Monday, June 29, 2020
As I sat down to put fingers to keyboard for my first blog post, I found myself overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas swirling around in my head. Overwhelmed by my thinking that this post must be perfect, thoughtful, groundbreaking, and transcendent. I was convinced that this post must be rainbows and unicorns rolled into one, it must be as mellifluous and powerful as Aretha Franklin’s voice, it must be everything to everyone, and it must be nothing to no one.
It took me about 20 minutes to ask myself the obvious question (beyond the other obvious question of why I would set the bar anywhere near the otherworldliness of ‘Retha): “why, exactly, must your first blog post be all of these things?” In that moment, I realized the pressures I felt are traceable to a lifelong frenemy that, much like a phoenix, continues to rise from the ashes: imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is characterized by one’s persistent feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt about their abilities or achievements, coupled with a fear of being exposed as a fraud despite those achievements and ongoing success.
Thinking about my old frenemy brought to mind a conversation I once had with a student. For the last couple of years, I have served as a panelist during our 1L orientation diversity and inclusion program. At the end of last year’s program, a student approached me to, among other things, thank me for sharing my 1L experience with imposter syndrome.
I am a Black woman and first-generation college graduate who grew up with few socioeconomic advantages. To say law school was a culture shock would be an understatement. I spent most of my first year convinced the admissions office had erred in admitting me to the law school and much of my second and third years dismissing my achievements as “luck” and “waiting for the other shoe to drop” (i.e. for someone to realize that I was a fraud and did not belong at the law school).
At the end of my conversation with this student, they asked “when did you overcome imposter syndrome?” I do not recall what my answer was in that moment, but the question has triggered several deeply personal moments of introspection. When I think of that conversation, I know the honest answer to that student’s question would have been (and still is): “I’ll let you know.”
If I’m still trying to figure out how to consciously uncouple from vanquish my lifelong frenemy, it is incumbent upon me to be cognizant of similar challenges experienced by students and supportive in helping them work through—or past—those feelings of inadequacy. To this end, today I renew my commitment to: name my frenemy unapologetically, serve as a sounding board and source of support for students battling imposter syndrome, remind those students of their strength and accomplishments, and encourage them to be kind to themselves. I also commit to taking my own advice.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Monday, June 8, 2020
But opportunity is real, and life is free, equality is in the air we breathe. – Langston Hughes
Today I see my country, my life, my career, and my future through the convoluted lens of multiple opinions. My aspirations, both professional and private, are crowded by polarized expressions of rage, shock, and dissatisfaction. As I fight the soul soothing desire to escape the madness that for me is today, yesterday, and tomorrow, I retreat into a self-denying sense of duty that is my temporal high calling – to help others. To help others pass the bar exam and to succeed in law school is the calling of academic support. I am one of a wonderful community of academic support professionals who work tirelessly to help law students and law graduates develop the skills for academic success and bar readiness. As I ponder this special calling, I ask myself, what if countries were like ASP?
What if we had ASP-like programs and opportunities that were available to all members of society? What if coaching, and other resources were made equally available to every and any person who wanted or needed them? What if governments sought out the weakest and most vulnerable members of society to make sure that those most in need of extra help were aware of the resources available? What if national communities were organized in the most ASP-ish of manners, so that support resources could be shared freely, and various cities and states could benefit from this system of open-access without costs or competition? What if all members had the benefit of practice exams and test drives that carried no lasting consequence other than early exposure and preparation for the true tests of life?
For those unfamiliar with the term ASP, Cornell Law School provides some guidance. ASP, or “Academic Support Programs, are available to help all students develop the skills necessary to succeed in law school.” Law schools are purposely, and rightly, inclusive in the scope and description of their academic support services. CUNY School of Law is “committed to providing academic support services to all students who need them.” These descriptions are both accurate and aspirational. ASP is for everyone and anyone who wants or needs it.
Yet, those of us who lead and direct institutional academic support programs know that, although available to all, not all students take advantage of ASP. In fact, the students who we serve most commonly, or rather those who are most often targeted for inclusion in our programs, are the ones most in need of the supplemental opportunities provided by ASP. We willingly make resources available to all, but the success of our programs will be measured, inter alia, by the degree to which we mitigate the “failure-risks” presented by some students based on admissions indicators or law school performance.
As I again consider my precious and special calling and my wonderful ASP colleagues and the many students in whose lives we make real differences, I ask – what if ASP were like countries? What if we could not single out the students for whom our programs were created? What if we were not permitted to tailor the focus of our programs for those with the greatest academic need and those with socioeconomic disadvantages? What if we were forced to dilute the quality and quantity of remediation for the ones at risk of academic dismissal, to prevent the appearance of non-inclusiveness? What is ASP “for all” was interpreted to mean that ASP “for some” was exclusionary and an affront to the importance of the entire student body? The notion of academic support available to all is not cheapened or compromised by the calculated and deliberate act of making sure that the reach of our services extends to, and includes, those for whom denial of such services would make legal education far less likely. After all, ASP exists to level the playing field and make a diverse and inclusive legal profession more likely, not less.
In the end, I guess I am glad that ASP is not like the countries that I know of, and I am left to wish that countries could be more like ASP.
Monday, May 25, 2020
Ordinary greatness. You’ll find it in places you never imagined and, when you do, higher performance and increased productivity are not far away. – Barbara Pagano
Last fall, a presenter at a workshop that I attended referred to the audience members as SMEs (pronounced smēz). She readily explained that SME = subject matter expert, and that those in attendance, based on our training and experience, were SMEs. As you can tell, I was tickled by the title. Before that workshop, I had not yet recognized my experience as expertise. During the workshop, and many times since, I told my imposter syndrome to kick rocks, and came to realize that the presenter was right.
Weekly, I write to and about the subject matter experts in every law school, whose expertise is designing and delivering academic enhancement and bar support programming. As my thoughts turn to this group of specialized experts, I ponder the number of meetings held, decisions made, funding resolutions, and curricular adjustments approved without any input or involvement from an ASP expert. Too often ASP expertise is overlooked, or called upon only in reaction to a problem that could have been proactively addressed, like fluctuating bar pass rates, and serving at-risk students.
In the turmoil of a global pandemic, plans for the fall semester are uncertain. The July bar exam is a hot mess topic right now. Deans, students, faculty members, examiners, and bar administrators are not sure of what the summer and fall will bring or what their next move will be. While ASP professors can’t solve any of the problems that COVID-19 has wrought, we most likely have greater insight into the learning needs of law students. Implementing decisions that affect the delivery of the program of legal education without consulting those with subject matter expertise in educational delivery, is like buying a house without a realtor. It can be done, but rarely without regret.
