Tuesday, April 7, 2020
The last few weeks have been extraordinary in dizzying ways. A massive and abrupt shift to online teaching; a disruptive delay in administration of the bar examination; increased academic, professional, and/or personal responsibilities; fears for one's health or the health of loved ones; actual physical illness; loss of income; loss of planned employment or experiential opportunities; long-term economic uncertainty; social isolation and loneliness -- any one of these would be distractingly stressful to a student or teacher under ordinary circumstances, and many of us and our students are facing most of them simultaneously.
The saving grace has been the correspondingly extraordinary response -- demonstrations of grit, resourcefulness, generosity, and positivity -- that the situation has generated. Administrators and technicians working 16-hour days to keep classes and resources flowing. Educators implementing and sharing creative solutions to the problems of distance learning, and making special efforts to keep students engaged. Students accepting their changed circumstances with remarkable flexibility, increased effort, and gracious understanding. And, as a backdrop, millions of people, throughout the country and the world, working, sharing, and cooperating towards common goals.
But these last few weeks are really the first few weeks. To many they seem much longer already, but everyone -- law schools included -- faces an even more extended period of disruption and deprivation. That burst of energy and goodwill with which our students faced the initial transformation will have its limits. Even our own stockpiles of buoyancy and resilience are going to be threatened.
That is normal. It is really a form of culture shock, and as anyone who has experienced culture shock can tell you, there will be a cycle of highs and lows until we fully acclimate to our new world. We can all deal with these, one way or another, but the best way is with open eyes and thoughtful consideration. Expect at some point to feel exhaustion and discouragement in ourselves, and to recognize them in our students and colleagues.
Plan for it if you can -- be thinking ahead about when (soon!) you can take some time for yourself, and about how you can encourage your students to do the same. Classes will be over in a few weeks, exams a few weeks after that; a little downtime right about now, and then after exams are over, can help to stretch everyone's reserves.
Reaching out to others for support -- sharing or trading tasks, enjoying a little social time (like a virtual happy hour), or even just mutual commiseration about how tough it has been -- should be a little more manageable at this point, now that we have all familiarized ourselves with our new schedules, our formerly unfamiliar conferencing tools, and the proper guidelines for face-to-face-but-still-six-feet-away interactions.
And, most importantly, don't let the next plunge in spirits catch anyone by surprise. Let your students know -- gently, not with a sense of foreboding -- that it would be natural to start feeling low at some point, and that the feeling will not be permanent, and that you can be there for them while it lasts. Help them to focus on the tasks that will help them not only get through the next several months, but also accomplish things they will be proud to talk about years later. And remember that you will not be immune, and that taking care of yourself is another way to help you take care of your students.
Monday, March 30, 2020
Lamb Chop started singing "this is a song that never ends. Yes, it goes on and on, my friends. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was. And they'll continue singing it forever just because . . ."
For some, that brought back childhood memories. For others, it describes the new daily routine. Students need help transitioning to online learning, and they have legitimate questions about upcoming bar exams, grading, academic standing, finals, etc. The listservs buzz with non-stop information. Law school faculties are debating different options for student questions, and most of us still have our normal teaching load along with administrative tasks. Not to mention, some of us are also parents and newly homeschooling, with varying degrees of success and marker damage. Shelter in place orders combined with the flood of obligations have created the never ending workday.
Everyone has a different home setup. I assume that some people cannot sequester to an office and let freedom reign in the rest of the house. To solve that problem, my "office" is the kitchen counter where I can see a large area of my house. My laptops and binders are on the counter. The easy accessibility and non-stop problems means when I go to get the 8 o'clock snack, I can answer a handful of emails. Answering emails is easy on my laptop. I don't have the excuse that long emails are hard on my phone, so just a few quick emails. I also need to record a quick video for class, so that is right at my fingertips. Midnight snack and clear email. Seems efficient and is probably common now. Those actions will also drain us of both our physical and emotional energy right before the summer, which may or may not include the bar exam. Now is the time to conserve energy, not over-expend it.
Weight loss experts tell people to get snacks out of sight because out of sight, out of mind. James Clear in Atomic Habits says we can create habits by placing reminder items near an already existing habit. Need to workout? Put workout gear near where you change after work. Need to take medicine? Put the bottle near the coffee pot. The psychology of habits is creating part of my problem. I see my laptop and know I can send emails fast. I answer a few. I know recording an answer analysis takes 10 minutes, so I do it. And I will continue working forever, just because . . .
We all know breaks are necessary. We tell students to take breaks while studying. Most of us can spout off the mental health benefits of only studying in certain locations. If anything in the post describes you (it does me), then we also need to take our own advice. This is a unique time, and our family, students, and friends need us fully charged. We can't do that by working non-stop. Let's try to put away work objects to end our workday when it is supposed to end.
Thursday, March 19, 2020
Some people wonder if "e-learning" is real. I poked around the internet and it looks like there are plenty of studies on both sides of the coin.
But I have to say from firsthand personal experience that I know that e-learning is real...and that it works. Here's the details (but please don't tell anyone because I'm embarrassed to tell the story):
Prior to my start in academic support, as a practicing attorney, I had a video-conference hearing in a courtroom in Colorado. I liked to be in the courtroom early, so, as I sat in the courtroom awaiting the judge, I noticed that the opposing party and her counsel were not present.
At that point, the judge came in, and, with the hearing set to momentarily start, the judge asked the courtroom clerk on the video-conference to go out and look for the opposing party and counsel. Before waiting for the clerk's response, I bolted upright and blurted out loud, "I'll go look for them. They might just be in the waiting room."
At that, the judge remarked: "Mr. Johns, you do know that Salt Lake City is a good 500 miles away from Denver, and that, while appreciating your willingness to help today, it might just be a touch too much to drive to the courthouse in Utah before the close of today's court session."
We all had a good chuckle, and I was mighty glad that no one but the judge (and the courtroom clerks in Denver and Salt Lake City) knew about my impulsive offer to leap to help.
Here's what I learned.
