Monday, December 13, 2021
Last Friday’s NECASP Conference on Fostering and Maintaining Inclusive Communities was amazing. It was well organized and carefully curated. I left with some amazing ideas of how I can make my ASP welcome mat larger and make students who cross that threshold feel that we are a caring community. Community=success! A special thank you to the NECASP executive team: Amy Vaughan-Thomas, Brittany Raposa, Phil Kaplan and Danielle Kocal for a wonderful conference. I have often said, and I stand by it, that the ASP community is the kindest community in law school academics: to our students, our schools, and to each other. The sheer talent and intellect of my colleagues is breathtaking.
This morning I walked my dog, Leo, super early because we were escorting my son to before school physical therapy (he hurt his arm when he and his bicycle encountered a curb back in the summer and wrestling practice made it hurt more). My husband is also away on business in (what looks like heavenly) Portugal and he had previously been doing this walk. I will add that I also spent the night with this dog who would not go downstairs, takes up as much space as a human (he weighs 40 pounds, so that was surprising), and doesn’t smell as wonderful as you would hope. The ultimate chutzpah was when he barked at me to pick him up and put him on the bed because he is too short. And judging from the sentence before that, you can imagine how much resistance he got from me, and besides, the cats were unwilling to help. In any event, there I was: tired, cold, and entirely not in Lisbon when Leo and I saw this:
Leo and I continued on our walk under this cotton candy sky until we were almost home. As we passed the post office, we saw this bit of pink sharpied advice:
There is no greater ASP hook here except maybe we all need to be reminded to look around and make connections as we make our way through this season of grading and early darkness.
Monday, December 6, 2021
Last night was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah (or Chanukkah, or even Hannukah). This year we had two different types of candles for our two menorahs. We had one box of artisanal long and graceful white to blue ombre candles. We also had a standard 99¢ little blue box of shorter, more colorful candles from the supermarket (or maybe a leftover box that one of our three kids brought home from Sunday school). We lit both menorahs each night: one with the pretty candles and one with the garish little blue box candles. The pretty candles burned and melted. The plain candles did as well. The bottom line was this: it was meaningful regardless of which candles we used.
Here comes the (possibly heavy handed) link to law school exams. If students have an exam answer where they spotted the issues, used the correct the rule, did both sides of analysis, and weighed the options before concluding, then it is meaningful even if it isn’t graceful (or long). There are all sorts of other holiday analogies I could make here…like remember to go one at a time when lighting your candles; remember that you need to light the helper candle first (that being the student’s knowledge and wellbeing); do not re-spin your answer to multiple choice questions, and, of course, the miracle of being asked eight multiple choice questions about one thing you know really, really well. Surely, miracles and light are what many students are asking for this time of year.
It is also important to remember, though, that like any ritual, exams have their traditions and practices. We should be sure to remind students that after each exam, they should scrape off the remnants of the last one and reload with one more point of light before moving on to the next one. Make this a tradition. Lamenting over what went wrong on the last exam is always going create a barrier to going forward-and moving on to the next exam is part of the ritual. Remembering what went well (this year, none of our cats lit themselves on fire!) will be more productive. Make this a practice. Afterall, you cannot light fewer candles as Hanukkah progresses because you cannot travel through time (yet).
Finally, when exams are all over, students should be sure to clean up before putting their exam self away. No one wants to deal with a December mess in May. And for what it is worth, the fancy candles were a bear to clean up.
Happy Holidays to all!
Monday, November 29, 2021
Every summer, our family rents a (dog friendly) house out on Cape Cod. Recently, we have been renting bicycles when we get there at a bike rental place called Idle Times. It isn’t fancy, but it is friendly--the name is welcoming and seems to be assuring us that we need not race or even labor much to get around on the bicycles. It is the kind of place where an old black lab lies in the overgrown seagrass and seems to will the kids trying out bicycles to go around him rather than move from his shady spot. It is idyllic-no false advertising involved. This past weekend (that started on a Wednesday-shouldn’t they all?) was also gloriously idle (aside from the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and latkes). I removed my laptop from the table (yes, the new one for those of you who have been following these posts) and didn’t return it to its spot until yesterday. And here I am on a Monday morning trying to jump start my professional brain after this lovely idleness.
Today is the last day of classes for us. While many might think that this is the beginning of a nice break for all academics, it is absolutely crunch time for ASP folks. There are students panicked about finals. They seem shocked that exams are almost upon us despite all the warning signs. I agree that by the time we develop our fall mojo, it is already Veteran’s Day-which was less than three weeks ago. Fall seems like a slow walk uphill to a sudden cliff, while spring semester seems like a cold, dark walk through a cave into the light.
Nonetheless, we are about to begin our "reading days." I’m not sure how much time between classes ending and exams beginning is just right; I don’t think there is a one size fits all time period, but our 1L students have around 2.5 days.
Here is (some of) what I advise students to do now and during these days and the exam period:
- Get out of the law school building (we are all in one building here). The air is thick with stress and every little whisper will make you think someone knows something you don’t about a class you are in. I point out to our students that we are (in the fall at least) out of sync with our undergraduate and business schools, so their libraries might be a better place to study if a library is your preferred spot. At least the din there won’t make you feel unnecessarily inadequate. In pre-COVID times I would also recommend a coffee place (away from school) or even my favorite, the café at the Museum of Fine Arts (excellent place to study and wonderful place to be when you need a break from it).
- Make an exam plan. Work backwards from your last exam and plan reasonable study schedules for each day. Remember to add a teaser of the exam after the immediate one into your plan-so if Civ. Pro is on Thursday, you can take an hour and review a little Crim because that is next and so on.
- Attend to your hygiene and health! Seriously, this is going to be a marathon, pace yourself and be sure to stay hydrated. Don’t take unnecessary pandemic risks right now. Showering is important even if the alternative can help with social distancing.
