Monday, May 8, 2023
You’ve got love this time of year in Massachusetts. Last Thursday, it was around 46 degrees and rainy, and on Saturday, I got sunburnt sitting at my daughter’s college graduation. On Sunday morning, I waited outside for an hour on line to get breakfast at a new bakery that opened in my neighborhood that appears to be “insta famous.” I got on line at around 7:55 a.m. (they open at 8) and it had already stretched around the corner from the storefront. It was a great vantage point for seeing everyone walking by (and their truly adorable dogs) as well as the folks on line. As I waited, here is what I saw: some folks were wearing winter coats or down vests, some were wearing quarter-zip fleeces (yes, it is New England), some were wearing workout gear, some wore shorts, some wore jeans, and some were wearing pajamas. A look down showed me Uggs, sneakers, flip-flops, crocs, and sandals. And yes, someone wearing a winter coat was also wearing shorts and Uggs. Again, it is an insta-worthy kind of place. But it reminded me that there is no objective way to “feel” the weather: how someone feels in terms of comfort and temperature is almost entirely subjective.
In this same way, no student feels the same during exams. A student who has done very well all semester--has outlined, studied, and done practice questions--may be more nervous than I think they should be-and the truth is, my dismissal of their exam anxiety is not going to help. At this point in the semester, I am also weary and my patience (which was never endless) seems to be experiencing some supply chain issues. So, as much as I would like to just tell the student, “you are fine,” I need to hold back my exhausted sighs and listen. I can gently counter with the evidence I have that they will, indeed, be okay. But my secret is that I always leave students with a task. It is something small-something they will likely excel at- and it is something to do rather than sit and stew in the feelings of being inadequately prepared for the exam. Am I giving them busy work to distract them from a self-destructive mindset? Yes, but I am also having them perform a task that will help them do better on the exam. Sometimes it is a set of multiple choice questions, sometimes it is making a Quizlet or other flashcards, sometimes it is going back and streamlining their outlines to just the headers (in a separate document-no deletions!) and use that to test themselves (added bonus: they can see that the number of possible issues on the exam is fewer than it seems). I have recommended making flow charts and/or tables.
Yet, I am careful. I always tell students that a little bit of exam anxiety is not a terrible thing, but anxiety that feels relentless or leads to mental paralysis is something that requires outside help. If I am really concerned, I will get our more specialized team to check-in with a student (Dean of Students, counselling center etc.). I am very cautious when I am walking in the territory of mental health.
The bottom line is that high-stakes summative assessments cause universal stress. There is no way around that-and for students who are seeing me because they have already hit some academic stumbling blocks, exams are even more fraught. And for students who have had nothing but academic success, the imposter syndrome can be overwhelming (“what if I was just lucky for the first exams?”). I should not be judging how students wear their exam nerves just because of the way I am looking at their forecast. How I feel about their likelihood of success carries some weight for sure, but it is not enough.
For the record, I was wearing a hoodie, shorts, and sandals; and my pistachio croissant was totally worth the wait.
*Please also remember to sign up for AASE Conference!*
Here is a final notification from our amazing host school colleagues:
Register here: https://associationofacademicsupporteducators.org/events/2023-10th-annual-aase-conference/ (Make sure you're logged in for member pricing.)
Our travel and lodging advice is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TwitZa9gnEPLRTcOuqMmZhQIiWTZic7owCcK5yXpJ78/edit?usp=sharing
-Your colleagues at Santa Clara Law
Monday, April 24, 2023
This past semester I’ve been lucky that my classes don’t actually begin until noon at the earliest. I haven’t had this schedule since I was a second-semester senior in college with very few credits left to finish. But, as a result of this scheduling bonanza, I have been able to set up one on one meetings with 1L students before their classes begin in the morning. This is a both a good and bad thing. I have had one student who prefers only in-person meetings on Mondays when I may not start classes until 12:30 p.m., but my last class ends at 8:00 p.m. That student’s classes began at 9:30 a.m., so that makes a very long day for me. And this student didn’t always show up or communicate that they would be absent from our early meetings either before, during, or after our scheduled time. I would get into my office by 8;45 a.m. at the latest to be there and ready to meet and would usually end up getting some coffee when they didn’t show. I left a note on my door when I did that in case they were running late.
After two straight weeks of this non-communication or attendance, I was, understandably (I think) a bit pissed. I assumed I was being ghosted by a student who decided that Academic Support just wasn’t something they needed. I felt disrespected and devalued because my time was clearly not worth anything to them.
But then I remembered that when this student did come to meet with me, they were fragile. They had recently left the military and had some mental health issues-and above all, the military background combined with coming from the South meant that they were unbelievably polite when they sat across from me in my office. They used so many ma’ams that it made me feel old and I asked them (jokingly) to stop to which they replied, “my apologies ma’am.” We both laughed.
I also realized that this student was not someone who would ghost me, or anyone else, if they were okay, which I now doubted they were. It was a good reminder that a student can get lost. They can get lost in big classes, they can get lost in a big building, and they can get lost socially when other students are also stressed and hurried. Instead of being someone this student disrespected, I was someone this student had, in a way, trusted to see their absence and go looking for them.
I sent an email to the student expressing my concern at their absence without judgment or hints of being pissed. I got no answer. I took this information to our Dean of Students and asked her to check in. I was the only one who asked.
Sometimes I need to look for the red-flags and not just see the red.
Monday, March 20, 2023
Why was last week called spring break when it wasn’t spring yet? Technically, it was a late winter’s folly or perhaps a mid-semester break, but spring, not so much. Before we took our week off, I met with numerous students and asked them about their plans for their time away from school. They mainly responded with the following:
- Outlining: “I am going to catch up and make sure they are all up to date.”
- Reading: “I am going to get ahead in my reading so that the week we return isn’t stressful.”
- Practice questions: “both multiple choice and essay!”
To which I said, “fabulous, and?” They scrambled a bit to find the one aspect of studying they had not mentioned that would be what I wanted to hear. They asked, “what else should I be doing?”
