Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Keeping Our Students in the Game

Watching the Super Bowl on Sunday made me think of my students.  By no means am I implying any similarity between football and the legal profession.  After all, one is a grueling slugfest, featuring breathlessly intense clashes between aggressive competitors on behalf of highly partisan, sometimes even fanatically tribal, stakeholders, with pride and sometimes lots of money at stake.  The other is just an athletic contest.

No, the reason I thought of my students was the sudden shift in the game in the fourth quarter.  Through the first 50 minutes or so of play, the scores remained unusually low and very close.  Neither team could gain a clear advantage, and with less than ten minutes remaining, the score was still only 3 to 3.  Across the country, spectators were complaining about how stagnant and boring the game seemed.

Suddenly, within a minute or so of game time, everything changed.  The Patriots called a play in which a receiver wound up open in the middle of the field, just beyond the Rams' defensive line, and Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady deftly passed the ball to him and gained several yards.  By itself, the play was only mildly exciting, and then only because it provided comparatively more action than most of the preceding gameplay.  But the Patriots realized right away that the Rams' defense, which up until that time had been pretty successful at confining the Patriots' forward motion, had not had anything in place to keep that lone receiver from appearing unguarded behind the defensive line.  So for the next few plays, the Patriots ran essentially the same play, except for choosing a different receiver to run up the field each time.  In the space of four plays, the team moved all the way down the field and set up the winning touchdown run.

From the Rams' point of view, everything was fine, until suddenly it wasn't.  They were basically evenly matched with their opponents, in a game that looked like it might go into overtime -- and then, in less than a minute, everything fell apart.  One weakness was exposed -- one play that they had no planned defense for -- and before they could adjust to it, the other side had taken advantage of that weakness and taken a significant lead.  And the fact that they were in that distressing position left the team vulnerable to more trouble.  They rushed and ran riskier plays, hoping to score their own tying touchdown in the short time they had left, and under this pressure the Rams' quarterback Jared Goff accidentally threw the ball into the hands of a Patriots defender, leading the Patriots to score an additional three points.  The Rams went from having an even chance of winning to having no chance, all because of one weakness that wasn't addressed quickly enough.

In his fascinating book How We Die, the physician Sherwin B. Nuland explained that human death often follows a similar trajectory.  Laypeople often imagine that those suffering from serious injury or illness usually experience a long but steady decline until they pass away.  However, Nuland pointed out that at least as often, if not more so, the afflicted person manages the illness (or injury, if it is not so catastrophic that it simply kills them right away) fairly handily, with only slight decline or sometimes even with improvement, for days or even weeks.  If nothing bad happens, then they might even make a full recovery.  But if one thing goes wrong and isn't corrected quickly enough, it can cause significant damage, which itself leads to additional life-threatening complications, and in a short time the patient may spiral down past the point where any medical intervention will be enough to save him.  An infected wound, for example, if not treated quickly enough, can lead to a generalized blood infection, which can cause a patient's kidneys, liver, and other organs to stop working properly, and the patient, who otherwise might have almost completely recovered from his initial injury, will die of multiple organ failure.

We see the same phenomenon in other realms than just sports and medicine, such as business and politics.  In any complicated system, there can be long, steady declines, but the sudden drastic reversal, attributable to one or a small number of neglected infirmities, is often more likely.

And the life of a law student is pretty complicated.  New information to learn, new ways to think about it, new tasks to perform, all while juggling stress and ambition and self-doubt and mountains of practicalities like housing and relationships and (painfully often) finances.  We all know that a few students struggle right from the start, but very often students will be managing -- holding their own, even if not excelling -- and then they run into one tribulation they can't fix, and they can't handle.  A course they can't wrap their head around.  A romantic breakup.  Lack of funds to buy textbooks.  A death in the family.  An extracurricular activity that takes up too much time.

It almost doesn't matter what the problem is, because it's just the trigger.  It starts the landslide that could pull the student down.  Struggling in one course, for example, could pull the student's attention away from his other courses, leading to anxiety about not maintaining his GPA . . . and what started as one problem spirals into multiple problems.

The response, from an Academic Success perspective, has to be twofold.  First, we need to be able to detect these kinds of issues as early as possible, before they turn into the equivalent of a touchdown by the other team or a raging blood infection.  We need to have direct interaction with the students most at risk (incoming students, first-generation students, those in danger of financial difficulty, etc.), so we get to know them and encourage them to be forthcoming.  We also need to develop strong networks among those in the faculty and student services who might pass along observations of possible distress.

Second, we need to have systems in place to help these students address these issues quickly, before they do become intractable.  We are expected, of course, to handle purely academic issues on a moment's notice.  But we should also be familiar with other means of support on campus and in the community, to be able to quickly refer students who need help in financial, psychological, spiritual, and other realms. 

Time sometimes really is of the essence.  None of us want to end up being Monday-morning quarterbacks, lamenting that if we had just changed our defense one play sooner, we could have saved the game.

(Bill MacDonald)

February 5, 2019 in Advice, Books, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Sports, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 28, 2019

Are We Prepared for Future Students?

Another semester begins, and I proclaim the benefits of physically going to bar review lectures and taking notes with a pen on the handouts.  Students' eyes roll, unless they are already transfixed on their computer screen they didn't hear my speech.  Some will pretend to agree, but by the summer, less than 20% of our students show up for the on campus bar review course.  I groan and start thinking of new strategies to get students into seats.