- Practice writing answers and doing multiple choice questions: while reading carefully will be an important part of your exams, you will still need to produce an answer. You should practice essays often enough that IRAC is a muscle memory. Do enough multiple-choice questions that you are not confused by slight changes in terminology (because…gasp…sometimes doctrinal professors do not write their own questions). Remember, a good way to be prepared for exams is to be a PERP: Prepared for class, Engaged in class, Reviewing after class and Practicing. Ok, now I can see why this didn’t catch on, PERP is just not going to happen. But there is still hope for fetch.
- Handle different subjects with different strategic approaches: Civil Procedure is linear and chronological; Contracts is transactional; Torts and Criminal law just beg for making a chart with all the people and causes of action involved and so on…
- Just get started: if you are lost on the exam, start with something you can answer to get the brain engaged and then go back. However, do not go back and change any multiple-choice answers if you have already made a choice-it will not end well.
- Get out again-after the exam, leave the building. Do not discuss it with other people. I know that talking about a shared trauma can be therapeutic, but this will not be. I promise. Think about what you have done well on this exam and then move on with your plan. As Timon famously says in The Lion King, “You gotta put your past behind you.”
- When all the exams are over, enjoy the idle time.
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
I was honored and surprised and thrilled to find out that I was the recipient of the 2022 Trailblazer Award. I truly feel that I have the best job in the world, and part of that is because I get to be a member of the broader academic support community.
While I take pride in and ownership of my accomplishments, it also is not lost on me that they would be much more difficult for many other academic support professionals to achieve because of the inconsistency and inequity among how we are treated at our schools. I wanted to highlight the ways in which my institution – Suffolk University Law School (SULS) – has supported me, in the hopes it will encourage other law schools to do the same.
- Financial and logistical support for research and writing: SULS provides summer funding for professors who wish to take on scholarly projects, and they extend this funding to academic support professors. I’ve written four articles and have received funding for two of those. The funding is both a financial help, as well as – importantly - an incentive and a vote of confidence. I wasn’t sure that I would ever write an article, but getting funding made me feel like the school believed I could. In addition to the funding, the law school has an active and robust Scholarship Committee and does not require me to teach a full course load over the summer.
- Faculty status: I'm faculty and therefore involved in faculty committees and meetings, which allows me to form relationships with other faculty, get ideas, exchange ideas, and feel more invested in the school.
- Conference funding: SULS provides me with conference funding, which allows me to meet other academic support colleagues, build community, and gain skills.
- Long-term contracts: Those of us in the Academic Support Program have 1-, 3- and 5-year contracts, which allow us greater stability than others who face yearly renewal and review.
- Parental leave: I received maternity leave (it is sad that this even needs to be said, yet it does).
- A significant academic support program: There are four full-time academic support professors at Suffolk (names familiar to and beloved by anyone working in the field: Herb Ramy, Liz Stillman, Phil Kaplan, and Jen Ciarimboli). This is not only crucial because we have a very large student body, but also benefits me immensely because I have generous, wise, and hardworking colleagues with whom to exchange ideas and resources.
- Teaching opportunities: Finally, in recent years, SULS has allowed me to teach non-ASP classes like Professional Responsibility and Negotiation. Doing so has helped me gain experience and confidence, generated ideas for scholarship, provided me with additional pay, and helps students and faculty see that ASP professors are part of the broader curriculum.
Of course, we are not perfect at SULS. In short: I would love to have tenure. When I joined legal academia, tenure seemed primarily like a matter of ego to me. But now, I value it more. I’d like financial equity with my colleagues; to feel fully respected and valued; to have full academic freedom; and to be able to have a greater impact on my community through voting on matters of appointments and tenure. Perhaps this award will be a step towards these goals.
And perhaps I am sharing too much, being too transparent. I’ve come to learn that a certain amount of gamesmanship is expected in academia. But I believe part of the success of many of us in academic support is our authenticity and transparency.
If you are a tenured faculty member or administrator reading this - thank you, and I hope this has given you some ideas.
If you are academic support staff or faculty, please feel free to reach out if I can be of support - I know how much you do for students, how unquantifiable the majority of it is, and I believe in and value you.
 I don’t mean at all to prioritize faculty over staff, and I think staff should receive these benefits as well. I intend instead to acknowledge what I gain from being a faculty member.
 Another note: my title is not Associate Professor, but Associate Professor of Academic Support, and many wonderful scholars have noted the way that titles perpetuate hierarchy. See, e.g., Rachel Lopez, Unentitled: The Power of Designation in the Legal Academy, 73 Rutgers L. Rev. 923 (2021).
(Sarah Schendel - Guest Post, Associate Professor of Academic Support, Suffolk Law School)
Monday, November 15, 2021
Remember in Harry Potter when Professor Lupin praised Harry for not being afraid of Voldemort, but rather being afraid of fear itself? Don’t even get me started on the psychological symbolism of dementors if you do not have a few minutes hours days to discuss all the good and bad symbolism in the series. But there is something in that particular moment that resonates with me. At this time of year, when everyone thinks about what they are grateful for, I think I most grateful for gratefulness.
I have a friend who writes a blog that is entirely about gratitude. I love that it has been going on for 2054 days even though it started as a 30 day project. There was just too much to be thankful for in this world to be confined to one month. But in the Academic Support world, I think sometimes ASP faculty do not make the list for students, schools, or even as relevant enough to be considered in the U.S. News rankings. Our data on thankfulness is almost entirely anecdotal. So here is my list of what I am thankful for in Academic Support:
- The amazing academic writing produced by ASP people-wow, just wow,
- That this is most warm, generous, and kind assembly of colleagues in all the academic realm (seriously, I mean every seemingly over-the-top word here),
- Students who are essentially groupies. I love students who come by regularly without being asked or told to do so for all three or four years of law school,
- Not being the person who grades all the exams or papers-just helping with prep and other issues is highly liberating especially when you add the disclaimer, “of course, I am not grading this, so be sure to check with your [insert legal writing or doctrinal] professor also…,”
- Students who take my advice. I offer a lot of advice-some solicited and some not, but all well-meaning and with some evidence/experience/inside knowledge to back it up,
- When a plan comes together-it could be a study plan, a paper plan, a bar plan, or even a registration plan-when it works out for a student and they are successful, my heart grows three sizes (premature holiday reference, sorry).