I was worried that these students wouldn’t take some time to do something fun, do something restorative, or disengage from being a law student for at least a few hours. We all know that after the break, the semester has turned a corner and started running downhill to finals. There are no other breaks (except here in Massachusetts, we have one long weekend for the marathon) until exams.
Yes, outlining, reading, and practicing are exactly what students should be doing at this time in the semester, but not taking care of body and soul for at least some of this time seemed like a lost opportunity to be in the right space to start the downhill run. I prescribed some discrete fun: walk down to the aquarium and watch the harbor seals for a few minutes, take the commuter rail somewhere new for an afternoon, cook a meal/dessert or better yet, a pie for Pi day, look at the ocean, really anything. It didn’t have to be an all-day event, and there is a lot of free fun to be had in Boston if you are a student. I stopped short of making them swear an oath to loaf a bit, but I did stress the importance of a little downtime.
Sure, I will encounter students who come in for their meetings this week tan, or on crutches from ski-related injuries, who will say they did nothing but have fun over the break. I wish them well. Me? I did class prep, grading, laundry, and baked the most heavenly fluffy peanut butter and chocolate pie for Pi day. And I wore sweat pants. Every. Single. Day.
Monday, January 23, 2023
It is that time of year when ASP folks are inundated with students who have had an epiphany about their study habits -- usually brought on by grades that were less than stellar. It is also the time of year when students with grades that our law school is concerned about are told to come visit ASP. These students all have a few Cs and have been told that this GPA might not be good enough to continue after the first year. They are frightened, chastened, and often need the tissues and the chocolate I've stocked for this season. I have a general plan for working with these students-almost a template: go over the bad exams, let's see where the deficiencies are (not phrased that way!), and let's get started with building the skills to avoid them for the next set of exams. If the issue is output (lack of IRAC, multiple choice questions that were confusing, etc., time), I get them started on practice questions ASAP. If it is input (didn't outline, didn't study efficiently, missing classes, other distractions), I get them started on building better habits and practice. If it was a mental health issue, or some outside trauma, I ask if they are in a better place, make sure that they are getting help, and then send them to practice (but very gently). I'm sure you do something very similar. This is the bread and butter of ASP. Time-proven technology that is individualized for each student.
But (you knew there would be a but), what do you do with the students who come to you with very good grades? Recently, before I even got a chance to email the 1Ls who will be notified that they should be seeing me, another first year student asked to meet with me to discuss improving their grades. Their grades were: A, A-, A-, and the dreaded B+. I had some good advice about improving their social life--i.e., don't complain to anyone else about these grades--that I kept to myself. I also did not want to dismiss the student with a "those are great grades, whatever you are doing, keep doing it." Although, I will admit this was my first thought along with, "do you realize that there are students here who would kill for those grades????" All I could think of was that Michael Jackson song, "[k]eep on, with the force, don't stop. Don't stop 'til you get enough1." Sigh.
Yet, I would never turn away a student who asked for help-even if my knee jerk reaction was that they did not need it. So, I followed the protocol-I told them to go talk to the professors and ask what was good, what might have been better on the exams, and then to come back to me so we can start working on those things. I warned them that the professors might be seeing students with lower grades first so that they would need some patience. I'm guessing I'll see them again by late February-hopefully.
In a way, I respect this student's drive, and in another way, I am a little concerned about it as well. So rather than act as a surly gatekeeper to the ASP resources in this situation, I thought it might be a good idea to keep an eye on this student to remind them every now and then that the goal is learning. I fully understand that if their grades are worse in the spring, I might be considered the reason.
Academic support is more than academic. We all know it, so while this student may not need academic help, they do seem to need support. So, if I am their personal Stuart Smalley2 who helps them see that they are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, they belong in law school, maybe that will be enough.
Monday, November 21, 2022
Isn’t it the way of the fall semester that September seems like it lasted for 8 weeks, October was about 2.5 weeks, and November 1st is when are standing at the top of a giant slide that ends in finals? I wandered into this playground in mid-August, and while it seemed to come both too fast and too slow, I am happy to see the ground come into view.
This semester has been wild.
I am grateful for the chance to hit stop for a few days later this week. I need the time to gather whatever resources I have left (or can conjure) before the building smells like stress in the upcoming weeks. I am thankful that I get to see more family than usual this year. I remain in awe of the ASP community and its generosity, kindness, and warmth.
I wish you all the best of times. May the ground beneath the end of your slide be soft when you land.
Monday, August 29, 2022
Today is our first day of classes. As someone who has taught for about two weeks already, it seems anti-climactic, and I am already tired. I also feel like the e-mail floodgates have opened-today I’ve heard from students, colleagues, and administrators that I haven’t heard from since we took refuge from a thunderstorm together at commencement. I already have homework for a committee meeting next week (yeah, really). Sigh. I feel like I will need the time I have this long weekend to just catch up-and we’ve barely started. So, to those of you out there who have already begun classes, are about to, or cannot even tell what day of the week it is, I want you to know I see you.
I see the people who thought every day last week was Monday. This week will be all Mondays too-but next week there will be no Monday and that will prove confusing as well.
I see the people who want to trip the doctrinal faculty members who are just rolling in today and asking what we taught the 1Ls in orientation (maybe come and see for yourself next year!?)
I see the people who always wonder why the week before elementary and high school begins is week two of law school. #outofsync
I see the people who are excited to hear voices in the building after a long, quiet time. A new year is so thrilling.
I see the people who are frightened to hear voices in the building after a long, quiet time. An old pandemic is still scary. Monkeypox? Really??
I see all the ASP professionals out there who will do everything in their power to make this a great academic year for new and returning students and I hope more than anything else, that everyone at your institution sees you too.
I see a year ahead that will be part "same old, same old" and part new and shiny. And I am not yet sure what I am hoping will be the prevalent circumstance.
After assigning all the police officers under his supervision their various duties for the day, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on Hill Street Blues would always say, “[L]et’s be Careful out there.”
https://www.npr.org/2014/05/08/310742743/lets-be-careful-out-there-the-legacy-of-hill-street-blues. If you are too young to have ever even heard of this show, I see you too-but I am not pleased 😊. Or, for you MCU fans, ASP Assemble!!!