You see, even though we were having a video-conference courtroom hearing, it was as real as life to me. So real that I completely forgot about the geographical expanse - not to mention the massive Rocky Mountain ranges - that separated me from the opposing party and counsel on the other side of the case.
So is "e-learning" real learning?
Well, it sure can be. But it all depends on our willingness to perceive it as such, to make it work as well or even better than in-person learning, to actually be in the moment relating with our students in order to reach them wherever they are.
In my opinion, learning is a relational social experience. But, that doesn't mean that we need to be physically present in the same classroom with our students. Indeed, as I learned through my experience in "online" litigation, what happens online can be just as powerful as what happens in the presence of each other.
P.S. Please keep this story just between you and me!
P.S.S. Still doubting the efficacy of e-learning? Here's a quick blurb from a Penn State blog about one student's perspective on using zoom this week:
"Someone in my bio class with more than 300 students accidentally started talking about the professor, not realizing her microphone was on, so that made things a bit awkward. The chat feature is enjoyable. I have seen conversations ranging from Jesus to nicotine. I also received an email from my English professor reminding us to wear clothes. Of course Zoom isn’t ideal, but it is pretty effective given the circumstances." C. Nersten, Reviews: Zoom Classes, Onward State Blog, https://onwardstate.com/2020/03/17/os-reviews-zoom-classes/
...Reading between the lines, e-learning can be very effective, but it takes careful planning and curating by us, just like regular classes do...
Monday, March 16, 2020
- Meditate. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Sitting or laying down and focusing on your breathing will work. Or stare at a candle for a few minutes or listen to calming music. Even 5 minutes of mindfulness helps. Try it a couple times a day, like in the morning and before bed. The effects last longer than you would think.
- Give your devices a break. Isolation sometimes makes us even more attached to our devices, especially when we’re trying to keep up with the fast changing news. Try planning a time during the day or evening when you will not be on any device for an hour if possible. If that seems too long start with 15 min and work your way up.
- Laugh. Find a funny movie, book, song — anything that makes you laugh. Laughing is good medicine.
- Read something uplifting. Give the news a break and pick up a book that makes you feel good.
- Move. The gym may not be a good idea right now, but you can work out, dance, do yoga or other
movement at home.
- Be kind. Just be kind to yourself and others.
- Sleep. Now is a great time to catch up.
Thursday, March 12, 2020
I brought my dog Maisey to school today. I know. That's not allowed. But sometimes rules are meant to be broken. I think today was that sort of day.
Today was my final in-person class, at least for several weeks due to COVID-19. And, because I had so many students prior to class email me that they were not going to make it to class because of COVID-19, I just had to act for those who came. And for me too, because I was feeling stressed too. So I did. I brought Maisey with me to her first law school class ever!
As I walked towards the school, I sort of felt like I had to sneak her in. But there's no sneaking around when it comes to a large, tail-waving dog. I was caught right away, and, to my surprise, with smiles everywhere we went. We still hid for a few minutes in my office until it was time for class. But then we walked into the classroom, in stride together, for Maisey's first college class ever. Oh the joy, when my students saw Maisey. The class lit up.
Here's what I learned from today's experience:
In moments like these, with more than 100 law schools switching to online learning midstream due to COVID-19, the most important things I can do for my students is to care with them, to show them that we will work through this together, to let them know that I will listen to them and learn with them as we move into online teaching, and to acknowledge that I am going to make mistakes along the way (but that's okay because, after all, it's in our mistakes in which the most important lessons are often learned).
After class, I had more students than usual stay late...to talk, to share, and to listen together. Maisey, on the other hand, just sat quietly on the classroom floor next to us - patient and happy just to be with us.
As many of us transition into online learning for the remainder of the term, take time to listen to your students, to talk with your colleagues, and to share your worries and concerns because law school is more than just a school; it's a community. It's our students' community. And, it's the community in which we are privileged to share in too. (Scott Johns).
P.S. Here's Maisey in her studious mode on her first day in college (but mostly she slept soundly!).
Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Just to be clear, law students are not dogs. Law students are people, full of humanity, volition, self-awareness, and agency. Dogs, in contrast, are full of caninity, impulsiveness, incomprehension, and opportunism. If a dog sees you after a one-week absence, she will yelp and leap excitedly, as if witnessing your literal resurrection from the dead. A law student, on the other hand, will just shrug, or perhaps nod, understanding that class only meets once a week, and that you are not killed and eaten by bears in between meetings.
Nevertheless, learning to be a better dog owner had helped me learn to be a better law student teacher, too. This is *not* because law students and dogs are similar. Law students have never bitten, drooled upon, or shed on me, and they do not think of squirrels as morsel-toys. No, what has helped has been the realization that I make some of the same mistakes with my puppy that I sometimes make with law students, but with dogs the consequences are more readily noticeable. Tula provides me with an immediate feedback loop that helps me realize the errors of my ways more quickly:
- Using inconsistent language. When I am walking my dog and she pulls ahead of me, I invariably find a variety of ways to show my disapproval. "Tula, come here." "Tula, back it up!" "Tula, no pulling." These all mean essentially the same thing to me, and, in a sense, they mean the same thing to Tula, as well, except from her perspective what they mean is nothing. Why? Because when I taught her to walk next to me, I told her to "Heel!". When I say "Heel!", she knows to walk alongside me. When I say "Back it up!", I might as well be speaking Orcish, and she merrily ignores me. Students are not so obvious when they are puzzled by a change in vocabulary, so I might not notice that I have confused them if I switch spontaneously from "meeting of the minds" to "mutual assent" without explanation. But an overeager German shepherd quickly promotes consistent terminology.