- The beginning of the tenure conversation for ASP faculty. We may need a Patronus charm to get there, but we are in the room of requirement getting our wands ready for the battle.
There is more-there is always more. I am thankful for (among many other things) students who send me grading playlists, texts about successes from graduates, and being able to resume having an open-door policy this semester. But most of all, I am thankful for thankfulness. Gratitude is self-perpetuating.
 I am extremely lucky that my school has truly valued ASP work and faculty.
Monday, November 8, 2021
Today is International Tongue Twister Day (I am not making this up just for blog content, I promise). A tongue twister is defined as, “a word, phrase, or sentence difficult to articulate because of a succession of similar consonantal sounds.”  I would submit that all the different roles we play in academic support are difficult to articulate as well.
Like many codified rules in the United States, the term “Academic Support” is vague. How can we define what we do? We help students access the curriculum in law school but that is still vague. We conduct orientation classes. We teach students how to prepare and study in their doctrinal classes. We help students prepare for midterm and final exams-and then the Bar exam. We help students with legal writing projects. We offer counseling that borders on therapy. We listen, we plan, we give feedback, we lend books and shoulders and pens. We offer candy and tissues and respite. We also learn from and help one another as professionals. I once helped a student pick out bridesmaid dresses. We are something different to every student we work with (a friend, a mentor, a nag, a chocolate supplier….).
Our support is seamless mainly because there is no clear beginning or end to what we do that can be stitched together. And, sometimes, what we do is both important and invisible. We are not quite the same as other faculty members in ways that are obvious and some that slip below the radar.
So, on this Monday of the week that Bar results will be released here in Massachusetts and other states nearby, I offer this tongue twister to remember what the folks in Academic Support do:
Academic Support professors profess to assist pre-professionals become professionals using practices that produce prosperity.
Say it 5 times fast and have a particularly pleasant day!
Monday, October 25, 2021
I was a social psychology major as an undergraduate and I remember studying the psychological theory of gestalt, which is defined as “something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts.” Basically, if I had known about outlining back in those days, I would have written the rule as: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As bar exam results trickle in from parts near and far, I think it worth revisiting this idea with both students and colleagues.
To students who have passed the bar, I would say, “Wonderful! Remember, there is more to you than this one credential. As an attorney, you will bring your whole self to the table and that will always be more than the sum of your parts.” To the students who have not passed the bar this time, I might say the same thing. I do not want to be dismissive of how meaningful this one credential is for them after a three (or four) year journey that has already been fraught with confidence crushing moments. I don’t want to toss out, “oh well, maybe next time” either because right now, I think these students may see “next time” as a craggy mountain to climb without any safety gear in truly inclement weather. I also know that social media means that students will know about their classmates’ successes almost immediately and silence will be interpreted as failure. Literally. There really is no good answer other than “I’m sorry. How are you doing?”
I also worry about my colleagues who have poured every ounce of what they have into students to help them pass the bar (regardless of whether the students were willing vessels or not) and now have someone else’s success or failure be determinative of their worth. Is this how we value professionals?
When a football team loses a game, media outlets tend to blame everyone on the team-not just the quarterback or coaches, but the team as a whole: offense, defense, big guys, little guys. Even when one player makes an egregious error, the sportscasters tend to find additional reasons for the loss-even the weather or altitude can be roped in. When the team wins, the press is similarly wide in praise, as seen here by today’s Boston Globe after the Patriots won a home game yesterday, “[e]veryone went home happy Sunday. Mac Jones got his first 300-yard game and hit a 46-yard deep ball. Damien Harris rushed for 100 yards. Eleven players made a catch, and five different players got in the end zone. The defense created two interceptions…Smiles all around.” And remember, these guys probably each get paid more than all the ASP folks at a regional conference combined.
So, when bar results are good, ASP folks are part of the overall winning team with smiles all around. But when bar results are not what we are hoping for, why do our ASP colleagues not get the same level of camaraderie? Why aren’t we always a team at that moment also? ASP folks, and particularly those who do bar exclusively, need to be given the grace of gestalt. So I say to you, regardless of the bar results at your school, you are more than the sum of your parts. As an ASP professional, you bring your whole self to the table and you are mighty.
Judging someone’s competency or job security based on the performance of other people at a task that is not entirely knowable is something that is far above our pay grade.
Thursday, October 21, 2021
Poet Robert Frost writes:
Monday, October 18, 2021
In the musical Hamilton, Eliza tries to persuade her husband, Alexander, to take a break, “Take a break…Run away with us for the summer. Let's go upstate…There's a lake I know…In a nearby park. I'd love to go.” Alexander refuses to go and, no spoilers beyond this, it doesn’t end well.
Two weeks ago, on the first Monday in October, I asked my undergraduates why this time of year was so important, and one student said, “It’s spooky season.” I was trying to get at the Supreme Court getting back to work (on what very well may a spooky season of cases), but it is also, as ASP folks know, that scary time of year when our 1Ls hit a wall. I’ve stockpiled candy (easy this time of year), tissues, and some advice.
We all know that 1Ls have a moment of crisis when they lose their altruism about helping the world with their law degree and become caught up in a smaller world of grades, midterms, legal writing assignments, outlining, and the overwhelmingness of just showing up for class. Students lose sight of why they even came to law school to begin with. Surely, masochism wasn’t the reason mentioned in their application personal statements. Sometimes, students need to be reminded of their initial reasons for being a lawyer. A gentle reminder might be enough for some students. It never hurts to tell them that no one really comes to law school to be a law student, they come to become a lawyer. Being a law student is temporary. And while it seems counterintuitive to advise taking a break, that is the advice I often give them at this point in the semester.