If we were to survey U.S. law schools, I wonder which would have ASP professors serving on or consulting with admissions committees that screen applicants to identify those most likely to successfully complete the academic program and pass a bar exam. How many law schools have a member of the ASP team on the curriculum committee where decisions that affect bar preparedness are made?
While student success is the primary concern of academic support programs, a well-structured ASP team will also complement a faculty of doctrinal experts and provide helpful teaching resources and opportunities for collaboration. It might surprise those outside of ASP to learn that experts in ASP are typically the first to know which students are struggling academically. Many students will seek out academic support assistance when they feel lost. Some, but certainly not all, professors may not become aware of a struggling student until after the one summative assessment is graded. Deans, directors, chairs, and coordinators who want to identify areas and sources of underperformance in the first-year and required curriculum could save time and resources by asking their in-house ASP experts first.
Monday, May 11, 2020
In response to the mounting uncertainty about the administration of the July 2020 bar exam, Indiana has moved its exam online.
By order of the Indiana Supreme Court published May 7, 2020, Indiana will offer a one-day online exam in late July. According to law.com “that makes Indiana the first jurisdiction to commit to an online July exam, and the first to say it is creating its own version of the licensing test.” Indiana was one of the last states to adopt the Multistate Bar Exam, and had, for years, given a purely “state-made” exam. Today, the Indiana exam includes multistate content and state specific essays, so the bar examiners likely have an arsenal of potential test content. Other states, like California and Massachusetts, have made nods towards an online exam, but have not publicly defined what their exam would look like or when it would be administered. Both California and Massachusetts have postponed their July exam until September.
Indiana may soon have company. The Chief Justice of the Nevada Supreme Court filed a petition recommending a temporary modification of its July 2020 bar exam to an online format. The petition is based on a recommendation from the Nevada Board of Law Examiners (BLE). The Nevada BLE proposed to administer a two-day, fully online, exam consisting of eight essays and one Nevada performance test. The Nevada proposal excludes multiple-choice questions. If accepted, Nevada will join California and Pennsylvania in administering its own performance test. The Nevada proposal is open for public comment. Anyone wishing to support (or oppose) the proposal should email the Clerk of the Nevada Supreme Court. Like Indiana, Nevada uses both multistate content and administers a state law essay exam.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added new layers of stress to the already hectic workloads of the academic support community. ASPers are affected by the pandemic in ways that our doctrinal colleagues are not. Traditionally, we are the ones from whom students seek counsel and clarity about the bar exam and how to prepare for it. Our ability to respond to those questions has been upended by proposed delays and the looming threat that a face-to-face exam cannot be administered in either July or September. All we know now is that we really don't know what will happen or how our students should best prepare. Added to the worry about whether there can be a bar exam at all, is how our students will fare on the exam and what our pass rates will look like.
The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) called for suspension of ABA Standard 316 mandating that law schools maintain a 75% bar passage rate to remain in compliance. We can reasonably anticipate that bar pass rates will be lower in 2020 than in recent prior years. Students are under extreme stress dealing with pandemic related adjustments, fear of contracting the virus, and fear of spreading it to loved ones. Summer bar takers lack of access to law schools, public libraries, and quiet coffee shops for bar study, because they are not open to the public. Some may be battling illness themselves. Moreover, the administration of three separate exams with comparative and wholistic grading will also likely skew the exam outcomes and lead to a higher number of bar failures than would have occurred had all candidates taken the exam in the same administration. The Bar Advocacy Committee supports the SALT position and will present a letter to the Executive Board of the Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) for signature, delivery, and public posting.
In the past, New York has been the state to follow, in terms of bar exam policy and development. Not so, anymore, as the limited seating debacle has cast a cloud of embarrassment and incompetence over the empire state. Who knew that we would see such progressive and compassionate bar policy leadership coming from Utah, Indiana, and now, hopefully, Nevada! It just goes to show that good ideas aren’t tied to population or politics—good ideas stem from compassionate effective leadership. And there is still room for more leaders with regard to the July 2020 exam.
Monday, May 4, 2020
Imbroglio: A complicated situation; a sequence of events so absurd, complicated, and uncommon as to be unbelievable.
Merriam-Webster might as well add a footnote to the July 2020 bar exam administration as an example of the term “imbroglio.” No other term can accurately describe the debacle that surrounds the upcoming bar exam. Blog, essays, and the exasperated cries of bar candidates—summed up in one word. One word with an applicability of meaning that has become self-evident.
A complicated situation – Our nation has become embattled by a contagion that shows no sign of relenting. Across the country, stay at home orders are in place to mitigate the spread of the deadly coronavirus. In states with large numbers of bar takers, there is no safe way to administer the bar exam in the traditional format. Yet, bar examiners and the American Bar Association insist on a bar exam as screening tool for entry into the practice of law.
A sequence of events so absurd – Some states postponed the July exam. Some states canceled it altogether. Some states propose to offer a bar exam in early September; others in late September; others have postponed the exam “indefinitely.” No matter what the states propose, the National Conference of Bar Examiners (“NCBE”) will let us know on May 5, 2020 whether there will be any multistate or uniform exams released in July. States that have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (“UBE”) are powerless to administer any exam in July if the NCBE won’t provide the questions, because UBE states don’t write their own bar exams anymore.
Complicated – Epidemiologists tell us that the virus comes in waves. Even with proposed and announced dates for the bar exam, COVID-19 may make it impossible or unwise to administer it in the late summer or early fall. But bar takers cannot afford to wait until there is certainty to begin studying. Many will begin bar study this month, for an exam that may or may not take place. They will study in places that are not libraries or law schools, because those places are closed.
Uncommon – COVID-19 presents an unprecedented situation that will impact the flow of new attorneys into the profession at a time when there will be an increased need for legal services. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, like emergency diploma privilege. Utah adopted a sensible emergency diploma privilege, but the ABA and the NCBE discourage other states from following suit.
Unbelievable – Just when we thought things could not possibly get any worse, the New York Board of Law Examiners announced that it may not have enough room to allow bar applicants from out of state law schools to sit for the exam that it hopes to administer on September 30 – October 1. In that same announcement, and with hold-my-beer momentum, the New York bar officials strongly encouraged candidates “to consider sitting for the UBE in other jurisdictions.” That this advice was given without regard for the COVID precautions of other states, and at a time when very few other states were still accepting applications, defies comprehension.
I won’t ask, “what could happen next?”
 ABA STANDING COMMITEEE ON BAR ACTIVITIES AND SERVICES LAW STUDENT DIVISION RESOLUTION [sic] (04/07/020) “the Resolution does not . . . modify or limit the historic and longstanding policy of the ABA supporting the use of a bar examination as an important criterion for admission to the bar.”
