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.
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Like my colleagues, I am thinking ahead to the new school year even as my attention is consumed by those preparing for the bar exam three weeks from now. Last year at this time I was thinking mainly about scheduling and content and skills development, and how to tweak and rearrange my classes and workshops to make them more effective. This year, I find myself thinking at least as much about stories as about skills.
Part of this cogitation is driven by my conversations of late with students dealing with varying degrees of anxiety about the bar exam. I ask them how they are doing and what has led them to whatever position they currently find themselves in, and their narratives fall broadly into two categories. Some students tell me kinetic stories about what work they have done, what challenges they have faced, and what strategies they have employed. They may not have conquered every problem that has come up -- in fact, that's usually why they are talking to me -- but they still see themselves as the protagonists who are driving their stories and pursuing some kind of prize. Other students, even some with objectively similar obstacles, tell their stories in a different way. They are still the centers of their own stories, but things keep happening to them (poor performance on a practice test, illness, misunderstanding, etc.), and they are just doing what they can to cope. These latter folks are not doomed, by any means; they are, in fact, often quite capable. But they do seem to feel more anxiety and doubt than the more protagonistic students. So part of what I am wondering is whether it might be possible to cultivate that sense of protagonism by using language that highlights one's sense of agency and potency, from the very start of law school. Perhaps by using less language about "what will happen" and "what you will encounter", and more language about "what you will learn to do" and "how others have overcome difficulties", I can shift students' perspectives in a more empowering direction.
Another aspect of storytelling that has become clearly significant over the past year is how students perceive their stories in relation to their law school -- their fellow students, their class as an entity, their professors, their administration, and their alumni community. At the start of my 3L pre-bar prep course this spring, I felt it was very important to intentionally and repeatedly talk about our class as a team. We were there to support each other, I said, because we had common goals as individuals and as a group. Each student wanted to pass the bar exam in July -- that much they knew going into the class -- but, I pointed out, each student should also want to see everyone else in the class pass, too. Teamwork might mean going a little further to help our classmates in a pinch, but it also means we've got a bunch of other people in our corner, willing to do the same for us. The faculty, the administration, and the alumni want to see them succeed, too, because their success makes everybody look better, and because we've invested so much energy and faith in them. And if the class does notably well as a group on the bar exam, their pass rate becomes public information that makes them all look like part of a stellar crop of new lawyers.
At times I felt almost like a goofy cheerleader telling this story, and encouraging my students to tell that story about themselves as a team. But it seems to have paid off. This summer we are seeing notably higher rates of participation and completion of assignments in summer bar prep courses. Recent graduates are spending more time together, on and off campus, and I've been talking to far more of them in my office and on the phone than last summer. Just telling a story of teamwork isn't enough -- the school has also had to walk the walk, by providing additional resources and guidance to students -- but it is clear that intensifying our characterization of getting ready for the bar as a communal effort has had a positive effect.
This is another thing I am wondering about, as I move forward with plans to work with our new incoming students. How can I tell that story of the law school as a team in a way that will stick with these new students for three intensive years? Is there a way to cultivate that story in the face of the known competition for grades in the first year? Is there a way to keep that story from becoming trite and from being tattered by cynicism? I think there must be. It's not just the telling of the story that makes it work; it's also acting the story out, and making it seem real because it could be real.
So, while I will be working on better ways to improve students' analytical and time management skills this fall, I will also be thinking about better ways to tell them stories -- about themselves as individuals and as part of this new community -- that they can believe in. Stories that they will want to carry on telling themselves.
Monday, July 8, 2019
And suddenly you just know it's time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings. – Meister Eckhart
This is the time of year when many ASPers transition from one position to the next. Career progressions in ASP are as varied as they come. Many who entered as assistant directors are now ready to direct programs at their own schools or another. This fall some will transition from administration to faculty or vice versa. Some are preparing to teach doctrinal courses for the first time, and others just received rank and tenure promotions. Whether your move will take you across the county or across the street to another institution in the same city, boxes must be packed and a world of newness awaits.