This may be a perfect time for a student to take a small break (hours, not days). Midterms are over, legal writing is less intense (for the moment) and they have been doing the reading, briefing, and outlining for long enough that it isn’t all consuming. Honestly, if Boston was a drag queen, this time of year would be its death drop in terms of the weather and natural beauty. Soon enough, everything will ramp up again and often with larger consequences, but at this very moment, a few hours spent away from law school is doable.
To that end, I have “prescribed” a drive to a beach town about 40 minutes north of here with saltwater taffy, a giant rocky sea wall that is both walkable and climbable, and just sitting at the edge of the ocean and getting perspective. Need something closer? Walk down to the aquarium, smell the ocean, and watch the harbor seals frolic in the outdoor (free!) exhibit. Even closer? Walk the Freedom Trail (it is right outside the doors to our law school). Really, anything can be a break; the only rules are no books, no laptop, and no regrets. Time spent rebuilding yourself is priming the pump for students (and faculty). The investment will pay off.
So be on the lookout for students hitting the wall. Be their Eliza. I would always prefer my students took a break than get broken.
 © Lin-Manuel Miranda
Thursday, October 14, 2021
It's the aftermath of the first day of the AASE (Association of Academic Support Educators) Third Bi-Annual Diversity Conference, hosted by CUNY Law. Unfortunately, my notes are a mess, much like life I suppose.
But I managed to jot down some key thoughts from speakers and participants that pierced my heart today, leading me to reflect deeply on what I, personally and professionally, must do next, must be next.
So here's some of what grabbed my heart from today's conference. It's just one person's view. And I realize I left out much. But, in case you weren't able to participate today, I share with the hope that what we learn together in community might truly be life-changing for so many of our students, left behind and hidden.
- Be willing to and make the invisible visible.
- Generosity of spirit.
- Ask questions about the learning environment, culture, the institution.
- Who's here? Who's not here? Who's rules? Who created them?
- Be a sponge - absorb.
- Be curious, especially about who's uncomfortable.
- Reach out to student groups. Don't wait for them to reach out to you. Be the instigator.
- Build rapport and relationships.
- Grow in humility.
- Social Identify Mapping: A Tool - Use it! Share it! Practice it! Live it!
- Humble ourselves.
- Be willing to lose control so the others might grow and learn.
- What's your definition of academic freedom? Who is it for? What does it serve? How does it help or hinder our students and their learning?
- Are you living mission statements or mission? Truly? Really?
- Why so hard to talk about race? What are you waiting for?
- Crown Act - creating and crafting successful curricular ways to teach learning, build DEI, and grow in respect and appreciation for others.
- A few possible communication principles for living, learning, and growing, together: "Vegas---Wall Street---weather.com"
- There's more to academics than academics - much more.
- Pandemic Education - What worked? What didn't? What will you continue? Who did it work for? Who didn't it work for? How were you changed by it? How will you let what you learn positively impact your teaching and your students?
- Don't be afraid to let your students see you, know you.
- Create space for expression, for belonging.
- Ask more questions.
- Make Good Trouble--Yes, Be a Trouble-Maker!
Finally, thank you to the organizers and leaders of this conference - Professors Yolonda Sewell and Haley Meade - and all of the participants, speakers, and sponsors for giving so much of themselves to us for others. And thank you to Dean Hayat (CUNY Law) for your opening remarks and Dr. Spates (Kent State) for your keynote address. Truly inspirational. (S. Johns).
Thursday, September 30, 2021
Often times I see but I don't. Perhaps an analogy will explain.
It's bear season where I live. But the bears are awful hard to spot, despite their large size. It seems that their big paws tend to distribute weight so that they move with stealth-like grace as they forage among the mountain berries, shrubs and trees. They tend to make not much more noise than a trifling breeze or a bird at work building a nest.
But I have a secret weapon to spot the bears - my dog.
You see, a few weeks back, while hiking, Maisey came to a screeching halt, sat perfectly still, and sniffed the mountain breeze. A sniff here and a sniff there. I was like, "Come on Maisey, let's get going." But she sat, still.
After about 5 minutes of waiting silently, I finally noticed a slight rustle down the hillside from the trail. Not much of anything. But then another rustle and another and another, all ever so silent. Suddenly, I saw what Maisey had sensed all along before. A bear, foraging in the scrub oaks. For the next twenty minutes or so, I watched the bear slowly eat its way down the hillside before I finally lost sight. But the lesson wasn't lost on me. I would not have seen that bear by myself. I needed the sense of another, one with keener senses than me.
I think law school is bit like that.
As law students, we can re-read our papers or our notes or our midterm answers and not really see what we really wrote. It's sort of like we are blinded by our own senses, by our own sight.
However, much like my experience on the trail scouting for bears, as law students, we have available to us, just for the asking, people who have keener senses than us, finely tuned, who can take a look at our work and thus open us up to a whole other way of seeing and experiencing things. In short, we can turn to our faculty and academic support teams to help us - as learners - see what's really in our answers (and what isn't).
So, as law students, don't feel like you need to go it alone in law school, at all. Freely reach out to others for help. Let experts review your work. Get feedback from your professors and your ASP team at your law school. You'll be surprised at what you'll see. It probably won't be a bear, but I can guarantee that it will help you become a better attorney. And that's what we are here for -- for you. (Scott Johns).
Monday, September 6, 2021
Labor Day is a holiday where we celebrate workers, an off-shoot of the industrial revolution and the labor unions that formed to help workers get fair treatment and to prevent child labor in the 19th Century. It started as a bit of a grassroots idea that caught on in some industrial centers, but it only became a Federal holiday in June, 1894 when Grover Cleveland signed it into law after hugely bungling his response to the Pullman Strike earlier that year. Before that, only Oregon, Colorado, New York and Massachusetts had their own versions of the holiday. We owe those labor unions a lot: weekends, paid holidays etc.
