Monday, May 13, 2024

Ambivalence

My grading is almost 100% done (the only thing left is one rescheduled exam that will get to me in about a week). I am generally happy that it is over. It was a large undertaking with two undergraduate classes and two law classes this semester-over 100 students to grade in total. But, while I am glad I did the work, I am also ambivalent about it.

Why am I not sipping a drink with an umbrella and congratulating myself on meeting the grading deadlines? This semester I failed two students-one in each of my undergraduate sections. To clarify: they received Fs, and I failed them. These are two different things. I also gave some lower passing grades that included parts of the alphabet I don’t often use in these and my other classes. I think I now know what it means when someone says, “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” This hurts. Let me be very clear, I am not angry at the students, nor do I think they weren’t interested in the class or didn’t care-I think they just couldn’t do it. I am not taking it personally-it isn’t about me. Yet, I have to wonder how I missed such large cracks forming before the students fell through.

One of these students had perfect attendance and regularly participated in class, they just didn’t submit any work during the semester[1]-absolutely none, except they showed up (after rescheduling) for their oral argument (which was only worth 15% of a grade). Out of a total of 100 possible points, they had 40. I asked them in person (privately) after the oral argument, when I should expect their work and they nodded and said, “soon.” The other student got a perfect score on the first quiz, did an amazing oral argument, and then turned nothing else in and barely showed up for the rest of the semester. This student had 41 points. I was generous in awarding points for both. I am only allowed to give a grade of incomplete if they had turned in over 2/3 of the work. I begged them to turn in a few more assignments so I could give them an  “I”: no answer.

I emailed these students (often), contacted their Dean of Students, and also their faculty advisors. Academic Support me tried all the tricks to get their attention-and received no answers anywhere I turned. I also looked on our student tracking and found that they both had done poorly in their other classes as well.[2] Was this a relief? No. Did it take a little sting out of the process? Yes[3].

And then there were the law students. They also had some issues turning in assignments. I had one student who copied an MPT point sheet basically verbatim and turned it in as their own work[4]. When confronted, they only asked if they could take the class next intersession instead[5]. I suppose on an interrogatory that would be a “neither admit nor deny” type of answer. I emailed another student asking if they wanted an Incomplete since they had not turned in any assignments (but had done the quizzes and shown up -more or less-frequently) and the response was to submit most of the assignment a few days past my deadline without answering that email or communicating that they planned to do that in any way.

They will both pass the class. Will it be a grade that lifts their GPAs? I doubt it, but it is a one credit class, so it really wouldn’t have had a profound effect either way. Perhaps this was their calculation as well. Again, I tried not to be hurt or angry.[6]

I am pretty certain that all of these students are overwhelmed. I am not sure why this semester was the most overwhelming of all the semesters since the pandemic. Perhaps our collective trauma and grief has come home to roost- a bit of academic long COVID. I know that our collective mental health has been fraught-and world events and responses to them have been a lot. Please do not think that I am fishing for “you did everything you could for them.”  I am not looking for that, I am just wondering where they were that I couldn’t see or hear them-and more importantly how did they get there? And also, are there more students hiding in that spot?

I’ll be checking those nooks and crannies more carefully during the bar prep months as well as next semester, and I am suggesting that we all do (because, goodness knows, we don't already have enough to do...).

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] They added the class about a week in, so I thought they were catching up for a bit.

[2] One had actually failed every class this semester.

[3] But then I felt that this kind of validation is not helpful to students either. A group failure is still a failure, just not as lonely.

[4] When your explanation of a changed provision in an MPT includes the words, “an examinee might…,” you’re busted.

[5] No, they cannot because they already took the final exam.

[6] Although the cheating did tip me over into anger. I am flexible about most things, but dishonesty isn’t on that list.

May 13, 2024 in Bar Exam Preparation, Current Affairs, Stress & Anxiety, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Congratulations to Everyone

In thinking about this post, I originally planned to congratulate students finishing the JD, then I thought about 1Ls making it past the first year.  I couldn't then forget about the middle-child 2Ls, and of course, ASP staff and faculty help students in those journeys.  So instead of focusing on one group, I want to congratulate everyone for making it through another year.

3Ls/Graduates - Great job completing 3-4 years of extremely difficult work.  Completing your JD is an amazing accomplishment and puts you in elite company.  Celebrate safely, but also, get right back to studying for the opportunity to take the bar exam.

1Ls - You made it.  I know some of you didn't believe you could keep going, but you did it.  Now is the time to take a slight break and get some legal experience.  Some of your professors will probably tell you that experience will help you contextualize what you learned and help you understand it better.  They are right, and working in a law firm is fun.

