Sunday, August 22, 2021
It was fall 1980-something and I had just purchased an album that I was certain was going to change my world (spoiler: it did a little): Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police. I felt very hip catching the reference to Lolita in Don’t Stand So Close to Me and hummed Do do do do all around J.H.S. 141 where, sadly, none of my teachers reminded me of Sting. But there was another catchy little song on that album that was an earworm for us: Canary in a Coal Mine. In the song, someone is accused of being so overly cautious that they are not really living their life in a meaningful way. It was a song in favor of YOLO before YOLO was a thing. But if you were a canary living in a coal mine, you were being the opposite of cautious-you were essentially putting yourself on the line to be a warning to others coming after you.
In reality, until 1986, canaries were used to detect the presence of carbon monoxide (or other toxic gasses) in coal mines. The idea was that because canaries were sensitive to airborne toxins, if the canary got sick or died then the miners knew to vacate immediately. While the carbon monoxide detector in my house isn’t nearly as cute, it also doesn’t need to die to let me know if trouble is brewing.
I think I know how the (real, not song) canary felt. Last week, I taught in-person (everyone masked) in a room with about 100 people for hours of orientation. I also oriented a smaller group of students in an equally full and smaller room for a bunch more hours between those sessions. Each room was at its intended pre-pandemic capacity. The second room had been the COVID testing site in our building last year. Everyone in both rooms had been cleared as vaccinated or having a good reason why they were not. And yet, I was, and am, frightened that I may have been the canary in the coal mine.
As Academic Support professionals, at least at my school, we are the first line of academic related teaching most students encounter. We teach the court system, case briefing, reading, IRAC and a host of other things before classes begin and even do an early assessment to see students’ baselines when they come to law school. Doctrinal professors and legal writing faculty do not usually teach during orientation. So, if anything was going to go wrong in the midst of this new surge in COVID, ASP faculty would be the harbingers of that bad news.
Here’s the rub though, ASP faculty tend to be non-tenured, non-tenure track and at best, may have presumptively renewable contracts. We are more often women. We have no power to turn down this orientation assignment-we do not volunteer as tribute, we are scheduled to be there. Don’t get me wrong: I do not, for even a minute, think that my institution was intentionally using us as canaries and perhaps the power dynamic is more nuanced than I see it, but I just felt we had no real power to refuse without some consequences to our job security. Everyone else standing in front of the crowd had a different status than we did. They were not asking academic support faculty to do anything they weren’t willing to do themselves. They are compensated accordingly.
In all honestly, I’m not even sure I would have refused given the option, because it was exhilarating teaching in person to a big crowd again. Even masked, the energy of live teaching is irrefutable. It was liberating to use my whole body to teach. Truly. Yet, today, six days later, I am wishing that the testing room was still open, not because I don’t feel well, but because I would like to be officially told that I am well. I wish (gratuitous Police reference) people had not stood so close to me.
The fact that canaries were used in coal mines until 1986 was surprising to me-I was almost certain that the practice had died out at least a hundred years before that, but I am pretty sure that if mining companies had caged miners and used them as a warning system for toxic gasses back in the day, mine safety would have been far better, far sooner.
 New York City elementary and middle schools have numbers, not names. Yes, my kids think that is hilarious.
 And our amazing Deans and Associate Deans.
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
It is the start of the school year, and we are welcoming new classes of students to begin their courses of study in law school. Each course of study will comprise a score or more individual courses in particular subjects, and we hope that in due course every student will consume and fully digest a rich multi-course legal banquet. Of course.
Our versatile word "course" is derived from the Latin word "currere", meaning "to run" or "to flow". In all of its varied uses, it alludes to a sense of movement and progress, and this is particularly fitting when we think of the course of a law student's passage from matriculation to graduation. They arrive at school, eager and perhaps a bit awed as they imagine themselves advancing, starting off slowly, developing the knowledge, skill, and judgment of an attorney as they make their ways along, and then racing to the finish line to collect their prizes.
To many incoming 1L students, law school may seem like a watercourse -- like a channel through which they will be carried, sometimes swept through dizzying rapids, other times dragged through muddy waters of confounding breadth, ultimately to squeeze past a perilous bar and then be deposited at the port of Career, where their next adventure begins. In this view, all students need to do is learn to paddle, avoid rocking the boat, and make use of their brains and perseverance, and they will arrive at their destinations.
But there are better courses for comparison. Law school is best considered like a racecourse or a golf course -- not because their structures are more precisely analogous, but because of the way successful performers approach them. Sure, great sports performers make the most of their talents and training. But before they begin a race or a tournament, they get to know the course. A runner will trace out the course route, measuring the flats and the hills, and will plan out her pacing accordingly. A golfer will play or at least walk the course, making note of obstacles, slopes, and doglegs, and getting to know the feel of the greens. A skier will take practice runs down the course, developing a mental map so he can plan when to be cautious, when to be daring, when to push for speed. Knowing the course means they can make the best use of their skills and strategies over the long term.
So it is in law school. Week to week, month to month, semester to semester, knowing what it coming means students can expend their resources (time, attention, energy, etc.) more wisely. It means they can allow sufficient time to prepare for opportunities, or for challenges. It lessens the chances that they will wander out of bounds or run around in circles.
This is one of the reasons I love the start of the new academic year. It gives those of us in Academic Success a wonderful opportunity to provide something of immediate and long-term value to every new student we meet. We can walk them through the course! We can explain to them what a typical week will be like. We can preview all the major tasks of their first semester -- reading, attending class, outlining, midterms, legal writing assignments, practice tests, and final exams -- and help the students develop their own mental maps of the course. We can give them a bird's-eye of the entire tournament: the timing, value, and effort required of the opportunities and expectations they will encounter over the next few years. And we can do all of this for them painlessly -- not in response to an individual's frustration or anxiety or poor performance. It's the best part of the year, because we can give our students something they all can use, whether or not they have come into law school having learned the lesson that so many champions have learned: Successful performers don't see the course as running and carrying them along with it. They see the course as something they themselves run.
Wednesday, August 7, 2019
Brad Pitt and I -- we've got something in common. It's not money, or fame, or good looks -- definitely Brad has it all over me there. No, it's an invisible disability that affects the ability to forge relationships and work effectively with others. Both Brad Pitt and I have prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness.
Being able to recognize others is so important that it mostly goes without saying. In an evolutionary sense, knowing which humans belonged to your clan and which humans were competitors could help you decide whether to share prime gathering or hunting locations. In the modern world, those who easily recognize and connect with others are more successful, whether they are selling cars, cultivating allies for a political cause, or persuading jurors. Those on the low end of the scale for facial recognition labor under a distinct disadvantage. At the extreme, persons with prosopagnosia may not recognize family members or even their own faces. More commonly, those of us with prosopagnosia have experienced the awkwardness of welcoming someone to a group as a newcomer who has been there for the past two years; we may avoid receptions because of the awkwardness of having conversations with people who obviously know us when we don't recognize them, or we may steer ourselves away from people-oriented careers because we feel inadequate. And we compensate. For instance, at Orientation I listen to voices and try to memorize haircuts because frankly, most males between 20 and 40 look exactly the same to me (and ditto for females). And I e-mail a lot because I know the message will go to the right person that way.