Monday, June 13, 2022
My Law School course evaluations arrived without warning or fanfare in my inbox Saturday afternoon. The subject line, “spring 2022 course evaluations” popped up on my phone while I was sitting at the optometrist’s office picking out a new pair of glasses that would (ironically) make reading things on my phone easier. I had received my course evals for my undergraduate course a few weeks back and they had come, pre-read by the department chair, with her encouraging words that slowed my heartbeat a bit before diving in. But the law school ones just showed up as an attachment: unannounced, and to be honest, panic inducing. I wasn’t ready. We tell students when the grades will be released, so perhaps a similar warning may be warranted. As it was, I held my breath and clicked.
To be fair, I had thought the semester had gone well (there are always a few students who are unreadable, but they didn’t seem hostile), so I should not have started to sweat when this email appeared. But I was grateful for the air conditioning at the eyeglass shop, nonetheless. Although the literature is a bit all over the place, there seems to be a grudging consensus that, “… student evaluations as currently constructed are strewn with gender and racial biases. Instructor attire and weight has impacts on student evaluations, too. In short, there is a lot of noise in student evaluations that have nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with student biases.” I also think that the anonymous on-line iteration of course evaluations has made students a little more, um, blunt.
I have had evaluations that commented negatively on my snacking (I was pregnant, and it seemed better to eat my baggie of Cheerios rather than puke on students), my sense of humor, and my clothing choices (which honestly felt more like body shaming). It all feels a little middle school-ish to me because this is the documentation of what people might be saying behind your back. I also remember my favorite comment of all time, “Condragulations Professor Stillman, you are a winner.” Using a RuPaul’s Drag race reference made me feel really seen and I treasured it.
Are some evaluations biased or just plain mean? Probably. But discounting them entirely also negates the good ones (luckily far outnumbering the bad, I’m sure). I also need to read them to know if I am connecting with students. I want to be sure that I am respectful of opposing viewpoints (not my strong suit, really). If I don’t care what the students think (about some fundamental things, not my wardrobe per se), then I am not teaching for the right reasons. If the evaluations can legitimately assess my teaching, then this is information I need. If not, they give students power over non-tenured faculty that they do not deserve.
Evaluations are truly a double-edged sword. Make no mistake though, they may still be a weapon.
Monday, May 16, 2022
I am on the precipice of turning in all my final grades for the spring. I am looking forward to taking a much-needed break before my summer class begins…on Wednesday. What will I do with my abundant “free time” besides walking the dog, feeding the children, laundry, and saving the universe? I’ll probably go through the survey I sent my summer students and pull out the important information to prepare for class.
For the past few summers, I have taught a class for incoming accelerated JD students which is basically a law school success bootcamp. We only meet for six sessions and the class is one credit (pass/fail), but these students are taking their first semester of law school (with a different curriculum than non-accelerated students) over the summer. They will have midterms around the time we are having BBQs, so they need to be quickly brought up to speed. There isn’t a lot of time, so I carefully plan the syllabus and try to get to know students ahead of time by posting a survey.
I always like sending a survey to students before class begins (accelerated or not) because that way I can ask for pronouns and nicknames early. I’ve recently rephrased my nickname question from: “I should call you,” to, “What would you like me to call you?” I did this mainly because every semester at least one student would write their cell phone number in the box below when I used the former phrasing. It did make me wonder if they really wanted me to phone them and I was disappointing them by just chuckling at how literal they were being.
I try to ask some fun questions, like TV shows they have recently loved and whether they have food allergies (I like to bake for my students without harming them). I also ask if there is anything I need to know about them-and offer both some multiple-choice options and a blank box for “other.” They can check all that apply. One of the choices I offered this summer was, “I have recently been abducted by aliens and enrolling in law school was a condition of my release.” I got 11/21 checks on that box, so I am thinking this will be a fun group. I also got some important pieces of information: I have a lot of students who have been out of school for a while, a bunch have children or parents they are caring for at home, one is pregnant, and one has a degree in musical theater (which is great to keep in mind for when I finally get to stage “ASP: The Musical”).
My final survey question was new for this class. Since we have limited time together, I want to be sure I can offer as much support as possible (support is our middle name, after all). So, I asked, “My most pressing question about this class, or law school in general, is…” and put a text box below for their questions. Here are a few of the questions I got (almost every student who answered the survey had one):
- What is the most important thing to do to succeed?
- What are some common mistakes or missteps you see your students take?
- What proactive steps can I take to ensure that I have a job right after graduation in the field of law I prefer?
- My interests and enthusiasm regarding a particular field/area of law are still quite varied. Is there a typical semester or point in time where most undecideds choose a specific path?
- Will I still be able to have normal life?
- When is a reasonable time in one's law school-career for their anxiety level to decrease to a normal level?
- Are we gonna live?
These are not questions that can be answered with a shrug and a joke about the traditional law school answer being, “it depends,” even though it might be the right answer to some of them. The last three questions in particular need to be carefully addressed at the start, middle, and finish of classes, semesters, and years in law school. A simple: “no”, “maybe never”, and “holy sh*t, I really hope so” just aren’t going to suffice.
So, to roughly paraphrase Phineas and Ferb, I know what I am going to do tomorrow.
 Yes, again, can you believe it? I should really go through the survey question on TV shows and pick something intended for adults….
Monday, March 21, 2022
And we are back. Spring break is over just like that. The thing about the time after spring break is that it goes by so quickly. You look up and there are 4 weeks of class left and 8 weeks of things you wanted to get to. It is like the facebook posts I put up around my kids' birthdays, "I must have blinked." When the end of semester is looming, I always wonder if I have squandered the time with my students, but I know that I didn’t because I spent at least some of our time together doing the following:
- Making sure they are okay. I have asked my class for their “triumphs and tribulations“ each week. Did this take us off-topic? Yes. Did we need to go there? Also, yes.