2Ls - We didn't forget about you.  You are over halfway finished, and we are proud of everything you accomplished.  Your law school is ready to help you cross your last hurdle next year.

Last, but certainly not least, ASPers - Thousands of students will reach their dreams at the end of July because of you.  The sleepless nights, constant feedback, and worrying will be worth it when you see your students take the oath of attorneys in your state.  Keep up the good work.

(Steven Foster)

May 12, 2024 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 3, 2024

Let's Talk About Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is a term used to describe stress experienced before an exam that rises to a heightened level of anxiousness and self-doubt. Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety that can feel overwhelming and is serious enough to impact your performance on the exam. Stress before an exam is normal. In fact, normal stress before an exam is triggering your sympathetic nervous system and preparing you to act. This can improve brain function in the short-term, keep you focused on the task, and help you perform at your best.

If your parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t kick in, you can remain in a heightened state of stress too long, or even experience a panic attack. Sensations experienced during panic attacks include trouble breathing normally, shaking hands, feeling faint or nauseous, feeling like you are having a heart attack or that you are choking. These sensations can make it impossible to focus on the exam.

Even if your stress is not rising to the level of panic attack, you may still find your stress is difficult to manage before an exam. You might feel like you’ve entered a freeze, flight, or fight state. I find freezing to be the most common defensive reaction in the exam setting. I think we’ve all experienced reading an exam question and feeling our minds go completely blank.

If this happens to you frequently, I encourage you to talk to a professional counselor. Not only will they be able to provide strategies for managing the anxiety, but they may also be able to identify an underlying cause of the anxiety. If this is happening to you for the first time in law school, please know you are not alone. The higher-stakes testing environment, pressure placed on law school final exams for overall course grades, and breadth of subject matter make law school exams different than other exams. It is incredibly common for law students to feel exam stress or test anxiety for the first time in their academic history.

What should you do if you are feeling extreme stress during an exam?

Breathe. First, try closing your eyes and taking some long, deep breaths. If this helps, focus on your senses. Identify five things you can see, hear, and touch at your seat. Instead of trying to focus on the exam questions, think of one major concept you remember from the course generally. Take a moment to write down a few rules you remember related to that concept. This is often enough to get out of the freeze and move forward with the exam.

If this does not work, you can’t breathe normally, or taking deep breaths is adding to the stress, try leaving the testing room for a few minutes. Take a short walk. If this is not helping, and you begin to experience symptoms of a panic attack, ask for help. Go to the appropriate person on your campus who assists with exam emergencies. According to Scientific American, panic attacks “usually begin abruptly, reach their peak within 10 minutes and end within half an hour.” You may be able to work through the episode and still complete your exam successfully. Suffering in the exam room usually does not help the situation. So, get the support you need.

Good luck on exams and remember that taking care of your health during the finals period is critical to exam performance.

(Ashley Cetnar)

May 3, 2024 in Advice, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 11, 2024

Getting to No

Can we stop for a minute and discuss how much fun, “I’m Just Ken” was last night on the Oscars? It was pink, sparkly, and joyful. And, like my scholarship (as noted in a prior blog post), delightful, but insufficient for the win.[1]

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted (and maybe, therefore, a bit cranky). I am teaching four classes this semester, have a regular load of one-on-one students, am enmeshed in both writing and presenting topics, and have other committee, university, and non-university tasks waiting. Not to mention writing for this blog.[2] This spring “break” will be full of obligations, but also some much needed downtime.

As much as I love the book, “Getting to Maybe[3],” being successful in law school is a matter of doing smart, efficient things to get others to say “yes” to you: yes to an A, yes to a clerkship, yes to a job.

I need a book that teaches me how to say no.[4]

One of the downsides of the job security status most academic support folks find themselves in is the unspoken but real subtext of not being able to say no to requests from supervisors and colleagues. This, coupled with my desire to do some of the things ordinarily not available to academic support folks (like chairing committees and participating in leadership institutes) makes us (me, at least) very busy.  It is like begging to sit at the grown-up table, but your feet can’t reach the floor in the big chairs. You are grateful to be there, so you cope and insist you do not want the chicken nuggets the kids are having.

But let’s be clear: since we are sitting at the grown-up table, we are often then asked to do things that tenured, doctrinal faculty would not be asked --or would never agree-- to do. I need a way (besides retirement) to get myself off (or pushed closer to the bottom of) the “usual suspects” list of folks who can be relied on to do various jobs.  

Yet, I have a hard time thinking of myself as someone who wouldn’t be reliable or diligent. I would argue that academic support folks are constantly proving their worth by showcasing these attributes. We are also kind and generous people (I see you!) who wouldn’t want to let someone down even if it is above and beyond our bandwidth and paygrade. I think the pandemic has also made some formerly solid boundaries much more permeable.