Study after study on teaching effectiveness stresses the importance of getting to know your students, starting with learning their names. Instructors who don't learn their students' names can be perceived as remote and uncaring. Imagine, though, that names come easy enough, but the faces don't -- that every time you look at a person, you're trying to figure out not just their name, but whether this is a person you're meeting for the first time or someone with whom you had an intense hour-long meeting last week. Theoretically, if one's only interactions with students were in the actual classroom, table tents and seating charts could alleviate the problem. But the real world isn't that simple -- we interact with our students not only in the classroom, but also in the office, the hallways, the parking lot, and even in the grocery store and gas station. How heartrending it is to see a student in the hallway and not be able to tell if s/he is the one who just returned from the funeral of a loved one!
When I work with students with a learning, emotional, or physical disability, it is common for them to tell me they feel intensely isolated by the disability. So many students who are entitled to classroom or exam accommodations decide not to take advantage of them, often to their considerable academic detriment, because they fear taking accommodations will flag them as different, and emotionally different feels like inferior, even though intellectually they realize they are the equals of all their classmates. So in a way I welcome the disabilities I have, because they allow me to better understand my students. While I certainly don't claim to understand their exact situation, I do relate to the experience of feeling like "the other" in a situation I did not create. In my case, I combat the isolation by disclosing my prosopagnosia to students from the start of Orientation; that way, they can understand I'm not disregarding them when I don't recognize them. Heather Sellers, teacher and author of You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, says that her prosopagnosia has been a gift:
We all have brains that are really good at some things and quite disappointing in other areas. We all need help -- with names, directions, public speaking, balancing our finances. My social thriving . . . depends on my asking, calmly, clearly, and plainly -- no drama, no apology -- for assistance. . . . This practice has changed my life, my relationships, my teaching.
Since asking for help is a lawyerly skill, modeling this behavior helps my students see it as what a lawyer does. And I'm very open with students about my coping mechanisms, from liberal use of flashcards to asking them to identify themselves each time they speak with me. And as Heather Sellers says, "[A]fter learning about prosopagnosia, and coming out into the world with it, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the goodness of people. . . . People offer to help me, always. I feel more connected . . . to my fellow humans than ever before."
Humor can be a potent weapon in overcoming the isolating effects of many a disability. Years back, when I was first coming to terms with prosopagnosia, a student came to my office for case briefing advice. "Before we go on," I said, "remind me what you name is." "A____ S___," she replied. I looked mock sternly at her. "I'm sorry," I said, "you are not allowed to be A.S. I make flashcards of all the 1Ls, and I memorized six 1Ls last night, one of whom as A.S. So since I don't recognize you, you can't be her. "I cut my hair yesterday," she laughed. "You are not allowed to cut your hair," I deadpanned. "Or change its color. In fact, for the next three years I expect you to wear the same clothes as your 1L photo so I can recognize you, although you should probably have two sets so you can launder them occasionally." Because she laughed, and helped me, through the next three years, I eventually grew to recognize and treasure A.S. -- through many hairstyles, color changes, and a variety of clothing.
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.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
If you are starting law school in fall semester, you've entered the in-between times. The initial euphoria of being accepted into your school has worn off; Orientation and the first month of classes may feel either maddeningly distant or terrifyingly close. Even as you wrap up one phase of your life, you may be uncertain about how to prepare for the next. Here's some practical advice on bridging the gap.
Do What's Required
- Know what you have to do before classes start, and do it. Do you register for your own classes, or does the law school register you? Is Orientation mandatory or elective? What books must you buy, and when must you complete required readings? Is there any paperwork you must complete and turn in? Don't procrastinate: get these tasks done.
- Read all e-mails from the law school, respond as necessary, and save them in a separate, appropriately-named folder: chances are you will later have to refer back to messages that don't seem critical now. Check your junk folder regularly so you don't overlook mass mailings sent to the entire class.
- If you receive a summer reading list from your law school, make sure you understand which readings are mandatory, which are recommended, and which are merely well-meaning suggestions for incoming students with a lot of time on their hands. If you're not sure which among a list of suggested readings would be helpful to you, contact the law school's academic support office for practical advice.
Learn About Law School
- The world is full of books and websites that purport to prepare you for law school. Several dozens are wonderful. But much of the advice is -- shall I be blunt? -- ineptly well-meaning at best and positively harmful at worst. Be cautious of books, websites, and courses of the "how-to-go-to-law-school" genre, especially those heavily supported by testimonials, promoted by commercial companies, or written by a random "J.D." If your law school doesn't give specific suggestions, seek materials written by law school academic support professionals, who are experts in law school learning and the process of transitioning from novice to expert law learners.
- Don't go overboard on devouring materials about first-year success. One well-chosen book will give you more than enough grist for your mill.
- Don't try to learn the law before you enter law school. This is a waste of your time, and it often backfires because your early superficial learning can cause you to tune out the more nuanced understanding you should acquire in law school.
Make Practical Preparations
- Put your finances in order as far as possible. Retire any debts you can, create a budget, sell unnecessary stuff, and differentiate between your "needs" and "wants." Making these adjustments before law school will reduce your financial stress in law school.
- BUT -- Accept extra expenses if they will result in a significant academic or professional payoff. A more expensive apartment closer to the law school may be a better choice than a cheap house that requires a 90-minute commute. Buying physical casebooks almost always results in deeper learning than borrowing books or settling for e-books.
- Make the physical transition to law school early. If you will be moving across town or across the country, settle into your new digs before Orientation begins. Create a mental map of the grocery, coffee shops, bookstores, bike shops, or other physical spaces that you'll need to feel grounded.
- Learn the way between your apartment and the law school, and find at least one alternate route. Ask about traffic patterns and rush hours so you don't risk coming late to class. If you drive, purchase parking passes in advance and find at least two parking lots you can use.
- Buy your books early. Thousands of law students purchasing casebooks at the same time can create bottlenecks with booksellers; plan for delays.
Prepare Yourself Mentally
- Celebrate your reason for going to law school. Your passion is what makes the work of law school worthwhile.
- Determine what kind of person you will be during the three years of law school, both inside and outside the law building. The happiest law students maintain a positive mental attitude. They consider classmates to be collaborators rather than rivals; they feel comfortable asking for help when necessary; they maintain relationships; they practice gratitude; they "don't sweat the small stuff."
- Prepare the precious people in your life for your transition, and tell them explicitly how much they mean to you. Brainstorm in advance some ways in which you can keep your relationships vital even as you take on the challenge of law school.
- Tune up your brain for difficult learning ahead. One of the best ways of doing this is by hard reading -- that is, by tackling non-law books that are far outside your comfort zone. For example, an English major might plunge into tomes about physics and biology; an engineer might choose a work by a philosopher or economist. Talk back to the book as you read, and write a summary of each chapter or section as you go.
- Open yourself to accept new methods of learning. Even if you were wildly successful in undergraduate and graduate school, chances are that you will have to adopt new ways of learning to reach your potential in law school. Your academic support professionals will work with you to help you learn most effectively in this new environment.
- Consider adding a meditation or mindfulness practice to your life, which can pay off both in reduced stress and in mental acuity.