The newness can be the most exciting part of a new role in ASP. The newness also can be the most scary. Recent law school graduates newly entering ASP may face the challenge of being perpetually viewed as a student or former student. Those with new roles as faculty or with first-year core teaching responsibilities may have to abide additional layers of oversite not imposed upon other faculty members. A lateral move to a new school can deal the unsettling reminder that, even with years of pedagogical experience under your belt, you are a newbie to this institution, its policies, and its students. Perhaps the greatest hurdle of all is following another great ASP predecessor who left very big shoes to fill.
Whether your newness is a new position, a new course, or just additional responsibility at your current post – embrace the newness. You were recognized for your unique skills and qualifications. You bring amazingness with you. Savor the transition time as you learn your new role and your new students and create a course/program/system that will leave your own indelible footprint.
Congratulations and continued success to all who are making moves from one role to another. The next big shoes to fill will be yours!
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Echoing what Amy Jarmon said in her farewell blog post, the ASP community is awesome. We encourage each other, share ideas and materials, and lift each other up. Sometimes, though, it can feel a little lonely just communicating by phone or e-mail and getting together at the occasional conference. Although I am blessed to have two terrific ASP colleagues at my law school, they work 300 miles away from the campus where I'm located. And notwithstanding my wonderful local colleagues in this shared endeavor of legal education -- first-rate professionals in legal writing and career development and clinical education and building maintenance and library science and admissions and legal doctrine and every facet of administration -- sometimes an ASPer just wants to get together with other academic support educators who speak the same language and can give insights into common or novel problems. What's a solo ASPer to do?
Maybe realize that law school academic support educators aren't the only ASPers around.
Today I had the pleasure of a long visit with an academic support educator for undergraduates at my university. After hearing first-hand stories from several friends about the rigors and stresses of law school, and being unaware that law schools offered academic support, he reached out to the law school to see if he could offer assistance to our law students and ultimately connected with me. As we shared our experiences of supporting undergraduate and law students, we realized how many issues we had in common -- helping students manage their time effectively, overcome the fear of stigma, learn critical reading skills, understand the efficacy and desirability of intellectual struggle, and appreciate that seeking assistance is not a sign of weakness but of professionalism. Our discussion made me realize how much I could learn from (and maybe also contribute to) the University's many academic support professionals outside the law school -- educators helping first generation students, persons with disabilities, non-traditional students, underrepresented minorities, students with current or past trauma, and the economically disadvantaged, as well as those simply insightful enough to recognize they could better reach their potential if they learned how to learn more effectively. While legal education comes with a unique set of challenges, at least half my work involves issues that are not unique to law school. So my new (academic) year's resolution is to become more involved with academic support educators of all ilks, helping all types of students in higher education. I fully expect the "other" academic support educators will be as awesome as my AASE colleagues. (Nancy Luebbert)
Monday, June 24, 2019
I have a hard time following my own advice. – Alice Vuong
Imposter syndrome is a term coined in the late 1970’s by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. According to Psychology Today, the term is commonly known to describe a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. I’ve seen, and shared with my students, articles addressing imposter syndrome. You may have done the same.
We work to instill confidence into students who enter law school with modest credentials. Whether we categorize these students as “at-risk” or not at all, I insist that with a productive study routine and regular practice that they can perform as well as, or better than, students who enter law school with many more perceived advantages.
Those of us who work primarily or exclusively in academic support very likely entered the legal academy via a non-traditional path. And so much like the diverse student body that we support, our non-traditional entryway has no bearing on our competency, effectiveness, and right to be included in the law school academic community. Notwithstanding the rapid growth of ASP, we face status issues within the academy. Very few academic support professionals hold tenured or tenure-track positions. At a number of schools, our titles and contract-year terms vary substantially from those of our doctrinal colleagues. In some circles, we may fight an uphill battle to earn the recognition we deserve for scholarship that is categorized as pedagogical and often dismissed.
What a mistake it would be to create a self-perception based on external influences that we cannot control? We cannot afford to allow an imposter mindset to take root into our psyche. It matters not how we entered the legal academy. What matters is the impact of our presence. The student success, the improved or sustained bar passage rates, and the post-graduation thank you notes recognizing our contributions are both real and earned. We must heed our own advice about avoiding the perilous self-doubt of imposter syndrome. While we focus so much on the success of our students, we must also learn to internalize our own successes and acknowledge that we are where we genuinely belong.