Therefore, I propose we start finding a “no buddy.” This can be someone we see at work, a colleague we know through our ASP community, friends, partner/spouse, or really anyone. We can text that person, “I said no!!!” and they will respond, “I am proud of you!!!”[5]

I’ll start: last Friday, a student asked me my next availability for a meeting since they were unprepared for our late Friday afternoon before spring break meeting, and I said, “after the break.” Essentially, saying I wouldn’t meet with them during the break. Y’all: I said no!!!![6]

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] Which is not to say Billie Eilish and her lovely brother did not deserve the win-they truly did.

[2] Which actually gives me great joy! Really!

[3] It really can be a game changer for students! https://cap-press.com/books/isbn/9781594607349/Getting-to-Maybe-Second-Edition

[4] I am not advocating for a book that teaches others how to say “no” to me. I don’t think there is a need for that text. See, Tenure, not happening.

[5] Yes, the exclamation points are required.

[6] And I am proud of myself. And I still feel a little guilty….

March 11, 2024 in Advice, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 26, 2024

Go have a little fun!

It’s the third week of spring classes here in Idaho. Grades from the fall term were released and exam reviews are underway. A few students are feeling elated with their fall performance. The majority (even those who did well) are experiencing disappointment. Emails are going out to students from all directions with words of encouragement and tips for what to do next.

When I think back to my best and worst semesters of law school, I can’t remember the grades earned. I can remember the key ingredient that made the difference: fun. I worked hard, yes. I remained diligent and met all deadlines. But when my head was swimming with legal theory, or I had simply finished my workday in the library, I went and had fun. That’s right, I actually spent time doing things I enjoy with the people I love – as a law student!

The bad semesters, the ones full of stress and anxiety, were full of wasted time and wasted opportunities for fun. I should get ahead on my reading. I don’t have time for the things I like to do. I can’t meet you for dinner because I’m sitting here looking at my books (not reading, looking at). When I gave myself permission to create more balance in my life and schedule, my work was more efficient, I felt happier, and I learned more.

We spend a lot of time talking about wellness in law school. I love meditating. I love thinking about ways to optimize my wellness. I also think we forget that having fun is a big part of being well. So, let’s all commit to blocking off some time for hobbies, time with family and friends, and doing something for the sake of fun. It’s good for us.

(Ashley Cetnar)

January 26, 2024 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 8, 2023

Come as You Are

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.”[1] 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.

(Liz Stillman)

[1] https://www.instagram.com/lakonparis.patisserie/?hl=en

*Please also remember to sign up for AASE Conference!*

Here is a final notification from our amazing host school colleagues:

We're asking that everyone planning to attend in-person register by May 8 for planning purposes.

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

May 8, 2023 in Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 24, 2023

Ghosted

­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.

(Liz Stillman)

April 24, 2023 in Meetings, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 20, 2023

Spring!? Break

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:

  1. Outlining: “I am going to catch up and make sure they are all up to date.”
  2. Reading: “I am going to get ahead in my reading so that the week we return isn’t stressful.”
  3. 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[1] for Pi day. And I wore sweat pants. Every. Single. Day.

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] https://www.instagram.com/p/CpvthKMp4XS/

March 20, 2023 in Exams - Theory, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 23, 2023

Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough

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.

(Liz Stillman)

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yURRmWtbTbo
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuart_Smalley#:~:text=%22I'm%20good%20enough%2C,%2Ding%20all%20over%20yourself.%22

January 23, 2023 in Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Meetings, Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Playground

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.

Overwhelming.

Intense.

Busy.

Frustrating.

Joyful.

Fulfilling.

Fast.

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.

(Liz Stillman)

November 21, 2022 in Games, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 29, 2022

I see, you see, we all see....

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[1] would always say, “[L]et’s be Careful out there.” 

Indeed.

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1]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!!!

August 29, 2022 in Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 13, 2022

But do you like me, do you really like me?

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.”[1]  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.

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] https://abovethelaw.com/2022/06/making-student-evaluations-more-meaningful/

June 13, 2022 in Professionalism, Program Evaluation, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 16, 2022

Survey says....

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):

  1. What is the most important thing to do to succeed?
  2. What are some common mistakes or missteps you see your students take?
  3. What proactive steps can I take to ensure that I have a job right after graduation in the field of law I prefer?
  4. 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?
  5. Will I still be able to have normal life?
  6. When is a reasonable time in one's law school-career for their anxiety level to decrease to a normal level?
  7. 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[1], I know what I am going to do tomorrow.

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] Yes, again, can you believe it? I should really go through the survey question on TV shows and pick something intended for adults….

