Friday, April 9, 2021
Have you ever been at a bar at last call, when they turn on the lights and what was a magical place in the darkness transforms into a dirty, tacky room that you would not have entered if you had seen it this way at the beginning? I think that is where our students are in this year of pandemic teaching and learning.
Yesterday, at the end of class, I told my students that I was there for them, I saw them and asked what I could do to help them get to the finish line this semester. We had about four minutes of class time left, and I wanted to acknowledge that our once-a-week class had two boxes left to check off before the semester ended. A student raised her small yellow emoji hand and asked, “where can I find the motivation to move forward? I seem to have lost it just when I need it.” There was a lot of nodding. Cameras that had been off for the past hour came back on. I sighed, took a deep breath, summoned my inner Kate McKinnon, and paraphrased her entirely accurate statement on the Dec. 20, 2020 episode of Saturday Night Live, "It's like the light at the end of the tunnel has shown us how stinky and bad the tunnel is." There is so much truth in this. Seeing what we have been through as we near the end of it is an exhausting place to be stuck as finals approach.
So, I tried to find something that might re-ignite motivation. I had to admit that the semester ending wasn’t enough of an incentive to get to the end of it. I had to also admit that there is no easy answer to that question except maybe, while it seems like a time where things don’t matter and that the pandemic blip will explain any so-so grades, the truth is that the pandemic excuse will have a pretty short half-life. So, I told them it does matter. The grades will start to matter; the approach they take to getting them will matter more, and most important of all: they matter. We have not given up on making sure they learn because their learning-even under these strange circumstances-will always be what matters.
I asked them to find a morsel of normalcy every day from now until exams end and make a list of these things. I showed them the flowers I bought at Trader Joes in cheerful shades of yellow, coral and orange and urged them to find something beautiful to look at when they are down. Spring is exactly the right time of year to see these things changing daily. I suggested going to the ocean (but no swimming yet, it is still cold here in Massachusetts!) and understanding in its vastness that they should, occasionally, feel that they can be small and not in control and that is okay. But I also told them that nothing I say is a one size fits all pep talk: flowers and water will not solve all problems and that my advice was not meant in any way to diminish their very real feelings of despair. I offered to meet individually with anyone who wanted a tailored pep talk. I reminded them about the counseling center and our Dean of Students office.
But truly, I had no answer that might find lost motivation. I am hoping it is merely misplaced and that time, light, flowers, waves, vaccines and kindness will help us find it.
In the meantime, I will pull out my virtual pom-poms, cheer students towards the goal and raise my glass to the day that we can consider this awful and now illuminated tunnel completely behind us.
(Elizabeth Stillman - Guest Blogger)
Saturday, March 27, 2021
I don’t know about your law school, but we did not have a regular week-long spring break this year. Instead, perhaps as an afterthought, we were awarded a one-day reprieve which occurred on St. Patrick’s Day…in Boston (people who have ever lived in Boston will know what I mean).
I truly understand why we did not have our usual break. We are part of a university that has undergraduates, as well as a business school, and we did not want students leaving and returning to campus in the middle of a pandemic, especially since these students are most likely to be vaccinated in the last wave. As a result, we started a week later in January to allow more self-quarantining and to keep our end dates and commencement on schedule. One Wednesday in the middle of March made sense from a strategic planning point of view.
And yet, this is the week I have spent the most time talking to tearful and anxious students who have hit a wall. This is also the week that students have disappeared from my radar and I have had the most correspondence with our Dean of Students Office about students I am worried about. I have begun starting my emails to them with, “me again...” and ending them with, “again, sorry to add something else to your plate.” Joni Mitchell was absolutely right when she said, “Don't it always seem to go; That you don't know what you've got till it's gone.” Sigh.
The one class I teach on Wednesdays is a one-credit MPT driven class. We meet for about an hour at the utter apex of the workweek: high noon. I am never sure if I should ask how everyone’s weekend was or whether I should wish them a good one-it is an awkward time for small talk. I’d like to think that this class, at its silly time, is an oasis in an otherwise Zoomful chaos. Since spring “break,” fell on our class day, I told the students in this class that I would consider the day sacred and assign no new work or have any assignments due, so long as they each did something that gave them joy and send me a picture to prove it. I wanted students to think that the one “assignment” they had, for the one day of break they had, was to do one thing that brought them joy. In return, I promised I would send them my proof as well.
As usual, this class of students did not disappoint. The first picture I received was of an absolutely adorable baby and the caption, “I’m spending some time with my niece!” This was followed by a selfie of a student driving a few dogs to the dog park-even the basset hound looked cheerful. So far, I have received photos of snuggly kittens, excited meetings with friends, a birthday cake, a recent publication, a dog who had lost a battle with a skunk but smiled at a bath, a bubble bath drawn and ready (for a human), a map of a five-mile run, and a pizza from a favorite place shared with a favorite person. The picture of a visit with a grandmother--for the first time in a year-- made me cry. In return, my students got a series of shots from me that included: a recipe, my gathered ingredients, batter in a pan, and, finally, my son eating a gooey brownie. The fact that not everyone was in a position to engage in happy activities was not lost on me either-there are no consequences or penalties for not sending the picture and pictures were sent only to me, not the whole class.
While our Wednesday off was something, it was also clear that one day was not enough of a break for students in times that are already fraught. It is not enough time for a student to turn away from the pressure of law school and then, refreshed, turn back to finish up the semester. Everything we do these days seems both rushed and suspended in time, abbreviated and yet drawn out. I worry that we will crawl over the finish line at the end of the semester at exactly the time students need to summon the energy to run. Safety and wellness do not belong on opposite sides of the same scale and I hope that we are not forced to weigh them against each other again. Next year, may we all find ourselves somewhere with, “a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot” for spring break.
