boat, and make use of their brains and perseverance, and they will arrive at their destinations.
But there are better courses for comparison. Law school is best considered like a racecourse or a golf course -- not because their structures are more precisely analogous, but because of the way successful performers approach them. Sure, great sports performers make the most of their talents and training. But before they begin a race or a tournament, they get to know the course. A runner will trace out the course route, measuring the flats and the hills, and will plan out her pacing accordingly. A golfer will play or at least walk the course, making note of obstacles, slopes, and doglegs, and getting to know the feel of the greens. A skier will take practice runs down the course, developing a mental map so he can plan when to be cautious, when to be daring, when to push for speed. Knowing the course means they can make the best use of their skills and strategies over the long term.
So it is in law school. Week to week, month to month, semester to semester, knowing what it coming means students can expend their resources (time, attention, energy, etc.) more wisely. It means they can allow sufficient time to prepare for opportunities, or for challenges. It lessens the chances that they will wander out of bounds or run around in circles.
This is one of the reasons I love the start of the new academic year. It gives those of us in Academic Success a wonderful opportunity to provide something of immediate and long-term value to every new student we meet. We can walk them through the course! We can explain to them what a typical week will be like. We can preview all the major tasks of their first semester -- reading, attending class, outlining, midterms, legal writing assignments, practice tests, and final exams -- and help the students develop their own mental maps of the course. We can give them a bird's-eye of the entire tournament: the timing, value, and effort required of the opportunities and expectations they will encounter over the next few years. And we can do all of this for them painlessly -- not in response to an individual's frustration or anxiety or poor performance. It's the best part of the year, because we can give our students something they all can use, whether or not they have come into law school having learned the lesson that so many champions have learned: Successful performers don't see the course as running and carrying them along with it. They see the course as something they themselves run.
Monday, August 19, 2019
A hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people. – Maya Angelou
The other day I emailed a colleague, that I won’t identify by name, seeking advice. The colleague, as expected, responded with very helpful information that I had not before considered. As I gushed my profuse thanks upon my colleague, my inner monologue said, “wow this person knows all the answers, I wish I could be like them!” My thoughts went immediately to a dream-like vision of them on some faraway campus with alphabetized, date-sorted, color-coded files of perfect teaching evaluations; an impeccably clean desktop; an email inbox that has been zeroed out; and a tickler with everything checked off. I fantasized that this person, my ASP hero, was respected and listened to by the faculty at their school and has well-behaved children at home to boot.
A phone call on my office line interrupted my fantasy daydream. It was a different colleague, this time calling me for help. I offered a suggestion to a problem presented, based on my experience. As the caller thankfully responded to me and then offered unsolicited extolment on something I’d published recently, it dawned on me that we are all, at some point, “heroes” to someone else.
I snort-laughed at the thought that someone outside of my building could be imagining me with the perfect office, the perfect classes, and the perfect life. My desk is cluttered, and my children are complex. There is far more in my to-do box, than in my outbox.
The point of my message is not about perceived perfection or praise. It is about our own reluctance to recognize how bad ass we really are. Sure, humility has its purpose, but too often ASPers are the unsung heroes of the law school. I champion my ASP colleagues who are teachers, leaders, and scholars. To all the adjuncts, instructors, lecturers, deans, directors, visitors, professors in residence, professors of practice, teaching professors, clinical professors, professors of academic support, and tenured professors, you may not have set out to be hero to anyone. But with every returned phone call and each answered email, with every listserv question and comment, with each textbook recommendation and syllabus share, you have become a hero to us all.
Thursday, August 15, 2019
I love to talk, yap, and chat. The more the better. And, that's a problem. A very big problem, at least with respect to my work as an academic support professional (ASP). I'll explain, but first, a bit of a story to set the stage...
As mentioned in a recent blog entitled Obstacles or Opportunities, I'm on the slow mend after an accident this summer, in which I fractured my back. Since the accident, I am mostly using a walker to navigate the world upright, step by step, as the fractures heal.
Not long ago, my spouse took me to the public library (in addition to talking, I love to read!). It started out as a perfect day, with me hobbling straight ahead, walker in action - right up to the newly released books. I felt like I was in a heavenly garden, with rows and rows of new books.