Monday, June 17, 2019
Mask: n. a covering for all or part of the face that protects, hides, or decorates the person wearing it. – Cambridge English Dictionary
It is a common practice for high-stakes gamblers, also called “sharks”, to use a trusted acquaintance when placing a bet to keep the identity of the shark gambler unknown and preserve the odds. By concealing one’s identity, an actor may control or influence audience perception. Academic Support professionals influence the perception and actions of the students we serve. ASP behind a mask allows us to fulfill our mission of student service and advancement. Behind a mask our message is not altered or concealed, only the messenger is.
My real-life experience behind the mask looks like this. For weeks, I preached and pushed a certain commercial tool to my bar takers. I negotiated a substantial discount for their purchase. I offered weekly incentives, provided demonstrations, and all but swore a blood oath that this tool would increase their chances of passing the bar. Crickets. I asked a recent bar taker to share her experience with the tool. She made one social media post that echoed verbatim my message. Within minutes of the post, I received multiple inquiries about the tool and sign-up confirmations.
Today’s law student does not respond to the pedagogy of the past. We may tell our students what is best for them academically and make recommendations for learning tools to support their development. And we may be right. But until our students “hear us” and find credible our advice and recommendations, our words fall hallow. We can strategically use the peer learning model and employ student tutors, fellows, and former students to promote our messages by sharing what has worked for them to positively influence the actions of current students.
Monday, June 3, 2019
Don't let compliments get to your head and don't let criticism get to your heart. -- Lysa TerKeurst
The other day we held a bar workshop at my school. At the end of the session we collected evaluation forms from the students. I could hardly wait until the students were all out of the room to look at their written comments. A colleague and I sat at the edges of our seats to read what the students wrote about “our” workshop. As we thumbed through the evaluation forms, we read an abundance of smile-generating comments like: Good, Good, Excellent, Learned something new, Would recommend this session to others, and Glad I came. But our smiles askewed when we reached the one comment that read this session was longer than I expected and the presentation was poor.
Of the many laudatory comments, only one offered anything other than praise. And yet that one evaluation form is all that we focused on for the rest of the afternoon. My colleague and I became defensive and responded to the anonymous feedback as if talking to the student who submitted it. I suspect that our reaction was not atypical in the academic support teaching profession. We probably reacted in the same manner that many professors do as we review our course evaluation forms, student emails, or other summative feedback. We focus almost blindly on what someone did not like at the expense of commentary reflecting the effectiveness of our teaching and service.
So many of us in academic support or other teaching professions may put too much weight on the criticism and not enough weight on the compliments. Perhaps it is because we invest so much in the success of our students and the excellency of our programs that we forget the role that criticism can play in our own professional development. As this summer’s bar prep gets rolling full throttle, I’ve made a promise to myself to not let my view of the forest be impeded by one tall tree. While I am providing my students with daily affirmations, I pledge to affirm and nurture myself and my wellbeing. In doing so, I will be better able to service my family and my students who depend on me. As you read your course evaluations and performance reviews this summer, challenge yourselves to take criticism with a grain of salt (or a bottle of wine) and be thankful for the wonderful learning opportunity that the feedback provides.
Monday, May 27, 2019
Most of our readers have seen the announcement that I am retiring. My work in ASP at law schools has spanned nearly 18 years - at U of Akron as well as Texas Tech. I have been humbled by the outpouring of well wishes and kind words on the listserv and in personal emails. I was honored and deeply touched to receive an award at the recent AASE conference.
My years in ASP have been a pleasure. There are many reasons for that:
- I love working with students. I want them to achieve at the highest level of their potential and not just survive law school. Learning new strategies can transform their law school semesters.
- I love seeing students and alumni flourish in their lives and careers. It gives me great joy to hear about their successes: improved grades, competition wins, officer positions, job offers, bar passage, promotions, marriages, new babies, and more. And, I have also been with them through disappointments and tears. I have had the honor of being part of so many lives.
- I love learning. There is a 1980 framed poster in my office from the official opening of the U.S. Education Department that reads "Learning never ends." Each day I learned something new from my students, my colleagues, or other resources to improve my work.