(Elizabeth Stillman - Guest Blogger)
Tuesday, February 9, 2021
Here it is, Tuesday evening, and I am finally settling down to write another blogfest – this, like many weeks, despite having specifically placed this high enough up on my to-do list that I genuinely expected to be starting in the early afternoon. The problem – one I am sure we are all familiar with – is not the writing, but all the other things I had planned to finish beforehand, which took far longer than I had originally estimated they would. Fortunately, such difficulties are illustrative of this week’s topic of discussion – the planning fallacy and how to counteract it.
The planning fallacy is a simple psychological phenomenon: human beings’ predictions about the time needed to complete a future task are usually significant underestimations. In some cases, wild underestimations: for example, when construction began on the Sydney Opera House in 1959, it was expected to be completed by 1963, but the site was not actually finished until 1973. Daniel Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky were the first to describe this phenomenon, more than forty years ago, and Kahneman writes about it in his wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He explains it as a kind of optimism bias, a tendency of people to adopt the rosiest scenarios as they imagine how a task will proceed. Later scholars added other nuances to this explanation. One reason for this apparent optimism bias, for example, might be the self-serving human tendency, when considering similar past situations, to take personal credit for all the things that went right (and thus assume they will go right again in the future), but to attribute errors and delays to outside forces that they presume will not occur again.1 Nassem Taleb, in his book Antifragile, suggests it may not only be a psychological phenomenon, but also a consequence of a natural asymmetry: whenever circumstances or events cause a deviation from a well-laid-out plan, chances are far greater that the disruption will lead to delay than to expedition, so that the sum total of all deviations would always be expected to be postponement.
How many times have we seen the planning fallacy in action amongst our students? Just in the past month, I have met with returning students, vowing to perform better in this coming spring semester, who base this determination on unaccountably confident projections of all the steps they will complete to do so. I have worked with February bar examinees, noses to the grindstone, who despite their genuine efforts are finding themselves slipping behind their intended schedules. Not every student suffers from this bias, of course, and many of those who experience the bias don't actually suffer for it, either because they start with ambitious goals that leave plenty of leeway or because they find the extra time and energy to offset their underestimated projections. Still, every year brings a significant crop of students who do not perform as well as they might have, because they seriously underestimate how long it will take them to complete an essay test question, compile a useful outline, learn the rules governing a specific legal topic, research, draft, and edit a significant writing assignment, or attend to the demands of student organizations.
Fortunately, the psychologists and scientists who have studied the planning fallacy have suggested a few strategies that can be used to counteract it, and these strategies are easily adoptable -- or correspond to techniques already used -- by academic support professionals. In his book, Kahneman suggests the use of reference class forecasting -- that is, making predictions of the time needed to complete a task based not on a person's (or an entity's) internal sense of how long it should take them, but on observations of actual outcomes in prior similar situations. In other words, if I were going to build an opera house, I might start off by assuming I could get it done in a few years, but if I considered how long it took to build the one in Sydney (and of course in other locations), I should understand that it is likely to take more than a decade. Many of us do something at least adjacent to this with our students already -- providing them with estimates about how long they should expect to take to complete a case brief, for example, or to study for the MPRE -- but the idea of reference class forecasting suggests that it might be even more powerful to refer specifically to prior performances by other students. Instead of saying, "You should devote at least 24 hours," it might be more effective to say, "Last year, every student who devoted 4 hours a day, every Saturday and Sunday, for three weeks, completed this successfully."
Another suggestion is the use of the segmentation effect. It has been observed that a person's estimate of the total time it will take to complete a task will be longer -- and thus likely more accurate -- if they are asked to segment the task (break the task down into a number of sub-tasks), to estimate the time it will take to complete each sub-task, and then to add all those times together to come up with the total time.2 However, there is a cognitive cost to being mindful and particular enough to break complex tasks down into numerous sub-tasks, and, without help, this kind of approach may be hard to learn and sustain. Fortunately, this is just the kind of help we can give, especially to inexperienced students who may not be able to envision how a long-term task can be broken down, or even what all the steps involved might be. By providing students with a framework of what to expect, and encouraging them to think realistically about what it will take to build each part of that framework, we can help them to stay on track, or at least in the general vicinity of the track, by using the segmentation effect.
Finally, another tool that has been suggested to combat the planning fallacy is the implementation intention, a term coined by Peter Gollwitzer for a particular model of thinking about future actions. Encouraging people to think specifically about when, where, and how they will act towards their goal tends to make them more likely to move forward steadily, and in a timely way, towards them. For example, people who received a telephone call in which someone asked them what time they planned to vote, from where they would be heading to the polling place, and what they would be doing just before they left to vote -- all questions designed to prompt them to think about when, where, and how they would vote -- were more likely to vote than those who did not receive the phone call.3 The mental IF-->THEN statement (as in, "If I am aiming to take a practice exam, then I should get a copy of an old exam from the library on Friday") is the implementation intention that moves people apace towards their goals. This, too, is something that academic support professionals do, or can do. By querying students about the specifics of how they expect to achieve their long-term goals, we can induce them to map out their plans in advance, changing vague ambitions about what they would like to achieve into articulable steps (the implementation intentions) that they can follow methodically to their desired ends within the time they have available.
It is a natural human tendency to overestimate what can be done in a given period of time. By helping our students account for this tendency, even if we cannot help them complete everything, we can at least help them get in a position where they've done enough to succeed.