Now, before I move on, you've heard of the saying that "you can't judge a book but its cover." Well, as a bit of background, I'm not allowed to "BLT" right now (with my upper-body brace trying to restrain my back from further injury). That means no bending, lifting, or twisting (not that I could twist at my age even if I wanted to).
But, the books that were most shiny to me were "bottom shelvers." Nothing was in arm's reach without offending the entire medical community...by bending, lifting, and twisting, too. Immobilized, I gave up on books that day because, even though the covers looked enticing on those bottom shelves, I couldn't be sure that the titles were indeed profitable since I couldn't poke around the table of contents, the forward, and a few pages in-between. I left empty handed because I don't get books based solely on the covers.
That brings me back to the world of academic support. You see, when I first began serving as an academic support person, I set out to read all of the books and the literature, or at least as much as I could, to figure out how to best teach our students the necessary skills to be successful as learners. Things like reading, note-taking, participating in classroom discussions, time management, creating study tools or outlines, and exam reading, analysis, and writing. But, to be frank, I didn't learn what I now consider the most important skill at all, until - unfortunately - many years (and students) had past. In short, I didn't learn to be a listener first and foremost. In fact, rather than really listening to my students, I was quick to the draw to provide suggestions for them to implement, assuming that I knew the source of the problems or issues that my students were facing. I wanted to be a source of wisdom rather than what is really wise, listening first before speaking. How did I realize the errors of my ways? Well, it happened due to the fortuitous circumstance of getting to know and work a bit with Dr. Martha (Marty) Peters, Ph.D., Emerita Professor of Law from Elon University.
Dr. Peters would meet - one by one - with students struggling with multiple-choice analysis. Rather than handing out sage advice (after all, she has a Ph.D. in educational psychology!), Dr. Peters would instead ask students to work through each question that they missed - slowly - reading and navigating and pondering the problem to see if there might be anything at all, any patterns or words or pauses that might have helped them reach the correct answer. Then, Dr. Peters would move on to the next question missed. And, the next question, and then...the next question, etc. She remained completely silent. Observing. Hearing. Listening. Watching. Finally, towards the end of one hour counseling sessions, Dr. Peters simply asked students what suggestions they might have for themselves in order to more successfully analyze multiple-choice questions next time. In short, she asks students to share what they had learned. The anecdotal results were simply miraculous.
First, students felt empowered; sorrowful countenances started to be reshaped as possibilities of hope and a future in law. I know that it sounds a little (okay...a lot) dramatic, but it was unbelievably apparent as students started to actually believe that they could be law school learners, that they could help shape their destinies, that they might actually belong in law school as part of the learning community and future attorneys. That's because it was they themselves who came up with the answers and the solutions to their learning conundrums (rather than the experts). In short, students started to become experts in their own learning.
Second, most students quickly realized that their analytical problems were not with the multiple-choice problems themselves or with the law but rather related to reading. For the most part, they were missing clues, often because they didn't think that they could actually successfully solve the problems. Rather than misreading problems and legal materials, students started to develop both their confidence and their competence as critical legal readers. For helpful critical reading tips, see Jane B. Grisé, Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond (West Academic 2017); see also, Jane B. Grisé, Teaching First-Year Students to Read so Critical that They Discover a "Mistake" in the Judicial Opinion, The Learning Curve (Summer 2014) (available at: https://uknowledge.uky.edu).
Third, in the next batch of multiple-choice problems later that week, scores skyrocketed. No exaggeration! Here's why. Before, many students were answering problems that were in their heads but those weren't really the problems on the practice sets or the exams. In other words, students were often solving problems that didn't exist. Now, they were poking and prodding and probing the fact problems and the issues carefully with confident "critical reading eyes," evaluating words and phrases and debating their meaning and possible legal import.
After working with Dr. Peters for a few days, I realized the most important lesson of my ASP life. It sort of leaped out of my heart and into my mind. Scott: "Talk less; listen more!" Now, before I start to hand out suggestions and advice, I try to ask my students first what suggestions they might have to improve their own learning. In short, I try not to judge my students by what I think might be their problems and issues but I rather try to let my students co-create with me a learning atmosphere in which to empower and liberate them...to be the true experts for their own learning. So, next time you see me, please stop me from talking so much! It's really quite a problem for me.