- Asking about the loads they are carrying in other classes. We a took a detour into exam prep (ahead of schedule) to make sure everyone felt ready for all the types of exams they might encounter. I’ll also go back and review it on the day it was originally listed on the syllabus.
- Meeting one-on-one outside of class. Some triumphs and tribulations are not for public consumption.
- Talking about the law in current events. It is always good to bring reality into the picture and ground the concepts in something present and concrete. I am very excited about Congress and the CROWN Act today. In a shameless plug for my newly released piece in the CUNY Law Review Blog about teaching using the CROWN Act, you can read about that here: http://www.cunylawreview.org/category/blog/
- Reinforcing already learned skills. I preface a lot of what I am saying with, “I know you already know this, but bear with me…” It isn’t always a review, but there is no need to out students who are first learning anything.
- Talking about their interests outside of school. Sometimes we all need a reminder that we don’t live in this building and this is not our only context.
- Becoming a community. Laughing. Complaining about the elevator that has been broken since December (although the changing signage about that fact is really kind of funny). Sharing some brownies.
I hope your short, fast ride to the end of the semester has more triumphs than tribulations.
Monday, March 14, 2022
I was so excited to get to this Spring Break. I need this break. I feel like I have not taken a deep breath since mid-January. This semester has been cold and snowy and relentless. My shoulders are currently hovering at ear level. And, I have a million little aspirations for this break: baking, learning to crochet, enjoying daylight, not teaching at night, etc. But here I am at noon on day one thinking about catching up on grading and reading the rough draft an independent-study student sent me this past Saturday night. Sigh. I am also contemplating laundry, grocery shopping, and cleaning out closets. When did I forget how to relax and do nothing?
Ironically, I offered my high school junior the chance to take a mental health day this week. I used to let his sisters do this once every quarter in high school-they didn’t always use it the chance, but it was there if they wanted it. With advance warning, they could just take a day off-I’d call school to excuse the absence and we would have a day of yes. You want to go to IHOP? Yes. You want to see the ocean? Yes. You want to learn the choreography to “We’re All in This together” from High School Musical? Yes, just let me close the shutters if you want me to join you. This week, my son has two big tests on Tuesday and an orthodontist appointment on Wednesday at a time that makes it awkward to go to school before and strange to go after, so I offered him the rest of the day. Everyone needs to unload their burdens every now and then.
In academic support, we tend to worry about everyone but ourselves. I see you nodding. If you are on spring break this week, please let the sun warm your face every day and only do those things that give you joy (and keep your family alive). Relish the time that is normally spoken for by other responsibilities. And then email me with exactly how you did it. I’m going to need some major help developing a spring break plan…
 I can’t even with the timing on this one.
 You can do this too! https://youtu.be/H_LQeYUHm4M
Sunday, February 27, 2022
Learning is generally hard, sometimes painful, and usually annoying. I was reminded of the many states of learning this winter when I took a ski trip for the first time. A few former students warned me that trying skiing later in life would probably hurt for days. I took their "warning" (read insult) as a challenge that I would learn it with minimal injury.
I began my journey by learning how to put the skis on, then only using one ski to skate around. The instruction seemed extremely rudimentary. I am not a world-class athlete, but I played enough sports in my life to have both skis on. Of course, I fell right after putting them both on. I progressed to the magic carpet and enjoyed the learning area. I couldn't turn very well the first morning, but I could snow plow my way down. That afternoon, my turns got much better. I thought I was ready for the wide open, steeper practice area. I rode the ski lift the short distance to the slightly higher practice area. I proceeded to tumble out of the chair and narrowly missed getting hit by it as it continued around. I started down the slope, and my assessment of my new turning ability was wrong. I nearly took out a family member at close to full speed before falling. One more fall with a few more turns, and I was at the bottom of the slope. That afternoon and the next morning, I kept practicing. I could make it out of the chair and down the slope without falling. I could ski back and forth with reasonable turns. By the afternoon of the second day, I thought I was ready for the real slopes. I attempted the "easiest way down" trail. I was terrified once I got on the trail and thought I was going to fly off the side of the mountain. I fell more times on the trail than the entire rest of the trip. My last fall was so hard, I lost a ski and thought I tore every ligament in my knees. I laid on the snow for a while on that one. My kids saw it and weren't sure I was getting up. I finally got up and made it the rest of the way. It hurt, but not for the number of days my students predicted (I believe my knees are fine). I counted it as a success.
My experience is similar to law school for many students. The instruction seems rudimentary. They were all highly successful in undergrad. They heard it was difficult, but they didn't believe it would be that difficult for them. The horror stories must be about other law students. They even found reassurance in initial classes because they were finding the right facts and coming up with the holding in early Torts cases. Things get progressively harder, but everything seems manageable. Then the first LRW assignment or midterm comes back. The first fall is hard, but most of them get back up. They learn from the midterm and start to see progress. The final exam then happens and many of them fall hard. The pain may not be physical, but the impact to self-esteem is just as real. The goal is to help them see the success and get back to practice. That is difficult after an extremely hard fall.
I knew law school is hard, but my experience provided a window into how some of my students feel. I hope it produces even more empathy within me to continue to try to reach students. We should all try new things to experience the difficulty our students face each semester.
Sunday, February 6, 2022
I enjoy watching golf tournaments with my kids, and WHOOP sponsors a new fun feature. WHOOP is a wearable that monitors certain health data. The focus is on physical strain and recovery. Users start an activity, and the band tracks heart rate along with other data. The fun part is some golfers allow the TV broadcast to show their whoop data before certain shots. Viewers can see in real time what Rory McIlory's heart rate is walking up the fairway to win. The astonishing thing I see is many players hearts either maintain or even slow during pre-shot routines immediately preceding the shot. They maintain calmness, and then their heart races watching the result. Justin Thomas' heart rate skyrocketed watching an eagle putt drop and when one of his tee shots came too close to the water. However, his heart rate slowed during his pre-shot routine, which is when I am most nervous hitting a golf shot.