1(1995) It's About Time: Optimistic Predictions in Work and Love, European Review of Social Psychology, 6:1, 1-32,
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
There is something about this time of year – perhaps the sweeping winter landscape, perhaps the complex and dramatic tale that is law school – something that makes me think of the golden age of Russian literature. Where would jurisprudence be without The Government Inspector or Crime and Punishment? And of course, the most important line in literature for academic success professionals comes at the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The idea captured in this line has been recognized as a generalizable “Anna Karenina Principle”: In many systems, enterprises, or entities, a significant flaw in one or any combination of factors can lead to failure, while success depends on a certain similarity of strength in each of those factors. There is a satisfying monotony to success. But there are thousands of ways to fall short.
Tolstoy was not the first to think of this, or even to articulate it. Aristotle says, in his unputdownable classic Nicomachean Ethics, put it this way:
It is possible to fail in many ways . . . while to succeed is possible only in one way.
It’s not clear how much credence we should give to this work – no one even knows for sure which Nicomachus the book was dedicated to, since both Aristotle’s father and his son had that name – and we surely can’t take literally the intimation that everyone with a 3.5 GPA or above is exactly alike. But just as surely, each unhappy law student is unhappy in their own way.
Drawing a parallel between struggling law students and Anna Karenina might seem thoughtless or even risky, given Anna’s unhappy ending in the second-to-last part of the book. But there’s a reason the book does not end there. In the final part of the book, Levin, friend of Anna’s brother, comes to realize that, despite his past familial unhappiness, he has the capacity to build a happy family, despite the ways in which he knows he may continue to fall short, because he has the power to continue to keep working at it.
Besides evoking the Russian steppes (well, at least here in Buffalo), this time of year also delivers fall semester grades, and, thus, some unhappy law students. It is one of the privileges and challenges of this job that I get to know students well enough to learn their own ways of being unhappy. There is a kind of shivery tension in the air as students work with me, often for the first time since arriving at law school, to face their unhappy grades, with hope or shame or defiance or resignation. No one wants to remain unhappy, but not everyone wants to hear that their way of being unhappy is unique. To be sure, some students do want to hear that; individuality can be inspiring. But other students are hoping for the magic bullet, the one tool or book or trick or advice that will fix every problem. Still other students are discouraged by the idea that their issue, or combination of issues, makes them unique, as if that is proof of their fear that they alone among their classmates were not really meant for law school. The most important thing to remind all these students is that uncovering how each of them is unique is the first step towards helping them to discover how to be happy law students.
And, after all, as Tolstoy also said in Anna Karenina:
Spring is the time of plans and projects.
Saturday, January 23, 2021
Education week interviewed students and posted their responses to the question "What was the best moment you ever had in the classroom?" You can read the 3rd part in the series here. It has 3 students' responses, and I think they are illuminating. Here are quick excerpts:
Student 1 - Something teachers or students can learn from my experience is that we have to overcome our fears and not let them control ourselves because we can’t know our capabilities if we are afraid.
Student 2 - When I wrote my first poem in freshman year. I realized that it was fun and unique. I felt like I wanted to write more and more. When I performed my first poem to that class I found my passion.
Student 3 - This experience showed me the extent a relationship with your classmates and your teacher can go....
While not surprising, I noticed that none of the students talked about a specific piece of information. Only one of them referred to teaching style (#3), and even that student came away highlighting the relationship with students and the teacher. I wanted to highlight these responses as we enter our classrooms (many of which are virtual). Students will need doctrinal information, but in the end, they will remember more about the relationship and human skills we helped them build. They probably won't remember all those rules after the bar exam, but they will remember the time we took to help them prepare. None of our classes will be perfect this semester, but we can be the professor that makes a lasting difference with the connection we make with them. Have a great semester!
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
ASP Foundational Scholarship Series: This series focuses on the seminal ASP/ Bar Exam scholarship that contributed to the development of academic and bar support best practices.
For the first-ever post in this series, I was stuck between two choices. So, I chose both:
1. Knaplund & Sanders, The Art and Science of Academic Support, 45 J. Legal Educ. 157 (1995).
This article was one of the earliest and most robust empirical analyses of law school academic support programs. It helped ASP faculty defend the then-controversial pedagogy of "contextualized academic support" and answer the question "Why should we spend money on an ASP?"
From the introduction:
• Our analysis of seven distinct academic support initiatives at UCLA shows that support can substantially and demonstrably improve both short-term and long-term academic performance, but the effects vary markedly across UCLA's programs.
• The variation in academic effectiveness across UCLA's programs follows distinct patterns that yield definite guidance on the pedagogy of academic support.
• We found some evidence that academic support programs can have valuable benefits apart from their impact on grades.
2. Russell McClain, Helping Our Students Reach Their Full Potential: The Insidious Consequences of Ignoring Stereotype Threat, 17 Rutgers Race & L. Rev. 1 (2016).
Coupled with Professor McClain's conference presentations on this subject and a related TEDx Talk, this article was the first to analyze the phenomenon of stereotype threat specifically as it pertains to law students. It serves as a crucial resource for ASP faculty, and all others, to understand their potential in ameliorating the effects of implicit bias in the law school classroom.
From the article abstract:
A psychological phenomenon may be a significant cause of academic underachievement by minorities in law school. This phenomenon, called stereotype threat, occurs as a result of the fear of confirming a negative group stereotype.... When subject to this threat — as a consequence of being confronted with environmental or explicit triggers — people do worse in academic settings than they otherwise are capable of doing. In this article, I explore the implications of the research on stereotype threat for law schools and make several recommendations to deal with the threat.