But what about the labor of academic support and bar prep folks? Sometimes it seems that our status is unclear. Are we labor or management? We tend to operate at the junction of faculty and staff. Sometimes we are faculty adjacent (as the Gen Z folks would put it). Sometimes, the people we work with have absolutely no idea what we do and seem pleasantly surprised that the school has people who “do that.” Bar prep folks work all summer and finish up just in time for a few scant days of rest before orientation kicks in. By this time, academic support folks have already planned and possibly conducted orientation classes. For people who do both, there is no break. Except, perhaps, for today.
So, in that spirit, I am calling for a celebration of Academic Support and Bar Prep folks, so:
Whereas, Academic Support/Bar Prep (“AS/BP”) folks are the first and last people students will know in law school, and;
AS/BP folks teach students to be successful by teaching (among other things) case briefing, outlining, study skills, exam skills, exam IRAC, legal writing templates like IRAC and CREAC, the MBE, MPTs, and MEEs, and;
AS/BP folks will track students down or be tracked down for all of the above and many other questions, issues, crises and panics, and;
AS/BP folks relish student success and suffer student failure at a deep, deep level, and;
AS/BP folks may not be faculty or tenured faculty, and may not have job security for more than a year at a time, and;
AS/BP folks are the people that will meet a student at a rest stop on the Mass. Pike (or insert your favorite Interstate here) at 2:45 a.m. to turn over a form that needed a non-electronic signature;
It is therefore ordered that on this and every following Labor Day we shall celebrate the labor of these individuals.
To my colleagues in this venture: I hope this is indeed a day of rest, and for those who will be celebrating later today and tomorrow: Shana Tovah.
Now we just need to fill up the tank, head out to the rest stop, and get this baby signed.
Saturday, August 28, 2021
Since classes started last week, we have had a lot of chatter on our faculty list-serv about teaching while masked. Last year, most faculty members taught unmasked from home, so this is new for them. Yes, your mask gets gross after about thirty minutes and, also, yes, it is hard to be understood and understand students when everyone is masked. Yet, it is nice to be back in a classroom and feel that energy even when I am not sure I could pick my students out in a line-up. I was contemplating a blog entry about the best masks for teaching or learning in classes that are longer than one hour-but I am still doing that research.
But what about the other masks that we are all wearing in class? The ones that do not obscure our noses and mouths, but rather the ones that obscure how we feel or our point of view? I am usually concerned about the things I can’t see about students even when their faces are visible to me. I know that my students on academic warning are multi-faceted and that they find themselves on academic warning for a number of reasons-many of which many not be academic. I want to see them regardless of how we are conducting classes.
So, I asked them to show me who they are behind the mask. I didn’t have anyone unmask in the classroom, but the first request for the class was to take a survey (not an assignment because I was asking some questions that might be considered more personal than students are comfortable answering). I had started doing this last fall during remote teaching to ascertain technology and space constraints on the advice of my amazing department chair for my undergraduate classes. I threw in a few fun questions like whether or not talking about the ending of Bridgerton or Wandavision would be a spoiler and which one of my pets they would like to see come to class for a visit (I underestimated the number of guinea pig fans, but she made her cameo nonetheless).
This year’s survey was a little different but began with the usual getting to know you questions like names, what you would like to be called, pronouns etc.. I asked about what they will miss most about remote learning (the commute was the number one answer there, followed closely by snacks). I asked open ended questions about things they think I should know about their learning style and ways we can make our class a community. I asked about what things outside of school might impact their academics and about what skills/knowledge they hoped to leave the class with. I got some very thoughtful and helpful ideas about what I could do to make this a useful class. I know students had to give up another class to take this required class and knowing what students want from it and how they would like it to happen is incredibly valuable information. This class doesn’t work without buy-in from students, so knowing what they are shopping for is always better.
Finally, I asked about attending the class in-person. It was the last question in the survey. The question prompt was “In person learning is:”. Unlike other multiple-choice questions they will encounter this year (and beyond), there were no wrong answers and you could check as many as applied. The choices I offered were: “Amazing”, “New for Me for Law School”, “Scary”, and “A lot and I am Overwhelmed”. Out of the twenty students who answered the survey (from a class of 22), 14 said this was new for them, 5 said it was scary, 4 said it was overwhelming and slightly more than half (11) thought it was amazing. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, no one checked just one answer. In retrospect, maybe I should have offered an “All of the Above” option because that is the option I would have chosen.
I still may not be able to recognize everyone when (and if) we unmask at some point, but for now, I see them clearly.
 The masks with the clear mouth area creep me out. I get a beginning of Rocky Horror coupled with Pennywise vibe from those, so they will not be appearing on that list.
 Intentional use of the passive voice.
Thursday, August 26, 2021
I hesitate to admit this: I've used this phrase so many times that it just sort of swims to the surface and color almost all that I do to include how I approach my work as an academic support educator. However, as Professors Kris Franklin and Rory Bahadur remind us in a recent publication, this phrase is relatively meaningless as to the real purposes behind legal education. Directed Questions: A Non-Socratic Dialogue about Non-Socratic Teaching (Aug. 16, 2021).
And, I might add a bit dangerous in the sense of destructive of learning...
First, notice the word "a".
That doesn't seem to leave much room for differences among our future lawyers. Rather, it seems to suggest that there is only one type of lawyer. Exclusive. Not part of broader society. One type of which I must be trained to think like. It leaves out the "me" in lawyering. In short, it suggests that unless I give up what is really me and become someone else, this mythical lawyer, I will not succeed; I will not belong; I will not think like a lawyer.
Second, notice the word "think".