The best in the world create a routine to stabilize their body in important moments. All of us can do the same thing. As faculty, we can create routines immediately prior to class to optimize our teaching effectiveness. Their heart rates during golf are higher than regular activity, but they stabilize and drop them during the most important moments. That provides the physical and mental clarity to do their best. Our activities may not seem as physical as sports, but we need mental clarity to create the best educational environment. Techniques to stabilize heart rates for performance can help our teaching.
Stabilizing heart rates can have massive impacts for students taking exams. The last minute studying 5 minutes before the exam starts with the anxiety of a single test contributing the majority of the points to final grades would cause anyone's heart to race. Professionals find a way in the stressful environments (with shots worth millions of dollars) to stabilize heart rates. Many strategies exist to help any of us during these situations. Here are a few I heard about:
1. Lemon Squeeze - Ball up the hands to control blood flow. Some people feel more in control thinking they are controlling blood flow.
2. Imagining a non-distracting place - Picture having fun in a place that is not the current situation.
3. Deep breaths from the diaphragm.
I am not a specialist in controlling my heart rate, but these techniques were recommended to me when I feel my heart racing. I recommend reading and asking specialists about different ways to maximize our performance in teaching and on exams.
Monday, January 10, 2022
When I was in high school, and college and law school, I would tell my parents when I was nervous about exams like SATs, midterms, finals... And they would always answer, “you’ll be fine.” I’m not complaining about the faith they had in me, but even after I explained the reason for my extra concern, the answer remained the same. I was dismissed. It didn’t help me feel better in any way and certainly didn’t help me prepare for what was ahead.
Grades were released last week at my law school, and it has been…a lot. I can hear a lot of you nodding in agreement right now. In between extremely interesting AALS sessions, I spent hours speaking with students towards the end of the week. And like most of you, I met with students at all positions on the grade spectrum from, “I don’t know how I got an A-“ to “Am I going to get dismissed?”
Our list-serv has also been full of amazing emails and messages we send students to get them through this time-all starting with the basic idea that “your grades do not define you.” I wholeheartedly agree that students are more than their grades and that their grades do not define them. Collectively, in the next few weeks, we will help students make study plans, assure them that they have more exam experience going forward, and remind them that we are here to help. We will give advice to talk to professors about exam performance, diagnose the issues or types of questions that plagued their exam, and offer practice materials. We will take action.
Yet, there is an elephant in the room: how can I tell students that they are not their grades and at the same time fail to acknowledge the reality that until they have some legal work experience, they may, in fact, be defined by their grades. I am telling them to transcend the grades at the same time I am helping them make plans to get better ones. They know, and they know that I know, that potential employers do care about class rank even I don’t agree with that as a bright line rule for granting interviews (and trust me, “don’t agree” is an extremely diluted way to express how I feel about that). I worry that I am being dismissive if I say it shouldn’t matter-or even worse-misleading some students to blame circumstances (or people) they cannot control for the grades they received. I absolutely know that some students are laid low by circumstances outside of their control (I had a student whose house burned down last year), but frequently students need to own (or adversely possess) the bad grades to make positive changes.
I think some of the hardest work I have done these past few days (and I assure you, my dance card is full today as well) is speaking to students who need to plead their case to a committee to be allowed to stay in law school (after one seemingly catastrophic semester). There is, per our academic rules, a presumption of dismissal (albeit rebuttable). We advise our students to share all the distractions, traumas, and circumstances that led to this situation. No doubt, this pandemic will be the underlying cause of trauma and academic distress long after we box up our masks and hope they get moldy in the basement from non-use. More importantly, students need to tell the committee about the plans they have made to deal with these issues. I remind them to tell the committee that they are taking control over what is in their power to control and talk about their plans to ask for help when what is uncontrollable becomes too much. I assure them that asking for, and receiving, help is a sign of maturity and resilience-not weakness. And we should not forget that the next time these students take an exam, they will have an extra layer of stress added because they need to do better and are still frightened by how things went last time.
I will definitely tell students that things are going to be okay (and more often than not, they will be)-but it cannot be the only thing I tell them. I know students need to hear those words in my voice, but I also need to be certain that they will benefit from hearing it more than I will.
 Thank you to Melissa Hale, Susan Landrum, and Kirsha Trychta!
 I don’t even agree with ranking them, but that will be another post.
Thursday, December 9, 2021
I'm caught in a trap of my own doing. I'm the sort of person who is endlessly engaged in self-chat. Dialogue that seems to spiral out of control. I can't seem to stop myself from, well, talking with myself. And it's mostly not good news.
That's when an article in review of a book entitled "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It," caught my attention. According to article, there's a few tips that can help to "zoom out" so as not to focus "narrowly" on ourselves.
First, "add order" to your life. If caught in a tangle of self-doubt and negative talk, take a moment to tidy up your workspace or your home, which helps to create the "sense that your future is controllable." Id.
Second, don't fret if you engage in rituals to help calm your self-talk. Rituals, according to the article, so long as they aren't used as in replacement of preparation, help to "settle the mind and increase confidence." Id.
Third, surround yourself with "greenery." "The mechanism by which nature replenishes our mental reserves is unclear, but studies show that viewing lush landscapes, walking in the woods or simply watching nature videos can reduce rumination, improve working memory and maybe protect health." Id.
Fourth, time travel mentally. Try to picture where you'll be in a few years from now and the present might just not take on as much power in our lives. "Perhaps the simplest distancing hack is to switch self-talk pronouns from first-person (I) to second- or third-person (you or he/she/they). In studies, distancing has increased academic motivation and reduced unnecessary worry." Id.
Fifth, take on the view of the proverbial "fly on the wall," as an outsider, which allows us to distance ourselves from the self-talk and doubts that so often seem to trip us up and prevent us from seeing past the immediate.
Lastly, the article ends with a sort-of-surprising counterintuitive note. Apparently, venting to others is not necessarily that helpful. Perhaps a little dose but it seems that too much venting with others leads to just a big circle of venting. Lots of hot air, I suppose. I've been there before!