Many of you have similar discussions with similar results.  I don't think I am a Luddite, but my mind wanders some days to creating a new law school called Luddite Law where wi-fi, screens, and technology are banned.  Then the next student meeting knocks on my door, sits down in my office, and proceeds to spend a couple minutes turning off the 35 different noise making devices before being able to start our meeting.  Of course, I then look at "The Facebook" on my iPhone after the meeting because those devices are addictive.

Low-tech law school is definitely a dream.  At my law school, every class that allows laptops has over 95% of students typing notes.  Less than 3-4 students hand-write exams in any given class.  The NCBE even announced they plan to move the MBE to online testing.  Technology is pervasive throughout law school buildings.

Many would agree that law school teaching has not accounted for new students and their technology.  Many professors are slow to integrate tech into the classroom, and instead of embracing the tech revolution, some merely ban laptops (which I am guilty of).  Students entering law school right now have not known a world without the internet, and they owned cell phones most of their lives.  Even if they started with a Nokia, they had the ability to instantly call someone.  They could even play the best phone game ever, snake.  Students today are engrossed in technology, and some of our teaching is behind.

Teaching is not evolving as fast as tech is progressing, and we may start falling even farther behind.  A recent Education Week Article discussed new classrooms from elementary school through high school.  The author said the environments looked more like video game arcades than classrooms.  Students learn reading comprehension and math on the computer with games that provide immediate feedback.  Studies discussed in the article did not find standardized test score improvement, but the schools utilizing the methods found "soft skill" improvement.  If the movement continues, law schools will start enrolling students in 5-10 years who learned primarily online in school.  Will we be able to teach these students with our current methods?  Should we change our methods or teach students how to succeed in our classrooms?  While Personal Jurisdiction would be fun in a computer game, would it work?

I know my Luddite Law thought is a dream, but I am concerned about the numerous different directions technology is going in legal education.  The NCBE is using more, professors are restricting use, and students enter with more tech skills.  Problems will arise, but I also trust this community to start building solutions.  I hope to be a part of the solutions eventually instead of just complaining about that new fangled technology.

(Steven Foster)

January 28, 2019 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Two Important Words

Do we say "thank you" enough each day?

    Those two tiny words recognize the other person's help.

    Those two tiny words recognize the other person's worth.

    Those two tiny words express our gratitude.

    Those two tiny words can make someone else feel appreciated.

    Those two tiny words may be the bright spot in that other person's day.

It does not matter if we are tired, grumpy, rushed, or overwhelmed.

The excuses can be many for not taking the time to say the two tiny words.

But the excuses are not enough to excuse our overlooking the thanks.

 

And while we are at it, we want to also remember the precursor "please" before we ever even get to "thank you."

(Amy Jarmon)

January 26, 2019 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

To His Coy 1L Students

O, why must IRAC dominate the page

When brilliant students try to write a bit,

Their eloquence confined, as in a cage,

Restricting scope and rhetoric and wit?

 

O, why must you capitulate to rote?

Abandon your unique persuasive voices?

Unless -- the logic these formats connote

Provides you with a better set of choices . . . ?

 

If you surrender to formality

You’ll find the structure helps you to direct

Your argument to only what is key,

And lets the reader know what to expect.

 

A writer who’s committed to a norm

Ironically is freed up to perform.

 

[Bill MacDonald]

January 22, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Listening to Learners

This may not be true in every law school, but at my school, things are a little quiet right now.  Some students and professors are on campus for the brief winter term, but the entire community will not return until the spring term begins in February.  The students are just now getting their fall grades, so the students who are around and have come looking for me have all wanted to talk about them -- whether they were surprised or disappointed or content, and what their grades might mean for the future.

I cannot help but be reminded by this combination of relative quiet and conversationally-motivated students of the importance of listening.  Like many teachers -- and many lawyers -- I revel in talking.  I like explaining things to people; I enjoy the performative aspects of a well-delivered lecture; I am fond of delivering spontaneous oracular pronouncements to my advisees.  And, aiming to communicate complex information in a useful way, I spend a fair amount of time fretting about the content of what I say and the manner in which I say it.  This is entirely appropriate: our students' expectations are high, their goals are ambitious, and their needs are great.  They deserve to hear wise and engaging words coming out of our mouths.

Still, nobody wants to be nothing but a bunch of talk.  If that's all you've got, you might as well just throw books at your students.  Listening is the complementary skill that helps to make sure that what we say possesses the value that our students need.  It's how we determine precisely which beautiful insights we choose to articulate.