Sunday, May 3, 2020
The LSAC Research team is developing a pre-matriculation writing assessment. They want feedback from our community when developing it. Their email invitation to take part in the survey is below. This has the potential to be a great tool for us to identify at-risk students earlier.
"I am writing to ask for your help with an exciting new project at LSAC. We are developing a writing diagnostic assessment to be administered to law school students after admission to law school but before matriculation. The goal of this testing program is to provide academic support professionals timely, actionable data about the writing skills of their incoming classes. It is NOT intended to be used as part of the admission process. . . .
We want to tailor this product to your needs as a legal educator. Any feedback you or your colleagues provide will be used to steer development and improve the final product.
Please use the links below to view the list of diagnostic categories and the sample writing prompt.
Click here to view the list of diagnostic categories.
Click here to view the sample writing prompt.
Please use this link to respond to the survey (The link is reusable): Click Here to Start the Survey
If you experience any problems completing the survey, please reply to LSACResearch@LSAC.org. Thank you in advance for your participation."
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Has there ever been a U.S. law school class subject to more stress and uncertainty than the class of 2020? Okay, not every student across the country has suffered equally, but here in New York our students were told all of their classes would abruptly be online, that they would not get to see their classmates for the rest of the year, that their bar examination would be postponed indefinitely, that a bizarrely deadly disease racing across the state, that their bar examination would be rescheduled for September but that there was no guarantee there would be space for them to take it, that the economy was collapsing and some of the jobs they were counting on could disappear, and that they would probably get to take the exam in September if there were an exam in September but nobody can really tell them how it's going to work yet anyway. All of this in less than six weeks. Plus now they have to do all of their classes and meetings via Zoom, which fosters so much lack of eye contact and awkward silence it reminds me of a sixth-grade dance. No wonder our soon-to-be graduates are so weary.
Like a lot of us, I am weary, too, trying to be there for my 3L students, putting new resources in place, thinking ahead about how to contend with the changes to the bar exam. But when things slow down (later and later in the evening) and I have a moment to stop thinking about my bar prep class and the latest news from the Board of Law Examiners, that's when I think about next year, when maybe things will be "back to normal". And that's when I get really anxious.
Our current 3L students are stressed, but also super motivated. They were 92% of the way through law school when things went whack, and they are not about to let that last 8% stand in their way. Everyone with an interest in this summer's bar exam -- law schools, the state, employers -- wants to see these students get through the disruption and get into the workplace, and if that means relaxing some rules or changing some procedures well then so be it. Sure, it's going to be an unusual summer, but there's a potential for six additional weeks of prep time for the bar exam. It's possible that some students will be better prepared for the test. It's my job not to assume that, but it could happen.
The students I actually worry about -- when I can, because our imminent graduates require so much immediate attention -- are the current 2Ls. Many of them have seen their summer job or internship plans interrupted, and I know our careers services office is hearing from them about those issues. But I am barely hearing from them at all about academic concerns, and my attempts at general outreach have generated very little response. I do not doubt that most 2L students have simply made a successful transition to online classes -- a transition made easier in many schools by a move to mandatory pass/fail grading and by a general and humane understanding that this change has been fast and novel for all of us and that, considering the background stresses of illness, isolation, and finances, it is appropriate to give students a little slack.
But I also fear that there is a portion of the class of 2021 that is not handling the transition as well. There could be some -- hopefully a small number -- directly affected by this crisis, dealing with their own illness or that of a loved one, or with financial difficulties, any of which could in turn affect their performance in school. Others might just not be doing as well academically as they would be in a live classroom, with the opportunity to study with classmates every week. Those students just might not be getting everything they otherwise might have from their classes, even though they feel like they are making the same effort. And then there are sometimes a few students whose inclination is to do less work, when possible, and this is in many ways a situation in which that is possible.
All of these subsets of 2L students might learn, understand, and be able to correctly apply less of what they are learning in their spring classes now than they would have if the world had not shifted so radically. And we might not know it now, because it is so hard to make contact with them under these new conditions. What's worse, without thinking ahead about this, we may not even find out who these students are and where they have developed gaps (Evidence? Criminal Procedure? Wills and Trusts?) until the start of next year's spring semester, if they just get "Passes" in all their classes this semester. And by that time, I am sure we are all hoping, things will be "back to normal" -- classes back in the building, bar exam scheduled for ten weeks after graduation, employers expecting practice-ready students on August 1. They won't be the beneficiaries of relaxed procedures or of extra study time, or of any other kind of leeway.
So this is what I think about when I can. How can I reach people who seem perfectly comfortable not being reached at this moment? How can I, sooner rather than later, identify and help these students who might otherwise not manifest the effects of the spring of discontent until the glorious summer of 2021?
I think the fall of 2020 is going to be incredibly consequential to those students, and I think we need to be prepared for it.
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.
Monday, March 9, 2020
Overconfidence has become a new norm in legal education. More and more students are entering and graduating from law schools with self-perceptions that exceed their proven competencies. We cannot know whether law school attracts overconfidence or breeds it, but studies show that overconfident personality types abound in law schools. Productive overconfidence can yield high rewards through the generation of a “can-do” mindset. This type of benign overconfidence prompts a scholar to submit a paper proposal and commit to presenting at a conference or symposium before completing a substantial draft of the work. This rather common phenomenon allows us to believe, based on past successes or purely aspirational hopes, that the commitment to deliver by a stated deadline will force our hand to keyboard to produce the committed work.
However, it is the malignant overconfidence that has seemingly become pandemic in the law school environment. The overconfident student archetype personifies a counterproductive level of self-assuredness that presents a challenge to law school faculty, those manning academic intervention programs, and the professional development and career services teams. The overconfident student has a distorted self-perception that internalizes affirmation, from any source, and dismisses constructive criticism. If ever forced to reckon with a shortcoming, the overconfident student code shifts it to an endearing quirk.
The risk to students in this archetype is that their overconfidence prevents them from seeing anything inconsistent with their self-perceptions. The overconfident student views success as any score above rock bottom. Because failure and poor performance will be attributed to teacher error or incompetence and to hyper-competitive student peers, low formative grades and below-mean performance will not register as warning signs for potential failure.
