Tuesday, November 26, 2019
It seems fitting that at my law school -- like most others, I presume -- the Thanksgiving holiday immediately precedes the fall semester final exam period. Thanksgiving dinner and final exams have so much in common.
Each of them seems far off as the golden days of summer begin their inexorable diminution. On Labor Day, we are all aware that [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will be the next significant break in our routines, but in the hazy warm thrill of the start of the academic year, it is so difficult to even consider the coming cold, dark days.
However, by the equinox, people start to pay attention to the distant approach of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]. Conscientious people even realize that they should probably start making plans early, so they don't find themselves without options in a last-minute rush to prepare. But many folks, caught up in the rush of day-to-day life, might put off such measures, figuring they can address their reservations closer to the deadline.
Before you know it, though, here comes Halloween, and then suddenly it seems like reminders of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] are everywhere! No matter how much dread they inspire, you have to admit they spark a bit of excitement, too, since [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will mark the real start of the winter holidays. And, besides, no matter how onerous and monotonous the yearly ordeal might appear, it always carries with it at least the possibility of a pleasant surprise or two.
As time accelerates and the time for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] lurches to mere days away, all at once it seems like life has gone a little haywire. You're still have to attend to all your ordinary quotidian responsibilities, but now you have to pile on top of that the preparations for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]. Schedules have to be coordinated, supplies have to be obtained. Participants will struggle to nail down time-honored formulae, so they can be ready (if and when necessary) to apply these recipes to whatever ingredients are provided to produce a satisfying result. Hopefully, even the most dilatory attendees will manage to eke out a little free time before [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] to focus on preparation and maybe even a few practice creations.
Finally, the big day arrives! It feels like you spend half the day in a frenetic rush, anxiously making sure you haven't forgotten anything. But then the actual event -- [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]! -- begins, and you are totally engrossed. Confined in a room full of people, all of whom seem to be sitting a little too close, making a little bit too much noise. But this is something you are doing together. Sometimes one person just dives right in, and a bunch of people around him follow suit, not wanting to fall behind. They might well spend too much attention on one or two meaty choices, and entirely overlook other valuable tidbits. They could end up regretting not having given themselves enough time to digest things properly. Other people might approach [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] too cautiously, overly mindful that it will be a multi-course affair. Afraid to make a mess or to risk something disagreeable, they may find at the end that they barely made a dent in their undertaking. Hopefully, though, most of our students will pace themselves, knowing they are going to be there for a few hours, and will think carefully about how much they want to have on their plate at one time, so that they can get through the entire experience having indulged appropriately in every choice, and in a palatable way that leaves them drowsy and satisfied.
May this year's [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] be a cause of celebration for all of us!
Monday, November 25, 2019
We’re more connected through social media than ever before . . . [yet] we’re losing our ability to think and feel. It’s hurting our personal connections and making us more distant and lonely. – Dallas Morning News Editorial Board
This week I recount the sad story of the late Ronald Wayne White. Who was Ronald Wayne White? His name may not ring a bell. White was not a celebrity or public figure. If Ronald Wayne White is known for anything, it is for being unknown. According to published reports, White was found dead inside his apartment this month. Medical examiner reports confirmed that his death had been undiscovered for three years. There are indeed unanswered questions surrounding this late discovered death, but the sad fact is that a man “apparently went missing for three years and no one noticed he was gone.”1
White’s tragic story is an opportunity for us to examine our connections to others. Those who attend and work inside law schools are subject to a special kind of isolation that is par for the course. Based on the volumes of reading, outlining, researching, writing, editing, and memorizing that is required to succeed in law school, we expect students and faculty to work in isolation for long stretches of time. The top students regale in finding that isolated corner hidden deep in the stacks of the fourth floor of the library where no one comes near to make a sound or disturb the concentration necessary to maintain top student status. I too am guilty of lauding solitude. I have, with giddiness, told my colleagues how much I look forward to holiday breaks alone at home to make some headway on my writing project.
While a certain degree of do-not-disturb-mode is both necessary and beneficial for productivity, I worry that we have become desensitized to isolation. We are all at risk of transcending deep focus into dangerous seclusion. Our law students, especially those who are far from home, or those who have no stable home to claim, are not immune to the risk. Loneliness is not a state of friendlessness, it is a position of lacked connection. People who are married, students in study groups, and faculty who interact well with colleagues can still suffer from debilitating loneliness that can only be cured with meaningful connection.