- Cultivate regular and positive habits of sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and effective stress management, which will provide mental, physical, and academic benefits over your three-year marathon.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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)
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Most (if not all) law schools offer an orientation program to their incoming first-year class. But, only a few schools offer a specially tailored orientation program for transfer students and visiting students. Over the last few years, I've noticed that our transfer students were missing certain critical announcements and failing to take full advantage of the the school's resources. So, this year we decided to join the growing minority and offered a program for those students who were joining our law school community after their first-year of law school.
We started by inviting all of the transfer and visiting students to a catered luncheon, hosted by two 3L students who transferred into our school last year. After the newcomers had a chance to meet each other, and ask questions of the current 3L transfers, everyone headed into a conference room to discuss topics of particular interest to upper-level transfer students. The academic dean and registrar spent roughly 45 minutes reviewing all of our school's upper-level academic requirements to ensure that each student had a comprehensive plan geared toward an on-time graduation. The rest of the agenda included short (i.e. 5-10 minutes) presentations by the various assistant deans and directors, and covered:
- applying for merit scholarships and other financial aid funding as upper-level students;
- maintaining academic integrity and professional responsibility;
- navigating the already in-progress fall semester on campus interviews;
- taking advantage of academic support resources, especially bar exam preparation;
- trying out for co-curricular opportunities, such as Law Review, Moot Court, and Trial Advocacy;
- participating in student life, including wellness and student organizations;
- registering for Lexis, Westlaw, and TWEN; and
- resolving other logistical concerns, such as parking passes and the bookstore.
Each presenter introduced themselves, briefly outlined the services available at their office, and then provided the students with a handout that they could review on their own. The goal was to keep the entire event, including the luncheon, under 3 hours, while also ensuring that the transfer students became familiar with their new community's procedures and personnel. Despite the tight timetable, we consciously set aside a few minutes at the end of the discussion for students to raise additional topics that they wanted to explore, before concluding with an optional tour of the law school building. (Kirsha Trychta)
Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Now that the bar exam is over, it's time to turn our attention to the incoming first-year students. Orientation is right around the corner. I have roughly 50 minutes to speak with the students during orientation about academic support programming. I used to give a lecture style overview and then distribute some handouts. The students politely listened, but few left the session enthused about the Academic Excellence Center. For the last few years, however, I've used the IF-AT lottery scratcher quizzes during orientation, with much success. Now, after adopting the scratcher quizzes, students routinely queue up to chat with me after the session. Here are the details.
1. What's an IF-AT Quiz?
According to the creator's website, the "Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique, also known as the IF-AT, is an exciting and revolutionary new testing system that transforms traditional multiple-choice testing into an interactive learning opportunity for students and a more informative assessment opportunity for teachers." In more direct terms, it's a small card that looks like a lottery scratcher. The correct answer has a star (*) underneath, while the wrong answers are blank. Students can take a guess from the four options. If they are correct, they'll see a star and get full credit for the question. If they are wrong, then they'll see a blank space, and have the opportunity to select again from the three remaining responses.
You can buy the scratchers online. The smallest box available for purchase is a 10-question, 4 answer choice batch of 500 scracthers at a cost of $90 plus $15 shipping and handling. You can also get longer and more complex quiz formats at a slightly higher price. I only use about 20 scratchers at orientation for an incoming class of 100 students. So, for just $115, I now have enough scratchers to last me for my entire ASP career (assuming that I'm only using the scratchers at orientation).
2. What kind of questions do you put on the orientation quiz?
I draft a 10-question quiz with both facts that I want the students to know about the Academic Excellence Center and academic support tips that are helpful during the first two weeks of school. The current version of the quiz includes questions like:
-- Before joining WVU Law, Professor Trychta worked as: (a) a family law attorney, (b) a judicial law clerk, (c) a federal prosecutor, or (d) a professional writer.
-- Dean’s Fellows are: (a) students on full academic scholarship, (b) select high-performing upper level students who apply to work as paid tutors, (c) the student who earned the highest grade in a particular course, or (d) volunteer upper-level students who serve as “big brothers” and “big sisters.”
-- Professor Trychta is available to meet with students: (a) on a first come, first serve, walk-in basis anytime; (b) on a first come, first serve, walk-in basis during posted office hours; (c) with or without an appointment at any time; or (d) by appointment only.
-- There are 13 subjects on the essay section of the Uniform Bar Exam (or West Virginia bar exam). How many of those subjects are required at WVU Law? (a) 7, (b) 9, (c) 11, or (d) 13.
-- The biggest challenge for most first-year law students is: (a) understanding the reading assignments, (b) balancing time commitments (a.k.a. time management), (c) getting “cold called” in class, or (d) learning the legal vocabulary.
-- Which is a true statement? (a) Professor Trychta once walked 125 miles in 4 days. (b) Law students should practice multitasking while in law school, because it is valuable skill for young lawyers. (c) Because of the volume of material discussed, your computer is a must-have in the classroom to take notes. (d) For the best results when studying, read the material over and over again until you know it cold.
-- How many hours per week should a law student anticipate studying outside of class? (a) 17-34 hours per week, (b) 34-51 hours per week, (c) 51-68 hours per week, or (d) there is no magic number.
-- During the fall semester, the Writing Center will periodically offer writing workshops on which day of the week? (a) Monday, (b) Tuesday, (c) Wednesday, or (d) Thursday.
Each question is designed to invite conversation among the students and between the students and myself.
3. How do you administer the quiz?
I hand out a copy of the quiz to every student. I then give each student about 3-5 minutes to look over the quiz individually and to mark their preliminary guesses. Next, I put the students in small groups and distribute the IF-AT scratcher. I tell them that they must work together to select the best answer, as a group. Students are told that the group with the highest score will receive a small prize. Groups earn 3 points if they select the correct answer on their first try, 2 points for a second choice, 1 point for a third choice, and no points if the correct answer is the only answer remaining from the four original choices. The maximum scores is 30 points.
After each group has a chance to complete their card, I review the answers with everyone. The quiz review component goes quickly because the students already know the right answer (from completing the scratcher) and have already discussed the pros/cons of the other answer choices. I'm simply reinforcing what they discovered for themselves earlier in the session.
4. What if you don't have a designated timeslot during orientation?
For this upcoming year, in an effort to better streamline the overloaded orientation agenda, I agreed to move my ASP session to one of the catered lunch breaks. It's now a working luncheon. I plan to place copies of the quiz on the round lunch tables prior to the students arrival. Once everyone is seated with their meals, I'll explain the rules to the game. The students can then eat and chat about the quiz, in a relaxed setting. I fully expect that the lunch table layout will actually foster and aid the group project, not hinder it. I also plan to walk around the room and introduce myself to the lunch tables. By the time I say hello to each table, it will be time to tally up the points and declare a winner.
So, if you don't currently have a designated time slot, and the students have a catered lunch break, I recommend asking if you can turn the lunch into a working ASP lunch.
Sunday, July 8, 2018
Law students are the "cream of the crop" out of undergraduate, graduate, and employment situations. Typically they have been very involved in student or community organizations; often they have held multiple leadership positions at once. Many worked part-time or full-time during their studies. Some had additional family responsibilities while studying: elder care, child care, marriage.