There are natural implications for law school admissions, of course. If a portion of our applicant pool is affected by stereotype threat, then we cannot trust the accuracy of the metrics we typically use in law school admissions, i.e., prior academic performance and LSAT scores of law school applicants. Indeed, those credentials actually may under-evaluate the academic potential of these applicants, who are often minority students. This should cause law schools to reevaluate their admissions policies.
After students are admitted, law school provides fertile ground within which stereotype threat can flourish. This, of course, means that the performance of minorities in law school — in class, on exams, and in other areas — is likely to be diminished, such that many minorities will not perform up to their academic capacity. And, obviously, we would expect this same dynamic to play out on the bar exam.
Law schools can address stereotype threat at each of these levels, and they should do so. This article lays out a framework for understanding and dealing with the threat.
(Louis N. Schulze, Jr., FIU Law).
Thursday, January 14, 2021
I just got out of class. An online zoom class, not surprisingly. But, in reflection of the first class, I had a bit of a surprise. I did a whole lot of talking and talking and then, even more, talking. You see, I took a glance at the audio transcript file. And it was quite an eye-popper.
I did most of the talking, which means that my students did very little.
It makes me wonder whether I left enough time in the midst of my words for my students to learn. I once heard a brilliant teacher say something to the effect that "the less that I talk the more that they [my students] learn."
Of course, as the saying goes, the "proof is in the pudding."
Which leads to my next surprise. I try to end classes with asking students one thing that they learned along with one thing that they didn't understand. Well as you might expect, I didn't leave enough time for the last question because, you guessed it, I spent too much time talking.
But, in response to the first question, what they learned, well, they learned about what I liked (snickers!) and where I ate lunch on the first day of the bar exam (the liquor store since I forgot my lunch), etc. In other words, it seems like they learned a great deal about me but perhaps not as much about bar preparation, which is the subject of our course.
Lesson learned, especially for online teaching...speak less and listen more. In short, trust them to learn by learning together, as a team, rather than just trying to pound information into their heads. I sure learned a lot today. Next class...my students are going to learn plenty too! (Scott Johns)
Tuesday, January 5, 2021
It is AALS Annual Meeting week and the Section on Academic Support is holding 3 programs and the business meeting. This year the section is holding 1 main program and 2 co-sponsored programs.
Wed, Jan. 6, 2:45 pm - 5:30 pm EST - Section on Academic Support and Real Estate Transactions Joint Program: "The Changing Architecture of Legal Education: Real Estate Transactions as a Case Study."
Thurs, Jan. 7, 2:45 pm - 4 pm EST - Empirical Study of Legal Education & the Legal Profession, Academic Support, PreLegal Education & Admission to Law School, and Student Services: "An Empirical Look at Influences on Access to Legal Education & the Profession."
Sat, Jan 9, 1:15 pm - 2:30 pm EST - Section for the Law School Dean and Academic Support: "COVID-19 and the Bar Exam: Supporting our Graduates."
Section Business Meeting
The ASP section business meeting will be held on Wed., Jan. 6, at 5:30 pm EST immediately following the main program. The business meeting is NOT part of the main program login. The main program platform does not allow for discussion.
Friday, December 18, 2020
As we enter the holiday season, we seem to measure things in dozens. To that end, and in that spirit (and as a respite from grading…), here are the 12 Students You Meet on Zoom:
1. The First One There: this student comes before I have even poured the coffee I will need for the class. And then they leave because they are alone. And then they come back. And now I have four separate recordings for the class-three are about 38 seconds long.
2. The Gamer: he (or she) has the headphones/mic combo and gamer chair set up like all the folks on YouTube videos that your 15 year old son watches. They may actually be playing a game online with your 15 year-old son during class…..
3. The Snuggler: she (or he) is all comfy cozy in their fluffy bed during class. Their face is sideways because sitting up is a lot. Probably not taking any notes….
4. The Snacker: they did bring enough to share but….
5. Video off/audio on: Um. We can hear their mom telling them something even if we cannot see them (rolling their eyes no doubt). No worries, I muted you both.
6. Computer only attending class: no video, no audio, no student. I called on them after asking them to turn on the video three or four times. No answer. I ended class but didn’t end the meeting and they were still there-or were they ever there? The emailed questions later in the week make me believe not…..
7. The Chatter: the syllabus actually says that any private chats will show up in my transcript of the chat. I don’t care if you think my hair looks weird today. Actually, I do. Ouch.
8. The Harry Potter Painting: they are off screen and then they are back and then they are off again. I am waiting for them to show up in another person’s square…with a sword….and a pony.
9. The Traveller: they are moving from room to room hunting the elusive wifi. Wascally wifi….or walking around outside and taking us with them. Sadly, it will not count towards my daily steps…
10. The Mobile Classroom: They are in a minivan-in the driver’s seat, but when we go into breakout rooms I have a weird vision of them physically driving over to another parking spot. I’m actually impressed at how spacious and clean the van is compared to my house.
11. The Pet Sharer: I love your dogs and cats. I had no idea you had a whole bunch of birds until you unmuted yourself and the noise made all three of my cats come running to my laptop. Still, it was a delightful chaos.
12. The Student doing the best they can under the circumstances: that’s everyone. I would like to thank my students for their patience and understanding during the garbage collection/mail or package delivery/fire engine barking as well as the occasional meowing and tail in your face. This is hard-and we made it work.
(Elizabeth Stillman - Guest Blogger)
Friday, December 11, 2020
The Legal Skills Prof. Blog had 2 great posts recently that I want to pass along. The first is about a piece written by Deborah Jones Merritt. She advocates for a new bar exam that would be significantly more statistically valid. The Legal Skills post is here. You can also read her full article Building a Better Bar: The 12 Building Blocks of Minimum Competence.