I haven't had a chance to read the book but based on the article's review, it sounds like this book might not just help a few of us but many of our students too, who are often wondering where they fit into the grand scheme of lawyering. Here's the link for more information: Huston, M., "Chatter Review" Using Our Inside Voices, WSJ (Dec. 6, 2021). (reviewing Kross, Ethan, Ph.D., "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It"). (Scott Johns).
Monday, November 29, 2021
Every summer, our family rents a (dog friendly) house out on Cape Cod. Recently, we have been renting bicycles when we get there at a bike rental place called Idle Times. It isn’t fancy, but it is friendly--the name is welcoming and seems to be assuring us that we need not race or even labor much to get around on the bicycles. It is the kind of place where an old black lab lies in the overgrown seagrass and seems to will the kids trying out bicycles to go around him rather than move from his shady spot. It is idyllic-no false advertising involved. This past weekend (that started on a Wednesday-shouldn’t they all?) was also gloriously idle (aside from the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and latkes). I removed my laptop from the table (yes, the new one for those of you who have been following these posts) and didn’t return it to its spot until yesterday. And here I am on a Monday morning trying to jump start my professional brain after this lovely idleness.
Today is the last day of classes for us. While many might think that this is the beginning of a nice break for all academics, it is absolutely crunch time for ASP folks. There are students panicked about finals. They seem shocked that exams are almost upon us despite all the warning signs. I agree that by the time we develop our fall mojo, it is already Veteran’s Day-which was less than three weeks ago. Fall seems like a slow walk uphill to a sudden cliff, while spring semester seems like a cold, dark walk through a cave into the light.
Nonetheless, we are about to begin our "reading days." I’m not sure how much time between classes ending and exams beginning is just right; I don’t think there is a one size fits all time period, but our 1L students have around 2.5 days.
Here is (some of) what I advise students to do now and during these days and the exam period:
- Get out of the law school building (we are all in one building here). The air is thick with stress and every little whisper will make you think someone knows something you don’t about a class you are in. I point out to our students that we are (in the fall at least) out of sync with our undergraduate and business schools, so their libraries might be a better place to study if a library is your preferred spot. At least the din there won’t make you feel unnecessarily inadequate. In pre-COVID times I would also recommend a coffee place (away from school) or even my favorite, the café at the Museum of Fine Arts (excellent place to study and wonderful place to be when you need a break from it).
- Make an exam plan. Work backwards from your last exam and plan reasonable study schedules for each day. Remember to add a teaser of the exam after the immediate one into your plan-so if Civ. Pro is on Thursday, you can take an hour and review a little Crim because that is next and so on.
- Attend to your hygiene and health! Seriously, this is going to be a marathon, pace yourself and be sure to stay hydrated. Don’t take unnecessary pandemic risks right now. Showering is important even if the alternative can help with social distancing.
- Practice writing answers and doing multiple choice questions: while reading carefully will be an important part of your exams, you will still need to produce an answer. You should practice essays often enough that IRAC is a muscle memory. Do enough multiple-choice questions that you are not confused by slight changes in terminology (because…gasp…sometimes doctrinal professors do not write their own questions). Remember, a good way to be prepared for exams is to be a PERP: Prepared for class, Engaged in class, Reviewing after class and Practicing. Ok, now I can see why this didn’t catch on, PERP is just not going to happen. But there is still hope for fetch.
- Handle different subjects with different strategic approaches: Civil Procedure is linear and chronological; Contracts is transactional; Torts and Criminal law just beg for making a chart with all the people and causes of action involved and so on…
- Just get started: if you are lost on the exam, start with something you can answer to get the brain engaged and then go back. However, do not go back and change any multiple-choice answers if you have already made a choice-it will not end well.
- Get out again-after the exam, leave the building. Do not discuss it with other people. I know that talking about a shared trauma can be therapeutic, but this will not be. I promise. Think about what you have done well on this exam and then move on with your plan. As Timon famously says in The Lion King, “You gotta put your past behind you.”
- When all the exams are over, enjoy the idle time.
Sunday, November 7, 2021
The end of the semester is near. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. The meetings, classes, feedback, and other help we provide pushes us to our limits each semester. I want everyone in ASP and law schools in general to know, you are not alone. That feeling is normal. 2 of the top 7 articles from Education Week last week related to teacher exhaustion and the need for mental health resources for teachers. I agree and believe the same is true for ASP. We see colleagues every year go back into law practice or take jobs at commercial education companies (bar review, etc.). As we continue to promote mental health awareness for students, we should consider how we can promote similar programs for each other.
I especially like the program discussed in the second article. A school district provided mental health services for teachers because they thought teacher well being would help them serve students. Of the teachers responding to a survey after the program, 100 percent said the services improved both their own and their students' well-being. Law schools should consider this approach. The two articles from last week are linked below.
I hope everyone's semester ends well and you get the break you need.
Monday, October 18, 2021
In the musical Hamilton, Eliza tries to persuade her husband, Alexander, to take a break, “Take a break…Run away with us for the summer. Let's go upstate…There's a lake I know…In a nearby park. I'd love to go.” Alexander refuses to go and, no spoilers beyond this, it doesn’t end well.
Two weeks ago, on the first Monday in October, I asked my undergraduates why this time of year was so important, and one student said, “It’s spooky season.” I was trying to get at the Supreme Court getting back to work (on what very well may a spooky season of cases), but it is also, as ASP folks know, that scary time of year when our 1Ls hit a wall. I’ve stockpiled candy (easy this time of year), tissues, and some advice.
We all know that 1Ls have a moment of crisis when they lose their altruism about helping the world with their law degree and become caught up in a smaller world of grades, midterms, legal writing assignments, outlining, and the overwhelmingness of just showing up for class. Students lose sight of why they even came to law school to begin with. Surely, masochism wasn’t the reason mentioned in their application personal statements. Sometimes, students need to be reminded of their initial reasons for being a lawyer. A gentle reminder might be enough for some students. It never hurts to tell them that no one really comes to law school to be a law student, they come to become a lawyer. Being a law student is temporary. And while it seems counterintuitive to advise taking a break, that is the advice I often give them at this point in the semester.