As with many skills, people are not always good at judging how well they listen.  Those to whom it comes naturally may underestimate how talented they actually are.  Others may mistake mere silence for listening, or may assume that they are listening well because they are quickly assessing and generating responses to what they are hearing.  One way to more accurately judge -- and, if necessary, improve upon -- one's listening skills is to consider whether you are achieving any or all of these three outcomes:

  1. Determining what is troubling the speaker.  In many or even most cases, this is ostensibly the reason we are talking with our students in the first place.  They come to us with an issue or a concern, and we introduce conversational probes to figure out what the source of the problem is.  Ironically, though, the better and more experienced we get at our jobs, the easier it may become to jump to quick conclusions.  This speed, borne of experience, can be valuable, but we must take care not to confuse our satisfaction at having identified a likely issue with the student's confidence that they have actually conveyed the concerns they had.  Watch their facial expressions and body language.  Do they appear relieved, as if they have gotten something off of their chest, or are they still holding on to some tension?  Listen to the tone of their voice -- do they sound unsure?  Do they seem to want to interject more into the discussion?  Try not to judge how well you have listened for their concerns by how you feel about the conversation, but by how they appear to feel.  When in doubt, before making any definitive declarations of diagnosis, reflect the conversation back to them.  Statements like "It sounds like you feel you do not understand the law correctly" can be non-threatening ways to offer the speaker a chance to clarify what they mean to say, and you may find that there are more or different issues from what you had first suspected.
  2. Encouraging the speaker to dig deeper.  Sometimes students do not come to us entirely of their own free will; they are advised or even required to meet with us, and they just want to get it over with.  Other students may come anxiously to us, fearing complicated bad news and hoping instead to hear a quick fix.  Students like these might be content to give a brief synopsis of what they assume is the problem, in hopes that we will take over the conversation and get to the end as quickly as possible.  Such situations provide great opportunities to use your listening skills as active conversational tools.  Simply maintaining eye contact and keeping silent will prompt a speaker to continue to speak, sometimes revealing additional information in their stream-of-consciousness monologue.  If silence is not enough, a brief reflective question, based on what you have already heard, may help.  Even non-reluctant students can benefit from this kind of prompting.  If a student makes an assertion that sounds too pat or incomplete, attentive listening can encourage them to keep pressing on to try to get to the critical facts or to their real emotions.  Personally, I think every student conversation of more than just a few minutes should include at least one instance of focused, silent attention on the student, to give them the opportunity to elaborate on a point or to bring up a new one.
  3. Developing the speaker's trust.  Trust is valuable currency in our job, and like Bitcoin, it can take some time to generate.  It is great to be trusted for our sound advice, but that is not the only way to build trust.  Listening is another great way, and this illustrates why good listening is not mere passive silence but is actually active participation in the conversation.  A good listener demonstrates that they are hearing the information being conveyed by reflecting back some of what they've heard and by following up with questions that build off of that information.  What is also just as important, and in some cases is even more so, is that we attend to our student's affect as well -- not just the information, but the emotion.  Students can bring to Academic Success some intense feelings -- excitement and hope, when things are going well, or anxiety, sadness, and anger when they are not.  Acknowledging these sometimes uncomfortable feelings in a non-judgmental way, through our own facial expressions and responses, can help a student feel not only that are you listening to all they are saying, but also that your office is a safe place to experience and express those feelings.  This is a sure way to develop the trust that is often needed to get students to buy into your plans for their success.

These outcomes are noteworthy not just because they are the effects of good listening, but because they are specifically effects that are valuable to our work in Academic Success.  Even when things get hectic and tiring over the next few months, try to make a point of asking yourself, after every student encounter, if you are seeing any of these outcomes arising from your conversations.

[Bill MacDonald]

January 15, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Best Wishes for the Season and Semester Break

Dear Readers,

All of us at the Law School Academic Support Blog wish you and your families best wishes for the holiday season, the semester break, and 2019! We appreciate your reading our posts.

We are taking a break to celebrate the season and give our respective muses some down time. Posts will begin again the week of January 7th.

Best regards,

The Editors

Ray-hennessy-178367-unsplash

 

 

 

December 22, 2018 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Do you have a strategic plan for your professional use of social media?

Inside Higher Ed had an interesting post this week on having a strategic plan for connection and visibility through social media for academic/professional presence. Given the article's categories of online presence, I would be somewhere between Curious and Beginner - I use Linkedin a bit and I post regularly to our Office of Academic Success Programs facebook page - but am not sure I aspire to sophisticated use. However, for those who want to think strategically about using social media for a greater professional presence in our academic world, I thought the article laid out a logical approach to clarifying a plan. The link is Optimizing Your Social Media Presence. (Amy Jarmon)

December 21, 2018 in Miscellany, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 15, 2018

As Silence Descends

Well, it is officially over except for the grades.

Fall 2018 semester at my law school concluded its last day of the second week of exams on Friday.

The building emptied out quickly of all signs of students during the last hours of yesterday afternoon.

The abandoned snacks provided in our forum for students' sustenance were quietly cleared away.

Faculty offices had emptied out the first exam week as most professors decamped for their homes to grade. 

Our floor's coffee pot was consigned to empty as well since too few warm bodies were left to support daily coffee duty.

Administrative staff were rattling around the empty halls all last week.

Next week will be a ghost town except for the administrative staff left to keep the lights on each day.

I will be among them. So many projects on my list for next week!

But then ... the university will shut down for 7 work days for the "festive season" break for staff.

And full silence and peace will settle over the university grounds as we all totter home for rest and recuperation.

Don't you love the end of the semester!

Don't you sometimes wish you were one of those faculty members not due back until mid-January?

Hmmm ... how many vacation days do I have stored up?