We all face overconfidence in the law school environment. And we can all play a role to combat the failure risks that it carries. First, we can and should set degree advising goals for students who exhibit counterproductive overconfidence. From ASP to Career Services to doctrinal office hours, we can identify GPA means for internships or clerkships in the student’s field of interest. We can present statistics that show bar passage results based on LGPA and class quartile ranking, and comparatively identify where the student is trending. We can demonstrate through alumni testimonials or raw data (if collected and maintained) the added difficulty of learning bar tested content through self-study or bar review instead of taking bar subjects while in law school. This type of blunt force mathematical trauma may be the only thing that resonates with the overconfident student type, because it presents facts and raw data that cannot be dismissed as assumption or overcome with misplaced self-assuredness.
*Excerpted from Academic Archetypes, a work in progress by Marsha Griggs, Associate Professor, Washburn School of Law.
 Jonathan F. Schulz, and Christian Thoni, Overconfidence and Career Choice, PLoS ONE 11(1): e0145126. doi:10.1371 (2016).
Monday, January 27, 2020
Last week, Steven Foster, Director of Academic Achievement for Oklahoma City University School of Law shared an interesting article about student perceptions of social media usage. The article caption: Social Media is Tearing Us Apart, caused me to reflect upon my evolving thoughts about academic use of social media.
In my early years of teaching, I was largely dismissive of student use of social media outlets. I viewed online social networking as inutile, with no academic or pedagogical purpose. Many of us, born avant the age of social media influence, worried that tools like Instagram and Facebook were counterproductive distractions during intense bar study periods. Yet, there were anecdotal (if not fully accurate) correlations between students who spent too much time surfing and socializing on social mediums and those who ultimately failed the bar exam. The sage advice of the day directed bar studiers to deactivate social media accounts and avoid screen time during bar study.
Fast forwarding to the present day, those in ASP and bar prep may be better served to use the litany of social media tools for programmatic good. Social media, at its best, is an ideal tool to connect with and aid students. To that end, I will use this weekly blog post as a Dolly Parton challenge — ASP style.*
Law students are likely groomed by career development administrators to create professional online profiles. LinkedIn is one of the go-to sources for online professional profiles. LinkedIn connections can also be wonderful resources for ABA data reporting. ASPers can and should accept connection requests from current and recent law students. Law grads who are seeking JD-employment, or those who are newly positioned, typically keep their LinkedIn profiles up to date. Another great use of LinkedIn, for ASP related purposes, is its searchability. Unlike other social mediums, students and young lawyers generally use their legal names and their profiles are easily searchable by name and location.
I set up a private group on Facebook for my students during bar study. I allow only current bar takers to join the group. Within the group, I share daily bar study affirmations, announcements, and bar study tips. I post Questions of the Day (“QOD”) to engage students. I create an environment where students can be comfortable posting answers, even wrong answers. They use the group forum to interact with peers and learn from each other. At the end of each day, I post the answer and explanation to the QOD which generates additional questions. Our students are going to be on social media anyway, why not use the tool to engage them in bar study, I say.
Although "the gram" does not provide the group interaction capabilities of of Facebook, it is a great tool to market program events. Using memes and graphically captioned announcements for, e.g. practice exams, meeting with bar examiners, deadlines, office hours, and free lunch, will easily capture student attention. Having an Instagram presence also aids in outreach to Gen Z and the later-born Millennials who are deliberately not present on Facebook.
Although excluded by Dolly Parton, #AcademicTwitter is not to be slept on. St. John’s University School of Law legal writing professor, Renee Allen is the reigning queen of law school Twitter. She has over 2,000 followers to her @profallentweets handle. She has written and presented on effective usage of social media in law school academic support. According to Professor Allen, "Twitter is great for networking, learning, and self-promotion . . . and it can humanize law profs, which is super important for students who follow [us]."
Well, I’ll leave to one of the other bloggers to find a fit for Tinder in Academic Support and Bar Prep. 😉
*The Dolly Parton challenge refers to a four-photo mosaic of potential profile photos for social media sites LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Tinder.
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, November 5, 2019
A couple of years ago, there was a meme making its way across the internet encouraging people to describe themselves as a combination of three fictional characters. In a rare moment of lucid self-awareness, I described myself as part Encyclopedia Brown, part Johnny from the movie Airplane! ("I can make a hat, or a brooch, or a pterodactyl . . ."), and part Dewey Finn, Jack Black's character in School of Rock. It was a fun exercise, because it made folks think about what they considered their defining characteristics, and it gave us the giftie of finding out if others saw us the same way we see ourselves.
I thought about that game this week, when it randomly occurred to me that all Academic and Bar Support teachers must feel a bit like -- wait, spoilers; I'm going to save that character for last. But it led me to consider: Is there a combination of three fictional characters that would constitute the archetypal A&B Support provider? What are, or should be, our defining characteristics? And will everyone agree with me? And so, I submit for your approval my proposed set of three characters (though I am open to criticism and to suggestions for alternatives) that define Academic Support:
- Jubal Harshaw -- Harshaw is one of the main characters of Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Stranger Land, a nifty, influential, and slightly heretical book from the 1960s that probably is not read now as much as it ought to be. Harshaw, who ends up protecting and teaching the naive but powerful protagonist of the book, is a notable polymath: a lawyer, a physician, and a popular writer -- among other things, but those three are the most relevant to our work. Basically, we have to know a lot about a lot of things. We have to be comfortably familiar with every subject that is tested on the bar, and at least know enough about other legal subjects to be able to support students struggling in those areas. A knowledge of the practice of medicine is not usually required -- thank goodness -- but, like a physician, we do have to care for our charges, to recognize symptoms of unease (of both mind and body), and to provide comfort, advice, and referrals when appropriate. And naturally we have to be communicators skilled enough not just to see and address the communication flaws in others, but also to capture the attention of the sometimes jaded, reluctant, or resentful. Take it from me: being a tax lawyer was hard, but at least you only had to know the entire Internal Revenue Code and all associated regulations. To be an Academic Support professional, you have to know something about practically everything.
- Mickey Goldmill -- There are a lot of great sports movies anchored by wise, inspiring coaches, but can any of them compare for our purposes with Mick, the man who coached Rocky Balboa to the heavyweight championship of the world? Because when it comes right down to it, no matter how much we encourage our students to support each other and learn together, no one takes a final or a bar exam as a team. The people we work with have to step into the ring alone. Like Mickey, we have to help our students find out just what they are capable, then help them find ways to make themselves capable of even more, and then help them to see that they carry that capacity within themselves. And, like so many Academic Support providers, Mickey was a great improviser: when he didn't have the latest hi-tech sports equipment, he got Rocky into shape by having him chase chickens and pound on sides of beef. Who else in law school but Academic Support has to squeeze so many results out of so few resources? And one last thing: remember, Rocky lost in the first film. He gave it his all, and he lost, and he thought, I guess I'm done with boxing. It was Mickey who convinced Rocky that he could step into the ring again, against the champ that had beat him the first time, and that he had what it took to pull out the win. Mickey Goldmill knew that just because you were down, that didn't mean you were out.