In short law students are "doers" in their pre-law-school lives. They have juggled a variety of experiences while getting A and B grades in school. Often they tell me they "never had to study" to get those top grades. Many tell me that they studied under 20 hours per week; some tell me that they studied under 10 hours per week. They also tell me they wrote papers the night before and never studied more than a couple of days for tests. When academic pursuits come easily, it leaves lots of room for other pursuits.
Most law students enter law school with the impression that they can continue their high involvement in activities and still get the highest grades. However, a more cautious approach is probably the wiser approach - at least the first semester. Here are some of the reasons why over-involvement may be less than optimal:
- The cohort in the first-year class is different than the past cohorts in most classes. Remember all of you are from the "cream of the crop," and consequently the outstanding level of intelligence and achievement of your new classmates is likely different from the past. Law students were accepted to law school because they excelled in their prior lives.
- Law school is different than other educational experiences and will require new learning strategies and study skills for success. All first-year students find the fall semester an adjustment as they face different expectations for classes and exams.
- The pace of learning is faster in law school because more material that is dense and complex is covered in a semester. On top of preparing for class, law students need to synthesize the material and practice application of that material to new fact scenarios to prepare for best exam performance.
- Legal research and writing courses require lengthy projects using different analysis and writing skills than previously acquired. Even excellent writers previously have to retool their techniques because legal analysis is more precise and concise. A well-written legal writing project can take consistent work over several weeks with multiple drafts.
We want new law students to get involved in the life and organizations of the law school so they feel part of their new environment. However, here are some tips for entering law students to help them make wise selections regarding their level of involvement:
- Attend any student organization fairs that your law school holds to find out more about the variety of student organizations: purposes, events, requirements for membership, time commitments.
- Attend sessions that may explain community opportunities for your involvement: pro bono clinics, volunteer opportunities, service organizations, local bar organizations.
- Consider any school requirements on your time as a law student: required pro bono hours, mandatory extended orientation meetings for first-year students, supplemental study group-tutoring sessions.
- Consider your personal interests and career goals that may match student organizations or community opportunities: oil and gas law, criminal defense, immigration law, homeless populations, animal abuse, diversity.
- Consider time commitments that you already have outside law school: elderly relatives nearby, spouse/partner, children, pets, religious services, national guard service.
- Weigh all of these factors and look for balance in your commitments in all areas of your life; determine your priorities for your time - both academic and non-academic.
- Become involved in one or two activities that are good matches for you; focus on being a member who regularly attends meetings, social events, and speakers. You will get to know other students (especially upper-division students with whom you have no classes), feel more connected to the law school community, and have several items for your resume.
- Possibly consider being on a committee for an organization, but probably avoid being a committee chair or an officer during your first semester. There will be plenty of time in future semesters to take on positions of leadership.
- If you choose a "heavy-hitter" commitment such as Student Bar Association or class officer, be even more aware of not stretching yourself too thin your first semester.
Get involved in law school life, but make academics a major priority while you acclimate to the different demands of law school. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
If you are a soon-to-be-first-year law student, you may find that it takes you several weeks to get acclimated to all of the new technology lingo used in law school. You'll be expected to quickly familiarize yourself with several new websites and research platforms. To help you get a jump start, I’ve created a list of the most common technology resources you'll encounter in your first few days of law school.
Legal Research Databases
Westlaw and LexisNexis are the two most popular web based legal research databases--essentially Google for lawyers. While these research tools require costly subscriptions for lawyers, law students get to use them for free. Each company's site has its own strengths and weaknesses (i.e. think Walmart and Target), and I encourage you to become comfortable using both services, because you never know which company your future employer will prefer.
To get started, you'll need a registration code or password from your law school. While you are waiting for the registration code to arrive, you can watch tutorial videos online to become familiar with the basics of Westlaw and LexisNexis. Both companies have even more training videos available after you officially login.
Classroom Management Tools
TWEN (accessed via Westlaw) allows professors to post materials for download, assign quizzes, and send class announcements. You will need to affirmatively register for each of your courses using the "add course" tab.
E-Campus (a.k.a. Blackboard) has the same features as TWEN, but you are typically automatically enrolled in the course.
Star or Banner is used by many schools' registrars for course registration, add/drop, and grade dissemination.
Supplemental Study Materials
Barbri, Kaplan, and Themis are three of the most popular bar preparation companies. Each company also offers first-year and second-year study materials, including outline books, lecture videos, and practice exams. Your law school may have a business relationship with one or more of the bar preparation providers. If so, be sure to take advantage of any free resources the company provides. I caution you, however, against paying out-of-pocket for anything extra. You can usually get enough free resources through your law school, such as from the Academic Excellence Center or library, that paying out-of-pocket is unnecessary.
CALI is a non-profit organization offering practice quizzes and tutorial videos for virtually every law school subject. CALI is free to all law students. You just need a registration code from your law school to get started.
Many students report that Quimbee is helpful during the first year, but Quimbee will cost you extra. Quimbee, like the other supplemental study resources mentioned above, provides case briefs, outlines, lesson videos, and practice questions.
Finally, many new law school textbooks come with a registration code, granting you access to free online study resources. Check the inside cover of your textbook for more details.
Other Technology Tasks
In addition to familiarizing yourself with these new resources, you may also want (or need) to go online and complete these other technology tasks:
Configure your computer to access the law school's wireless internet
Create an account to print at the law school or library
Set up a calendaring system (paper or digital, your choice)
Learn if your school offers free software downloads to students, such as Microsoft Word or security software
Set up a backup storage solution for all of your files, such as the free version of Dropbox
Sunday, July 1, 2018
Law school is different from most prior educational experiences because it is a professional school using different learning and testing experiences than what undergraduate and graduate education use. Students who treat law school just like undergraduate school are frequently disappointed in their first-semester results.
First-year students need to adapt to the new learning environment if they want to achieve the level of grades they have the potential for in their studies. Here are several ways that law school is different than past educational experiences and what those differences mean to the approach needed:
- You are learning relevant skills for your career in each course. In prior education, we often had courses that had no future impact on our lives: general education courses, interesting but unrelated electives, majors that we did not intend to use after university. In law school, each course is providing you with one or more skills needed in the daily practice of law: analysis of case precedents and statutes; legal reasoning skills; analysis of both sides of a legal problem; precise/concise legal writing; policy arguments; judicial reasoning; procedural rules. The skills in each course build on the skills in previous courses and ultimately determine one's readiness to practice law upon graduation. In addition, much of the content from required courses is tested on the bar exam after graduation. Time spent in successful law school learning (as opposed to short-term studying) pays off in the future in major ways.
- What you do in class each day is important, but is not what you need to do on the exams. Law school exams focus on applying the law that you have extrapolated from reading appellate cases/statutes for the topics and subtopics in the course. In class you look at cases/statutes to understand what the actual law is and why that is the law. You learn how to tear apart cases/statutes to understand the law, how courts analyze the law, and how lawyers argue the law. On exams you typically are asked to solve a new factual scenario by applying the law and analyzing the arguments for both sides of the dispute. You need to synthesize the law (make connections across the "black letter law": rules, variations of rules, exceptions to rules, policy arguments, etc.) for topics/subtopics and apply that deeper understanding of the law to the analysis. As a lawyer, you will read and analyze cases/statutes every day and then apply that law to construct arguments to solve your client's legal dispute.