(Amy Jarmon)

 

December 15, 2018 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For

Dear Santa,

How are you?  How is Mrs. Claus?  I hear the aurora borealis is quite nice right now.  I hope you can snag a few minutes to enjoy it.

I know how busy you are this month, so I will get right to the point: I have been a very good Director of Academic Success this year.  Or at least I have not been bad.  Fine – the truth is, I have had many students thank me effusively for my help and support, but I have also noticed a few people in the back of my class roll their eyes.  I don’t know if the latter have already learned what I am trying to teach, or if they have detached themselves from my class because it’s non-doctrinal, or if maybe some of them have pollen allergies that are causing them eye irritation.  Anyway, look me up – I’m pretty sure I’m on the “nice” list. 

Because I have been good this year – probably – I feel like I deserve an extra special present.  I have given this a great deal of thought.  My first idea for a present was a watch like the one on that old episode of The Twilight Zone – you know, the one with the pocket watch that froze time for everyone but the user when her clicked the button on top?  That would be an awesome present – more time!  Imagine having 150 essays to comment upon, and clicking on that watch to stop time all around me.  I could start commenting at 9:01 am, and finish before 9:02!  No more deadline stress!

But then I realized that I would have to sit through 50 or 60 hours of commenting, and then, once I got the world started again, I’d *still* have to do another entire day of work.  I’d probably age three or four times as fast as all of my colleagues, too.  Eventually my driver’s license would say “60” but my real age would be over 100.  No thank you.  I think I’ll just keep improving my time management skills.  After all, I am always suggesting the same thing to my students.  They may as well learn now that that quest never ends.

So then I came up with a second idea.  One of the toughest parts of my job is learning the names, faces, backgrounds, interests, strengths, and weaknesses of all 450+ students in my law school.  Don’t get me wrong – I have some great students with some amazing stories and aspirations – but it is hard to keep everything about everybody straight.  I don’t have a photographic memory.  But you could give me one!  How about one of those fancy electronic computer watches with a built-in camera, microphone, and speakers?  If I had that, then I could just take a quick photo every time I interact with a student, and then quickly type in or audio-record what they tell me about themselves. 

Still, once I had the photographs, I’d still need to cross-reference them to class lists, and I’d have to study all the facts to remember who is whom.  Every class I taught would become like a massive open-book test – I’d be spending half the class looking people up.  Plus, I get to know and understand facts better if I learn them and then work with them, rather than always just looking them up.  Again, like I say to my students.  So, ixnay on the atchway.

This brought me to my last idea, which, honestly, is probably asking a lot.  It’s not something I could find in a store here in the States, but, I mean, you are Santa Claus, right?  A genuine saint and performer of miracles?  So I thought I might as well ask.  What I want for Christmas is a mind-reading machine.  Nothing too conspicuous – maybe something I can strap to my forehead, or maybe a special kind of hat that connects my brain waves with other people’s brain waves?  See, students come into my office all the time to ask for help, but often, when they do, they can’t necessarily explain to me exactly what it is they need.  Sometimes they just have trouble putting their concerns into words, but more often it’s because they aren’t really clear themselves on what the issue is.  And we might have to meet more than once before we both finally can articulate exactly what help the student needs.

If I had a little mind-reading hat, though, BOOM!  Every time someone comes into my office, I could scan them, size them up in an instant, and send them along with whatever homework I think would help.  That would be supremely efficient!  Although, then I would not get to spend much time with any particular student.  I wouldn’t really get to know anybody.  And, the students wouldn’t really get to know me . . . and, I guess, in a way, they wouldn’t get to know themselves as well.  I mean, I could tell them, “This is what is giving you trouble,” and maybe they’ll take my word for it, but maybe not?  Sometimes people trust a discovery more when they feel like they made it, or at least helped to make it, themselves.  And, when it comes right down to it, while I want to help my students address individual issues, what I really want is to help them learn the process of figuring these things out themselves, following the example of working with me.  And I guess they won’t get that if I’m always just telling them what to do.

Well, where does that leave me?  I can’t see myself not continuing to want more time, memory, and understanding any time soon, but you don’t have to worry about that.  I’ll just keep gleaning what I can the way I have been.  So, for my actual Christmas list, I’ll just wish for peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and a substantial Barnes & Noble gift card.  Oh, and to keep getting to do this work for another year.

Thanks, Santa,

[Bill MacDonald]

December 11, 2018 in Advice, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

New Law Student Mindfulness ABA Podcast

Hat tip to Susan Wawrose at the University of Dayton School of Law for alerting us to the third installment in the ABA's podcast series on law student well-being. The podcast (entitled Episode 3 on the web page) includes three parts (why a law student would benefit, ways to get started with mindfulness, how to overcome roadblocks) and a bonus 3-minute mindfulness exercise. The link to the ABA web page that has all three installments in the series is: ABA Law Student Well-Being Podcasts. (Amy Jarmon)

December 8, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

NCBE Invitation for AALS Registrants to Participate in Focus Groups

Invitation from NCBE

The National Conference of Bar Examiners requests your assistance with a significant research study regarding the bar examination. NCBE has created a Testing Task Force to oversee a comprehensive, future-focused research study of the bar examination, and we want and need to tap the insights of legal academics. We would like to invite you to participate in one of six focus group sessions held at the AALS Annual Meeting in New Orleans on January 3 and 4, 2019.