- Jiminy Cricket -- In the original Disney movie Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket actually played two roles. He started off as the narrator, explaining to the audience that they are about to see the story of a wish coming true. Then, after the Blue Fairy visits the puppeteer Geppetto, and brings his creation Pinocchio to life, she tasks Jiminy with the job of being Pinocchio's conscience. If, with Jiminy's help, Pinocchio can prove himself worthy, then he will become a real boy. I feel we have a lot of Jiminy Cricket in us. We often start by explaining to our audience -- during orientation, or as part of a class or workshop -- what they are going to see and experience while they are in law school. But then, inevitably, we get involved with our students as individuals, trying to help guide them into making good choices. They still have to make the choices themselves -- how they spend their time, what they choose to focus on, how they plan and prepare -- and sometimes we can only watch as they make poor ones. Sometimes they ignore our counsel, and it feels like you really are just an insect buzzing around a wooden-headed ne'er-do-well. But we stick with our students, like Jiminy stuck with Pinocchio, because we want to give them the best chances to prove themselves worthy, so each can become a real . . . well, not boy, but lawyer, which practically rhymes.
As an Academic Support professional, I'd be gloriously content if I possessed the know-how of Jubal, the inspiration of Mickey, and the compassion of Jiminy. But that's just me. What three characters compose your AS ideal?
Monday, October 21, 2019
My constant battle is putting aside time wasters, and I have to watch out for procrastination. Staying on the path of something you’re trying to create has much to do with having confidence in yourself and in your capacity to realize the things you want out of life. – Ruby Dee
Anyone in the dissertation process or in any stage of researching or writing a scholarly article knows that procrastination, not perfection, is the enemy of completion. Even the most well-intended scholars struggle with finding the will and motivation to write. Caring professors fall into the lure of putting off grading until the last possible moment – often to the disappointment of students eagerly awaiting grades. Students, in all fields, and at all levels, will wait until the last conceivable second to complete or even begin a task. We all fall prey to procrastination in one form or another.
Ironically, procrastination is a natural occurrence in the lives of highly productive individuals. Procrastination, as a form of managed delay, can generate productive and invigorating levels of adrenaline. According to Dr. Adam Gonzalez, “[w]hen you experience anxiety, it is often in response to an actual or perceived threat.” At low or moderate levels, anxiety can help increase productivity. Productive levels of anxiety may lead to hyper-focus and allows adaptive response to external demands like a challenging job or a tight deadline. However, this productive procrastination, while effective in the short term, can have negative long-term consequences, like over-commitment, disorganization, and unhealthy stress levels .
Procrastination can be both a contributor to, and a consequence of, cognitive distortions. One survey found that procrastination was a top reason that Ph.D. candidates failed to complete their dissertations. Another study identified four major cognitive distortions that lead to academic procrastination.*
- Overestimating how much time is left to perform a task;
- Overestimating future motivation for a task;
- Underestimating how long certain activities will take to complete; and
- Mistakenly assuming that a “right” frame of mind is needed to work on a project.
Although the study focused on student procrastination, each of the listed distortions can be equally applied to academics. The year-round deadlines for submissions, edits, proposals, evaluations and feedback can necessitate some degree of procrastination as a means of self-preservation. We engage in managed delay to strategically decide which tasks must be immediately completed, and which tasks can be put off or allotted comparatively less time and attention. We want our students to be well-prepared for class and professional life. Yet, there is no future in legal education wherein some students do not come to class unprepared. No scholarly psychological study will prevent the eleventh-hour email seeking an extension of a deadline imposed weeks, if not months, earlier. Perhaps self-reflection about our own effectively managed tendencies toward procrastination will cause us to be more compassionate when left to respond to the self-delayed outcomes of our students, family, and coworkers.
*Ferrari, J. R., Johnson, J. L., & McCown, W. G. (1995). The Plenum series in social/clinical psychology. Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. New York, NY, US: Plenum Press.
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Helping students achieve academic success involves working on at least three levels. The first, and most obvious, level is specific to learning the practice of law: helping students master effective outlining, case briefing, and issue spotting are two examples. The second level is learning how to learn on a more general level -- pre-reading strategies, spaced repetition, multiple choice skills, and self-regulated learning techniques come to mind. Work on the third level, however, often is the one that bears the most fruit in my experience. This is the level of trying to work through non-academic situations that affect students' academic success -- life hacks, as it were. Of course, you never know whether a life hack will be a hit or a miss, old hat or new insight. But when a student tells me, "You changed my life!" (quite a wonderful thing to hear at 9:30 on a Monday morning), it's almost always because a life hack we brainstormed together made a significant positive change that helped all the academic pieces fall into place.
Here I offer four life hacks that have generated some of the most effusive student thanks recently. Interestingly enough, all of them center on sleep. To me, that suggests that today's students recognize the importance of sleep in maintaining energy as well as academic performance.
1. "I just want ten more minutes before I get up."
The hack: sitting up and listening to your breath in the morning.
The problem is a familiar one: you wake up on your own, or to the alarm clock, but you want just a few minutes more of feeling happy and relaxed before you go into full gear and encounter the day. Jumping straight out of bed, especially if you woke to an alarm, feels precipitous and stressful. But you also know that if you hit the snooze alarm, you're going to feel even more groggy in ten minutes, or worse, you might sleep through the alarm and be late for class. So create a gentle transition: sit up (in bed or a comfortable chair) and start off the day with five or ten minutes of stillness. It can be as simple as feeling your breath go in and out, or sending good thoughts to people in your life. You'll feel like you got precious extra minutes for yourself, and you'll start the day in a good mood. (Hint: when I share this hint, I try to be aware of my audience: some students respond well to words like meditation or mindfulness, while others immediately shy away.)
2. "I can't get to sleep because my mind keeps racing."
The hack: Count to four, or practice something similarly familiar and repetitious.
Students who voice this plaint are usually familiar with and practicing the precepts of good "sleep hygiene": they turn off the computer an hour before bedtime, have the bedroom dark and cool, and lay off the caffeine by early afternoon. Yet as soon as their head hits the pillow, the mind starts going a hundred miles an hour with the perceived failures of the past day and the dozens of things they must accomplish on the morrow. They need a gentle transition to help them let go of the cares of the day. One of the easiest is just counting slowly from 1 to 4, over and over again. Another variation is to listen to, or read, or recite, a story that is so familiar that they practically know it by heart. The repetition without judgment gives them permission to let go and unwind.