- Your professors expect you to prepare thoroughly for class and will not spoon feed you. Law students often tell me that prior professors told them exactly what to learn for the test so that they did not have to learn any material independently. They just copied down notes and memorized the material to regurgitate on the exam. In law school, professors expect you to not only read the cases carefully, but also understand how those cases fit together before you come to class. They will hit the highlights and make some connections (again that idea of "synthesis"), but will not tell you exactly what will be on the exams. You need to synthesize (again that word!) what you learn each class into the larger topic/subtopic and understand how to use the material to solve legal problems.
- Memorization of the "black letter law" is essential, but only the beginning of your learning for exam success. Law students often think they just need to memorize the law to succeed academically. You must know the law well so that you can to spot the legal issues in dispute ("issue spotting") and accurately state the law that applies. However, you then need have the higher-learning skill of understanding that law (why it works the way it does; when variations or exceptions come into play; when policy arguments might be appropriate, etc.) to gain points on the exam. Application of the law to the new scenario facts and analysis of the legal arguments are major skills for exam success. Evaluating the arguments for both parties to state a conclusion is needed - but the application and analysis are where the big exam points typically are.
- Exams are typically comprehensive over all of the 15-week semester's material. Many law students relate that they never had a comprehensive exam before law school. They had four or five tests over a semester that covered pieces of the course, but never put the entire course together at one time. They did well on those partial exams because they could cram a limited universe of knowledge, dump it on the exam, and forget it afterwards. Because law school exams tend to cover all of the course material, law students need to review the material and practice applying it throughout the semester; there is too much material to cram everything at the end and have enough time for applying that material to practice questions before the exam.
- Important study steps (outlines and practice questions) are needed beyond daily class preparation. It is very easy to get caught up in class preparation and not include other important study steps in your weekly schedule. Because synthesis, application, and analysis are critical to exam success, law students have to manage their time carefully to allow time for regular synthesis and regular application. Outlines flip your thinking from individual cases to concepts and inter-relationships within subtopics/topics that support analysis. Practice questions after review allow you to apply the law to varied fact scenarios and practice analysis and evaluation before the final exam.
You are not alone in trying to make these adaptations! You have a number of people who are there to help if you take advantage of the resources offered to you. However, you need to use the resources to gain the benefits.
Many professors will initially help students in class to see how to analyze cases and synthesize them into topics/subtopics. They may offer fact-scenario questions so that students can practice application and analysis. Professors are available to answer questions outside of class. The academic support/success professionals at your law school will offer workshops on a variety of study skills that lead to academic success. You can also request individual appointments with those ASP folks. Many law schools have upper-division teaching assistants/tutors to supplement your first-year classes. Many law schools also offer writing specialists or writing centers to assist you.
You can successfully adapt to the different law school educational experience by being aware of the differences and then seeking assistance as needed. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Congratulations to all of our readers who are entering law school this fall! We look forward to welcoming you into our law school families.
Studying the law is fascinating, but it can also be a challenge. However, don't spend your summer stressing out about the new path in front of you. Spend this summer enjoying your summer while still taking some proactive steps for law school.
New 1Ls often ask what they should do over the summer months to prepare for law school. Here are some thoughts on worthy pursuits:
- Spend quality time with family and friends. Many law students attend law school away from home. For some law students, it will be the first time they are far away. Take time now to make positive connections with the people who matter to you and build memories that will sustain you in the busy months ahead. You will find that going home every weekend will most likely not happen during law school because of deadlines and workload. So enjoy your favorite people this summer while you have more flexibility.
- Organize your arrival in your law school city for several days before orientation starts. Orientation Week at law school will be very busy. Unlike other educational experiences, assignments will be heavy in all courses from the first class. If possible move in to your new apartment 5-7 days ahead. That gives you time to unpack boxes, get cable/internet hooked up, explore your city, stock groceries, etc. Your entry into law school will be more relaxed if you have some settling-in time before you report for orientation.
- Make careful reading for comprehension an every day habit. Spend the summer reading mysteries, romance novels, the classics, news articles, biographies - don't read legal tomes about torts, civil procedure, or contracts. (You will read more pages in law school than you have probably ever read in your life, so there is no reason to start reading law yet.) Our digital lives prompt us to skim and read superficially, but legal cases and documents are dense and will require careful reading for comprehension. So make it a habit this summer of reading carefully. Read entire articles and books instead of headings and random paragraphs. Ask questions about what you are reading to check your comprehension. Look up vocabulary you do not know. Good reading habits will pay off.
- Brush up on your grammar and punctuation rules. Communication is the bread and butter of lawyering. Law students are often surprised at how important grammar and punctuation are to legal writing. Litigation outcomes can be determined by the correct placement of a comma in a contract! A summer review of these rules can boost your confidence in your legal writing course this fall.
- Write down the reasons you want to go to law school and become a lawyer. Be more reflective than just what you put in that personal essay for your application. It is not uncommon for law students to wonder at times during their legal studies why they went to law school and why they wanted to become a lawyer. Your list of reasons can be a morale booster if you get bogged down in reading cases, writing papers, and taking final exams and temporarily lose perspective.
- Practice setting a schedule. Once law school starts, your time will need to be very structured to complete all the necessary study tasks. Most successful law students study some in the evenings and during the weekend as well as daytime hours Monday through Friday. You will become more adept at time management if you can get used to setting a routine schedule for your summer tasks: work, family responsibilities, chores, errands, sleep, meals, exercise.
- Recognize and manage the distractions in your life. Most of us procrastinate at least some of the time. Today's world offers us a myriad of distractions to encourage avoidance. Determine what your time wasters are and get them under control this summer, so you can better manage your time once you get to law school. Here are some common time wasters that law students have to conquer: electronic interruptions (email, social media, phone calls, texting, surfing the Internet), video games, TV marathons, naps, midweek partying.
- Read one good book about succeeding in law school. Some suggestions are: Expert Learning for Law Students by Michael Hunter Schwartz; 1L of a Ride by Andrew J. McClurg; Succeeding in Law School by Herb N. Ramy; 1000 Days to the Bar by Dennis J. Tonsing. There are other good books written by academic success professionals and law professors, but these four are classics.
Having a restful summer and recharging your batteries will go a long way to being ready for law school. Enjoy the anticipation! Realize that you were admitted because your law school expects you to succeed in legal studies. Following these tips can help you ease into law school with confidence. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, September 4, 2017
We just completed our first week of school at Carolina Law. Like many law students throughout the country, our 1Ls experienced their first week of Socratic classes. They read and briefed their cases. They’ve been introduced to legal citations and the hierarchy of authority. They’ve taken advantage of the free lunches provided at the various student organization meetings.
After a week of law school, many 1Ls may wonder whether they will have enough time during the day to stay afloat. They may worry that they are spending way too much time reading their cases. And despite the large amount of time that they are devoting to reading their cases, they may mistakenly fear that they are the only ones in their classroom who are not able to fully follow the various hypotheticals that their professors ask in class. They may question whether they are fit for law school.
1Ls: If you are feeling this way, remember that law school is a marathon. There may be times during the year when you feel like you have to run a little faster than normal. But, the sprint for the finish line is really not until the end of the semester when you have to answer the final exam hypotheticals.