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
I entered the academic support field with the goal of keeping law students from making the mistakes I made in law school. In the yin and yang of my first year, I think I might have made every mistake possible. Here are some of the things I wish I'd known as a 1L.
You can make it as well as anyone else. I don't care if you're 16 or 65, just got out of college or finished college three decades ago, are the first in your family to get past high school or come from five generations of lawyers, went to nationals in debate or fear speaking in public. You belong here just as much as the rest of the class.
You're not better than anyone else. Congratulations if you graduated from an Ivy League school or worked 20 years as a top-level paralegal in a high-powered law firm or rose to prominence in the military or a corporation. Those experiences are enriching and will add depth to your understanding. Your classmates who attended community college or were river guides or worked the floor in a big box store bring equally valuable perspectives. If you have a tendency towards having a swelled head, ditch it now.
You don't have to study 100 hours a week to make it. Honestly, that's what our Dean of Students recommended at my convocation. I hope I was the only person stupid enough to follow his advice. Sufficient exercise, adequate sleep each night, and a day of rest each week, combined with a sustainable study schedule, will help you learn far more than putting in non-stop 15-hour days.
What you did as an undergraduate isn't good enough. Skimming the reading, doing an assignment at the last minute, just doing what's assigned and no more, and cramming at the end of the semester were adequate for many folks as undergraduates. They don't cut it in law school. Even if you keep your head above water doing this in law school, you won't gain the deep understanding that good lawyers need.
If you don't understand a case, don't read it over and over without a strategy. One how-to-go-to-law-school book I read suggested reading cases six or eight times superficially to make the salient points sink in. Baloney. But don't read once and give up, either. Talk with your academic support professional about effective reading strategies. Previewing, talking back to the case, and asking questions might seem artificial and stilted, but they are some methods expert readers use to understand -- and as a lawyer you must be an expert reader.
Ask questions. Even if you're shy. Especially if you think your question is stupid. There's no shame in not understanding. Asking for help is something that good lawyers do, all the time. And chances are that your classmates will heave a sigh of relief when you ask something that they were afraid to ask, or when you expose a problem that they didn't even see.
Learn to seek and welcome criticism. Opposing counsel and judges will point out every weakness in your case and every place your argument doesn't hold water. So use your time in law school not only to develop a thick skin, but also to actively seek out oral and written feedback, positive and negative -- on your case briefs, on your outlines, on practice exams, and on legal writing assignments. Taking critiques seriously will make you a better lawyer.
Be open to learning in new ways. You're lucky to be going to school at a time when the ABA mandates that every law school offer academic support to its students. Taking advantage of your school's academic support (variously known as Academic Success, Skills, Excellence, Achievement, and similar terms) will help your first year's experience be more efficient, effective, and enjoyable.
You're not here to learn the law. You're here to become a lawyer. Sure, you will be learning a lot of rules, just like a beginning medical student has to learn a lot of basic biochemistry and molecular biology. But just like a medical student is training to heal the human body, you are using the raw material of rules to learn how to use facts, words, and ideas to promote an orderly and just resolution of disputes. When you start to get bogged down and think all you're doing is memorizing, step back and think about how real people are affected by what you're learning. Use law school to practice becoming a great lawyer.
Be happy. Law professor Paula Franzese writes, "[L]ife will meet you at your level of expectation for it." If you expect to be miserable in law school, you will be. If you expect to be happy and fulfilled, you will be. Approach everything you do with a positive attitude, and 1L year will be a great stepping-stone not only to your life as a lawyer but to your life as a person living with purpose and joy.
Monday, August 12, 2019
Be sure to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. – Airline safety instructions
Academic support professionals are the first responders in law school. In many cases we guide entering students through new student orientation, provide critical skills workshops early in the semester, and offer practice exams and extra help later in the term when things begin to look bleak. First responders are professionals that we look to for help and comfort in times of crisis, be it related to health, safety, or law school survival. The start of a new academic year is a good time to remember, that by being there for others, first responders put themselves at risk, not just of physical harm, but of emotional burnout.
Heavy is the cape of those who play the role of professor, listener, solution provider, advocate, adviser, administrator, coordinator, counselor, collector and keeper of statistics (whether you like math or not), researcher, scholar, and more. Executive coach Donna Schilder says “if you don’t take care of yourself, you can experience burnout, stress, fatigue, reduced mental effectiveness, health problems, anxiety, frustration, and inability to sleep.” Sure, students may look to us for answers or coaching, but we sometimes will need to first coach ourselves to create a space for restoration.