The other post relates to cognitive challenges in teaching. It begins with "I have a feeling my co-blogger Scott is going to love this one (it's right up his alley). It's a new article I stumbled across called "The Cognitive Challenges of Effective Teaching" by Professors Stephen L. Chew (Stamford) and William J. Cerbin (U. Wisc.) that pulls together an extensive body of cognitive science research into a nine point framework to guide and inform classroom teaching." The post is a great summary of the 9 points, and the full article is worth the read.
Sunday, December 6, 2020
One of the books that I have read with my children (and without them because it is that good) is Wonder by R. J. Palacio. It is the story of a child with significant facial abnormalities and how he navigates attending school for the first time as a fifth grader. It is not a great book to read on the subway if public crying is not your thing. One of the things I loved about Wonder was that it was full of warm-hearted quotes, but the ones that really resonate with me in these pandemic times are about kindness, "When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind," (Dr. Wayne Dyer) and a variation of this quote from J.M. Barrie, “[b]e kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”
I have about seventy-five students I am responsible for this semester: sixty are undergraduate law majors and the rest are law students. Throughout this entirely remote semester, and especially as we move into exam season, I am trying to live by the words quoted above. What does it mean to be kind in these unprecedented days of legal education? Sadly, the answers are becoming clearer as we get closer to not needing to know anymore.
I wonder how to balance teaching important material, assessing learning of that material and yet not causing any additional stress to students who are already in uncharted waters. I do students no favors by not teaching the subject because, after all, this pandemic will end someday and not knowing what they should know after taking my class is not ideal. I also do students no favors by being rigid for what seems to be no reason other than to maintain the usual power dynamic in a “classroom.” Nothing usual is going on right now, and yet the normalcy of learning may be comforting. How can I make what I teach relevant in a topsy-turvy world?
I will preface my argument for extra kindness with the recognition that I am a bit of a mush even in the best of times: I will accept late work (if students ask for the extension prior to the due date), I will find ways to add extra credit for students who really need more points to pass and I will meet with students really early and fairly late in the day. I am not a doormat though: if you lie or cheat, the well of good will runs dry.
Here’s the thing though, the battles that students have been fighting since March are both obvious and hidden. There is the elephant in the room (wearing his mask and six feet away from the other battles in the room): Covid-19, but there are also so many other occupants of this space. There are students who don’t have the equipment, wi-fi, personal bandwidth or private space to be productive in remote classes. There are students who are ashamed of their living space, or who are sharing that space with siblings, parents, and roommates. There are students who are learning while parenting students who are also trying to learn remotely. There are students with executive function issues who are really struggling to stay organized and focused when the class content is coming from so many different sources. And then there is the student who attends class from inside his car because he needs to drive his grandmother to chemotherapy (public transportation and taxis are not safe at the moment) and our class is during her regularly scheduled appointment. There is the student who lost a close family friend to suicide the week before a scheduled oral argument about a case involving bullying another person to commit suicide; a student who had to fly home to Ghana due to a family emergency; a student whose wife is immune-compromised who was exposed to the virus at work and they live with her older parents, and so on.
I would argue that kindness is the only answer to balancing all the competing interests in teaching in these times. Asking for and accepting help teaches students maturity. For pre-law and law students, learning to advocate, even if for themselves, is a skill that is absolutely necessary but hard to assess. Understanding that most people will do the right thing given the necessary information is also an imperative, and yet ephemeral, lesson. This is where modeling kindness can be an unexpected but powerful aid to teaching.
So, I am doing my best to teach and model kindness as part of the hidden curriculum in these classes. I am accepting all work until the last minute. If you ask me to turn it in late, the answer is yes and there is no penalty. I may even track you down to make sure you ask. If you need to do your oral argument about a different case because the assigned one is too hard to read about, then so be it. I’ve stopped using a virtual background because I want students to know that I am sitting at my kitchen table in my messy and chaotic house. My students have seen (and mainly heard) all my pets and children. I am not pretending that anything we are doing is normal, but I am teaching within this paradigm and not despite it. I want my students to learn that there are some things that are more important than classroom hierarchy, and yet I also want them to learn that being an attorney means that, for the most part, you will be working with and for humans-who all have battles. When our class could be an immersive escape from the world, I hope it was; but where it could be an oasis acknowledging the reality of this time, I hope it was that too. When we get to a point in this pandemic where we can safely be caught crying on public transportation, I will have to find a new balance and I hope my students will have acquired the resilience to find one as well.
(Guest Post - Elizabeth Stillman)
Saturday, November 21, 2020
Many of us try to help students with imposter syndrome. A colleague from CALI (Hat tip to Deb Quentel) passed along an article about imposter syndrome in the classroom. Check it out here.
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
This is a scary time of year – a time of growing cold and darkness. The terror of the unknown, of loss and calamity. The young ones, they don masks – smiles or stoic glares – to hide their fear. They binge on the distracting delight of sweets. But the elders know. It is the time of the season. Days are shorter. Workloads are increasing. Midterm grades are coming in. Soon it will be winter, and with winter come final exams. Minds once lit and warmed by the excitement of a new school year are feeling fatigued and worn, craving respite, giving in to torpor. And the sleep of reason breeds monsters:
Witches: Dazzled by the apparent power of the esoteric words wielded by the great jurists of the past, these students become convinced that the path to glory is paved with sorcerous phrases. They fill notebook after notebook, or thumb drive after thumb drive, with quotations of passages from lectures and cases and textbooks, daring not to cut a single word, sparing not the time for reflection or comprehension, merely hoping that they when they need it most, they will choose the right magic portion to make their professors fall in love with their essays.