Consider a lot of what is happening during the semester as your training for that sprint. Yes. You might falter every now and then as you train. But, don’t get discouraged. Try to learn from the misstep, and fine-tune your next step so that you continue to progress. You are just starting to develop your critical thinking muscles. You are beginning to strengthen your ability to perform legal analysis. You are establishing a foundation of stamina that will help push you through the marathon—including the sprint to the end.
Like many athletes who start a new sport season, you are in a training camp right now. And this training camp is unlike any other training camp you have experienced before. Learning how to learn the law takes time. It takes practice. It takes repetition. Keep putting in the time, because the more you practice, the better you will get. But, make sure that you are active and engaged when you are reading and studying. You can’t passively learn the law; you have to be present and in the moment. And make sure to leave some time for you to do the kinds of things that make you “You.” Law school is a big part of who you are right now. But, it is not all of you.
You will find that it will take you less time to read and brief your cases in the next few weeks. You will find that your critical thinking skills will begin to improve. You will find that your ability to synthesize rules and apply those rules to different factual scenarios will become easier and, dare I say . . . fun!
Best of luck as you continue your training! And remember you have great ASP folks at your schools to help coach you and cheer you on! (OJ Salinas)
September 4, 2017 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Orientation, Reading, Sports, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, August 28, 2017
I have returned to some normalcy after the conclusion of our two pre-orientation programs.
Our Legal Education Advancement Program (“LEAP”) is a voluntary pre-orientation program available to every incoming 1L student at Carolina Law. Faculty members participating in LEAP help students transition to the study of law by introducing them to a variety of topics, including jurisprudence, case briefing, exam writing, and the Socratic class. We had 56 incoming 1Ls who chose to participate in our first LEAP session a week and a half ago. We had another 47 incoming 1Ls who chose to participate in our second LEAP session last week. The total was nearly half of our incoming 1L class!
I am sure many ASP folks will agree that it can be an interesting feeling running these pre-orientation programs: it’s weirdly both draining and energizing. You can feel really drained from the immense amount of work that goes into preparing for and delivering the program. Yet, you can also feel energized when a new set of students enters your law school building. You feel a certain thrill and special motivation knowing that you get to be a part of the start of the students’ successful transition into the study of law. You know that your students are going to do great things during and after law school, and you are lucky to help train them on this wonderful marathon. Seeing light bulbs start to go off in your students’ minds during your programming, and receiving positive responses from faculty, staff, students, and administrators are icing on the cake.
Like many of you, I had a great group of folks who helped out during our pre-orientation programs (many of whom I thanked and tweeted about @ojsalinas). I also appreciated how many faculty, staff, and administrators came out to meet and have lunch with our LEAP students.
Wishing everyone a great start to another academic year!
Monday, August 21, 2017
I mentioned in last week’s blog about my inability to remain focused on our law school's voluntary pre-orientation program for incoming 1Ls due to events related Charlottesville. As I continue my efforts to remain focused, I’ll try to spend a few minutes talking about a topic that many of you likely discuss with your students, either during a similar orientation or pre-orientation program or in workshops or individual conferences: whether students should handwrite their notes or take them on a laptop.
The use of laptops in class rightfully generates much discussion on faculty and ASP mailing lists, particularly at the start of the semester. The discussion has even entered the Twitter realm (for example, here and here; H/T Prof. Ellie Margolis and Prof. Katherine Kelly).
I know there is a lot research and concerns out there relating to laptop use and taking notes. For instance: (1) students may often find it difficult to follow classroom dialogue while trying to type everything down that is discussed in class; and (2) there are potential distractions related to laptop use in class—both for the student doing something that he/she should not be doing on the laptop and for those students sitting near this student.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the research and concerns. I understand that laptops can create tempting distractions for our students. And I agree that we don’t want students “zoned out” from using laptops in our classes. But, we should also not want to “zone out” students who may need to use a laptop in class as a critical learning tool for them.
So, I want to caution folks before they decide to ban laptops entirely in the classroom. I want folks to remember that banning laptops may create a situation where students with an accommodation for a learning disability are forced to disclose that they have a learning disability. This forced disclosure may not be an issue for some students—they may not complain or make much of the ban, or they might not care that they are the only student in a 70+ class who has his/her laptop out in a no-laptop use classroom. So, a complete laptop ban may not be that much of an issue for some students. But, it could still be an issue.
If you are a strong proponent for absolutely no laptop use in class, perhaps your student affairs office might be able to not place students who have laptop use as an accommodation in your class. Of course, this recommendation may only work if you happen to teach a course that is also offered during the same semester by a faculty member who does not have a laptop ban.
Perhaps, someone like a student affairs or ASP professional may have a chat with those students who are disengaged in the classroom to see what may be contributing to the disengagement. Is it solely the laptop? Or, as those of us in the law school ASP world know, are there other academic or non-academic factors that may be impacting the student’s ability to “follow along in class”? Are the students distracted by a laptop disengaged because the laptop is in front of them? Or, is something happening outside of the classroom that may be motivating the student to disengage on the laptop? Could it be easier for a student who is having a challenging time in law school to disengage, rather than continuing to try and fail?
One more recommendation if you are a strong proponent for absolutely no laptop use in class: maybe, reconsider why you have the no laptop policy in the first place.
Do we assume that students who handwrite their notes never disengage? Or, can a student on a social media account be just as "zoned out" as someone daydreaming or drawing an elaborate doodle on his/her notebook paper?
Do we assume that someone who has a laptop will automatically be programmed to type everything down verbatim in class and, thus, not follow along in the classroom dialogue? Do we assume that someone who is handwriting his/her notes will not automatically try to write everything (or as much) down in class and, thus, will follow along in the classroom dialogue? I suspect we have had many students in our classrooms who prove and disprove both assumptions.
Do we assume that those students who are using a laptop are naturally worse note-takers—that they have not developed or cannot develop with guidance (from great ASP folks, like us!) effective methods for taking notes in a law school class? Do we assume that those students who handwrite their notes all have developed the proper method for effective and efficient ways to take notes in a law school class? Again, I suspect we have had many students in our classrooms who prove and disprove both assumptions.
And, finally, are we even aware of, or do we automatically discount, the various computer applications out there that might be geared for diverse learning styles or that might help keep our students’ notes better organized?
We often try to train our law students on flexible thinking—that there may often not just be a black or white answer to things in the law; that there, frustratingly, is often a large shade of gray in the law; that the answer to many questions in the law may often be “It depends.”
Perhaps, we can practice a little of what we preach. Just because we may not be able to take effective notes using a laptop in a law school classroom doesn’t mean our students are unable to take effective notes on a laptop in class. And just because we may not have needed a laptop to succeed in law school doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else could not succeed in law school by using one. Some students may actually need the laptop to help them succeed. And a “black" or "white" law might actually say that they are entitled to use a laptop in class. (OJ Salinas)
August 21, 2017 in Advice, Current Affairs, Disability Matters, Diversity Issues, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Learning Styles, Miscellany, Orientation, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, August 14, 2017
Focusing When You’re Frustrated and, Potentially, Frightened: Some ASP Thoughts Following Charlottesville
Like many individuals throughout the country, I was saddened to see and hear what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I am not sure I have the words to describe my thoughts and feelings related to this weekend. Or, maybe, I do. But, they are likely not suitable for this blog.