- I love the ASP/bar prep community. You are awesome colleagues! The amount of sharing of ideas, materials, and encouragement is unlike that in other legal professional groups. I am convinced that you are some of the nicest people to work with as colleagues anywhere on earth.
- I love the dear friends in ASP/bar prep with whom I have shared many experiences. Whether we have seen each other only at conferences, worked on AALS or AASE projects, talked by phone, or emailed regularly, I have been privileged to be your friend. Your friendship and support have been phenomenal.
I wish each and every one of you personal satisfaction, opportunities to learn, camaraderie with other ASP'ers, and career successes.
Monday, May 20, 2019
As my career in ASP winds down, I have reflected on what I have learned over the years. Here are a few things that strike me as important lessons learned from discussions with my ASP/bar prep colleagues, observations of our profession over time, and my own experiences:
- ASP and bar prep work have gained more recognition through the years. LSAC supported us early on. AALS recognized our efforts with a section designation. Changes to ABA standards brought more attention to our roles. More law schools now have programs, but there is still work to be done if all law students are to have access to full-time, funded services.
- ASP/bar prep started its work to increase academic and bar success for minority students. With the pressures of stigma and backlash, many ASP programs opened services to all law students. Although programs may still have minority components within the services, the broader law school population has now become the focus. Declining admissions (and the resulting decline in applicant credentials in some cases) and ABA emphasis on bar passage rates have continued the pressure for services to be available to all law students. Let us not forget our original purpose of supporting diversity as our roles expand.
- The work we do is not just about grades or bar passage. We teach skills that impact our graduates throughout their lives. We teach skills resulting in better lawyering and more satisfying living. Among the skills we teach are learning strategies, legal reasoning, problem solving, organizing work, managing time, managing stress, and avoiding procrastination.
- We need to be careful that we do not just jump from the "hot topic or solution of the month" to the next hot topic. It is tempting, but ultimately shallow. There is no magic wand available for ASP or bar prep. Learning, memory, and legal reasoning are complex topics with layers of nuance. To those three, we must add the topics of diversity, motivation, procrastination, learning disabilities, time management, work management, stress management, resilience, grit, mindset, and mental health - also very complex and nuanced. I could easily list another dozen topics that relate to our work. We need to investigate deeply to understand the nuances, remain open to intertwined concepts, and build successful strategies over time.
- The numbers game is not all that matters. It is nice if large numbers enroll in courses or attend workshops, but numbers alone do not tell the story. Our work regularly impacts on an individual level. We need to remember that assisting one student at a time is valuable. Let us not forget the merit of one-on-one assistance during our law schools' demand for numbers to tout.
- We need to provide alternative methods for students to access our services. Some services may involve mandatory appointments, workshops, or courses. However, even mandatory offerings may not reach all students who need help or may fail to reach them at the time when they are most receptive. We need to continue to explore different ways to reach students where they are and when they are receptive to services. The possibilities are endless, but include appointments, workshops, packets, handouts, email tips, podcasts, blog posts, YouTube videos, Facebook, Twitter, intranet pages, pop-up events, and walk-abouts.
- We need to remember that each student is unique. One size does not fit all, no matter what theory suggests. Each student comes with individual strengths, weaknesses, challenges, motivations, educational backgrounds, and experiences. We cannot forget the individual when we consider our repertoire of theories, generalities, and strategies.
- We need to ask questions and listen to the answers. I learn some of the best strategies from students explaining what they have discovered. In the search for the combination of strategies for each student, we need to explore with the student what works, does not work, needs to be modified, or needs to be tossed.
- We want students to succeed and are personally involved in their learning. However, ultimately the student must implement the strategies, eschew bad habits, and work to achieve success. Despite our best efforts, some students will not reach their full academic potential and may even fail academically or fail the bar repeatedly. It exemplifies the old adage of leading a horse to water.
- Working 60-70 hours per week (and often more) is the temptation in ASP/bar prep because we want to implement new programs, stay up with professional development, be available to students, show up at events to support them, and answer emails at all times of the day and night. However, working at such a pace leads to burnout and ultimately does not help us or our students. We need to model the work-life balance that we regularly recommend to our students.