- Failing to spot trouble coming. A peaceful walk around the neighborhood can become a nerve-jangling melee of barking, yanking, and tangled leash if I do not notice the squirrel that my pooch has fixed her gaze upon or the approaching tween walking her poodle. Tula means well, but her fervent enthusiasm would lead her into trouble if I had not quickly learned to watch out for temptation. Law students, too, face hazards to their success -- substantive misunderstandings, time management issues, overconfidence, etc. --- but these dangers can smolder, unaddressed, for weeks or even months before finally leading to very visible, and sometimes catastrophic, misadventures. Having to learn to control a fanged furry beastie has impressed upon me the importance of spotting and dealing with trouble before it generates an emergency.
- Ignoring personality and mood. Every dog owner dreams of having the perfectly-behaved pet that responds instantly and consistently to every command, like a fuzzy predictable robot. I have seen a few of these animals -- they are really scary, like police K-9 dogs, trained through thousands of hours of repetition to such automaticity you can practically hear them barking, "I'll be back!" The rest of us all have to contend with real dogs. They mean well, really they do; but if your dog (like mine) is just a quivering bundle of excitement, then you have to accept that you cannot always turn your back on them after commanding them to sit. And if they are tired, or hungry, or frightened, then you have to adjust your expectations and adjust your guidance accordingly if you want to see the behavior you are used to seeing. If you don't, then you will see things go awry very quickly. Law students are not dogs, which have no control over the expressions of their moods or personalities; people, sometimes with very good reasons, can subdue their reactions. But those reactions matter -- they affect perception, motivation, and intention -- and their effects might show immediately, or might not make themselves clear until much later. A good teacher will attend to each individual student's personality and mood and adapt their teaching strategies to take them into account.
Dogs are terrible models for law students -- they do not read books, once one of them starts yapping they all have to jump in, and they would probably sleep through every class. But dog owners might have something useful to teach law professors.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
Every once in awhile I have a "aha" moment. I stumbled into this one, and I'm not the same because of it.
As background, a student reached after having failed the MPRE on multiple tries despite having watched commercial bar review lectures, creating personal study tools, and working lots and lots of practice questions.
I was so impressed with the student's preparatory efforts. The student had created spectacular blackletter study tools. The student knew the law backwards and forwards and could retrieve rules in a flash. And yet, the student missed question after question despite lots of practice in working through and analyzing problems.
That's when it came to me.
My student had learned the law - cold - but was still missing questions because the student had not learned the culture of how the law was tested. Based on my student's prior experiences as an attorney, I asked how my student had learned to solve legal problems as an attorney. My student explained that the key was in learning the culture of how the law applied to client problems.
Likewise, I suggested that perhaps the key to success on the MPRE lies in learning the legal culture of the MPRE. With this thought in mind, my student focused preparation efforts anew on learning MPRE culture rather than MPRE law. And guess what? The student passed the MPRE with flying colors!
Based on this admittedly anecdotal experience, my sense is that many students do not pass the MPRE because they focus on learning the wrong thing. They try to learn the law without learning the socio-legal context of how the law applies - the culture of the law.
With this thought in mind, I now suggest to students that they work through practice problems as armchair legal sociologists to learn the culture of what is being tested. In short, in my opinion, the MPRE doesn't really test the law as much as it tests the legal culture of the law. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, March 3, 2020
Human beings -- of which law students are a subset -- are notoriously unreliable when trying to figure out what to worry about.
This is not to say that we cannot recognize potential threats in a general way; only that, because of the way we are hard-wired to process threats, we sometimes overestimate certain threats, which in turn can cause us to underestimate, or even overlook, other threats. An article in The Washington Post several weeks ago explained why the public and the media seemed to be more panicky about the new coronavirus than about other looming threats. The article did not suggest that the virus is not dangerous or shouldn't be taken seriously, but it did try to explain why it has been featured so prominently in public discourse, when other greater and more palpable threats to health, like influenza or poor nutrition, barely merited discussion. Among the reasons for this amplification of attention:
- "We instinctively worry more about new risks than familiar ones" -- perhaps in part because we worry more about things we cannot control, and things that seem new and mysterious also seem more out of our control.
- We worry more about things that remind us of other things that frighten us -- the way a new global pandemic might remind us of The Plague or any of a dozen science-fiction movies -- because that fear is more readily elicited.
- We tend to pay more attention to threats that other people are talking about, because we are social animals and we assume there is a reason that other people are anxious.
Again, the point of the article was not to suggest that the new virus did not merit any concern. It was merely trying to explain why, for example, people who were blasé about obtaining a flu shot might be terrified of a disease that (at the time) hadn't even reached their hemisphere yet.
In a similar way, law students can sometimes be hyperaware of the existence of a particular threat to their performance, but might devote so much attention to it that they neglect or even overlook other concerns that, in reality, might have a bigger impact on their grades and other outcomes. They might pay a lot of attention to the risks of failing at new tasks -- like writing case briefs or mastering IRAC format -- simply because they are new and mysterious, and perhaps at the expense of addressing more familiar and pervasive concerns like grammar or logical reasoning. Students who are afraid of, say, public speaking might devote inordinate attention to being prepared to recite case details if they are cold-called in class -- as if the professor were planning to determine that student's grade for the course based on one recitation -- and in the process those students may not have the time or energy to try to extrapolate deeper implications from the case or to fit it into a larger picture. And if it seems like the rest of the class is saying that a particular resource or exercise is the key to acing a certain class, how many students are going to be able to resist the call of that bandwagon, even if a different resource might be more effective for them?
The things our students worry about, they are probably justified in worrying about them. But sometimes the way they worry about them might draw their attention from other threats to their performance that deserve more emphasis, more consideration, and more action.
Thursday, February 27, 2020
I love youth activities because they start out so spirited, often with a riddle, a challenge, or a song.
Recently, I realized that my some of the difficulties that students face is that they can easily avoid the obvious. That's because many students often lack confidence that they actually belong in law school, seeing themselves as imposters.
In working with children, youth leaders understand that the sense of inadequacy is omnipresent, especially with middle schoolers. So, in order to help build community and break down barriers to learning, leaders often start youth meetings with some adventurous fun. Call it team building if you want.