I’ll try to focus the rest of this post on a topic related to law school academic success. Surely, this weekend’s events don’t relate to our students’ academic success. Right? It’s not like this weekend’s events could impact our students’ abilities to focus on their law school studies. Right?
Let me refocus.
Surely, I have other things that I should be thinking and worrying about . . . like, law school pre-orientation programs. I am running the first of our two voluntary pre-orientation programs for incoming 1Ls later this week. I will have worked with over 40% of our incoming 1L class before the start of orientation. These students are incoming 1Ls who have volunteered to participate in our Legal Education Advancement Program (“LEAP”). This program helps 1Ls transition to the study of law in a welcoming and supportive environment. Yet, these are also students who have likely been impacted in one way or another by the events in Charlottesville. After all, it doesn’t take much to see what happened on the news or to read something on the Internet. It doesn’t take much to see where the events took place and wonder whether a similar event could take place near you.
I am sure there are many other law school academic success professionals who should also have other things to be thinking and worrying about. They, too, may be getting reading for their pre-orientation programs. They, too, may be finalizing their syllabi, organizing conferences, and meeting with students. They, too, may be looking for ways to make the law school experience a positive and productive one for their students.
Surely, there are many things that should be preoccupying our minds. But, it’s often difficult to focus on what we should be focusing on when events like this weekend’s event in Virginia take place.
Surely, there are many things that our students should be thinking and worrying about as they prepare to start a new school year. For example, our 1Ls may be worrying about finding a place to stay, locating the bookstore, or figuring out how to brief a case. Our 2Ls and 3Ls may be finishing up summer work, finalizing resumes, or scheduling on-campus and callback interviews.
But, yes. It is difficult to focus on what we should and want to be focusing on when frustrating and, potentially, frightening events like the one in Charlottesville try to suck out all our energy, positivity, and goodwill. It is likely no different for our students—particularly our students of color. They may, similarly, find it difficult to focus on what they need and should be focusing on to be successful law students. Law school is hard. It is going to be even harder over the next few weeks.
Give your students some time to digest this weekend’s events. Be supportive and lend a listening ear. Yet, try to be realistic about the work that needs to be done in law school. If you find it difficult to engage students to change their approach to law school work because they are too worried or preoccupied with external events, like Charlottesville, you might try to reframe law school work in such a way that your students may be more motivated to read, study, and improve . . . to act.
For instance, despite my strong restlessness about this weekend’s events, I am going to try to attack this week’s pre-orientation program with vigor and hope—hope that the students that I will be working with will become successful lawyers who will help make this country a better place for all of us. Surely, that relates to law school academic success. (OJ Salinas)
Monday, July 17, 2017
The New York Times recently published “The Lawyer, The Addict”—a very compelling article about a tragic event. The story describes the death of an influential Silicon Valley attorney. The interplay between (1) addiction, stress, and mental health and (2) law school and the legal profession is referenced in an honest and, for many, eye-opening manner. The article has rightfully generated much discussion on the Internet, including a fascinating conversation on my colleague Rachel Gurvich’s Twitter feed. If you are looking for further insight about the article from a variety of faculty, practitioners, and students, I encourage you to check out Rachel's Twitter feed (@RachelGurvich). Much of the conversation can be found here.
There are many interesting points one can focus on from the NYT article. Perhaps, I’ll explore some other points in the future in the blog. For now, I’ll focus today’s blog on two points: (1) Larry Krieger’s work on subjective well-being; and (2) how hard it is for students to acknowledge that they may be suffering from a problem.
- Larry Krieger’s Work on Subjective Well-Being.
The NYT article interviewed Professor Larry Krieger and referenced his work "What Makes Lawyers Happy". As many of you know, Krieger’s work was an empirical study on “attorney emotional health” and “subjective well-being.” Part of Krieger’s findings and recommendations focused on shifting the definition of “success” for law students away from extrinsic rewards, like grades, journals, and high-paying jobs to more personal and intrinsic values and motivations.
I remember Larry Krieger's work was one of the first things that Ruth McKinney discussed with me when I arrived at UNC. Since her retirement, we have tried to continue to incorporate the message of Krieger’s work into our pre-orientation program for incoming 1Ls. We try to remind our students to remember the intrinsic reasons why they decided to come to law school—particularly during those times when they may feel overwhelmed, defeated, or unworthy. We also try to remind our students that “success” can mean many different things to different people and that there are many ways to “succeed” in law school. We often talk about these topics while disclosing some of our personal struggles and experiences from law school. This personal disclosure often helps build a foundation where we are better able to assist with the problem discussed in part two below.
- Acknowledging a Problem is often a Problem.
For those of us who work closely with students, the article’s story on how law school and the legal profession can change you—physically and mentally—is not a surprising tale. We know that the combination of stress, anxiety, and the competition for external rewards can create a very challenging and intimidating environment for our students. The environment can feel crushing and insurmountable when you add difficult finances, family issues, health concerns, implicit bias, or stereotype threat to the mix.
It is not uncommon for academic success folks to work with students who are facing some significant non-academic issues that impact their academic performance. But, these non-academic issues are often not easily identifiable. Let’s try to remember that it is often difficult for our students to acknowledge to themselves that they may be going through a very problematic time. Like anyone, they have pride. They have all been successful undergrads or had elite careers prior to law school. They don’t want to think of themselves as “failures” or “unworthy” of being a law student.
Since our students don’t want to think of themselves as “failures” or “unworthy” of being a law student, they will likely hesitate before seeking help because they don’t want others to see them as “failures” or “unworthy” of being a law student (and the mental health questions on the bar exam applications don't help either, but that's a topic for another day [if you are interested, my former colleague, Katie Rose Guest Pryal has a great piece here]).
Disclosing some personal vulnerability to someone else is an added challenge to an already stressful time in our students' lives. Think about it: if it’s hard for you to acknowledge some potential weakness or flaw to yourself, do you think it will be easier for you to acknowledge that weakness or flaw to someone else? Now think about that someone else as a law professor or administrator. I know; it’s pretty scary. That’s why we, as academic support professionals (and others who work closely with law students), should try to practice good active listening skills and remain nonjudgmental, empathetic, and encouraging when we work with our students. It’s a difficult job. But, we are lucky to be able to do it. (OJ Salinas)
Thursday, August 4, 2016
"A great sports instructor or coach builds us up, but also teaches us important lessons of emotional management, such as confidence, perseverance, resilience and how to conquer fear and anxiety. Many times, these lessons have a permanent impact on our mind-set and attitude well beyond the playing field." So says columnist Elizabeth Bernstein in her article: "A Coach's Influence Off the Field." http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-coachs-influence-off-the-field-1470073923?tesla=y
That got me thinking about life…my life as an Academic Support Professional. With the start of a new academic year upon us, perhaps this is an opportunity - as Goldie Pritchard puts it - to try something new. So, I've been thinking and reflecting about my life as an ASP-er, and, in particular, that I might focus on something new--serving as a coach to our law students.