Schilder recommends spending time each day on a renewal activity like sit quietly for at least 10 minutes before taking calls or responding to emails, listen to soothing or uplifting music throughout the day, set aside time to journal your thoughts or ideas, and infuse laughter into your daily routine to cut down on stress. When we practice self-care, we better position ourselves to be an effective resource for others.
Sunday, August 11, 2019
A new journey begins the next couple weeks for many students around the country. 1Ls at my school start tomorrow. The emotions range from excited to anxious. Whatever your emotion, I want you to know that someone else is probably feeling the same thing. They are probably only 2-3 seats away from you in class. Your feelings are normal. Embrace the new journey.
Some students walk into law school worrying that everyone will be ahead of them. I understand the feeling. I wasn't planning to attend law school until the summer before my last year of college. None of my family were attorneys (until I married into a family of attorneys later). No one in my family graduated college. Torts were still yummy desserts until 9am Monday morning of my first day. I had no idea what law school entailed, but I planned to work hard to do my best. Even without the background, I succeeded and became an attorney. All of you can do that too.
My suggestion for entering 1Ls boils down to 2 points. Work hard and seek feedback. I love the quote hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. I am a firm believer that most of us can succeed with the right amount of quality work. The second piece of the advice is quality work. Quality work requires feedback. Don't aimlessly go through law school. Ask professors and ASPers for help. Seek feedback on outlines and practice essays. Feedback helps demonstrate where to improve, which leads to our growth. The right kind of hard works makes a difference. Worker smarter and harder. Everyone can do that.
My background and experience illustrates that you don't need lawyers in your family to succeed. If you haven't worked at a law office, that is alright. Most students entering your classes will not have a significant background in law. Law school will be a new and exciting journey for everyone. Do everything you can to maximize your potential and enjoy the journey. Have a great first semester!
Saturday, August 10, 2019
While driving home from my son's flag football practice today, he asked what else we were doing. Most days we do have other things, because my kids play too many sports, but today, I told him nothing. He responded with the sort of whine and attitude that only a 9-year-old possesses. I proceeded to lecture him for far too long about appreciating what he gets to do instead of complaining about what he doesn't get to do. As I went through my day though, I thought I may need that advice more than him.
The new semester is right around the corner, and no one has enough time. I just finished helping students prepare for the bar exam, so I am exhausted. However, I teach a 1 week intro class to our 1Ls, need to create syllabi for my upcoming bar prep classes, and still need to manage emails. Being away from everything is overwhelming. I complain when I am not at work about how much needs to get done and complain when I am at work that I need a break. During the semester, it is easy to complain about needing more time for individual feedback but also needing to teach all the classes because no one else teaches like ASPers. I am sure many of us want more leadership in the law school but also complain about the commitments if we had the role. My inner 9-year-old probably (definitely) complains too much.
Many of our complaints are legitimate, and my guess is most of us don't have enough time. We should be leaders of our respective schools. However, the focus on what we don't have has an impact on our mental health. All of us have a big impact on students' lives. The type of impact that changes career's, and for some, helps students become lawyers. I want to try to focus on the positive impact more. I am not saying don't strive to get better status or role at schools. I want to both appreciate my impact and strive to help more in every way I can.
John C. Maxwell wrote a piece recently for Success Magazine with 10 tips to stop complaining. I plan to try to focus on 1 or 2 each week to enjoy work just a little more. Every small improvement in my joy has the potential to help more students, and maybe I won't be as much of a hypocrite when I talk to my kids. Well, maybe I won't be a hypocrite on this issue at least. Enjoy the start of the semester.
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Many people have heard of the term "cognitive dissonance" -- the discomfort experienced by humans when they receive new information that contradicts an existing belief or system of beliefs. Mild cognitive dissonance, caused by information that only diverges slightly from what was previously believed, might prompt people to adopt the new information and change their belief systems. Paradoxically, though, intense cognitive dissonance, caused by information that emphatically contradicts previous beliefs, can cause people to cling more tightly to their existing beliefs, even if an objective observer might conclude that the new information invalidates the old belief. This is because the human mind often values consistency and reliability more than it values objective "truth". Thus, die-hard fans of a sports team that comes in dead last in its league might insist with renewed vigor that their team is great ("Wait 'til next year!"), or strong supporters of a political candidate embroiled in scandal might argue that there was a misunderstanding or that stories about the scandal were merely ersatz reporting. This understanding of cognitive dissonance can help teachers understand why some students might rebel against some lessons -- it would simply be too wrenching to change one's worldview, when disbelief is so much easier.