3. "I can't establish a regular schedule."
The hack: Get up at the same time each morning.
When students tell me the have trouble keeping to a schedule, the first thing I ask about is their sleep habits. Students straight out of college are especially prone to base wake-up times on class schedules. On days starting with an 8 am class, they get out of bed at 7; on days starting with an 11:30 class, they get out of bed at 10:30, and on weekends, anything goes. The result is what I call "virtual jet lag," where the body is continually trying to readjust itself. Often these students stay up late because they aren't sleepy when their brain tells them they should be going to bed: the result is a continual state of exhaustion. I suggest they get up at the same time each school day (and vary by no more than one hour on weekends) so their body and brain know what's coming day by day. Once they establish a regular wake-up routine, schedules tend to naturally follow.
4. "I'm exhausted in the afternoon, but napping is a disaster."
The hack: Nap or listen to your breath for 20 minutes, not more.
It's natural to have a "low" in the afternoon: our internal circadian biological clocks mean that most of us have a two-hour period of reduced energy sometime between one and four pm. Most people push through this low period with exercise or caffeine or sheer willpower, but a nap seems like an obvious choice for others. If you choose to nap, 15-20 minutes is ideal, because that amount of time allows you to rest in the first two stages of the sleep cycle. Go half an hour, though, and you can enter into deep sleep: at best, you'll have the groggies when you wake up and spend an hour dragging yourself back to alertness; at worst, you'll be impossible to rouse from your nap and end up throwing your nighttime sleep cycle out of whack. A lovely alternative to napping is to allow yourself a 20-minute period of rest, allowing but not expecting sleep. That rest can come in the form of listening to your breath (see #1) or doing something familiar and repetitious (see #2). Practicing any of these during an afternoon rest break can boost your energy to make your late afternoon and evening more productive.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
I was in my office, polishing that day's lecture for my 1L class, when the alien appeared soundlessly outside my door, as tall and dazzling as the ones I had seen on the news. They had been on Earth for two weeks now, appearing one by one or in small groups -- at the United Nations, in research laboratories, in churches and legislatures and boardrooms and newsrooms -- each time sharing a book, or a piece of art, or a technological contraption, describing briefly the gift they were giving, and then disappearing has suddenly as they had come. The world's armies and scientists had confirmed that a huge spacecraft was parked at the L4 point in the moon's orbit, and it was presumed that was the aliens' home base. But no one knew how they were coming down to the planet. Or why, precisely.
My alien was huge -- as he stepped into my office, he had to bend forward stiffly to fit through the door frame, and even then his broad shoulders brushed the door jambs on each side. It was like watching a rockslide. But once inside, he lifted his craggy head and smiled. With his chalky skin, and an enormous row of teeth that shimmered like the effervescent material of his robes, he looked like a James Bond villain who had repented and joined a Las Vegas monastery.
"You teach," he said, in a deep stony voice that seemed to simultaneously ask and answer the question. I nodded dumbly. He then pulled from a fold of his robes what looked like a dark packet of some kind, and held it out to me. As I took it, I realized it was a book, hand bound in rich Corinthian leather, with words embossed in silver across the front: TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS.
"What is this?" I said aloud, not to the alien but to myself. I looked up at him, and with a nod he let me know that it was permissible to open the book. I ran my hand over the cover -- I had never felt a volume so warm, so soothing, like a puppy's belly -- and I lifted the book to look at the words inside. Then I felt the strangest sensation. The characters on the page made no sense at all to me; they might have been Cyrillic or katakana or Ge'ez jumbled together for all I knew. But somehow, touching that warm cover, I knew what the text meant. I knew what I was meant to do -- that afternoon, in class, with the entire 1L class before me. I would --
A sudden high-pitched gasp interrupted my reverie, and I reflexively slammed the book shut. In the hallway, eyes agape, stood my student assistant, Patty. She looked from my alien to me and back again, not sure what she should do next. Before I could say either "Run!" or "Come in!", the alien resolved the situation. He growled, "Teach, you," and then vanished. It was like a light bulb burning out -- a brief flare, and then instantly the room seemed darkened by his absence. But he left the book.
Patty ran in. "Professor MacDonald, was that an alien? What did it leave you?" She came around to my side of the desk, like a referee repositioning herself, so she could read the cover.
"It says, 'TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS,'" I pointed out. "That's what I do. I think it's a gift to help me do more for my students." I flipped open the book, turning the pages without touching the cover. "The language -- well, it all looks like gibberish to me. But the book . . . spoke to me somehow. I'm taking it with me to class this afternoon."
Patty's brow wrinkled. "I can't read any of this, but it looks like it might be some kind of code." She pulled out her phone. "Can I scan the pages? Maybe I can figure out what it says."
I nodded, and Patty snapped images of the two visible pages. I turned the rest of the pages slowly, giving her time to capture the entire text. It didn't take long. The pages were large and the font small, so there were only about forty pages total. Patty never touched the cover, so I don't think she "felt" the meaning of the book the way I did. But I thought that might be better -- perhaps, uninfluenced by that perception, she might be able to come up with a more precise, more literal translation of the text. I told her of my intention to bring the text to my 1L class that afternoon, and Patty, who enjoyed British crossword puzzles, happily left to try to crack the code.
Two hours later, I was standing at the podium at the front of our largest classroom, getting ready to teach the entire class of first-year law students. Since the start of the school year, I had been introducing them to the particular challenges and expectations of law school, with the goal of making sure that each of them would be fully prepared by the end of the semester for the final exams that would determine their GPAs, and perhaps their fates. Mine was the only class in which every 1L student was enrolled. This was a boon, because it gave me the chance to introduce Academic Success and the resources available there to all of our students. It gave me an opportunity to lay for every student the groundwork for successful performance, no matter how much familiarity they had had upon matriculation with the practice of law, law school, or even just basic sound study habits. But it was also a challenge, because it meant holding the attention of, and delivering value to, 150+ students with different aptitudes, different levels of familiarity or experience, and different degrees of confidence in their abilities. I would lose some of those students if I moved too quickly, and I would lose some of those students if I moved too slowly, and I wasn't sure there was a pace that would keep everyone engaged.
But today! Today I had the book, and it was telling me how TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS, and as the second hand swept around the face of the clock at the back of the room, bringing us closer and closer to the official start of class, I began to salivate with anticipation. I knew this would be . . . delicious.
The hand crossed the 11, and as it neared the 12, I opened my mouth and took a full breath. Gripping the book, I prepared to begin. But just as the red hand reached its zenith, a door at the back of the room slammed open, and Patty stumbled in, breathless and wild-eyed, clutching a batch of paper in one hand. Every head in the room swiveled to look at her, but she looked past them all. Her eyes found me at the podium, where I had instinctively pulled the book to my chest, and she called out. "Professor MacDonald, put it down! You can't use that book! IT'S A COOKBOOK!"