You see, and this is where the rub is, the most significant teachers in my life have, well, not just been teachers. Rather, they've been more than teachers; they've been coaches. And, not just sport coaches. More like life coaches. Whether they were teaching political science or trying to help me throw a ball, they all left indelible imprints, imprints that made me a better person and that went well beyond the classroom (or the baseball field)...because they taught me lessons that were much bigger than just about political science or baseball.
Let me give you an example from political science. I once had a professor by the name of Sandel. No offense, but I can't recall the principles of Kant's categorical imperative or Hannah Arndt's political theories. But, I can vividly remember something much more important that I learned, in particular, to call people by their name…to invite students to comment and participate…to let people speak…by truly listening to them. Those were lessons well given.
Or, in another context regarding life's many daily struggles, as Bernstein sums up in her column, coaches teach us lessons that help us when the going gets tough, for example, in Bernstein's words, "...when I’m on deadline or giving a speech to an intimidating crowd: You need to arrest a negative thought immediately, in midair. Remind yourself that you are competent and know what you’re doing. Slow your breath." Let me be frank. Those are the lessons that got me through law school. And, I learned them through teachers that were, really, coaches.
Thus, as we begin to embark on a new academic season, perhaps I should focus more on coaching. After all, our work brings us in contact with people that are really struggling over learning to be learners in a new learning environment…an environment that we call law school...with people that need us to coach. So, what does a coach do? According to Bernstein, a coach says things that change our lives for the better…and for ever, such as:
“Great job in difficult circumstances.”
“You should be really proud of yourself.”
But, in my own words, a coach, first and foremost, listens and observes others. That I can do, if only, I'd stop talking so much! (Scott Johns)
Thursday, June 9, 2016
Congratulations to all of the new 1Ls who will be arriving on our campuses this August! We look forward to your joining us in your journey to being attorneys.
What should you be doing this summer to prepare for law school? Here are some suggestions:
- Spend time with family and friends. Your time as a law student will be very busy, so you want to have quality relaxation time this summer. Take advantage of this time to have family trips, lots of conversations, and companionship with the people who are special in your life.
- Get your finances in place as soon as possible. Make a budget that you can stick to during the semester so that you will not run out of money or run up credit card debt. Working during your first year of law school as a full-time student is not doable.
- Use the summer to get yourself in shape: regular exercise, good nutrition, a regular sleep schedule of 7-8 hours. Your brain will be doing heavy lifting for the next 3 years. You need to be healthy to have optimal learning. Many law students run into trouble because they do not take care of themselves, and their academics suffer. Undertake solid routines this summer to prepare yourself for a rigorous academic year, and then continue good routines during the year.
- If at all possible, move into your law school apartment at least two weeks before orientation begins. Get all of the boxes unpacked, the cable hooked up, the pictures hung, and the refrigerator stocked with nutritious foods. Explore your new city. Locate the pharmacy, dry cleaners, grocery store, and other necessities. You will have first-day reading assignments for your classes, and the work will not let up until the end of exams. You want your living situation completely settled before you start orientation and classes.
- Realize that law school is not the same as undergraduate school. You need to learn new study strategies to succeed in law school. Although you study cases on a daily basis, you need to synthesize material through outlines. Law school exams test differently than other disciplines; you are asked to apply the law to analyze new fact scenarios. Pay careful attention in orientation to study skill sessions and attend fall workshops provided by the academic support professionals at your law school.
- Realize also that you need to study more hours per week than you have ever had to study. You need to be organized, efficient, and effective in your studies. To achieve the best grades, you need to do more each week than just daily class preparation. You need to synthesize the material into outlines and review regularly to prepare for exams. You also need to complete practice questions throughout the semester to monitor your learning. Cramming does not work in law school. There is too much material to learn in the last few weeks. The rule of thumb to get all tasks done every week (class prep, outlines, review, practice questions, legal research and writing) is 50-55 hours per week.
- Analyze what your main distractions are and how they cause you to procrastinate. For many law students, the distractions are electronic: cell phone calls, email, texting, gaming. Law students cannot afford to waste hours a day on distractions. Weaning yourself from your electronic handcuffs over the summer will help you use time more effectively during the semester.
- Read as much as possible. Read a mix of fiction and non-fiction books. You need to get into training for reading 30-60 pages per night for each course. You will not be as shocked by the workload if you spend lots of time reading over the summer and practice reading for comprehension.
- I do not recommend trying to read torts, contracts, civil procedure, or other legal course materials over the summer. For the most part, you will get little out of it without the classroom experience. Plus, most law courses will not cover all of the topics that you are reading about on your own.
- There are some very good books on law school written by academic support professionals. I would recommend starting with Herb Ramy's Succeeding in Law School as summer reading. Ruth McKinney's Reading Like a Lawyer would be another good summer choice. During the school year, Alex Ruskell's A Weekly Guide to Being a Model Law Student can keep you on schedule. Carolina Academic Press has a wide variety of good books on law school, legal reasoning, and other law school topics.
- Non-lawyer family members will not fully understand what your future 3 years will be like - unless you go to law school, it is hard to understand the demands. You may want to share Andrew McClurg's book entitled A Companion Text to Law School with them to help them to understand what your three years will be like.
Have enjoyable and battery-charging summers. You want to hit the ground running when you arrive in the fall. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, September 14, 2014
This fall, I completed my eleventh orientation at my law school. It hardly seems possible. This year, our keynote speaker was a person named Maureen Sanders. She was chosen because she embodies all the qualities one would want in a law school orientation speaker. She is a graduate of our school. She was a tenured professor and currently teaches as an adjunct professor. She has a thriving private practice specializing in civil rights and constitutional law. Finally, she is an eloquent and entertaining speaker. With her permission, I am sharing her “tips” from her talk. It strikes me that many orientation speakers give similar advice to incoming first year students. I hope that as students settle in to their schedules and routines they will not forget the advice that Professor Sanders shares and that is likely similar to advice given at many other law schools at their orientations.
Tip #1: Remember that how you act here over the next three years will be remembered by your classmates, your professors and the law school community staff.
Tip #2: Keep your life. Remain human. Remember how to talk about something other than the law so your “people” will still like you and so you won’t forget how to talk to “real” people because one of the most important skills you need as a lawyer is the ability to listen, really listen to people from all walks of life…no matter what kind of law you end up doing.
Tip #3 Spend some time while you are in law school figuring out what you can do to contribute to your communities…what do you care about?….animals, education, wilderness, mental illness, homeless, open government, less government, more government, --be a part of the community dialogue and action as a law student and later as a lawyer.
Tip #4: Don’t become a lawyer whose reputation is that your opposing counsel must put everything in writing because you can’t be trusted. So back to my point….which if I haven’t been clear is-----be a professional law student.
Tip #5 Don’t think, ”I don’t really need to know this, because I’m going to do this other kind of law”….well you just never know. And even if you stay the course you anticipate, in order to do one kind of law, you need to know the other areas to do the job for your clients.
Finally, as a colleague of Professor Sanders advised her when she asked them what she should say at orientation, “Tell them that law is an incredible profession—endlessly interesting and you can do some real good for people and impact how we, as a society, structure our communities. Also, that law school, with all its pressures, offers an opportunity to be working on how to work hard and give your best attention to the work while at the same time learning how to make sure all the other aspects of yourself as a person don’t get lost.” (Bonnie Stepleton)