I do a lot of thinking, well, mostly day dreaming. Much of my thinking is not productive. Why not? Because I don't act upon it. It just remains hidden from action, in my mind, silently powerless. In fact, by suggesting that we are going to train our students to "think" like a lawyer, we are really leading them astray, because law is much more than just thinking. It also requires communication, it requires action, it requires practice, it requires leaning in and giving up of yourself for representation and betterment of others. And, if truth be told, it requires a lot of writing, too.
Third, sticking with the word "think".
Of course, learning requires thinking, much thinking, deep thinking. But learning takes much more than thinking because we learn through what we experience, what we try, what we fail in and what we succeed in, and how we learn to overcome and improve through and with our learning experiences. In short, the phrase sells learning short. It suggests that we can think our ways into being lawyers. Like the practice of law, learning requires lots of practice too, lots of action too.
I'm not sure what should replace this phrase. But maybe it's a lot more showing what it is like to be and serve and work and counsel and act as lawyers. As a starting point, I just wrote our faculty and staff and suggested that they bring some of their former students, who just graduated and took the bar exam recently, back to their classrooms, their programs, and their offices to talk about how they learned in law school and what they are learning now. In other words, there's lots of room for lots of different lawyers with lots of different ways to practice. Letting our students know that they are allowed to be who they are and that there's room for them just as they are might just go along way to helping our students thrive as they begin the fall studies.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
In follow-up to Professor Victoria McCoy Dunkley's outstanding blog post entitled "Be in Your Bag (of Questions) as a 1L Reader," here's some thoughts about how you might use your senses to help make sense of the cases that you are assigned for class reading: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2021/08/be-in-your-bag-of-questions-as-a-1l-reader.html
But first a story...
I've been doing a lot of walking. In fact, I've walked about 380 miles from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail (I still have about 120 miles to go of high altitude terrain). As a person who fractured my back two summers ago in a car accident, I'm a slow mover and that's okay.
You see, as Professor Denise DeForest at Colorado Law quips, when you find yourself lost, "slow down, stop, and sit on a log." I love logs, rocks, and boulders. My favorite time on the trail is resting. But, as I sit on a log recuperating, my senses come alive. I start to hear buzzing. I spot all kinds and manners of activity that I missed while hiking, like the scurry of ants preparing for the fall mountaintop snow storms. My hands feel the bark of the downed log that has become my lounging spot. In short, just because I stopped doesn't mean that I stopped learning and experiencing. Rather, by slowing down and stopping, I saw more than I did while moving.
There's a lot to be gleaned from these sorts of experiences. Most of our lives, let's be honest, are lived in haste. As though there's no time to waste. But critical reading takes pondering time; it takes using your senses to experience what the parties might have felt like when they litigated the case that you are reading, what they might have exclaimed or cursed when the decision came out, how the court might have explored and explained how they viewed the case and the facts.
So, in follow-up to yesterday's excellent blog post on 1L reading, feel free to journey through and with the cases. Situation yourself in them. Be expressive, feel free to be combatant and skeptical, let yourself run wild, so to speak, as you give voice to what you are seeing, as you learn and question and interpret what you are reading. That's learning. In other words, it's going to take time. But it is not wasted time at all.
That being said, I spent all of first-year of law school super-afraid (really most of law school) because I'm not good speaker or a reader (I was a mathematician in college). And, the gold lettering on most of the case books - with lots of red and black - psyched me out.
But not all that is gold glitters. Much of what you read is, well, not very well-written or good or even just. So take aim at it. Don't let the cases fool you. You belong in law school, which means that your voice and life counts. Share it with others. And, as you journey through reading, let me know what you are learning. I'd love to hear from you! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, August 12, 2021
Congratulations as you begin to embark on your legal education as entering first year law students! It's an exciting time!
But, as others have pointed out, amidst the buzz, there can also be a lot of anxiety. Stress especially seems to mount at the most inopportune times, like when we've been assigned lots of stiff reading in preparation for our first law school classes.
So, here's a few suggestions about how to read for classes.
But first, I have a confession...
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, I'm not a very good reader. To be frank, when someone asks me to work with them through a reading passage (whether a case, a statute, a multiple-choice problem or an 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. That's because as I hear the words the words become alive, the punctuation marks spring up from the page into my voice, and the paragraph breaks give me a chance to catch my breath and digest what I've just vocalized. But that takes time.
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.
So here's my first tip: 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 learn 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. It takes lots of time so plan on it. To put it bluntly, it means "cross-examine" the cases, asking questions, evaluating the arguments and analysis, and then forming your own opinion about those arguments.
Second, don't let the "gold" bindings on the fancy case books and the big name judges that signed the cases intimidate you. In my opinion, many of the cases in the casebook are just wrong because, to be honest, there's no perfect opinion. There are always weaknesses. So be bold and give it your best shot and challenge the opinion.
Third, realize that reading is a skill; it's not something that comes natural to us, especially critical legal reading. But that's great news because, as a skill, it is something that we can learn to do and learn to do well. In other words, believe in yourself.
Fourth, don't just dive into the cases. Instead, model what expert readers do prior to reading by engaging in pre-reading strategies. Take a look at where the case is located in the syllabus and in the casebook table of contents. Based on that placement, try to predict the purpose behind being assigned to read that case. Then, get to know the players. Learn something about the case from the case caption, which might be as simple as the jurisdiction (state or location) in which the dispute took place. Then skim the case to capture the sorts of sections of the case and how it looks organizationally. Finally, here's my favorite pre-reading strategy: Peek at the end of the case to see how it comes out.
Fifth, read with your heart. Recognize that behind each case lies real individuals and organizations with heart-felt disputes that they couldn't resolve without going to court. Put yourself in the shoes of the parties. Let the facts as related by the court speak to you. As you read, look up words that you don't know. Write the meaning of those words in your own words. Then feel free to draw lots of pictures and diagrams to help you visualize what is happening. Realize that each case is subject to multiple interpretations so you have much more freedom than you might think at first to really dialogue with the text. Indeed, try to catch mistakes by the court. Talk back to the court and with the court as you read the opinions.
