Creating Community in Law School

Puppy with cupcake has nothing to do with the content of this post; he is just awesome. Courtesy of cuteoverload.com

I spent most of yesterday interviewing students finishing their 1L year for positions as Student Leaders with our Academic Achievement Program.  As much as I enjoy my work with our Student Leaders, I still did not anticipate that the task of conducting these interviews would be inspiring.  And yet it was.

Why?  Because the group of students I spoke to were vocally and sincerely committed to working in these positions not because it would be a great addition to their resumes, but because they wanted to help the next class of 1Ls navigate the choppy waters of law school.  They expressed admiration for the Student Leaders who had helped them, respect for their peers, and a keen understanding of the challenges of teaching and learning—challenges I struggled with myself in law school but never identified, named, or tackled while I was still a student, to my detriment.

***

By way of explanation, one of the primary roles of DU’s Academic Achievement Program is providing one or more Student Leaders for each 1L class.  The Student Leaders act as teaching assistants in many ways, although they are hired, trained, and supervised by AAP professionals.  Our excellent Director, Mary Steefel, ran this program for many years, and last year this responsibility shifted to me.

After working with the program in this past year, I have even more admiration for the work that Mary has done.  That is because, while the Student Leader Program is a fixture of the law school curriculum, and it is highly valued by the students who participate in it,   running the program is a bit of  a logistical nightmare.

The primary difficulty is that the AAP professional who runs the program serves as a sort of awkward match-maker between the Student Leader applicants and the professors they will be working for.  The premise of the program is that AAP will operate more or less independently to solicit applications, interview and select the Student Leaders, and that the 1L professors will accept these choices.  In reality, many members of the 1L faculty (understandably) want a more active role in selecting the student who will, in a sense, represent them in small-group sessions and other interactions with the 1L students.

In addition, many of the faculty members have vastly different expectations of their Student Leaders, in terms of how much contact they will have with them, whether the professors want to review and approve the Student Leaders’ lesson plans, and whether the Student Leaders must attend all, some, or none of the professor’s classes.  Most significantly, there is not consensus on whether Student Leader should be permitted to review substantive concepts of focus exclusively on study skills.

As a result, running the program requires close attention to an array of faculty preferences and making certain that the students you interview—in addition to having succeeded in that class, being committed to helping other students, and being willing to spend the time and energy to be a Student Leader—meet the particular professor’s other criteria.

Needless to say, my failure to adequately understand these preferences resulted in a few bumpy spots in my first year in charge of the program.

Mary, my predecessor, has extensive institutional knowledge that I lack.  To compensate, I am drafting a chart that indicates the preferences of our various faculty members to the extent I have been able to suss them out.  I keep this handy while interviewing the students.

***

This reminds of a “cheat sheet” I developed when I worked as a Staff Attorney on the 10th Circuit.  My “cheat sheet” listed the various judges on the 10th Circuit and their preferences in terms of work interactions (phone versus e-mail), writing style, and whether they were amenable to staff attorneys disagreeing with them.  It was understood that it was part of our job as staff attorneys to anticipate and work around these preferences.

I have often referred to these implicit job requirements—requirements that you anticipate, adapt to, and accommodate the preferences of another without drawing attention to the fact that you are doing so—as “feminizing.”  As an attorney, I have felt, wrongly or rightly, that this mode of interaction was often required of me—in working with judges, partners, and sometimes clients.   I believe my aptitude for accommodation was also a reason for my academic success when I was younger.

I am ambivalent about my talent for doing this kind of interpersonal work.  On the one hand, it seems to present an opportunity for those who possess “feminine” social skills to advance in their careers.  On the other hand, like so many advantages women supposedly possess by virtue of their gender, it really works more like a trap.  Your value is placed too much in being accommodating, and if you stop performing your artful, invisible acts of accommodation, you will no longer be valued.  And being valued for being accommodating is not the same as being valued for being brilliant, visionary, or bold.

***

At any rate, some of my frustrations with this aspect of running the Student Leader program have caused me to consider re-structuring it, so that it is more autonomous in reality, and not just in name.  The thrust of this idea has been to consolidate the diffuse, small-group teaching into weekly classroom sessions, taught by me, with the help of Student Leaders not affiliated with particular classes or 1L professors but instead working under my direct supervision.

And at this point I have to admit that part of the inspiration for this re-structuring is the fact that I’m a control freak.  I wanted to ensure that the program was conveying a consistent message about academic skills, coping with the social and psychological stresses of law school, etc.

But after the interviews yesterday, I realized that there are things that happen when a program like this is diffuse rather than centralized, and, more importantly, when the Student Leaders are at the center of the program rather than someone like myself, that wouldn’t happen otherwise.

First, the Student Leaders develop their own confidence by virtue of helping the new 1L students.  This truly allows them to be leaders in a meaningful sense and to exercise a skill set and an ethos that is not necessarily otherwise practiced is law school.  On the other side of the interaction, 1Ls learn that they can learn from and turn to their peers.  In short, it fosters a form of productive and yet non-competitive social bonding between students.

For other reasons, the modifications we are making to the program in the coming academic year are more modest than my broad centralization plan.  The most significant new feature of the program for the Fall Semester is that all of the Student Leaders and myself will be meeting as a group once a week.  There will be an aspect of structured training to at least some of these meetings, but the primary goal will be to discuss the Student Leaders’ experiences in working with the 1Ls.

This will serve the function of ensuring that the program conveys a relatively consistent message—but not one dictated by me.  Rather, the message will be developed through conversation and input from the people with the best perspective on the 1L experience at DU: those who have just been through it and who are working with the 1Ls now.  I know I will learn a great deal from these discussions.

I also believe that weekly meetings will facilitate a sense of support and community among the Student Leaders—something that is lacking in the current structure and that the interviewees told me they very much want.  Indeed, this one of the aspects of the program that they seemed the most enthusiastic about.

So perhaps the most important thing I realized from these conversations is that many students are hungry for community—for a way to engage with each other that is helpful, not competitive.  And while I initially proposed the weekly meetings to enhance supervision, I am surprised to discover that I am most looking forward to them for the conversation.

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