As academic support professionals, perhaps it might be helpful for us, likewise, to kick off workshops and classes with an "ice-breaker" of sorts because, let's face it, law school can share many of the insecurities of teenage life. So, below, is an exercise that might help your students relate to each other, laugh a bit, and learn perhaps even a little too.
As background, this week, most of my students missed a relatively easy essay issue dealing with consideration, even though it was right under their noses. That's because we really do often believe that we aren't smart enough to solve the problem or that they must be tricking us. But, sometimes the answer is right in front of us, if we just take the time to ponder it a bit. Nevertheless, we are often in a rush, because of time pressures, to start working on the problem at hand before we even understand the problem at hand.
With that background in mind, let your students know that you'd like to take a breather, and oh, let's say, work on a math problem for a moment. Not one that is too difficult, mind you. Just one from back from the days when you were taking algebra.
Then, scribble on the board: "Find x." Follow that with the equation: y = 2x/3 + 25. Then let them have at it. Oh, and make sure that they know that they are free to work in groups, after all, its a math problem!
At this point, a few engineers and scientists will be plugging away but most students will be frantically trying to figure out: "How do we solve for x?"
But note the "call" of the question. It's not to "solve" for x but rather to "find" x. And, just like that, one of your students will scream out I've got it! I've found x! That's when you ask the student to come to the board, with a marker in hand, and explain what they came up with. Watch with amazement as the student circles on the board where x is!
Back to my essay problem involving consideration. Based on a past bar exam essay, the problem involved a person who immediately risked her life to save a dog from a burning house. After the dog was rescued, a conversation ensued between the rescuer and the dog's owner with the owner learning that the rescuer wanted to go to paramedic school but couldn't afford it (no contract yet!). That's when things got exciting. The owner promised that she would pay for paramedic schooling because she wanted to "compensate" the rescuer for his heroism in rescuing her dog. Well, as things go on bar exam problems, the owner didn't pay and the rescuer, who was denied admission to the paramedic school, pursued a different line of education.
Most students explored lots of issues, including offer, acceptance, statute of frauds, mistake, conditions, anticipatory repudiation, and you name it. But, the key was in writing the issue: "The issue is whether the rescuer has any contract claims when the owner promised to pay for paramedic school to compensate the rescuer for a past act of heroism." In a nutshell, there was an issue concerning whether there was consideration based on the pre-existing duty rule and there was an issue concerning whether, assuming no consideration, whether the promise could be enforced under the material benefit rule and/or promissory estoppel. That was it. Once the students saw the answer, they then saw the facts that triggered that answer, and it all came down to writing the issue statement.
That's when I brought out the math problem below. Using this challenge, students were reminded that it's important to ask the right questions in order to get the right answers. And, in order to ask the right questions, we have to take time, before we write, to think. It was one of the most memorable learning exercises of all for my students because they all knew the rules of consideration and promissory estoppel but in their haste to solve the problem...they missed the problem. Love to have your thoughts on how the "Find x" exercise goes with your students! (Scott Johns)
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
This week we, as in the legal community, are in the midst of the February Bar Exam. For many taking the Feb exam, this can mean that they weren't successful in July. This isn't always the case, there are plenty reasons to take the bar exam in Feb for the first time. However, working with repeaters has made me reflect quite a bit on growth mindset and the importance of grit.
Grit is defined, by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as "firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship." Growth mindset is a frame of mind, a belief system we adopt to process incoming information. People with a growth mindset look at challenges and change as a motivator to increase effort and leaning. Most experts agree that grit and growth mindset are the most important factors in success.
Let's start with Grit. An entire book on grit was written by Angela Duckworth. (See her website for information on her book, as well as her grit scale - https://angeladuckworth.com/) Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder and CEO of Character Lab. She started studying why certain people succeed, and others don't. She began at West Point Military Academy, studying why some complete the "Beast Barracks", essentially a boot camp, while others drop out. Given that to get into West Point, there was a certain similarity of background, in term of grades, extracurricular, etc. she set out to see if she could predict who would make it, and who wouldn't. It turns out they couldn't predict this based on grades, or background, but could base it on a grit scale that Prof. Duckworth created. The grittier the West Point cadet, the more likely they would complete the "Beast Barracks". She later expanded on her studies and found that the grittier you were, the more likely you were to complete a graduate degree. She further expanded this to other professions, Olympians, etc, and found that generally, the more grit you had, the more like you were to succeed.
This applies to law school, the bar exam, and the practice of law. Grittier people get back up. They fail, but they learn from that failure and try again. And sometimes try over and over again. However, the key is always learning WHY you failed. This brings me to growth mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck coined the terms "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset." These terms describe the underlying beliefs we have about learning and intelligence.
Professor Dweck explain why a fixed mindset can negatively impact all aspects of your life, but especially your learning:
"Believing that your qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character, well then you'd better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn't do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
I've seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves in [a learning setting], in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
But when you start viewing things as mutable, the situation gives way to the bigger picture.
This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
This is important because it can actually change what you strive for and what you see as success. By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, you change the deepest meaning of effort."
In short, if you focus on learning for learning's sake, and not the end result, like grades or the bar exam, you will get more out of your effort! As a law student, focus on learning the law, and learning to be the best lawyer you can, will help you be more successful. (Here is the website on mindset, where you can take a quiz to find out where you are on the mindset scale, and learn more about the years of research done by Prof. Dweck - https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/)
Grit and growth mindset also take practice. Those that are grittier know that they have to put in the time and effort, that no one is just a "natural" - there is always behind the scenes work. Again, this also takes serious self reflection to learn from each failure, and to learn from each success. If you are a law student, assess your exams. Learn to assess your practice hypotheticals. Reflect on how you can improve. If you are studying for the bar, learn to track MBE questions and learn from each practice essay. If you are a practicing lawyer, learn from each and everything you do, whether it ended in a win or a loss. There is always room for improvement, and that is what makes successful people successful.
I don't think lawyers, as a profession, talk enough about our failures, or ways we can improve. Therefore, the messaging doesn't get passed down to students. But we have to make it the norm to fail, and get back up again. That needs to be part of our culture.