Ghosts: These poor souls are caught between worlds and have not found a way to move on. In a former life, they were happy and successful. Maybe this one was a college student, coasting through noteless classes on innate brilliance and heady all-nighters. Maybe that one had prospered at work, a wizard with people and systems but never paying too much attention to the written word. Perhaps another one came from a truly different world – another country, another culture, another field of study – where things just work differently. We must all pass through the veil of law school admission and climb the stairway to replevin, but a few of us are held back, tethered to our pasts.
Werewolves: The most unexpected of all monsters, these accursed brutes look and act like happy-go-lucky, indifferent law students . . . most of the time. But every month or so, as the glare of an impending exam or deadline grows increasingly full, they undergo an uncontrollable metamorphosis! Their mild-mannered calm deserts them, and they howl like beasts as they despair over the seemingly impossible task before them. Raving overnight in the darkness, they may teeter on incomprehensibility until the magic hour finally passes, and, exhausted, they tumble into bed – awakening the next day with no apparent memory of the horror they are thus doomed to repeat.
Zombies: Once ordinary scholars, these creatures have been blighted (some say through contact with other zombies) and are now driven by a single impulse: BRAAAAAAINS! MUST HAVE BRAAAAAINS! Their every conscious (term used loosely) moment is devoted to consuming books, lectures, outlines, practice tests, flash cards, supplements, mnemonics, YouTube videos, omega-3 fatty acids, and biographies of Supreme Court Justices. And they will pick at their professors’ brains if they can. They have little time for other sustenance and none for camaraderie.
Vampires: The wampyr is a tragic being, at once part of the human world and cleaved from it. Rarely seen in daylight, it hides in the dark corners of the classroom, feeding off the thoughts and words of others, but fading, like a mist, when its own opinions are sought. The vampire does not project an image, so it can be seen neither in mirror nor in Zoom class. What keeps it from the fellowship of humanity? Is it anxiety? Indifference? Misunderstanding? Perhaps this spirit feels that it is the one who is misunderstood.
Yes, this is the moment to meet the mysterious menagerie! And you might fear, as Ichabod Crane discovered, that a teacher is no match for a spectral fiend. But remember, every monster is merely a suffering human. We do what we can to restore them. We teach the witches that the power they seek is not in the words, but in what they can learn to make with them. We show the ghosts how to take the best parts of their old lives with them as they rise to face their new ones. We help the werewolves release themselves from their curse by breaking the waxing and waning cycle of rising anxiety and falling productivity, through the mystical art of tempus administratione. We demonstrate to the zombies the benefits of a more balanced diet, one enhanced with practical experience, meaningful relationships, proper recreation, and appropriate amounts of fiber. We reach out to the vampire, drawing it into the light, the better to see what is keeping it at bay and to see to what degree they bring an affliction to school, and to what degree the school imposes an affliction on them.
Happy Hallowe’en to all!
“There is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures--provided we will but take a joke as we find it.” – Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Monday, October 5, 2020
Trauma is defined as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances . . . experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening[,] and that has long-lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” With the pandemic, resulting recession, and ongoing social unrest stemming from racial injustice, if the year 2020 doesn’t fit this definition, I’m not sure what does. I am navigating a lot right now. We are all navigating a lot right now. There is so much uncertainty in the world and many of us have been socially isolated for more than six years months. Though trauma is centered in an individual’s experience, I think it’s safe to say that current circumstances represent trauma for many folks.
Many of my students seem to be faking it until they can make it taking the current situation in stride (at least on the outside). However, I have found myself wondering how well they are really doing with focus, learning, and managing any stress, fear, and anxiety they may be feeling. I also keep thinking about what else I can do to help them. In seeking resources responsive to this moment in history, I stumbled upon several articles about trauma-informed teaching and learning.
Trauma-informed teaching prioritizes helping students feel safe, seen, empowered, and connected. This approach recognizes that, because of the current convergence of crises, students may have more difficulty: completing tasks; finding the motivation to complete reading assignments, “show up” to class, and participate in class discussions; completing writing assignments; effectively managing their time; and, more generally, staying engaged with their legal education. If you’re looking for ways to provide additional support for students during these difficult times, consider the following trauma-informed teaching practices:
- Work to create safety for your students. Think about what makes you feel safe when you feel most vulnerable or are facing uncertainty, and consider sharing your vulnerability. Be honest with students about how you have been affected by current circumstances and tell them how you are doing. By naming your emotions in this way, you are modeling for students that it is healthy to share and process emotions in a community setting. Accordingly, ask your students how they are doing and solicit their thoughts on how you can create a feeling of safety for them in your course. Suggest that they journal as an outlet to express their feelings and create/offer a space for students to share if they feel comfortable doing so.
- Foster relationships and facilitate peer support. Relationships are a key to resilience. Encourage students to check on one another, if they are comfortable doing so, and promote storytelling. The act of sharing their stories with their peers can help students better cope because it creates a feeling of shared experience and fosters a sense of community.
- Create a sense of trustworthiness and transparency. Be clear, transparent, and reliable in interacting with students. Creating and maintaining trust can help lessen stress and anxiety. Adopt and adhere to routines to create some level of predictability for students.
- Empower voice and choice. Validate and normalize student concerns by talking to students about fear, anxiety, stress, and trauma. Empower students who may feel a diminished sense of control to advocate for themselves. Ask their opinions, survey them about how you can help them learn during these difficult times, and brainstorm ways for students to play a role in creating or structuring assignments.