Connectivity cannot be measured by “likes” and social media followers alone. Please check on your students, your colleagues, and yourselves. If you have students who are far from home or without family, why not invite them to Thanksgiving dinner? Likewise, if there are international students in your program who are removed from our culture, maybe treat them to a meal over break. Perhaps your need to develop a work in progress or meet an article submission deadline can be morphed into an opportunity to interact with your colleagues by planning a “write-in.” Faculty colleagues from all disciplines can find an agreed window of time just to get together to write. Sometimes the camaraderie of shared presence and singleness of purpose can act as a proxy for interaction. Maybe extend your shared driveway morning wave, by baking (or buying) cookies and delivering them to a neighbor or senior citizen on your block that you have not spoken words to in years. Real connections don’t have to be big to be meaningful, they just have to be made.
1 A man was found in his apartment three years after his death – and what it can teach us about loneliness (Dallas Morning News Editorial, November 21, 2019).
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Law school is nutritionally disruptive. This was common knowledge at my law school, where my classmates and I joked about having gained 15 pounds while we were getting our JDs. We all felt we understood what had happened. For three years we had chained ourselves to our desks, abandoned physical exercise in favor of mental anguish calisthenics, and frequently resorted to fast food or prepared meals to minimize time spent in the kitchen. Some of us still managed to blow off some steam in a bar from time to time, but otherwise, culinary matters took a back seat to our studies. The resulting excesses -- weight gain, or manic caffeine intake, or bingey sugar highs -- were seen almost as a badge of honor, like pulling an all-nighter to get a memo in on time.
As far as I can tell, things are still the same today. Law students beset with too many tasks and not enough time have to find ways to make time or to soothe stress, and meals and snacks offer convenient opportunities to do so. Not every student makes unhealthy choices, and many of those who do face few ill effects beyond the need for a new wardrobe. But now, watching from the other side of the lectern, I can better see that food issues can have noticeable or even serious impacts on some students' academic performance:
- While gaining weight often seems to be no more than a nuisance, to some students, such changes can be associated with actual effects on mental state, such as decreased stamina or alertness, or negative moods. The weight gain may not be the cause of these changes -- it can sometimes be an effect of lifestyle changes in diet and exercise that can be the source of changes to mental state.
- Sometimes dietary changes specific to certain substances -- such as increased intake of alcohol, caffeine, or sugar -- can have particular effects on behavior or mental state, such poor judgment, fatigue, agitation, or distractibility, that can have negative impacts on critical reading, time management, attention to detail, and other keys to success in law school.
- Sometimes the problem is not so much too much food or the wrong kind of food, but too little food. Students facing shaky finances may find their food budget the easiest thing to cut. Other students may not eat enough food -- or at least not enough healthy food -- because of loss of appetite due to stress. Food deprivation can lead to distraction, disrupt blood sugar levels, and affect memory and attentiveness.
When we work with students, especially one on one, we have opportunities to observe whether some of them are perhaps inordinately affected by dietary issues. In some cases, we may need to enlist the help of others. For example, if financial insecurity is manifesting in a poor diet, a referral to Financial Aid may be appropriate. Encouraging students to seek help from physicians or mental health professionals may also be wise when food issues are leading to serious primary health concerns. But sometimes our students just need a little grounding, a little reminder that they have to take care of themselves while they take care of their studies. A few helpful tips can include:
- Eating smaller meals (or healthy snacks) over the course of the day, rather than pigging out on one big meal at the end of the day after classes are over, can help moderate calorie intake and lessen variations in blood sugar levels.
- Planning ahead for the day or even the week can help to insure steady, healthy eating while minimizing time spent in preparing or obtaining food.
- Buying and carrying around healthier snack alternatives can help forestall binge purchases of high-sugar and high-fat snacks during breaks between classes or study periods.
- Scheduling meals with classmates (for study purposes) or friends and family (to stay connected) can be a good way to make efficient use of the time that you have to spend eating anyway, so that good food doesn't seem so much like an expendable indulgence.
When they are stressed out about studies and papers and exams, taking care of themselves may be the last thing on students' minds. Helping them see how beneficial and easy healthy eating can be may help some students' academic performance.
Friday, April 10, 2015
It’s almost time for exams which means students across the country will put healthy lifestyles on hold in order to spend more time studying. Yes, studying is important but if you want your brain working at optimal capacity, then feed it right. Junk food isn’t good for your body or your brain. Fuel yourself with food that enhances your brain function, mood, and memory. Instead of reaching for chips, candy, or an energy drink, try one of these brain foods. Broccoli and other dark green leafy vegetables are a great source of vitamins and minerals known to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower. Blueberries and strawberries are effective in improving short term memory. Peanut butter has fat but the good kind- it keeps the heart and brain healthy and functioning properly. Unlike grains like rice and pasta that cause energy levels to peak and crash, leaving your brain exhausted, whole grains provide a steady flow of energy. Dark chocolate in moderation improves blood flow to the brain which improves cognitive function. Not only will your brain thank you but when exams are over you’ll still be able to fit into your clothes.