It should also be noted that I'm biased, because as I'm writing this I'm working on an entire CALI lesson on growth mindset and grit for law students, so if you are a student, look for that soon, and if you are a professor, feel free to pass it along to your students. In that lesson, I encourage students to reflect on failures, and what they learned. I encourage you all to share your failures, and how you bounced back, with your students.
Stay gritty! (Melissa Hale)
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
For the first time in eleven years, the February bar examination starts on Mardi Gras. For those celebrating the first day of Carnival, today will be a joyous and hopeful celebration, followed tomorrow by a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial; for those taking the bar exam, today marks the culmination of a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial, to be followed tomorrow by a joyous and hopeful celebration. To both krewes I say: Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Meanwhile, those of us in Academic Support engaged in less elevated pursuits are already making efforts and plans to help the next set of examinees get ready for the July administration of the bar examination. As we communicate with our current 3L students to lay the foundation for their prep work over the summer, it is not a bad idea to consider Shrove Tuesday and some of the value of celebration and ceremony in general. Holidays like Mardi Gras and festivities like weddings are not merely commemorations of momentous occasions, nor excuses for fun and excess. They also serve as cultural and psychological turning points, signaling for participants the seriousness of the transition they are about to make. (“Carnival” is, after all, derived from a Latin phrase for “remove meat” or “farewell to meat” – we associate the term with fun, but it really means preparing to sacrifice.) The grandiosity and tradition of such celebrations convey weighty significance, and their communal nature impress upon participants that they have both support from and responsibility towards a society – that they are not just taking this on alone. When effective, these implications encourage celebrants to take on their new situation immediately and wholeheartedly, and the (often subconscious) gravity impressed upon them by the jubilee can give them the perseverance not to abandon it when times are hard. Wedding ceremonies help couples take the hard work of being married seriously, even when they want to walk away. Mardi Gras helps observants stick to their resolutions of Lenten sacrifice, even when led into temptation.
Graduation is already a significant celebration in the minds of our law students, and we can use the weight and jubilation already associated with it to the advantage of our future bar examinees. A little additional messaging, suggesting that commencement is not just the start of their professional lives but also a milestone that marks the transition to a new mode of intensity, can help students see graduation day (even if only subconsciously) as a ceremony that signals their immediate and wholehearted commitment to bar study, and one that lends them additional perseverance throughout the months of May, June, and July. Be overt, be enthusiastic, and remind them that they will celebrating and then sacrificing together. There is power in a party, and we can put it to use.
Monday, February 24, 2020
The bar exam is so much more than a test. It is an arduous all-encompassing journey that begins with months of study and practice. Today, the journey comes to an end for the February bar takers. As we send positive thoughts and well-wishes to our students taking the bar exam, we should consciously acknowledge the individuality of the journey for each student, the diversity of experiences, and the sacrifices that were made to reach this point.
Bar takers of all ages and backgrounds have sacrificed, surrendered, lost, ignored, delayed, and missed so much while studying for the bar. Yet, life circumstances would not pause during bar study. Some wed, or welcomed a new child; others dealt with the loss of a pet or family member; some faced separation or divorce; while others moved in, moved away, or moved back home. There are bar takers who made the necessary decision to leave young children in the temporary care of family or friends, while others had to find ways to incorporate parenting and family time, or perhaps elder care, into the bar study routine.
For so many, there were financial struggles. Students took out loans to pay for a bar course, to eat, to live. Some quit their jobs for full-time bar study; others lost their jobs because they could not keep up with the hours and the demands of study. Repeat takers managed the stigma and financial distress of a second, or third, bar prep period. No dollar amount can truly capture the real cost of studying for the bar. There is a toll on your body, your back, your hands, and your eyesight.
Bar takers everywhere, we see you. We acknowledge your struggle. We affirm your efforts and we cannot wait to celebrate your success!
Thursday, February 20, 2020
We've been told that seeing is believing but I suspect that most of us don't really think that's quite true, at least when it comes to our own cognitive biases.
After all, we are trained attorneys, steeped in expertise in evaluating evidence carefully and thoughtfully. We don't rush into conclusions. We sort, we deduce, we reflect. At least that's what I used to think...until I got caught by one of my own students.
Here's what happened.
We were talking about cognition, and one of my students - a former teacher - asked me if I wouldn't mind taking part in a little experiment about thinking - a mathematics experiment. I was so excited because I'm a mathematician by professional training. I was ready for the test, or so I thought.
Step by step, my student became my teacher, asking me the following questions in front of about 90 of my students:
Prof. Johns, what's 1000 + 1000? Good.
Now, add 50. Good.
Now, add 40. Perfect.
Now, add 10.
What's that give you? ______.
I blurted out, as proudly and as loudly as I could...3000...and I was completely wrong and utterly embarrassed (since the correct answer is 2100).
Here's what happened: My thinking got in my way because I wasn't really thinking but acting like I was thinking, which is what I think cognitive bias might come down to.
Try this out with your own students. Ask them to work through this little math problem, out loud, one calculation at a time, as a class.
[Note: At first, few will participate by calculating answers, after all, because most are scared of math, so start the whole problem over until all are participating by speaking - out loud - the answers to each step of the math problem.]
What's 1000 plus 1000? _____
Plut 50? ______
Plus 40? ______
Plus 10? ______
Most, just like me, will blurt out 3000. And that's a problem - as attorneys and as law students - because that means that the first impulses of our minds are often wrong, whether we are working through multiple-choice questions, sketching out possible issues as we read through an essay question, or probing problems that we might need to address to help our clients.
So if you have a chance to try out this little experiment with your students, please let me know what you learn. And, let me know what your students say that they've learned from this experiment. If your students are at all like me, this little experiment will not just open up their minds but also their eyes too. And that's something worth seeing.
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
I think we all do. It has been that kind of week. I think we are all there, the bar exam is next week, it's the middle of winter, first year students want to meet about Fall grades, and most of us are teaching and doing workshop. So, it's a crazy time of year.