- Have faith in your own expertise and the" best practices" that match your law school's culture. The variety of law schools means that one size does not fit all. Be open to ideas and weigh their value for your law school situation. ASP/bar prep colleagues are willing to share ideas and expertise - usually for free. Read the Law School Academic Support Blog, post queries on the Law School Academic Support listserv, attend AASE and AALS conferences or other regional workshops, and reach out to experienced colleagues. However, be wary of anyone who tells you there is one and only one (that is, the individual's own) path to "best practices" in ASP/bar prep; that viewpoint is just not accurate.
- No matter how dedicated and expert we are in our work, our law schools have to provide the facilities and resources for us to do our work well. Without commitments for space, budget, staffing, support services, and equal status, we will be limited in achieving the greatest results for our students. Talk is cheap. It takes actions from each and every law school in support of our ASP and bar professionals to make a difference.
ASP/bar prep work is challenging, impactful, rewarding, and gratifying. We can be proud of what we do each day. What we accomplish is important. We need all law schools to recognize how important our work is for our students' academic success and for their futures. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, May 13, 2019
Few law students are able to ignore grades - especially if the final exam is the only grade for a course. Whether students have been successful or unsuccessful in the past with their grades, they become anxious about the current exam, the upcoming exam, and the just past exam.
How one feels coming out of the exam is really immaterial because the class as a whole is what determines the outcome. I remember coming out of a property exam hoping I did not fail. I knew property really well but had been unable to finish the exam. When grades were posted, I got a very high grade because I finished more than others and that professor wrote the exam so no one would be able to finish it.
Here are some things to consider as you go through exams and afterwards:
- Ignore the rumor mill. It has little truth on it this time of year. Use your common sense to spot the ridiculous. Example: Our exams are graded by anonymous numbers, and professors assign final grades by anonymous numbers. The rumor mill had the 1Ls convinced that grades for the semester would now be assigned alphabetically by last name so the only people who would receive A grades were last names beginning with A or possibly a few students with last names beginning with B.
- It is common to walk out of an exam and realize that you missed an issue, misunderstood a question, forgot an ancillary rule, and made other mistakes. It's okay. Do not beat yourself up about the errors. It happens to everyone. Put the exam behind you and move on.
- You do not want to talk with classmates about the exam after it is over. Just smile, wish the person luck on the next exam, and walk away. Why? You will stress because someone will mention an issue you missed - but it wasn't there and that person was wrong. Someone will brag about how easy the exam was when you thought it was very hard. Someone will predict doom and gloom and cause you to worry and lose focus on the next task.
- The days of having to get 90-100% on the exam to get an A grade in a course are over. You left that grading scale behind with college. It is not unusual for a law school A to equal just 70-75% of the possible points - and sometimes even fewer points.
- A final exam measures your performance on one day on one particular set of questions. You may know that course at a deeper level than your grade will show. Maybe the curve was tight. Maybe there were very few questions on a topic you knew well. Maybe you blanked on a topic. Maybe you were ill.
- You are not your grades. Good or bad grades, you are far more than your grades. You are the same capable, intelligent, funny, caring, amazing person who came to law school the first day you arrived.
- If you want to improve your future grades, the academic support professionals at your law school can assist you in learning new strategies that will boost your academic results. See them early and often next semester.
Take your exams in stride. Do the best you can each day under the circumstances. It is the daily work that pays off in better grades. If you have a bad day, get some rest; start over again the next morning. Best wishes for exams. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, May 6, 2019
Exams have started at our law school, and law students are looking much more sleep-deprived than usual. It is tempting to skimp on sleep to study. It is also easy to toss and turn instead of sleeping once getting into bed. Here are some hints to help in the sleep department:
- Realize that a good night's sleep of 8 hours will do your brain more good than late-night cramming. You will be more alert, focused, and productive the next day.
- Exercise expends stress and helps you sleep. Even a 30-minute walk can help. Most research suggests that your exercise should be before 8:00 p.m. to get the most sleep benefits.
- Avoid naps because they ultimately can disrupt your night's sleep routine. If you must nap, make it a power nap of no more than 15-20 minutes.