- Understand that students are not a monolith. View student challenges through the lens of intersectionality. We are all trying to navigate the trauma of 2020. However, not all of our students are experiencing this trauma in the same way or to the same degree. Many BIPOC students, for example, may be experiencing trauma much more severely because of intergenerational trauma, ongoing oppression, and structural inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Interrupt microaggressions in the classroom. Microaggressions are a daily source of traumatic stress for students with marginalized identities. Commit to learning more about how to identify and respond to microaggressions in your classroom. Navigating multiple crises and online learning as a law student is traumatic enough.
- Emphasize the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose. Share your passion for teaching, learning, etc. with students and invite them to reconnect with their sense of purpose.
- Re-emphasize concepts and scaffold. Trauma can affect law students’ self-regulation and executive functioning skills, which means they may have a more difficult time planning, remembering, and focusing. Consider providing more reminders about dates and deadlines, what was covered in prior classes, and how it connects to what students are learning next. Build these additional guideposts into your syllabus, learning management system, class meetings, etc.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for us to also prioritize care for ourselves. Doing this work, in addition to everything else we’re trying to navigate in 2020, is not for the weary. In addition to adapting and adopting trauma-informed practices to better support students, we must also carve out time to unplug, unwind, and de-stress. We and our students will be better for it.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Mays Imad, Seven Recommendations for Helping Students Thrive in Times of Trauma, Inside HigherEd, June 3, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.
Natalie B. Milman, Yes, You Can Do Trauma-Informed Teaching Remotely (and You Really, Really Should), Educ. Week, Apr. 3, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/03/yes-you-can-do-trauma-informed-teaching-remotely.html.
Beth McMurtie, What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?, Chron. Higher Educ., June 4, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2020-06-04.
Kara Newhouse, Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning, KQED, Apr. 6, 2020, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55679/four-core-priorities-for-trauma-informed-distance-learning.
 BIPOC means Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Sunday, August 23, 2020
For many, the summer and early fall is a time to evaluate lectures and programming. I teach a required 1L class, and one of the upcoming classes is on outlining. For a couple years now, I have not liked my outlining class. I tried to integrate or use exercises from other ASPers and ASP books, but in the end, students still struggled with outlining. I didn't like the way it flowed. My basic assessment is I understand the context and what I am trying to teach, but the students don't have the same context. I needed help.
I sought help from an expert and someone I trust, my wife. She is an communication professor and has unique expertise in argumentation. She coached numerous highly successful individuals at the national high school speech and debate competition prior to becoming a professor (along with her own collegiate national championship). She has expertise in speech and argumentation structure but is not entrenched in law school terminology. I explained my problem, and she understood what students needed to do. However, she could explain it as an outsider who never created a law school outline. The experience was enlightening.
My experience helped me in a couple ways. First, I believe I improved my outlining lecture. She discussed underlying communication problems for untrained individuals. A person without context for a task becomes overwhelmed when given multiple steps even when he/she works through those steps with guidance. First semester students don't have much context for law school outlines, especially not this early in the semester. Giving them a 3 or 4 step process for creating an outline won't help many students because they still don't have the schema to assimilate the information. ASPers discuss schema in relation to doctrinal material, but outlining and skills have similar requirements.
She suggested a basic format for how she would teach the process. She encouraged re-framing the discussion around 1 idea. She called it a visual framework. Students won't complete 4 tasks. They will create a visual framework that includes a few components. Students won't get as overwhelmed with the steps since it is essentially 1 task. She suggested examples and activities that many of you utilize. She used her argumentation and speech outlining background to say students should create instructions, outlines, or steps for common practices like making spaghetti. Many of you utilize similar activities. Also, providing a fill in the blank form and examples of completed outlines helps. I was glad that I do many of the activities she suggested, but I appreciated her fully walking through how she would approach teaching the skill. For me, the communication and framing piece is helpful since she approached it from a non-legal perspective.
The second big takeaway for me is to seek help both inside ASP and outside the law school. Our Universities have experts in areas that could help us reach students. The obvious example is the education department for teaching, but we should look beyond even that department. Communication scholars have significant knowledge on how people receive information. We need students to understand and incorporate our teaching, and communication classes could help with basic speech/lecture organization to presentation techniques using technology. Psychology departments can help with understanding motivation and human behavior. The business school can help with marketing. Athletic Departments and coaches focus on maximizing potential. Our Universities have abundant intellectual resources. From my experience, I think we should seek them out even more. I know I could learn from those around me, and it would probably be quicker than the usual trial and error method in my programming.
Sunday, August 16, 2020
I enjoy describing the seasons changing and how it relates to where we are in law school. Normally, I would write about the hot summer days and getting back to work with new students. However, my description this year would be close to the cool breeze from my air conditioner permeates my home office setup, which is really a laptop at my kitchen counter. Not quite the same imagery as previous years.
The imagery is not the only thing different this year. Many schools are online, while others created numerous sections to stay in-person. Some schools are using so many sections non-class activities will not happen live. Not only that, ASPers are always the big draw. We couldn't possibly social distance with our crowds, or at least that is my optimism at the beginning of the year. Most of us will need to change our programming to reach students.
Everything seems different. The images, programs, students, and classes will be new experiences. Many of us will continue to try to make our program the perfect hybrid, online, asynchronous, etc. experience possible. I commend everyone for that. However, let's not forget a sound piece of advice we provide our students every year. Don't miss the forest for the trees. Fundamentally, we are trying to help students succeed to his/her best ability. To do that, most of them just need a guide with solid directions. Becoming a guide or coach comes from building relationships with our students. They understand the difficulties of the current crisis, and most of them appreciate what schools are doing to be both safe and provide quality education. We can build those relationships in classes, zooms, teams, and imperfect workshops. You will have amazing opportunities this year to empathize and be present for students. Embrace those opportunities.