Finally, realize that 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. Or, summarize in your own words what you think the case stands for (and why it was assigned for your course). Or, evaluate the case as to whether its reasoning was puzzling, or startling, or settling (and why). Or, conjure up different facts to test how the decision might have been impacted in different circumstances. Then, to wrap up, synthesis a one sentence statement or phrase 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."
Before I let you go, let me say a 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 much of an improvement...at all. Instead, if you're like me, you'll feel like it's taking a lot more 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. Indeed, much like learning to ride a bike, you'll surely fall lots and get bruises along the way. That's okay because learning is 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 future clients too). (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
Have no fear, you are not alone!
Honestly, it's very normal to feel anxious and nervous the summer before law school. But everyone feels that way, so first, be assured that you are not alone.
Also, if you are a first generation student, it's completely normal to question whether you belong, and whether you will fit in. But I promise you - you DO belong, you WILL fit in. You are not alone. I was a first generation college and law student. I went into my first year having never met a single lawyer, not knowing any of the language, and not having any idea how anything works. So, if that's how you are feeling right now - I have some advice for you!
First - RELAX. Please. Use what time you have left before classes start to read a fun non fiction book, or binge some netflix. Chat with family and friends. I saw some great advice about getting things in order - like medical appointments, dental, etc., and trying to fit them in before you start. It was also suggested that you stock up on things for the house in bulk, so you aren't running out of essentials, and that you stock up on things like cold medicine, tylenol, etc. This is a great idea, I don't dispute it, and if you can, please do. However, I went to law school in Boston (meaning tiny apartment shared with others) and I'm also fairly certain that in early August, before the financial aid check came in, I had less than $100 to my name. I might have been lucky to have $10 to my name after moving, to be honest. The point is, space and money would have meant that I couldn't stock up anything, so if that's you, you're also not alone. Essentially just use the time before classes start to relax, and try not to worry too much.
Second - I created a First Year Glossary. I started by defining words that I didn't know when I entered law school, and then I polled my first years and asked them words they wish they had known. This is not meant to be exhaustive, by any stretch, but is meant to give you a good start. Download AL_StudentSuccess_Glossary_061121
Third - Try some CALI Lessons. I have my first year students do a few of these CALI lessons during Orientation. You can get a code from your law school if you are an admitted student, and they are free! (and once classes start, there are lessons on every topic - and they are very helpful!) https://cali.org/category/2l-3l-upper-level-topics/law-school-success
Fourth - If you are entitled to accommodations, or even just think you might be - please use them! I realize that depending on the school, the process can be daunting, but please don't let that discourage you. Start now, as it can take some time, or require more up to date testing. And don't try to go at it without accommodations. Every spring I meet with students who were not as successful as they had hoped, and most of them would have benefitted by using accommodations. However, they tell me they were nervous, worried others would know, or somehow felt that they had to prove they could succeed without them. First, accommodations are confidential - no one else will know. Not classmates, not professors, not future employers - so use them. If someone uses glasses to read, you wouldn't expect them to take their exams without glasses, that would be ridiculous. Being a lawyer means advocating for others, so start law school by advocating for yourself and your needs, and use what is going to help you be successful!
Finally - know you are not alone, and don't be afraid to ask questions, or ask for help. I start the year by telling my students there are no stupid questions, and this is true. I honestly believe the only stupid questions are the ones left unasked. I promise you that someone else in your class is struggling with the same things you are - so go to student services, go to your professor, go to Academic Support, go to tutors - and ask away. They all want to help you, I promise that!
Good luck, and remember that you DO belong!
Wednesday, June 30, 2021
So, you may, or may not, remember my yule log. As I mastered the art of making a roulade, or rolled cake, it made me think of growth mindset and legal writing.
Last month, well in May, I traveled to St. Louis for the virtual AASE Conference. Yes, I realize I didn’t have to leave my home, or even my yoga pants, for a virtual conference. But I decided to join fellow AASE member and my co-author, Toni Miceli, as we are both vaccinated, so we could enjoy the conference together. There may have also been the real need to work on finalizing some teacher’s manual materials for our book, as well as bake with her son, Alex. Both clearly, equally important.
Alex loves to bake, and loves to learn about baking. Specifically, I think he loves to decorate more than the baking part, and I’m not sure I can blame him. Plus, he’s getting good at it!
So, he heard that I might be coming to his house for a visit, and kindly asked whether we could make a layered cake. (Fun fact, when I was 6 I wrote in one of those school projects that “I want to be a layer when I grow up”. Well, now I am a lawyer that can layer! Sorry, I’ll see myself out.)
Alex wanted a 3-tiered ocean themed cake. I assured him that we could make this happen, but we would have to learn some new things together.
See, as much as I love to bake, I’ve never really layered things before. So, this became my opportunity to continue my baking growth mindset. See, I had mastered the rolled cake (I use the term “mastered” loosely), but that doesn’t mean I can make ALL cakes expertly. And just like with the rolled cake, while I could transfer SOME skills, many were still brand new.
Now, last time I tried layering a cake it had a distinct Leaning Tower of Pisa vibe that was not part of my vision. So, this time around I did some research, and discovered that – a ha – I needed to use dowels and cardboard to stack the layers. Fantastic! So, Toni went out and bought a set. Then, I watched multiple videos on stacking. Finally, the day came – we were going to stack these cakes! Six of them to be precise, for a grand total of three tiers! Toni and I read the directions for the layering kit carefully, remembered the video, and viola – success. Well, there was still a minor tilt or two that we smoothed with icing. But overall, a resounding success.
Similarly, in law school you will learn many new skills. And most of them transfer to new situations and assignments. However, you often have to tweak these skills, adapting them to new situations (or more likely, varied types of legal writing), just like I had to adapt to a new style of cake!