Today, as I am putting together a workshop for first years, and a class on the MPT, I realized that I was only able to do both of these things with the help of fellow ASPers. Literally, I was using parts of their powerpoints and handouts. I mean, 80% of my outlining presentation was the property of other ASPers. And that's what I love about this community. We share resources, tangible outlines, PowerPoints, syllabi and and so forth. Email an individual, or ask on the listserv, and you shall receive. Everyone is happy to share their work product without blinking.
Our conferences are also great for these tangible resources. I feel like each presentation is a collection of tangible things we can all take back to the classroom. (Speaking of conferences, remember that there are regional conferences coming up in TX (March 6th), Chicago (March 13th), and NY (March 20th), not to mention our annual conference in Washington, D.C. in May).
And then there are the intangibles, knowing I have people that get it. Knowing that there are people I can count on. Knowing I can email people in any state for a question about their state character and fitness or that they are willing to help one of my students. Knowing that they will listen, vent, share ideas, help brainstorm. Or even agree to write a book with you! To all of you, you are my people, my network, my village. And, as a colleague likes to say, "Teamwork makes the dream work."
To that end I encourage people to reach out. Maybe you're new, or feel like you can't reach out. I certainly felt like the new kid at my very first conference. I didn't feel confident reaching out to ask people for their syllabi or materials. But do it. We all encourage you to reach out. We are all happy to share ideas, advice, or actual materials. The AASE leadership is also diligently working on making sure our website has a section for materials from conferences, and otherwise, and we are getting there!
I also had to ask for help in a different way today. I had a health issue that wasn't going away, and had to cancel class. Something I hate doing. I was on the fence, wondering if I should just suck it up and push through. But my friend and Dean of Students insisted that she drive me home, while lecturing me on self care. The lecture was well deserved, and I needed to hear it.
So, while all of us are in a potentially stressful week, don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't stop practicing self care. And don't hesitate to email the listserv asking for something!
Monday, February 17, 2020
Bar takers, you have seven study days remaining to prepare, to take one last look at your bare bones outlines, to try to crack the code for recognizing recording statutes, and to improve your speed at performance testing. Adding to the angst of sitting for an exam that will determine entry into your chosen profession, is the foreboding fact that national bar passage rates have declined and not returned to prior years heights. News from bad to scary, logically, can lead to doubt and self-debasing thoughts like who am I to pass if as few as four of every 10 bar takers pass the bar in some states?
The negative thoughts creep in and resound even louder to those who entered law school against the odds. Those with LSAT scores below 150; those who juggled working to provide for a family by day, and the competitive rigors of law study by night; those who managed the anxiety of chronic illness and attendance requirements; those who faced implicit biases that created a presumption of lower competence and precluded their appointment to prestigious posts; those whose humble social or financial backgrounds placed them in a daily battle with imposter syndrome; those whose law schools don't rank elite; and those who’ve found a home in the bottom quartile of the law school class are left to silently question who am I to pass?
Let these words be the fight song for the academic underdog. You entered law school, wind at your front, and made it. You fed your family and persevered. You commuted two hours to and from school and made the 8:00 AM lectures. You tutored yourself. You feared failure, but kept going. You ignored the rankings, and focused on your exams. When things got hard, you got harder. So to those who still question, who are you to pass . . . ?
I ask the better question: who are you not to?
 The Louisiana Bar Examination is administered February 17 – 21, 2020, eight days before the administration of the Uniform Bar Exam and other state bar exams.
 Mark Hansen, Multistate Bar Exam Average Score Falls to 33-Year Low, A.B.A. J. (Mar. 31, 2016). See also Jeffrey Kinsler, Law Schools, Bar Passage, and Under and Over-Performing Expectations, 36 QUINNIPIAC L. REV. 183, 187 (“Between 2009 and 2013, nationwide firsttime bar passage rates remained in the high seventy percentile range with three years at 79%, one year (2013) at 78%, and one year (2012) at 77%. Those nationwide bar passage numbers slid from 78% in 2013 to 74% in 2014, 70% in 2015, and 69% in 2016.”).
 Joshua Crave, Bar Exam Pass Rate by State, LAWSCHOOLI (Jan. 29, 2019), https://lawschooli.com/bar-exam-pass-rate-by-state.
*adapted from BarCzar Blog originally published April 2018.
Thursday, February 13, 2020
Let me ask you a couple of questions posed by a recent article (illustrating how easily our minds can mislead us). M. Statman, Mental Mistakes, WSJ (Feb 9, 2020).
First, do you consider yourself an above average driver?
Second, do you consider yourself an above average juggler?
Most of us answer the first question: "Yes, of course I'm an above average driver." In contrast, most of us answer the second question: "No, absolutely not. Why, I can't even juggle so I'm definitely below average." But context matters in determining whether our answers to these questions are accurate. Id.
Let me explain.
Take driving. Most of us think that we are at least average drivers (and most likely above average) because we drove today and didn't (hopefully) have an accident. But most drivers are just like us. They didn't have accidents either. Id. Consequently, at least half of us have to be below average and the other half above average. And, because we haven't yet explored any factual evidence in order to accurately gauge our driving abilities (such as accident records, traffic tickets, etc), we are often mistaken about our driving abilities.
Now let's take juggling. Most of us can't juggle at all, and, because that includes virtually all people, we are probably at least average jugglers (and maybe even better than average jugglers!). Id. You see, evidence matters in judging accurately. Id.
Likewise, with respect to learning, most of us think that we are at least above average with respect to easy tasks (like driving) but below average with respect to the hard tasks of learning (like juggling). However, without concrete facts to evaluate our learning, we are likely wrong. And that's a problem because if we don't know what we know and what we need to know we can't improve our learning...at all. Indeed, that's why learning can be so difficult. We tend to get stuck within our minds, our own framework, seeing what we want to see rather than what is really true about our learning.