May 16, 2022 in Orientation, Stress & Anxiety, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Exams are coming!! The exams are coming!!

Next Monday is Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts. I used to think that since it was the day of the marathon, we all got the day off because getting anywhere in Boston can be fraught when you cannot cross Beacon Street. However, there is a revolutionary war meaning behind the holiday (it is Massachusetts, right?). Patriot’s Day commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord that began the colonists’ fight for independence from Great Britain on April 19, 1775.[1] And we all know the story of Paul Revere, who warned the colonists here in the Commonwealth the day before-- if for no other reason than because we all had to memorize Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which starts with,

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.”[2]

I think some of my students might actually believe that I do remember that famous day and year-sigh. But, more importantly, I think at this point in the semester students are starting to hear the warning about exams coming and are looking to Academic Support to hang a lantern aloft[3] to help illuminate their approach to the battle ahead. Here is what I would be crying into the night as I rode through the towns where my students live:

Outlining: students who heard and followed through on our earlier admonition to start outlining in January (or even catch-up during spring break in March) have more munitions in stock here in April. But for those who did not, there is still time to outline-either in the standard or other useful formats-like annotated flowcharts or Prezi[4].  Outlining is both a review and the creation of a document to study from. It is what I like to call a two-birder,[5] it is useful to do and useful to have when you are done.

Practice: at this point in the semester, doctrinal professors are handing out and going over old exam questions. This is a gold mine, because it lets students know how a professor will raise an issue and the depth that is required to answer it appropriately. Even students who have already been through multiple sets of exams need this because knowing your audience is a good writing tactic no matter what type of legal writing you are undertaking. Also, practicing multiple choice questions daily, from multiple sources (because slight changes in terminology can really throw you off unless you’ve seen them before) is key. At this point in the semester (or year for yearlong classes), students can look to bar questions or even scramble around other sources because they have finally encountered most of the material (if done too early, students may panic at what they don’t already know even though it hasn’t come up in the class yet).

Planning: students should sit down with their exam schedule and work backwards to today to plan their study. An examplan™[6] is a REALISTIC plan that includes time for finishing up the outlines, practicing essay and multiple-choice questions, studying from your outline, and (please!!) remembering to attend to your personal hygiene, physical and mental health. I advise students to remember to preview for the exam that is after the one they are currently studying for-you need to stay mentally nimble and not have to relearn all of Torts or Con Law in the two days before that exam.  Having a plan has the added bonus of helping students feel more in control of the situation. Control is comfort in stressful situations.

Study groups: yes, but…every year I meet with a student on academic warning who assures me that they were the expert in their study group and all their “students” got better grades than they did. Remind students that if they are teaching the group everything, that the group is not putting anything they need on the table for them. I tell students that community, camaraderie, and shared circumstances are all important, but you cannot bring anyone else’s brain into the exam with you.[7]

So, while exams are indeed coming, and they will bring some panic and chaos into the lives of our students, there is a lot we can do to prepare them for the onslaught-more than I have listed certainly. All we can hope is that our students will hear our cry and know that it is,

“A cry of defiance and not of fear,

A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,

And a word that shall echo forevermore!”[8]

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] https://www.history.com/news/what-is-patriots-day

[2] https://www.paulreverehouse.org/longfellows-poem/

[3] Id.

[4] https://prezi.com/

[5] I am really hoping this phrase catches on, but like “fetch” I am afraid it will not be a thing after all.

[6] Ok, I haven’t really registered this trademark, but if I see you all wearing t-shirts that say this, I’ll be pretty upset.

[7] This is what I am always thinking about when I say this to students (Gary Larson, 1986):

Pin on Humor of the Crooked Sort

[8] https://www.paulreverehouse.org/longfellows-poem/

April 11, 2022 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 21, 2022

Back to the Grind

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Meeting one-on-one outside of class. Some triumphs and tribulations are not for public consumption.
  4. 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/
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

(Liz Stillman)

March 21, 2022 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 14, 2022

Spring Broken

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[1]. 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[2]? 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…

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] I can’t even with the timing on this one.

[2] You can do this too! https://youtu.be/H_LQeYUHm4M

March 14, 2022 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 27, 2022

New Experiences

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.  

(Steven Foster)

February 27, 2022 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Managing Responses

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.

(Steven Foster)

February 6, 2022 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Rebuttable Presumptions

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 [1]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)[2]. 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.

(Liz Stillman)

 

[1] Thank you to Melissa Hale, Susan Landrum, and Kirsha Trychta!

[2] I don’t even agree with ranking them, but that will be another post.

January 10, 2022 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Meetings, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 9, 2021

"Zoom Out" says Article

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).

 

 

 

 

December 9, 2021 in Advice, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)