The Task Force is approaching its study with no preconceived notions and is considering the content, format, timing, and delivery methods for the bar exam to ensure it keeps pace with a changing legal profession. For more information about the study, please read the overview of our research plan at www.testingtaskforce.org/research/.

As a legal educator, you are a vital part of the legal licensure process, and gathering input from you and other stakeholders is an essential component of the study. We hope you are as eager to share your ideas and opinions about the bar exam of the future as we are to hear them! The focus group sessions will be facilitated by one of the Testing Task Force’s independent research consulting firms, ACS Ventures LLC. The number of participants will be capped at 12-15 people per 90-minute session to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to provide their input, so you are encouraged to register early to reserve your spot in a session.

To sign up for a focus group session at the AALS Annual Meeting, complete this online registration form. You’ll receive a confirmation with logistical details and additional information about the session by email.

NCBE and its Testing Task Force are committed to creating additional opportunities for focus groups and web-based interactions to gain insights from legal academics, law students, and other stakeholders in the next six months. Subscribe at the Testing Task Force’s website to receive updates about the study and to be notified about other opportunities to participate.

Thank you for all you do to help prepare law students to become lawyers. If you have questions, please feel free to contact the Testing Task Force at taskforce@ncbex.org. We look forward to hearing from you!

November 25, 2018 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Meetings, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Call for AALS Section on Academic Support Award Nominations

Dear ASP Colleagues,

As the recently appointed Awards Committee Chair, I am pleased to report that the Awards Committee for the AALS Section on Academic Support is soliciting nominations for our annual section award winner.  The AALS Section Award will be presented to an outstanding member of the ASP community likely at our section meeting at the January 2019 AALS Annual Meeting.  Please review the eligibility and criteria information below and send nominations directly to me, Awards Committee Chair, at gpritch@law.msu.edu

The deadline to submit nominations is Friday, November 9 at 5:00 p.m. EST (a very quick turnaround). For a nomination to be considered, it must include (at a minimum) a one to two paragraph explanation of why the nominee is deserving of the award.  Only AALS ASP Section members may make nominations, but all those within the ASP community may be nominated.  Membership in the section is free and can be processed by e-mailing a membership request to support@aals.org.  For further detailed instructions on how to become a member, please view the following link.

Eligibility and Criteria for Selection.  The eligible nominees for the award are individuals who have made significant and/or long-term contributions to the development of the field of law student academic support.  All legal educators, regardless of the nature or longevity of their appointment or position, who have at some point in their careers worked part-time or full-time in academic support are eligible for the award.  The award will be granted to recognize those who have made such contributions through any combination of the following activities: 

  • service to the profession and to professional institutions—e.g., advocacy with the NCBE or assumption of leadership roles in the ASP community;
  • support to and mentoring of ASP colleagues;
  • support to and mentoring of students;
  • promoting diversity in the profession and expanding access to the legal profession; and
  • developing ideas or innovations—whether disseminated through academic writing, newsletters, conference presentations, or over the listserv.

Law schools, institutions, or organizations cannot receive an award.  Prior year or current year Section officers are excluded from being selected as an award winner.

The Committee looks forward to receiving your nominations.  Please let me know if you have any questions.

Best,

Goldie

____________________________

Goldie Pritchard, J.D., M.Ed.

Director, Academic Success Program

Michigan State University College of Law

648 N. Shaw Lane, Room 230(B)

East Lansing, MI 48824-1300

Phone: 517.432.6881

gpritch@law.msu.edu

www.law.msu.edu/success

November 3, 2018 in Meetings, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Marvelous Thing

Academic support professionals are often required to be observant, creative, and meticulous under demanding circumstances.  Sometimes it helps to take inspiration from unexpected places:

The world was at war.  It was 1943, and the United States was stretched across two oceans, trying to protect its merchant fleet while fighting at sea against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Shipyards were working around the clock to build new and better ships.

In one such facility on the Delaware River, in Philadelphia, Dick James was trying to solve a problem.  He was a mechanical engineer, and his task was to develop a support system from which to suspend delicate shipboard instruments, to keep them stable when a ship was in rough seas.  He was working with tension springs, and at one point he accidentally struck one that was sitting coiled on a shelf.  The spring arched over, planted itself on top of some books stacked nearby, flipped end over end and arched again onto the table on which the books were sitting, and then flipped again to stream in another arch over the edge of the table and onto the floor.

Anyone else in that room might not have noticed the spring's behavior, or, if they had, might only have responded with an amused chuckle and promptly forgotten about it.  But James saw something in the way the spring had practically stepped from level to level, like an animated pair of britches.  He wasn't sure what it was good for, and he soon discovered that he could not reproduce it reliably.  But he sensed it was something, and something that hadn't been seen before.  When he got home that day, he told his wife Betty about it and declared that he was going to find the right kind of steel and the right degree of tension to create a spring that could walk.

Dick James was on his way to inventing the Slinky, the perennially wonderful toy that still sells well, 75 years after that first accidental demonstration.  What I find inspiring about this story is not just the fact that James observed something new and thought it was worth considering simply because it was new, and not just the fact that he pondered the possibilities of the new phenomenon without knowing exactly where they would lead him.  What's inspiring for me personally is that James recognized that he would have to put in some serious work to make a spring that could walk, and that he undertook all that effort without a clear end result in mind at the start.  He experimented for over a year, using different types of steel-alloy wire wound in coils of various sizes and tensions, and as he worked, he and his wife worked out what they wanted their end product to be: a toy with a name that connotes graceful movement and with properties that would allow it to stride down inclined planes and stairs. 