So, as you evaluate your own learning, step back. Ask yourself how do I know what I think I know. Challenge yourself to see from the perspective of others so that you don't miss out on wonderful opportunities to improve your learning. Be honest but not harsh. Focus on identifying ways to improve.
If you're not sure how to go about self-reflective learning, here's a quick suggestion:
Take for example an essay answer that you've written.
First, find, identify, and explain one thing that in your writing that is outstanding (and why).
Second, find, identify, and explain one way to improve your writing (and why that would be beneficial).
Indeed, towards the end of most meetings with students, rather than telling my students to do "this or that," I ask them to tell me what they've learned about themselves from talking together and what can they do to improve their own learning. And, I don't stop with just one answer. I keep on asking until we have at last three concrete action items, all of which sprung out from them rather than me. That's because the most memorable learning happens in "aha" moments, when we see what we didn't see before. And, after all, isn't that the essence of learning...seeing anew with free eyes to boot.
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
The year: 334 B.C.
The place: The ancient Phrygian city of Gordium
The tale you are about to read is as true as it can be:
Hephaestion: Hey, Seleucus! You just missed all the fun! Alex here just fulfilled another ancient prophecy!
Alexander the Great (shrugging): Don’t listen to Heph. It was no big deal.
Seleucus: “No big deal”? And a shrug? That’s what you said after you razed the city of Thebes. “Eh, no biggie.” Just another complete victory and total annihilation. Whatever. So what was it this time?
Hephaestion: Get this: There was this ox-cart in town tied to a post –
Seleucus: And Alex chopped it into kindling, burned it to ashes, then scattered the ashes to the four winds?
Alexander the Great: Gee, thanks, Seleucus, you make me sound like some kind of rampaging destroyer.
Seleucus: Well, you are conquering the known world. There’s bound to be a certain amount of destruction involved.
Alexander the Great: It’s not all destruction. Sometimes there’s creativity involved.
Seleucus: Yeah, like creating widows.
Hephaestion: As I was saying: there’s this ox-cart tied to a post by this knot. Been there hundreds of years, and no one’s ever been able to untie the knot. If you saw the knot, you’d understand why: totally complicated, gnarled and tangled, just a huge total mess.
Seleucus: Like Hephaestion’s tent.
Hephaestion: I’m ignoring you. This knot was tied by Midas—
Seleucus: Hold up, you mean King Midas? You mean everything-he-touched-turned-to-gold Midas? The guy who starved to death because every grape and loaf of bread he picked up turned to gold before he could eat it?
Alexander the Great: Yeah, I always wondered about that. Why didn’t he just have servants drop the food into his open mouth?
Seleucus: That’s what I like about you, Alex; always thinking outside the box.
Hephaestion: Yes, it was that Midas. See? Big names. No ordinary knot here. And there’s this prophecy, too: Whoever unties this knot is destined to be the ruler of all Asia.
Seleucus: I see where you’re going with this. Alex had to have a go at it, didn’t he?
Alexander the Great: Well, if you counted the number of turns visible around the rim of the knot, you could tell that—
Hephaestion: I’ll say he had a go! He scrunched up his Macedonian eyes, looked at it for a minute like it contained the secrets of the universe, and said, “I know how to take care of this!”
Seleucus: Did you? I’m impressed.
Hephaestion: He whipped out his sword, and snap! Cut right through that sucker!
Seleucus: You did? I’m not impressed.
Hephaestion: Oh, go suck a pomegranate. Alex dismantled that puppy! That knot is no more. And that means that Alex = ruler of all Asia. And what did you accomplish this morning, Seleucus? Clean your tent?
Seleucus: Yes, I did. But I’ll tell you what I didn’t do – I didn’t cheat. Which is what Alex did do.
Alexander the Great: Wait, Seleucus, you don’t understand—
Seleucus: No, Alex, I don’t understand. The prophecy said “whoever unties the knot”. I don’t understand how chopping it to pieces counts as “untying” it. When I untie my sandals do I pop a blade into them?
Alexander the Great: Look, I needed to use my sword—
Seleucus: Did you? Did you really? I’ve been seeing this trend in you for the last few years, Alex: when in doubt, wipe it out! Rivals to the throne – gone. Vanquished armies – eliminated. And now this knot – oh, let me just slice the cord in twain – problem solved! Well, you know what, Alex? That’s just cheating. Eliminating a problem is not the same as solving it. “Thinking outside the box” does not mean you just move yourself into a different box.
Hephaestion: Hey, step off, Seluke! You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Seleucus: Don’t I? Look, this time it’s just a damn knot, and knowing Alex the press will probably eat this up. They’ll be writing about it for at least 2,354 years – “And then Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot, and found a solution where no one else could!” But Alex is trying to rule the whole world, Heph, and this attitude of destroy/eliminate/repeat is going to be the end of him. If he doesn’t learn how to actually solve these “unsolvable” problems, then what’s he going to do when he encounters one he can’t get rid of?
Alexander the Great: Seleucus, I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate it. But Heph is right – you didn’t hear the whole story. I didn’t simply chop the Gordian Knot into pieces, although I bet you’re right about that being how the press will report it. Quick and brutal gets people’s attention, but even I know that slow and elegant is often more effective. With the knot, I simply noticed that it could never be untied so long as the two ends of the rope remained spliced together, so I pulled out my sword and trimmed the splices. That left me with the two original ends of the rope – just like the two ends of your sandal laces. Once those were freed, I could actually start to work on the knot, like no one had done over the last, what, three hundred years? Duh. It took me a couple of hours, but eventually I was able to work the knot loose.
Alexander the Great: I think there’s a difference between changing the conditions to make them workable and completely blowing the problem up.
Hephaestion: Is that all you can say? “Oh. Yeah.” You called out the future ruler of all Asia by mistake and can’t even apologize?
Seleucus: Ah, Alex, I’m sorry. You know I was just worried about you.
Alexander the Great: I know. But I think I’m going to have to have you and your entire bloodline executed now, and your ashes — how did he put it?
Hephaestion: “Scattered to the four winds,” I think he said.