This may be a perfect time for a student to take a small break (hours, not days). Midterms are over, legal writing is less intense (for the moment) and they have been doing the reading, briefing, and outlining for long enough that it isn’t all consuming. Honestly, if Boston was a drag queen, this time of year would be its death drop in terms of the weather and natural beauty. Soon enough, everything will ramp up again and often with larger consequences, but at this very moment, a few hours spent away from law school is doable.
To that end, I have “prescribed” a drive to a beach town about 40 minutes north of here with saltwater taffy, a giant rocky sea wall that is both walkable and climbable, and just sitting at the edge of the ocean and getting perspective. Need something closer? Walk down to the aquarium, smell the ocean, and watch the harbor seals frolic in the outdoor (free!) exhibit. Even closer? Walk the Freedom Trail (it is right outside the doors to our law school). Really, anything can be a break; the only rules are no books, no laptop, and no regrets. Time spent rebuilding yourself is priming the pump for students (and faculty). The investment will pay off.
So be on the lookout for students hitting the wall. Be their Eliza. I would always prefer my students took a break than get broken.
 © Lin-Manuel Miranda
Thursday, September 23, 2021
My mind is a chatterbox, running constantly, whether at work, at home, in the car, or walking. There seems to be no escape from the clamor of attention that my mind asks of me.
Often, I'm brainstorming ways to improve what I do for my job. But more often, it's just worry, plain and simple.
To be frank, that's because I just feel a lot like an imposter. What do I really know? How can I really contribute? So I stay ultra-busy. However, I can guarantee you, I am not being paid to work 24/7.
Yet it seems like I do. Perhaps you do too. Work-life is out of control. Worry-life too.
Let me ask you a question that I'm asking myself.
Why do I have this constant itch to check my phone, my email, my messages?
In order to answer this, I thought I'd have a mythical conversation with Socrates, returning to our modern world today, who crosses our paths today.
Worry Wart: Wow. That is a strange costume. It almost looks like something straight out of ancient Athens and you too.
Socrates: That's because I am.
Worry Wart: You are what?
Socrates: I am Socrates.
Worry Wart: Come on. I admit that you look like the genuine article but what is you gig?
Socrates: What do you mean gig?
Worry Wart: You know, what's your deal?
Worry Wart: Your stick?
Socrates: Oh, that's my walking stick. You know I am getting a bit old.
Worry Wart: No, I mean what are you doing here, at our law school?
Socrates: I'm doing what I always do, observe, question, and learn.
Worry Wart: Okay. I'll play your little game.
Socrates: Games have very little to do it.
Worry Wart: What's the it?
Socrates: Thinking. So shall we begin?
Worry Wart: Fine. Let the "games" begin. Oh, I"m sorry, let the "thinking" begin.
Socrates: May I ask you about the slim box in your hand? You seem to keep rubbing it or something. Is it your good luck charm?
Worry Wart: Oh no. It's my phone, a pocket phone. It lets me communicate with others and, as you say, to observe, question, and think.
Socrates: What are you thinking about?
Worry Wart: Oh I'm just checking my email?
Worry Wart: Just a phrase of speech. It's just a fancy way to say checking letters that are sent to me straight to my phone, sort of like an old parchment back in your day, without the delay.
Socrates: I see. But you keep checking it quite frequently? Are you expecting a letter?
Worry Wart: You never know.
Socrates: That's what we are here to fine out. What we know.
Worry Wart: Ok, I'll answer your question. I'm a professor, perhaps like you, and I've got a lot of students that I work with, and you just never know when they might need my help. And, I work in a big organization, a school, with lots of communications from the administrators and supervisors and my colleagues too. You just never know when someone might write an email, I mean a "letter," that will need a quick response from me.
Socrates: Seems tedious and tiring to me, to always be alert, waiting for what might never come.
Worry Wart: That's the way that we do it in this modern age. No time to waste.
Socrates: But aren't you wasting time, constantly touching your phone to check your, what do you call it, emails?
Worry Wart: I hadn't thought about that. I didn't even realize that I was checking my phone constantly.
Socrates: Now we are getting somewhere. The path to learning begins when we realize that we know so little, about ourselves and especially about others.
Worry Wart: Excellent point, Socrates. But what do you suggest I do? You never know. There could be an urgent message at just this moment and I will miss out.
Socrates: What do you suggest? Are you missing out on other tasks, perhaps even more important, why you wait on a letter that might never come?
Worry Wart: I hadn't thought about that too. Let's see. But I am so busy.
Socrates: Why are you so busy?
Worry Wart: That's easy. Because I have so much to do.
Socrates: And, why do you have so much to do?
Worry Wart: That's easy. Because I am so busy.
Socrates: It seems like we've gone in a big circle. I'm beginning to wonder whether your phone is a device that makes you go in a circle, wandering aimlessly from task to task, worried that you might miss something important. Why don't you try being "un-busy?"
Worry Wart: If it were only that easy. But you are a person of ancient ways. The modern world is the way of bustle and hustle. If I don't stay busy, I am at risk of missing something, or worse, being replaced.
Socrates: By another phone?
Worry Wart: Oh no, by another person with a phone.
Socrates: So is you're real worry that you are replaceable? Just a cog in a big machine that can easily be switched out for a new version?
Worry Wart: I suppose so. But I wonder if it's something else, this strange tendency that I haven't noticed before, this constant itching, to always be touching and looking at my phone. I wonder if it's fear.
Socrates: If so, we can find out. What might you be afraid of?
Worry Wart: Hmm. This is a bit embarrassingly and humbling.
Socrates: The truth often is.
Worry Wart: I might just be afraid of myself, to be alone, to be quiet, to be present with myself. In short, to be real.
Socrates: So what might you do about that?
Worry Wart: I might just have to switch off this phone, or put it away, or even better yet, remove the emails from my phone so that I am just not so tempted to always be looking at my phone for the latest messages and news.
Socrates: Hmm. Go on, please.
Worry Wart: Well, that seems like it might just be a concrete start out of this maddening electronic circle that seems to have me roped into tangles.