James continued working on warships, because that was his job and it mattered.  But during his off hours, he kept testing and measuring and winding and cutting, and with his wife planned how to package and market and sell his new invention, until finally in November of 1945, a couple of months after the end of the war, experimentation and application came together in a demonstration at Gimbel's Philadelphia department store -- a Slinky, walking down a ramp set up in the middle of the store, surrounded by children and parents.  Within 90 minutes, James sold out his entire inventory.

Sometimes, in academic support, in the midst of putting out fires and ministering to students in distress and trying to build stable platforms that will keep our students steady even in rough seas, we might notice something out of the ordinary -- an odd pattern to student responses, an exercise format that isolates a particular skill, a certain stimulus that alters behavior or affect -- perhaps something that most other people would not recognize as unusual.  We don't have to discard such observations if their usefulness is not immediately obvious.  Sometimes, it makes sense to start refining a tool first, and then take advantage of that time spent in development to uncover what the tool might best be used for.

(Bill MacDonald)

October 23, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Are you being sabotaged by perfectionism?

A perfectionism epidemic has broken out at most law schools across the country. It is the time in the semester when many students spin their wheels in studying because perfectionism has them in its grip. First-year students suffer acutely; but upper-division students are not immune. 

The symptoms may vary, but the underlying perfectionism is there. Here are some of the symptoms I see regularly:

  • Spending an exorbitant amount of time preparing for class because "I don't understand every bit of every case yet."
  • Copying large chunks of case language into a case brief because "I may not state it as well as the judicial opinion."
  • Getting less than 6 (in some cases way less) hours of sleep each night because "I haven't finished everything to the standard I want."
  • Feeling paralyzed about starting course outlines because "I have never outlined before and may get it wrong."
  • Filling tome-like outlines with total trivia because "I may leave out something important."
  • Avoiding practice questions because "I don't know everything yet."
  • Abandoning completion of practice questions because "I didn't get them all right."
  • Despairing over an average grade on a quiz because "I should have gotten an A."
  • Continuing to research after the exact same sources are found because "There may be something out there that I missed."
  • Procrastinating because "It won't be perfect and starting late gives me an excuse for it being less than perfect."

Perfectionism makes people miserable. No human will ever be perfect. Our students come with histories of success: high grades; superb recommendations; trophies; accolades for A-Z. Many of them have minimum experience with being less than perfect (or at least appearing perfect). Consequently, it is hard to settle for excellent or very good instead of perfect.

One of my law professors warned me my first semester of law school that I would never feel that I had done everything that could be done. There would always be one more case I could read, one more edit of a draft I could do, one more practice problem I could complete, one more study aid I could check, and so forth. He warned that perfect was not the goal - the best I could do under the circumstances for that day was all I could ask of myself.

He was right - not only about law school, but also about legal practice. We could spend 24/7 and still feel as though there was more we could do.

We need to put aside perfectionism before it gives us sleepless nights, ulcers, migraine headaches, and more physical souvenirs. We need to refuse perfectionism's cocktail of shame, guilt, worry, frustration, and depression.

So, let's embrace accomplishing what we can to our best ability today under today's circumstances:

  • Set a realistic number of goals for today.
  • Prioritize those goals as very important, important, least important and finish them accordingly.
  • Set a realistic time allotment for each goal and stick to it rather than push for perfect.
  • Recognize today's circumstances and work realistically within them: deadlines, appointments, personal illness, etc.
  • Refuse to equate your human imperfections with failure.
  • Make a new "to do" list for tomorrow and realize tomorrow is another day to do your best.
  • Get a good night's sleep: you will be more alert, focused, and productive for tomorrow's tasks.

(Amy Jarmon)

October 20, 2018 in Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Lawyers in Academic Support: Part I

One thing that distinguishes law school culture from that of many other professional schools is the high percentage of people in student services who already possess the degree most of their students are trying to obtain.  I have never done an exhaustive analysis (but woo hoo! Research opportunity!), but in my personal experience the majority of people working in law schools in the areas of Academic Support or Career Services are law school graduates, and so are a fair number of people working in areas like Admissions and Libraries.  A quick dive into the Internet suggests that medical schools and business schools do not hire their own graduates for student services at nearly the same frequency.  In fact, when I checked out the staff of five med school Academic Support units and five law school Academic Support units, no one in the med school units possessed an M.D., but each member of the law school units possessed a J.D.

There are no doubt many forces pushing towards this odd result for law schools.  One that is practically taken for granted is the idea that someone who already possesses a J.D. is far better positioned than anyone else to really understand what new J.D. students are actually going through.  Part of this assumption is perfectly practical: people who already have their law degree have presumably already learned all the elements unique to the practice of law.  We can “think like a lawyer”; we can wield IRAC without effort; we understand federalism and common law and stare decisis and all the idiosyncrasies that our students have to contend with while navigating the rigors of study, time management, and exams.  This is not to say that non-lawyers couldn’t provide wonderful support to law students.  There is just a general belief that lawyers have a head start on understanding the context into which everything fits.

