Monday, July 03, 2006

The Stigma of Academic Support Programs

From Law School Academic Support Blog, a recommendation for reducing the stigma associated with Academic Support Programs:

One of the problems that often plagues ASP programs is the stigma that can attend students' participation in academic support efforts. Because academic support at the undergraduate level is usually directed at those students who are struggling in their studies, law students often perceive ASP programs as remedial in nature, reserved for those who cannot perform adequately in law school without special help.

As a result, those students who participate in the programs, often at the urging of the school, find it tough to shake the perception that they are not as smart or as qualified as their peers. That perception does double damage: it lowers the ASP participants' confidence in their own abilities, and it leads to the fear that others will regard them as less capable than typical law students. The effect is magnified for minority students who must already face the mentality among some students and faculty that most minorities ride into school on the backs of affirmative action programs rather than their own abilities.

One way to lessen the stigma so often associated with ASP programs is to widen the target group from "at-risk students" to the entire student body. In other words, the program can be based on the proposition that all students can use help transferring their existing academic skills into the peculiar demands of law school.

Few students arrive at law school knowing how to read and brief cases effectively, create useful outlines and flowcharts, etc. Most are forced to develop those skills through a kind of "accidental curriculum" made up of unpredictable relationships. A few are fortunate enough to have family and friends who have been through law school to help them uncover the best approaches. A few others arrive having had the good fortune to have been trained through earlier pursuits in the art of text-based analysis and reasoning.

Most just have to wing it until they stumble across model outlines or other study helps that may be floating out there in the law school ether. Whether what they stumble across is actually helpful is mostly a matter of luck. As result, the average law student is a much less efficient and effective learner than he could be.

Having gone to a law school in which the debate over the black-white "achievement gap" was fierce, I remember our Academic Support Program as being viewed as highly stigmatic. Students of color less frequently availed themselves of the ASP program, which included: exam workshops throughout the first year; help with outlines; extra (non-mandatory) discussion sections led by a 2L or 3L "teaching fellow," and "Section 9"--or a special small class that was independent from the larger 1L classes in say, Property Law to which "underperforming" students from all the sections could apply. (NB: A law school class of say, 300 is divided into 8 small sections which combine in pairs into "larger" sections, such that your small section will have approx 40 students and your larger section will have 80. I was in Section 3, of the 3-4 cohort.) The debate was fierce over the achievement gap, particularly between the CRS scholars and an empiricist who believed that the achievement gap was due to the mismatch effect created by affirmative action.

It was not a particularly pleasant year to be in the school, what with the lingering debate about race-conscious admissions from years past (no longer permissible at our school) and the renewed debate about affirmative action and whether minority students were qualified to be there. The press was particularly horrible about it, tracking down the cell phone numbers of individual Black students (in particular the officers of the Black Law Students Association) and calling them to ask them about their views on the debate. Our Critical Race Studies program was questioned as an "end-run" on the prohibition on race-conscious admissions, as if every CRS student was suspected of not being qualified enough to have gained admission without the benefit of the CRS program (did they ask the same question about the Public Interest students?) or worse yet, illegally there. We were accused of taking "soft classes" or the "easy way" through law school. Not that it matters, but I declared my concentration at the end of my first year, after I had gained admission "the traditional way." But if I remember my application, in order to be in the concentration the first year (which didn't involve classes, but it did automatically admit you into the program for your 2L year), all I had to do was check a box to express an interest in a curricular program. The box for CRT was right next to the boxes for the Corporate Law Concentration, the Environmental Law Concentration, and the Entertainment Law Concentration. Funny. No one ever asked the granola-eating hippies or the SUV driving corporate tools whether they really belonged at the law school. They only questioned the minorities.

And what's funny is that of the very few Black students at the law school, only very few were enrolled in the CRS program. Because of the achievement gap debate, and the race-conscious-admissions or race-conscious-pedagogy-as-a-back-door-to-race-conscious-admissions debate, even the CRS program had attained a certain stigma. It is a shame. It was a good program.

The same can be said of ASP programs. They're useful, and good. Students should use them. They should be available to every student, not just those identified by the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs as "at-risk" or "under-performing." I think every student could probably benefit by them, since law school is so different from anything else you've ever experienced. And unless you were prepped for Order of the Coif since birth, you'll probably need the help. It ain't college, folks. I got my first real "B's" there (you know, ones not due to slacking or procrastination, but despite honest to goodness effort B's). I got my first ever "C's" in law school, which made me soooo over my melancholy over the first B. I did pretty well, not spectacular, but pretty well. And yes, I did go to an exam workshop, and I did utilize the extra TF session.

There are other ways minority students wishing to avoid stigma can obtain academic help and advice. Every organization, from the environmental law journal to the minority student organizations has an "outline bank," which is technically limited to its members, but everyone shares them with non-org member students. The minority student orgs go even further and pool their outlines, a nice demonstration of inter-group coalition building. 2Ls and 3Ls are more than happy to help 1Ls, particularly since most orgs have a "mentoring" program (between your alumni mentor, your official school upperclassman mentor, and your org mentors, you will not lack for mentors in law school).

Still, it's a shame that more students don't avail themselves of the aid provided by their home institution. Such aid should be sought without fear of stigma. It'd be nice if you thought you could turn to your school for help first. At least, that's the way it should be.


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