- Take at least one hour as a wind-down break before bed each night. Make that hour non-law and non-electronic time. Walk your dog. Pack your lunch for the next day. Chat with your spouse. Read a fluff novel.
- If possible, stop studying by 8:00 p.m. at the latest on the night before an exam. Spend time doing something you enjoy that will occupy your mind fully and prevent you thinking about law school. Play the piano. Join a pick-up basketball game. Go to the IMAX theater.
- Do not stress if you need 30 or so minutes to fall into a deep sleep. Most people do not fall asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow. Breathe deeply; relax your muscles; think happy thoughts (a memorable vacation, a walk on the beach, inspirational quotes or scripture).
- Improve your sleep environment to optimize your chances for a good night's ZZZZs: a cool room temperature; blackout curtains; total quiet (for some) or an eco-sound machine as white noise (for others); a cool air mister to add moisture to a room with dry air.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day no matter what your exam schedule is. Your body likes a set routine. You will be more likely to get sleepy before bed and wake up alert if you stay on a schedule.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep, get up and go to another room. Don't stay in bed and toss and turn. Read a few pages in a novel or some magazine articles. Avoid electronics. As you begin to relax and get sleepy, go back to bed.
- Try one of the old-time remedies that seem to work for lots of people: drink a cup of herbal tea before bedtime; drink warm milk before bedtime; take a lavender bubble bath.
May you fall asleep and have sweet dreams! (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
There are some weeks when I'm pretty sure that no one else at my law school talks more than I do. Given that law schools are full of lawyers, this is a pretty audacious claim. But two or three times each semester, I encounter a perfect storm of ASP responsibilities -- I have classes to teach, I meet with the students from those classes for one-on-one discussions, I participate in administrative meetings, and I have drop-in visits from or appointments with other students seeking individual counseling -- and my entire work week, from morning to night, is chockablock with lectures and chats and debates and advising. Usually, by Tuesday afternoon, I can feel my vocal cords growing fatigued and irritated. I have discovered that if I just try to soldier on, then before the week is out, those little laryngeal muscles will seize up like an old pick-up truck engine, and suddenly I will be flapping my jaw uselessly, with nothing but a breathy wheeze coming out.
It is very hard to explain to a student how to think like a lawyer when you sound like a strangled serpent.
The fact is that teachers of all kinds are among those most at risk for developing voice problems. This might in part be because they work in schools, which are really just giant Petri dishes for the cultivation of upper respiratory infections. But the biggest threat to our voices could merely be overuse. Vocal cords are really just small, thin muscles, and we make them work to produce sound by forcing air between them until they vibrate audibly. Every syllable we utter arises from a bit of violence we do to our selves. Too much violence can damage the vocal cords, sometimes even permanently.
So it makes sense to try to find ways to treat our vocal cords more kindly. There are many things you can do to ease the strain you impose on your voice box. Some might become permanent habits; others you can use when you start to feel a little raspy, or maybe even just before a garrulously busy week starts:
- Keep your vocal cords moist. When vocal cords become dehydrated, they are more easily irritated. So drink plenty of water -- keep a cup or bottle on hand in the office or wherever you might expect to have to speak at any length. Also, certain chemicals, like alcohol, caffeine, and some cold medicines, can dry out your vocal cords. All things in moderation, generally, of course, but when you know you've got a talk-heavy week coming up, you might want to take a pass on coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)
- Avoid irritants. The effects of too much talking can be intensified by agents that make the vocal cords more sensitive. Cigarette smoke, both first- and second-hand, is an obvious example. But in addition to thinking about what you breathe, you should also consider what you eat. Aromatic and spicy foods carry the risks not only of irritating the throat on the way down, but also causing stomach upset and reflux that might also irritate the throat on the way out. Of course, food is not supposed to go down the windpipe, so direct irritation of the vocal cords is less common (though possible). A bigger issue is irritation of the throat above the larynx, which can lead to coughing, which directly assaults the vocal cords. Similarly, it is a good idea to avoid milk and dairy products, not because they are directly harmful, but because they can coat the throat, prompting you to try to clear it, which can also irritate the vocal cords. (If you ever feel the urge to clear your throat with a rumbling bark, hold off, and instead see if you can clear the irritation by opening your mouth wide and alternately breathing deeply through your nose and then exhaling, steadily and forcefully but not explosively, through your mouth, making the "h" sound as you do.) Of course, try not to get sick, too, because illness can be an irritant.