I recently encountered a seemingly-related theory that addresses these reactions more holistically, and in a way that I think can help Academic Support professionals work with their students. The Meaning Maintenance Model (or MMM) is described by Steven J. Heine, Travis Proulx, and Kathleen D. Vohs in Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2006, Vol. 10, No.2, 88-110. This model proposes that people have a pervasive need to establish a sense of meaning in their lives -- "meaning" being broadly defined as the set of mental relationships that a person uses to organize their perceptions of the world. This seems analogous to the belief system described above. Meaning is how we understand the world to work. MMM suggests that when the meaning that a person has built up over time is threatened by challenging new information, the person will seek to compensate by assigning or creating additional meaning to their lives, thus maintaining an overall sense of meaning. For example, someone whose sense of meaning is based in part on a devout religious understanding of how the world works might respond to a threat to that understanding (like an unexpected and seemingly unfair death of a close relative that shakes their belief in a loving creator) by seeking more meaning, or more validation of the meaning that already exists for them, in their religious beliefs. They might pray more often or look for new, previously hidden meaning in scripture.
So far, that kind of reaction sounds very much like a response described under the cognitive dissonance model. Where MMM differs is in the suggestion that it is not so much the specific belief system that matters so much to an individual as it is the overall level of meaning the individual feels they have attained. Thus, if one's belief system or sense of how the world works (e.g., meaning) is shaken in one realm (say, their sports team comes in dead last), another way that that person might compensate psychologically is by enhancing her sense of meaning in an entirely different realm (say, by mastering a new skill like baking bread). In fact, suggests MMM, one might even pre-emptively mitigate the shock of encountering challenging information by developing a new sense of meaning in a different realm in advance of the shock. In other words, someone who masters the art of baking bread from scratch might be less likely to be upset by seeing their favorite team come in last when that happens later, because they have already made new connections about how the world of baking works that will compensate for the recognized loss of understanding how their sports team performs.
This can be directly relevant to helping law students navigate their first year, or their bar review period, or any time of transition during which the knowledge they had taken for granted is going to be challenged and perhaps even invalidated altogether. Think of the confident English major who is told by his legal writing professor that his legal writing is not up to snuff, or the idealist forced to contend with the fact that the law sometimes compromises on justice or truth in order to promote goals like consistency and efficiency. In each case, their sense of meaning, their understanding of how the world works, is diminished. Cognitive dissonance theory tells us those students might be inclined to rebel against their new teachings, insisting that they are better writers without IRAC or that compromise is immoral. MMM suggests that this may happen, but also that there is a way to forestall it: by helping the student develop a stronger sense of meaning in other realms -- either while they are wrestling with the new contradictory information, or even in advance of this -- you may help them maintain a comfortable level of meaning overall, so that the student can afford to surrender some of the meaning they had previously built up surrounding their writing skills or the hazards of compromise. Two ways to help a student develop a stronger sense of meaning are (1) help them to develop new skills or knowledge in a particular realm, while helping them to recognize this development through praise and specific feedback, and (2) get them to use previously developed skills or knowledge in a new context -- again, while helping them to see what they are doing -- so that they build new constructs of meaning around those skills and knowledge.
In other words, one way to inoculate students against the urge to fight against new teachings that threaten their senses of what they "know" or how they feel about themselves is to focus their attention on something else they are learning that is not so threatening, and to help them see what they have learned there. A student who refuses to use their legal writing professor's required format -- or has trouble even recognizing that they are not doing so -- might be helped by urging them to see all that they have learned about tort law, for example. If law students inherently want to maintain their perceived level of understanding of how the world works -- their sense of meaning -- even while their law professors are trying to tear down their layperson's sense of the meanings of fairness, analysis, persuasiveness, etc., then perhaps we should try to help them enhance the other components of their sense of meaning.