There was a jittery fluttering, like the sound of 150 startled sparrows, as the students all turned their heads back to me.
"Um, not exactly," I said. "It's more like a menu."
The sparrows rustled uneasily, as if they were about to fly.
"But look," I continued, turning to the students, "you're not on the menu. It's a menu for you. Look, all teachers know a bunch of recipes that we can use to help this student construct a useful case brief or to help that student learn to support her analysis with facts. And if I'm working one-on-one with a student, or working with a small group of students who are all craving the same helping, it's great to be able to focus on a particular recipe. But with a big group like this, I have to do more than just work through one recipe at a time. The students who have already mastered that recipe, who've had their fill of that dish, will stop paying attention. Sure, there are some basic recipes I have to make sure everyone knows, because maybe there are some students who thought they had learned it already, but they are actually missing some ingredients. Or maybe they just never learned it. But to keep everyone else in the class engaged, I have to put those recipes in the context of the wider menu. Are there variations that people can try once they've mastered the basic recipe? Maybe variations for particular occasions or circumstances? Are there more advanced recipes that build on the basic recipe? I can't teach these all in this class, but I can let you all know they exist."
The students relaxed, nestling in their seats.
"In a big class like this, it helps to move back and forth between the recipes and the menu. To make sure everyone knows how to do certain things, but also to remind people that there are always more recipes to learn if they feel they've already mastered the basics."
"Ohhhhh." It was Patty, in the back of the room, examining the papers in her hand. "I see where I went wrong. A menu, not a cookbook! And yet--"
There was a flash, and then the alien was there in the back of the room, standing next to Patty. Over the excited murmuring of the class, I heard his gravelly voice say to Patty, "You clever. Only human to decode Kanamit script. Come to our ship. We would like to toast you." He offered her his hand. She reached up to take it.
Before I could warn her, there was a flash, and they were both gone.
Monday, September 9, 2019
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – William Shakespeare
Academic and employment titles vary greatly by school. Recent research, according to fastcompany.com, indicates that your job title can affect everything from your identity to your level of significance within your institution and your marketability for future positions. Law school monikers are widely varied and yet almost universally understood to denote status. Instructor, lecturer, adjunct, assistant, associate, executive, coordinator, director, dean, manager, professor – regardless of the job description, the job title suggests a hierarchical significance. But what may matter much more than our varied titles, is when students (and perhaps our faculty colleagues) fail to use them.
I have seen more professors than I can count turn to social media to vent about students not referring to them by their titles. Faculty who teach in law, medicine, humanities, and social sciences have recounted stories of students who refer to them e.g. as “Ms. Clarence”, or “Mr. Stacey”, or worse yet, by first name alone. The responses to this phenomenon of first name or titleless reference are as diverse as the individuals who experience it. I am aware that some faculty members allow, insist, or prefer that their students address them by first name. I fully respect professors’ right to dictate how they wish to be addressed. But barring an express invitation to do otherwise, a student’s refusal to address a professor by title signals (conscious or subconscious) disregard.
Consider the redacted text from an actual email I received from a law student last month:
I am [Name Withheld] a 2L. I was referred to you after speaking with Professor [Omitted] (who is copied on this message). . . . I would like to meet with the both of you to work on my writing.
Please let me know when we can meet.
To which I replied:
Hello [Name Withheld],
Thank you for reaching out to me and welcome back! I can meet with you on [date and time] in my office, which is located in the dean’s suite.
Please use my title and surname in your communications with me, just as you have with my colleague Professor [Omitted].
Thank you and I look forward to working with you.
I did not react to this email —or the countless other messages with similar salutation— with anger or frustration. I genuinely believe that the student was unaware of the status disparity conveyed by the lines of text in the email message. The student later apologized to me and we both carried on as nothing had happened. But this email is not an isolated incident. I hear students, and sometimes other faculty, refer to professors (most often female or minority faculty members) by first name.
Unfortunately, sometimes the titleless reference is intentional and, whether overt or in passive-aggressive stance, must be addressed. It must be addressed not for the sake of title, or even for the sake of the years of education and struggle it took to acquire said title. It must be addressed because status issues resound throughout the institution of higher education. The way we are addressed by our students and our peers is a reflection of perceptions about our status and our positional significance. After all, how can we teach our students the importance of developing professionalism skills, if we cannot insist on having our own professional identities recognized and respected?
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Many people have heard of the term "cognitive dissonance" -- the discomfort experienced by humans when they receive new information that contradicts an existing belief or system of beliefs. Mild cognitive dissonance, caused by information that only diverges slightly from what was previously believed, might prompt people to adopt the new information and change their belief systems. Paradoxically, though, intense cognitive dissonance, caused by information that emphatically contradicts previous beliefs, can cause people to cling more tightly to their existing beliefs, even if an objective observer might conclude that the new information invalidates the old belief. This is because the human mind often values consistency and reliability more than it values objective "truth". Thus, die-hard fans of a sports team that comes in dead last in its league might insist with renewed vigor that their team is great ("Wait 'til next year!"), or strong supporters of a political candidate embroiled in scandal might argue that there was a misunderstanding or that stories about the scandal were merely ersatz reporting. This understanding of cognitive dissonance can help teachers understand why some students might rebel against some lessons -- it would simply be too wrenching to change one's worldview, when disbelief is so much easier.
I recently encountered a seemingly-related theory that addresses these reactions more holistically, and in a way that I think can help Academic Support professionals work with their students. The Meaning Maintenance Model (or MMM) is described by Steven J. Heine, Travis Proulx, and Kathleen D. Vohs in Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2006, Vol. 10, No.2, 88-110. This model proposes that people have a pervasive need to establish a sense of meaning in their lives -- "meaning" being broadly defined as the set of mental relationships that a person uses to organize their perceptions of the world. This seems analogous to the belief system described above. Meaning is how we understand the world to work. MMM suggests that when the meaning that a person has built up over time is threatened by challenging new information, the person will seek to compensate by assigning or creating additional meaning to their lives, thus maintaining an overall sense of meaning. For example, someone whose sense of meaning is based in part on a devout religious understanding of how the world works might respond to a threat to that understanding (like an unexpected and seemingly unfair death of a close relative that shakes their belief in a loving creator) by seeking more meaning, or more validation of the meaning that already exists for them, in their religious beliefs. They might pray more often or look for new, previously hidden meaning in scripture.