Alexander the Great: Yeah, that was it. I like that — little pieces of burnt-up Seleucus, and his kids, drifting south on a zephyr.
Alexander the Great: I’m just kiddin’, Seleucus. I know you care. Later, dude. Heph, let’s you and I go clean your tent.
Monday, February 10, 2020
And you'll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you. Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff
Every lawyer who has completed the journey that begins with law school and ends with a multi-day bar examination knows the anxiety, the overload, and the sheer exhaustion that is bar study. There is no shortage of horror stories involving the bar exam.1 Virtually every attorney has a bar-related cautionary tale. Some of these tales recount the angst of making up legal rules to answer an essay question about which they had no clue how to answer.2 Other tales may involve the heart-stopping panic brought on by “Barmageddon” when technology glitches prevented examinees from electronically submitting their essays.3 The bar exam is a grueling rite of passage that no attorney wants to revisit or repeat.
But not accounted for in the published bar pass lists and statewide bar statistics is a group of unsung heroes that contribute in meaningful ways to the attorney rosters of each state. This group is largely unnoticed, unnamed, or misnomered as law school academic support staff, professional development personnel or even student services providers. These gifted folks, whether or not named or recognized, essentially relive the nightmare that is bar prep two times per year, every year, without break or exception, and without earning any additional licensure.
So, here’s to the bar prep heroes who, despite already having at least one law license, restudy, listen anew to lectures, and peruse endless pages of commercial outlines in search of changes to a majority rule or a better way to explain testable material. Hat tip to my colleagues in the trenches who biannually endure the round-the-clock cries for help, the endless essay grading, and the ulcer generating impathic nervousness for the aspiring attorneys in whom we are emotionally invested.
As the end of February draws nigh, you will soon return to regular sleep patterns and be able to answer the 100+ unread messages in your inboxes. Yes, all will be back to normal . . . except for the two to three months filled with delightfully dreaded anxious anticipation of released results. You are the heroes on the other side of bar prep.
 Marsha Griggs, Building A Better Bar Exam, 7 Tex. A&M L. Rev. 1 (2019).
 Karen Sloan, Software Maker Settles Barmageddon Class Action for $21 Million, NAT’L L.J. (May 15, 2015, 12:26 AM), https://www.law.com/nationallawjournal/
Thursday, January 30, 2020
Time is so precious. That's why I love elevators. Not because I like to wait. Indeed where I teach the elevators are as slow as molasses, which means, that I have a captive audience (especially because our elevators don't have music to calm the nerves).
That got me thinking. Why not make the most of the situation at hand? After all, we live and work and move in learning communities. So, here's a few suggestions to turn elevator rides into more "elevating experiences" to help celebrate community and learning.
First, smile. Yep, you might even make eye contact too. This is not the time to be bashful.
Second, recognize the other. Resist the tendency to pretend to be too busy for relationships by looking down at your smart phone, or up at the flashing numbers, or at the floor. After all, we are communities of learning, so extend a hearty hello to each one (and a gracious goodbye as people depart).
Third, introduce yourself if you haven't met. "Hi! I'm Scott Johns, one of your faculty members."
Fourth, ask questions such as: "What's something you're learning today?" What's your favorite class (and why?)? "What type of law are you interested in practicing?
You see, elevators can be elevating experiences...if only we take the time to be with each other. And who knows, you might make someone's day because most of us - if truth be known - go through much of life unrecognizable by others, just hoping to be known. But elevators are no place to be alone (nor is law school or life either).
So here's seeing (and chatting) with you on the elevator soon!
Tuesday, January 28, 2020
It is an oddly resonant time of year.
This has been happening for the past week or so:
- A student comes to my office to talk. It's a 1L student, wrestling with a mix of shock and panic after receiving first-semester grades. They did not do as well as they had expected, and they are not sure what that means. Are they really smart enough for law school? Will they even make it through the first year? They are willing to work hard to improve, but they don't even know where to begin, and they are not sure that they will improve enough to make it. I explain that of course they need to take their grades seriously, and that they do have a good deal of progress to make, preferably as quickly as possible. However, I note, it is not unusual for students not to reach their fully potential right away, especially when transitioning into new types of tasks, and that they do have time to get themselves where they want to be, as long as they are diligent and thoughtful and make every effort to learn useful lessons from the disappointing evaluations they have received so far.
- Next, a recent graduate comes to my office to talk. It's someone preparing to take the bar exam in February, wrestling with a mix of shock and panic after receiving the results of their first simulated MBE exam. They did not do as well as they had expected, and they are not sure what that means. Are they really smart enough for the bar exam? Will they even pass? They are willing to work hard to improve, but they don't even know where to begin, and they are not sure that they will improve enough to make it. I explain that of course they need to take their score seriously, and that they do have a good deal of progress to make, preferably as quickly as possible. However, I note, it is not unusual for examinees not to reach their fully potential right away, especially when transitioning into new types of tasks, and that they do have time to get themselves where they want to be, as long as they are diligent and thoughtful and make every effort to learn useful lessons from the disappointing evaluations they have received so far.
- Next, another 1L student comes to my office to talk . . .
It is the nature of our jobs that we sometimes find ourselves trying to convey multiple messages -- sometimes contradictory -- at the same time. In January, this messaging consists of finding the right balance of intensity and perspective, of patience and urgency, of recognizing the effects of circumstance and shouldering the burden of personal responsibility. It can be tough in part because the people we counsel can be so different -- words that barely allay the anxiety of one person might be enough to lull another person into a false sense of self-confidence. Better to calm our advisees down just enough for them to be able to hear and take in our more practical suggestions about focusing on step-by-step goals, specific tasks, and formative assessments, which provide them not only with routes to get to where they want to be, but also help them strengthen their abilities to more accurately judge their performance and progress.
For those preparing for the February bar, it might also be worthwhile reminding them that they may have had similar moments of uncertainty when they first entered law school. They figured out enough to get obtain their J.D.s. Why should they doubt that they have the capacity to figure out how to clear that final hurdle?