At the same time, law school alumni are apt to think that they can understand what law students are going through because the alumni were students once, too.  We remember the dread of our first cold call in class; we remember plodding through civil procedure and constitutional law; we remember trying to juggle classes and law review and OCI all at the same time.  Like military veterans of different eras, maybe we didn’t fight on the same battlefield, but our students don’t have to tell us what it’s like, man.  We know.

Except . . . we don’t always know.  We know a lot of things, to be sure; for me, not a day goes by that I don’t relate some student’s challenge to one of my experiences in law school.  Education is always a boon.  But the longer I do this work, the more I find that I have to work to find out what my students’ present experience is really like.  This is in part because law school is always changing and evolving.  Each class’s relationship to electronic research, for example, is just a little bit different from that of the previous class.  Economics change, student populations change, hot button issues change.  But these big changes, I think we do a fairly good job of staying on top of.  In fact, sometimes it seems Academic Support is ahead of the curve, and can help bring other members of the law school community – for example, those whose specialties do not change much from year to year – up to speed on them.

What I really find myself having to pay more attention to each semester is my students’ day-to-day realities.  Some of the mistakes I made when I first started providing academic support came about because I was taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and only with experience did I realize that it was really more like “one-size-fits-me”.  I was teaching to my experience in law school.  

Now, I am no longer satisfied knowing what classes my 1L students are taking each semester – I need to ask their individual professors for their syllabi, so I can know what topics they are hearing about each week, so I don’t assume that their Torts professor started off, like mine, with intentional torts, and therefore so I don’t pose a hypothetical that half my class can’t answer.  I try to participate in student club events, like fundraisers or dinners, so I can hear about mundane practical issues – things like parking and child care and the timing of holidays – that I never thought about in school, but some of my students have to.  I talk to other faculty and staff to find out the schedule of moot court and mediation competitions, visits from employers, and off-campus learning opportunities – stuff I was not particularly interested in myself when I was in law school – so I can better understand why a particular student might be coming to talk to me about a certain writing or time management issue.  I seek opportunities to listen to students who come from different locations, cultures, and economic circumstances, so I can be aware of what going to law school now is like for them.

Being a lawyer means having been a law student, and having been a law student can be a tremendous advantage when your job is to help other law students.  But having been a law student does not mean you have been all law students. 

(Bill MacDonald)

October 2, 2018 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Miscellany, Professionalism, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Your Academic Health Maintenance Organization

I used to be so jealous of the Financial Aid Office.  Nobody on campus seems to have any trouble understanding what they do for students.  If you have financial issues, they are there to aid you.  That's some spot-on branding right there.

In contrast, and for various historical, linguistic, and cultural reasons, those of us working in Academic Support often have to make more effort to get students, colleagues, and alumni to understand the full range of what we do.  Our roles in the law school community are relatively new, and have been for the most part continually evolving over the past forty years or so; neither circumstance breeds familiarity.  The names chosen for our departments vary from institution to institution -- Academic Support, Academic Success, Academic and Bar Support, etc. -- which I think both reflects and compounds the inherent inability of trying to convey all we do in only two to four words.  And in some cases people jump to conclusions about what we provide because of defensive or dismissive stereotypes -- like "Oh, you are here just to help the weaker students" or "All you care about is bar passage rates".

This year, I started using a new model to help my law school community understand and talk about what Academic Success has to offer.  I introduced this during Orientation, when I asked our incoming 1L students: When do you go to your doctor?  It did not take much coaxing to get them to agree that sensible people go to the doctor for lots of different reasons -- some dire, and some propitious:

  • When you are in a lot of distress, maybe even an emergency situation, your doctor can help keep you from suffering or dying.
  • When you have a cold or, say, a sprained ankle -- something you might live with, sure, but why suffer needlessly? -- your doctor can help you feel and perform better.
  • When you feel a little “off” but you're not sure why, your doctor can test for things like anemia or allergies, and diagnose and treat such afflictions before they snowball into major problems.
  • When are feeling fine, and you want to keep from getting sick, your doctor can give you a checkup to confirm that all is well, can advise you about what preventative medicines might be wise, like a flu shot, and can make sure that you have access to them. 
  • When you are thinking about undertaking something new (like a new exercise or diet regimen), your doctor can help make sure you do it right and maybe even give you some advice on how to do it better.

In the same way, there are many situations in which it would make perfectly good sense for a law school student to seek help from Academic Success:

  • When you are in crisis, you might be recommended or even required to meet with me, so I can try to help you avoid academic catastrophe.
  • When you feel you are struggling with a particular task or subject, Academic Success can help you get a better handle on things and help you perform better.
  • When you are worried about your progress or preparedness, but you can't put your finger on why, Academic Success can review your work and then provide some diagnosis, feedback, and assistance.
  • When things seem to be going well, but you know that new challenges (like your first set of 1L final exams or the Bar exam) are on the horizon, Academic Success can help confirm that you have developed a firm foundation and can help you map out what steps you should take to prepare.
  • When you are thinking about undertaking something new (like moot court or a part-time job), Academic Success can help you make sure you have a plan in place to make sure your studies continue to go well, and may even have some suggestions to help improve your performance.