The two most important steps in adapting to this new style of cake making were to 1) read the directions before hand and carefully follow those directions and 2) have patience. It also helped to work in collaboration. Toni and I are both skilled and experienced bakers, but putting our skills together meant we likely got a better result than we would have working by ourselves. Unless otherwise prohibited, work with your study groups, or even just one partner. If you are in law school, you are a skilled and experienced student, and combining your skills and experience with others skilled and experienced students might help you refine the new skill a bit faster!
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions or try new techniques. Or rather, just think outside of the box. One of the joys of baking with Toni’s son was seeing growth mindset in real time, through a child’s eyes. Alex is learning new baking skills all the time, and eager to learn new things. He’s getting better and better at baking and decorating because he’s not afraid to fail. We decided to try to make our seaweed out of melting chocolate (remember, this was an ocean themed cake, so seaweed was a must). I will admit that I had never done this before, and am not great at “freehand” chocolate. I told Alex as much, and very wisely he said “Well, let’s try. If it’s bad, it’s still chocolate – we can eat it!”
So true – and I encourage us all to adopt Alex’s attitude in all things – if it’s bad, it’s still chocolate and we can eat it!
Thursday, June 17, 2021
According to a recent article, research suggests that changing the way curriculum is presented and taught can improve retention of underrepresented minorities in STEM programs. Berman, Jillian, How to Get More Women Into Technology: A Number of Programs Have Tried to Steer Women Into Step--Here's What Works, WSJ (Jun 1, 2021)
The article focused on a number of programs within the STEM fields in trying to increase representation and graduation in STEM majors of women and underrepresented minorities. The overall trends are not promising. For example, the percentage of women earning computer science degrees has decreased in the 20 year period from 1998 to 2018, and the percentage of Black women earning computer science or engineering degreee has likewise decreased during the same time period 1998 to 2018. Nevertheless, one comment in particular caught my eye and it has nothing to do with programs but with a person - a person making a difference.
In the article, Dr. Cara Gomally laments that courses, particularly introductory biology courses, are often taught as a "march through content with no connection of why you should care." Id. Sounds a bit like some introductory law school courses to me.
That lack of connection, of a nexus to purpose, the article suggests, leaves some people behind, particularly in the STEM fields. To remedy the deficit, Dr. Gomally is designing curriculum to focus not just on content but on the broader connections and uses one can make with the content, such as exploring questions with students as to how antidepressants work or whether students should participate in genetic testing. Id.
Those sorts of "why-questions" are filled with life; they create space for people to see how what they are learning can make an impact for them and for their communities and the world at large. It's in those opportunities in exploring the why of what we are learning that we start to see ourselves, as I understand the article, as valuable participants in the enterprise of, in this case, science. Id.
This summer, we are working with a number of recent law school graduates preparing for next month's bar exams who, for the most part, will not practice constitutional litigation or contract law or the law of future interests or defensible fees. Consequently, much of bar prep seems like rote memory and regurgitation, without making connections or exploring meanings to something greater than the mere content and skills in which they are tested by bar examiners.
To the extent that our graduates fail to make such connections with what they are learning to their future lives as legal practitioners, I think we are doing a disservice to them. Because many of our graduates want to practice immigration law, I like to explore connections to the word of immigration law within the midst of the bar exam content and skills. Let me share a few examples.
First, take the definition of a refugee - one who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on a protected characteristic with the government unable or unwilling to protect them.
That sounds a lot like a type of tort, perhaps both an intention tort and also a bit like negligence with the state unable or unwilling to protect the person fleeing persecution.
Second, take an article this week from the southern border about the U.S. government's decision to ask non-governmental organizations (NGO's) to designate some asylum applicants as especially vulnerable and therefore eligible to enter the U.S. to proceed with their asylum claims while leaving others behind.
That raises at least two constitutional issues, both of which are tested by bar examiners. First, there's a question as to whether vulnerability determinations by the NGO's constitute state action. Second, there's a question as to whether vulnerability classifications used by individual NGO's violate the equal protection principle. That's just getting started. What about procedural due process and substantive due process considerations?
Recently, I talked with a graduate, heading into criminal defense work as a public defender, who shared that they were not doing very well on contracts multiple-choice questions. As to why, the content just didn't excite the person; it seemed irrelevant - totally unconnected - to their future practice as criminal defense counsel.
In reflection, I asked whether there might be any connections b between contracts and the person's future work as a public defender. It's just a hunch, we surmised, but we suspected that guilty pleas are contracts, which would ostensibly be governed by common law contract principles, such that if a government withheld exculpatory evidence, that would not only be a constitutional violation but also a contract defense of unconscionability.
To cut to the chase, the graduate said that in some ways contract law might actually reinforce the person's future clients' constitutional protections.
In short, there can sometimes be more to the content than just mere rote learning. Perhaps one day, somehow and someway, something from bar prep will lead to a new way of looking at how the law applies, really applies, to best protect rights and freedoms. And, in the course of exploring those possible connections with our students and graduates today, we might just be able to help them see that they belong in the legal field, that their experiences count, that they have more than what it takes to be attorneys. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, June 3, 2021
As Professor Elizabeth Stillman comments in an excellent blog post entitled "Jazz Hands," we've been making the best in the midst of the pandemic in learning to engage in "pandemic teaching." E. Stillman, "Jazz Hands," (May 17, 2021).t.
That made me think about our pandemic conversations, which so many of us have hosted, shared, and participated in through Skype and zoom and other technological mediums of expression.
It's brought us together but at what cost, if any?
Well, according to an article by writer Joanna Stern, there can be a lot at stake in making the choice as to the method of communication that we use with others. Unfortunately, Stern suggests, we too often turn - too quickly - to zoom and other such innovations without realizing the cognitive loads that visual chats can impose upon us all. J. Stern, "Stop with the Video Chats Already. Just Make a Voice Call," WSJ (May 26, 2021)