So far, that kind of reaction sounds very much like a response described under the cognitive dissonance model. Where MMM differs is in the suggestion that it is not so much the specific belief system that matters so much to an individual as it is the overall level of meaning the individual feels they have attained. Thus, if one's belief system or sense of how the world works (e.g., meaning) is shaken in one realm (say, their sports team comes in dead last), another way that that person might compensate psychologically is by enhancing her sense of meaning in an entirely different realm (say, by mastering a new skill like baking bread). In fact, suggests MMM, one might even pre-emptively mitigate the shock of encountering challenging information by developing a new sense of meaning in a different realm in advance of the shock. In other words, someone who masters the art of baking bread from scratch might be less likely to be upset by seeing their favorite team come in last when that happens later, because they have already made new connections about how the world of baking works that will compensate for the recognized loss of understanding how their sports team performs.
This can be directly relevant to helping law students navigate their first year, or their bar review period, or any time of transition during which the knowledge they had taken for granted is going to be challenged and perhaps even invalidated altogether. Think of the confident English major who is told by his legal writing professor that his legal writing is not up to snuff, or the idealist forced to contend with the fact that the law sometimes compromises on justice or truth in order to promote goals like consistency and efficiency. In each case, their sense of meaning, their understanding of how the world works, is diminished. Cognitive dissonance theory tells us those students might be inclined to rebel against their new teachings, insisting that they are better writers without IRAC or that compromise is immoral. MMM suggests that this may happen, but also that there is a way to forestall it: by helping the student develop a stronger sense of meaning in other realms -- either while they are wrestling with the new contradictory information, or even in advance of this -- you may help them maintain a comfortable level of meaning overall, so that the student can afford to surrender some of the meaning they had previously built up surrounding their writing skills or the hazards of compromise. Two ways to help a student develop a stronger sense of meaning are (1) help them to develop new skills or knowledge in a particular realm, while helping them to recognize this development through praise and specific feedback, and (2) get them to use previously developed skills or knowledge in a new context -- again, while helping them to see what they are doing -- so that they build new constructs of meaning around those skills and knowledge.
In other words, one way to inoculate students against the urge to fight against new teachings that threaten their senses of what they "know" or how they feel about themselves is to focus their attention on something else they are learning that is not so threatening, and to help them see what they have learned there. A student who refuses to use their legal writing professor's required format -- or has trouble even recognizing that they are not doing so -- might be helped by urging them to see all that they have learned about tort law, for example. If law students inherently want to maintain their perceived level of understanding of how the world works -- their sense of meaning -- even while their law professors are trying to tear down their layperson's sense of the meanings of fairness, analysis, persuasiveness, etc., then perhaps we should try to help them enhance the other components of their sense of meaning.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Next week, of course, is when the next bar examination will be administered. But, for me, next week is also the first week of introductory classes for some of our incoming 1L students. The semester does not officially begin until the end of August, but like many law schools, mine offers a special program to students who want to learn something about the American legal system and law school expectations before substantive classes begin. So next week is going to be a little strange for me -- sort of like missing the wedding of one of my children because I will be busy attending the birth of another.
What strikes me now, as it did last year at this time, and as I suspect it will every year at this time, is how things feel simultaneously the same and different from years past. There's an almost nostalgic sense of repetition. On Monday, I'll meet my first batch of eager, naive new students, enthusiastic to argue for justice, and perplexed by the density and obliquity of case law and lectures. On Tuesday, I let go of the graduates I worked with all summer, and some for the previous two years, and they have to pass their most demanding test on their own. These changes are as reliable as the seasons. At the same time, when I look back to where I was last year, and consider what I thought I knew then about teaching and supporting all these students and alumni, I feel like I'm on a different planet entirely. I'm questioning assumptions I once took for granted. I'm noticing trends and relationships that were camouflaged before. I am alternately worried and comforted by circumstances that previously had seemed either mundane or invisible to me -- things like students' financial situations or their relationships to other students.
It's a minor paradox of teaching: our goal, year in and year out, is to help make sure that our students learn a certain portion of a nearly fixed chunk of the universe. In law school, it's about reading a case, fashioning a sound legal argument, memorizing important rules, managing one's time and attention, and developing sound judgment. The things we want our students to learn change glacially, and therefore imperceptibly. What we wanted our students to learn this year is substantially identical to what we wanted them to learn last year, and to what we will want them to learn next year. And this reliability is one of the anchors of both legal academia and legal practice.
But as individual teachers, the things we want to learn ourselves change substantially from year to year. There are some things we wanted to understand -- say, the statistical relationships between first-year performance and eventual bar passage -- that we investigate, and we uncover, and we take that knowledge and run with it, because now it's not something to discover, it's something to use. There are other things like new learning theories or suspicions about our students' law school experience that we thought might be important or useful, and we look into them, and they turn out to be negligible. And there is always something new -- some fresh line of inquiry to follow, some previously overlooked problem to be solved, some new mountain to be climbed that we couldn't even see until we had gotten to the top of the previous mountain.
It's always true, but to me it seems most true at this time of year. We are always trying to learn different new skills and knowledge to help our students learn the same old skills and knowledge. I see my 1L students coming in, and I want them to learn everything my most successful graduates have learned to achieve that success, and yet it seems like conveying those things in exactly the same way would be a dereliction of duty. We want our students to be the fittest, so they have the best chance of survival, but in a way we are the ones doing the evolving.
Monday, July 15, 2019
You can choose to listen to the skeptics or hit the ignore button. - Michael Peggs
Our students today have become adept at shunning criticism and negative input. When coaches or teachers prejudge students at any age, there is an army of protective advocates who will stand up for the wronged student and demonstrate that with the right accommodation a student may exceed the expectations of a perceived disability. We full-scale reject the haterist mindset that seeks to label learners with arbitrarily imposed limitations. Taylor Swift warned us that “haters gonna hate”. Yet, too often when the stakes are high, and especially during bar study, we stir up our own hater-aid. Over the years I've overheard students say things like: “I’ve never been good at standardized tests,” “I am never going to learn all these essay subjects,” “I’ve got too much going on to study the way I should,” and “I don’t expect to pass on the first time.”
You may need to mute your inner monologue, if it is filling your mind with self-defeating prophecy. Each time a fear-based thought tries to creep in, hit the ignore button and block it like a call from a telemarketer. Follow Taylor’s lead and shake off the self-doubt. Use daily bar study affirmations as an exercise in mindfulness to allow you to meditate on your positive potential. For the next two weeks, the only attitude you can afford is a can-do attitude. Repeat these affirming words until they become your reality: I can and will pass the bar. I am worthy of a bar card, and right now I am making plans for my life as an attorney.