In other words, one way of thinking about Academic Success is as a kind of Academic HMO.  Sure, we are here to help students in distress, and there is no more shame is seeking our help than there would be in going to the emergency room if you were having trouble breathing.  But that doesn't mean you have to wait until you're gasping and blue to come see us!  Just as with physical health, academic health is often best maintained, and at the least cost, when symptoms are addressed early, before they turn into crises.  And with our knowledge and experience, we can even advise students who are in good condition about how to continue to improve while avoiding potential dangers to their academic well-being.

I like this metaphor, not only because it provides an easily-understood conception of Academic Support to incoming students, but also because it conveys an appropriately broad image of the services we provide (and the clientele to whom we provide them) to upper class students, faculty, and alumni who might otherwise have a more narrow view of us.  It is too soon to tell if this explanation will lead to a change in the use of Academic Success here, but at least now, with a vivid, coherent way of explaining what I do, I feel a little bit less envious of my Financial Aid colleagues. (Bill MacDonald)

September 25, 2018 in Advice, Miscellany, Orientation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 23, 2018

How Undergraduates Think About Law School

Inside Higher Ed had a post this week reporting on a AALS and Gallup study that looked at what undergraduates consider when they are mulling over the option of law school. Some of the findings are expected after the ongoing discussions during the drop in applications. Other findings are interesting, especially those about first-generation students, information down the educational pipeline, and male/female differences. The post is found here. It includes a link to the AALS web page on the report. (Amy Jarmon)

September 23, 2018 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Is your school interested in being a conference host for AASE?

Hello, ASP colleagues:

As we begin planning in earnest for next summer’s conference in Seattle, AASE’s Executive Committee is beginning to think about subsequent conferences, including a diversity conference in the fall of 2019, the AASE Annual Conference in 2020, and beyond.  From our first conference, we have been fortunate enough to partner with amazing host schools, and we want to make sure we have every opportunity to continue that streak.   

We are trying to identify schools to host future conferences, large or small, and we need your help.  Whether you have considered hosting a conference before or not, we would love to hear from you.

To this end, I am writing to ask you to e-mail me if you think your school might be a good site for a future conference.  It is okay if you are unsure if your school would be a good fit—we will follow up with you to get further details and/or to answer any questions you might have. 

We look forward to hearing from you soon!

Best,

Russell

Russell A. McClain

President

AASE: Association of Aademic Support Educators

September 15, 2018 in Meetings, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 25, 2018

It's That Time of Year Again: Beloit's Mindset List for Freshmen

Every fall for a number of years, Beloit College has published a list for incoming freshmen as to what their life experiences have been. Many of the things that their professors remember as part of the culture and history of our everyday lives are beyond the ken of the new freshmen. It is a good reminder as to why law students may look at us blankly when we use examples containing cultural references they are unaware of from their own experiences. To read the Inside Higher Ed post on this year's list for the Class of 2022 freshmen, go to the following: 2018 Beloit List. To see lists for prior classes of entering freshmen who are now our own students, you can go to this link: Prior Lists for Entering Freshmen. (Amy Jarmon)

August 25, 2018 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The ASPer as "Parson"

When I was growing up, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary held the place of honor in our home.  Lying resplendent on a huge dictionary stand, it invited a curious child to spend hours poring over exotic new words and exclaiming over the origin of familiar words.  Even many decades later, it is a treat to cap off a pleasant evening by perusing my dictionary to contemplate words and their etymology.

Thus is was that, several years ago, I learned that "parson" -- that lovely and rather antiquated term for a Protestant minister -- derived from the Middle English persone for "person."  Intrigued, I did a little digging.  Not surprisingly, some explanations for why a minister / priest / vicar / curate / rector (choose your favorite term) would be referred to as a "person" were lengthy, theological, and dull.  But I stumbled across one article that resonated with me.  The parson's calling, this interpretation suggested, was indeed to just be -- a person.  In a society where people were defined by pedigree, social rank, and how they made a living, the parson's role was to be a person to everyone in the parish, high or low, rich or poor.  Performing rites like baptism, weddings, and funerals was really just a way of being a person in relationship with others -- welcoming the birth of a child, celebrating the ties of love and family, and mourning with the bereaved.  The hallmarks of a parson, this article concluded, were listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect.

I long ago lost this article about the parson as a professional "person," but it influenced and still guides the way I approach the profession of academic support.  I believe our highest and best calling as ASPers is to be a "parson" -- that is, to give primary emphasis to being a person in relationship to our students.  As ASPers, we have the training, education, and experience to help our students succeed.  But as Steven Foster pointed out last week, we can share our expertise best if we establish a relationship with our students first.

Moreover, we are often most effective when, by deep listening, we give students leave to follow their own best instincts rather than trudging along doing what they have convinced themselves they "should" do.  I think, for example, of the times struggling students have confided they are having trouble concentrating because a loved one is dying several hundred miles away.  Sometimes the best response is, "Don't you want to go home to be with your family?  I can help arrange things with your professors."  Given permission to honor their responsibilities as human beings, when they return to school they are then ready to concentrate and learn.

Listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect are the hallmarks of an academic support professional -- the "parson" of the law school.  (Nancy Luebbert)

August 22, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)