Nearly all ASPers are building amazing workshops, and keep doing it so I can continue to borrow your ideas. Don't spend so much time on those workshops though and miss the chances to reach students. Embrace your new relationships!
Sunday, June 28, 2020
About six weeks ago, I posted a question on Twitter: “Students, assuming we’re all doing online learning again in the fall, what do you want your profs to keep doing/stop doing/start doing?”
The tweet got a lot of comments from students, faculty, and parents spanning many disciplines and education levels. Naturally, plenty of responses were unhelpful (“Stop charging full tuition”), others were contradictory (“Synchronous classes!” “Asynchronous classes!”), and some had suggestions that I assume by now are obvious (“Provide closed-captions or transcripts for prerecorded videos.”) Some interesting themes and tidbits did emerge, though, and I thought I’d share:
Course materials. Students were enthusiastic for faculty to upload as many materials as possible as soon as possible—suggestions included scheduling material uploads (e.g., next week’s materials will be posted on Wednesday mornings) and uploading your lecture notes before class so students can follow along. Please don’t use slides that are only photos—when reviewing later, it’s difficult for students to know what the intended content was. Also keep in mind that students have limited access to printers at home; format accordingly.
Communication, in class and out of it. Clarity of assignments and expectations is paramount. Use the course homepage to post announcements, rather than expecting students to sift through their emails for course updates. Polls and discussion boards are largely ineffective for student engagement or facilitating conversation. Instead, encourage students to pose questions using the chat feature (which TAs can monitor for you, if you have a TA.)
Assessments: There were several calls for more frequent, smaller assignments rather than big assignments during the semester. Graduate-level students in particular requested final papers over final exams, to demonstrate depth of learning and thought rather than memorization. Students appreciated flexible deadlines where possible, as it relieved students of having to request (sometimes multiple) extensions. One commenter pointed out that middle-of-the-night deadlines do not necessarily benefit students residing in other time zones. When a timed final exam is necessary, make sure students can see the entire exam at first—it’s impossible for students to triage or manage their time effectively if the software shows only one question at a time and doesn’t allow a student to go back. For exams that inevitably go for many pages or include multiple questions, a cover sheet can help by explaining how many questions there are and how much each question is weighted.
Tech hacks for video transcripts: Faculty posted various suggestions to get transcripts of pre-recorded videos. Write out a script for yourself, which reduces your ums and ahs and also serves as a transcript after the recording is finished. Software-generated transcripts are generally pretty good, though you’ll have to edit them. Various platforms were suggested: YouTube, Kaltura, and Screencast-o-matic, along with the dictation functions on Microsoft Word, Google, and Google Slides. (If you’re not comfortable with your content being on YouTube, your videos can de-listed so they’re accessible by link but not by searching; you can also upload a video, download the transcript, and take down the video.)
Ask the students for feedback: They’re digital natives, plus they’re the ones taking your course. Professors have gotten good feedback from students, particularly when they explain why they’re asking (“My colleagues and I all noticed that by the end of the semester, few students had cameras on. This was very difficult for me as an instructor, because I realized how much I depend on non-verbal communication. Not seeing faces was really hard for me. On the other hand, there's clearly something going on. Research has shown that having cameras on can be stressful, and it's obviously not just one or two students without cameras. So what insights do you have? Should I not even bother trying to get people to connect with cameras? Should I leave it as an option? Why weren't most students turning their cameras on?”)
(Cassie Christopher - Guest Blogger)
Sunday, May 24, 2020
The Learning Curve released the Spring 2020 issue. It has a number of great articles that will help us all teaching next semester. Kevin Sherrill posted it on the Google Group.
As a reminder, they are also seeking submissions for the next issue. This installment will focus on the issues we all face going forward this summer and fall in this very challenging time. Many discussions have begun on this listserv and in various webinars on these issues, so the foundations for many useful articles are out there already.
They hope to have this issue published by mid-June so that it can hopefully serve as a useful resource for everyone. Therefore the submission deadline will be May 31. They will accept articles on a rolling basis and begin editing as soon as we accept in order to move this along. Please send your submissions to LearningCurveASP@gmail.com.
Friday, May 1, 2020
The Learning Curve sends out the call for submissions for the next issue, which is looking to turn around very quickly. This installment will focus on the issues we all face going forward this summer and fall in this very challenging time. Many discussions have begun in various webinars on these issues, so we think the foundations for many useful articles are out there already.
The hope is to have this issue published by mid-June so that it can hopefully serve as a useful resource for everyone. Therefore the submission deadline will be May 31. We will accept articles on a rolling basis and begin editing as soon as we accept in order to move this along. Please send your submissions to LearningCurveASP@gmail.com.
Saturday, April 25, 2020
Toni Miceli invites you to a virtual conference/discussion about Lessons Learned from Pre-COVID Online Teaching. The conference/discussion will take place on Friday, May 1 at 2:00 PM EST.
You can register for the discussion here: https://nova.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJEodu-rrjopEtE5Hc2rC41ZD5kFzJgkFEIU
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
Toni will be moderating a panel discussion of our colleagues who were presenting online ASP programming prior to the recent shift to remote learning. Panelists will share their experiences and lessons learned that they have used in making the more recent transition.
Panelists will include:
- Dr. Susan D. Landrum, Assistant Dean for the Academic Success and Professionalism Program at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law
- Melissa Hale, Director of Academic Success and Bar Programs at Loyola University Chicago School of Law
- Quentin Huff, Associate Director of Bar Success at Wake Forest Law
- Anne Johnson, Adjunct Professor of Law at Mercer University School of Law