- Rest your vocal cords. It is often right to remain silent, but during busy times, it may not always be possible. Still, what you do outside the office can help rest your voice as well. When work is vocally busy, try to avoid scheduling other responsibilities that might require extensive speaking. Get rest at home -- minimize conversation and get good sleep. In the long term, regular exercise can help develop stamina, even in the vocal cords, so that you can talk longer before your throat starts to feel irritated.
- Soothe your throat. Along with having water at hand, keep some cough drops, mints, or even certain fruits at hand. Eating or sucking on these will stimulate the production of saliva, which keeps the vocal cords moist. Also, consider drinking herbal teas with soothing ingredients like chamomile or slippery elm bark. Traditional Medicinals "Throat Coat" is a pleasant choice.
- Use healthy speaking techniques. Since in many cases we are not going to be able to avoid frequent speaking, it's a good idea to learn how to speak in the least irritating way for your vocal cords. Sit up straight and don't slouch; good posture opens up the airway and relieves pressure on the larynx. Avoid yelling, and avoid whispering -- both put unnecessary stress on your vocal cords. Instead, try always to speak in a conversational tone of voice, but try to take deep breaths and to exhale using your diaphragm and your chest to produce sound, not just your throat. This takes some of the strain off your vocal cords. Finally, if you do lecture, don't eschew the use of a microphone, when available. Yes, your stentorian voice can reach the back of the lecture hall, but you may pay for it later when you are trying to reach to person seated across the desk.
Monday, April 29, 2019
It is the time in the semester when I give many, many pep talks. The time when I urge students to stay positive. The time when I suggest students need to rebut their negative self-talk.
We all have experienced a litany of negative statements that we say, often silently, to ourselves at one time or another. As the pressure of upcoming exams increases, I am hearing more and more negative comments verbalizing negative thoughts from students. The statements might be self-critical ("Oh, that was a stupid mistake!") or negative comparisons ("You just aren't as smart as they are.") or pessimistic ("No matter how hard you try, you won't be able to do this.). Whatever the form of the negativity, it deflates self-esteem, discourages further hard work, and waves the white flag of defeat.
I often point out to my students that one of the skills that every attorney needs is being able to plausibly rebut arguments presented by the opposing side. The skilled attorney can listen to the negative statement about their client's case, and then adroitly respond with the positive argument for the client's case. In fact, in preparation of the case, an attorney should consider the opponent's arguments and be ready to rebut those points. Whether by distinguishing facts, interpreting statutory language differently, mentioning an authority with the opposite outcome, or showing flawed logic, attorneys present their advocacy for the client's position.
Law students need to practice the same rebuttal skill when the negative self-talk in their heads starts to undermine their confidence and cause them to doubt their abilities. Here is an exercise that I suggest to my students to help them rebut the negative self-talk that stalks them:
- Take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns.
- Head the left-hand column "Negative Self-Talk" and the right-hand column "Positive Self-Talk"
- In the negative column, list the negative statements that the little voice in your head says to discourage you.
- In the positive column, write out a positive rebuttal that tells the negative voice it is wrong and why.
- For example: negative side - "You will never learn Property in time for the exam!" positive side - "I can learn this. I just need to learn one subtopic at a time and then move on to the next subtopic."
- Add any new negative self-talk and the rebuttals to the list whenever you catch yourself stating something negative that you have not dealt with already.
How do you use the list? Practice your rebuttals and use them every time you state the corresponding negative self-talk. Some students tell me that after a few times, they start laughing at the negative voice. Other students tell me that after a few times, the negative voice has no power over them because they now believe the rebuttal. There are students who post the paper on the bathroom mirror and read the positive self-talk every time they brush their teeth or comb their hair. Other students tell me they carry it around in a notebook to reread the positive statements regularly.
We can be our own harshest critics. But we can also be our own greatest cheerleaders! Aim for the skill of rebuttal and stay positive. (Amy Jarmon)