Socrates: Indeed it does seem so. But I'm not sure what concrete is, though I've heard of Crete.
Notes to Reader:
(1) And that's what I just did. I just removed my work email from my smartphone. It's not my work phone after all, anyhow.
(2) I got this idea of a hypothetical conversation with ancient Socrates when I stumbled onto a book at my local bookstore by philosopher Peter Kraft, entitled "The Best Things in Life," which involves the tale of a mythical Socrates visiting a college campus asking people about their lives. (Scott Johns).
Monday, September 20, 2021
One of the ways we support our students who are on academic warning or probation is to require them to take a second-year course in Legal Analysis and Methods. The title is vague enough to appear on a transcript without stigma to the student and, as a side benefit, it also gives us a lot of latitude in what we teach in the course. In my section of Methods, I teach study and exam skills as well as a smidge of legal writing, a dash of argumentation, and a bissel of statutory construction/interpretation. I also conference with students one-on-one towards the beginning of the semester to check in on an ungraded “getting to know you” assignment and to try to understand how they got stuck, I mean were fortunate enough to enroll, in this class.
I had a set “script” for these conferences. At the beginning of each conference, we discussed the ungraded assignment (there is written feedback for everyone as well). I thanked each student for doing a great job in our simulated legislature class last week (seriously, the Massachusetts legislature could learn from them). Then, I asked about the other classes they are taking to see where there might be stress points.
Finally, I ask about the elephant in the room, “How do you find yourself on Academic Warning/Probation?” I intentionally use the passive voice. If a student says they had some “personal problems,” I do not ask for details, I just ask if the issues are resolved (or resolving), and if our Dean of Students’ office is aware of them just in case they need some higher power intervention. If a student says they had issues on exams, I make a note of the type of exam it was for future classes on exam skills. Now granted, I knew some of the students coming into these conferences because we met regularly last year. Other than now knowing how tall they really are and confirming that they do indeed have legs, I didn’t need to hear how they got here, but I did need to know how they were doing now.
This year, like all years, I take notes of these meetings. As I flipped through the legal pad for these conferences after meeting with my 22 students, I saw one word show up at the end of my notetaking for every single student, “Zoom.” This was the always part of the answer to how they found themselves in academic trouble.
Zoom or remote learning wasn’t the whole problem for most students: it was Zoom plus. Students told me that last year was not academically successful because of Zoom plus: ADD, ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, having COVID, having a family member with COVID, having a chaotic living situation, having a bad internet connection, and so on. But remote learning was, as one student put it, “at least 30-40% of the issue.” Everyone in the remote learning situation-those of us teaching and the students learning- were all trying our best. The bottom line is that remote learning does not work for everyone. These students were concerned that when they take the bar, they will not have learned enough in their first-year classes to get them into a passing range. They felt that they were building their law school houses on weak foundations. This is a valid concern. Going through two (or three for evening students) more years of law school feeling like you are perpetually trying to overcome a deficit will also take a toll on confidence.
I am not saying that remote learning is universally negative either. I had students last year that thrived in a remote learning environment, as well as students who were very nervous about returning in-person because of the pandemic. Remote learning allows broader access for students; I think that is the promise of remote learning going forward. A student can, for example, attend a law school in a place they cannot afford to move to (like Boston) or attend school when health or family issues might otherwise prove an insurmountable barrier. And this is not even close to a complete list of pluses.
Yet, the students who preferred remote learning are just simply not the students I am seeing in academic distress right now. I am not asserting that my 22 student class is a representative sample of all law students but they are mine to teach and I need to know where things fell apart for them before they came to me. The current in-person situation has pluses and minuses as well. Students report that are much happier to be back in-person--but also stuck in a position of navigating the 2L curriculum with a 1L understanding of law school culture. Some of them have spent less time in the building than the 1L students who came to school before classes started for orientation-- a few more cracks in the foundation that will need filling. One student thought that being called an upperclassman was laughable because they felt they had very little to offer the incoming class in terms of wisdom and “the ways” of law school. And yet, they hoped that the expertise they did have was, and would continue to be, obsolete. I hope so too.
As academic support folks, we know there have always been (and will most likely be) students who are in academic distress. Some have had family issues, relationship issues, a failure to understand the time investment etc., but it seems that today’s students have all of these troubles plus Zoom.
 Bissel means just a little bit in Yiddish, https://www.dailywritingtips.com/the-yiddish-handbook-40-words-you-should-know/
Sunday, September 12, 2021
The sun was beating down on us, but that wouldn't stop the intensity. We weren't keeping an official score, but every possession matters in driveway basketball. However long the game lasts, you don't let up on defense. I didn't care that I was playing against an opponent 29 years younger and 19 inches shorter. My son would not get his shot off. I was in great defensive posture and moving my feet. Any little league coach would be proud of my defense. I was step for step with him when I feel a pop. I crumple on the asphalt and scream in agony. I am in some of the most pain I have ever felt.
My sports experience is similar to events that happen to all of us. Bar results are coming out, and some people don't pass. That is excruciating. Some students aren't allowed to continue with law school. Academic Support Professionals will work with someone and they don't succeed. Most students get a bad grade. That list is the tip of the iceberg. Many of us have events in our personal life that are painful. My biggest suggestion is to learn from my mistakes and fully heal from the experience.
After getting help back inside with almost no weight on my ankle, here is what I did:
- Used WebMD to self-diagnosis a grade 2 sprain instead of going to the doctor
- Lightly rested it, and then played golf 3 days later
- Ice it some but not enough
- Continue to overuse it, ie - caddying 18 holes (for the son who caused the injury) prior to fully healing
My actions are not what I tell my students or my friends. I would tell anyone to take the time to fully heal from whatever pains you. Go to someone for advice. If it is a bad grade or not passing the bar exam, seek out your Academic Support Professional. As an ASPer, if you are struggling, seek out colleagues. We all need help sometimes. WebMd is a poor substitute for medical advice. Don't make the same mistakes I did with what you are going through. Seek help from others and take the time to fully heal before putting full weight onto the next event.
In case you are wondering, he still didn't score.