Learning Curve

A New Fish in a Big Sea: Welcome to the World of “ASP”

Amy Vaughan-Thomas

Director of Academic Support
University of Massachusetts School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2019

Citation: Amy Vaughan-Thomas, A New Fish in a Big Sea: Welcome to the World of “ASP”, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2019)

My work in ASP began nearly three years ago; I am still a baby fish in the ASP sea.
This article discusses some of my experiences as a new fish in the big ASP ocean, three lessons I’ve learned about navigating the murky waters so far, and some of the challenges along the way.

Experience #1: Student meeting in my first week in ASP. “I don’t think law school is for me (cue the tears) but this is the only plan I’ve ever had for my life, so what do I do now?” Despite barely having my own life planned, Student A needs me to help put her life together. Okay, breathe…I can answer this…  

Lesson #1: Put yourself in the student’s shoes. What does the student need to hear, or does she need to hear anything at all?  
Does providing ‘help’ really mean that student A needs to hear what I think she should do with her life? I’ve learned that sometimes the power of listening is greater than the power of speaking. Asking questions and soliciting conversation from a student may allow them to create their own solutions without you telling them what you think is best. Many alternative dispute resolution classes emphasize the importance of listening and I’ve learned it is a powerful tool in my toolbox.

Experience #2: It is week eleven of thirteen in the fall semester and student B asks to create a study plan. They arrive to my office with no materials, are behind on their case readings for every class, have not started any outlines and never created a schedule. I immediately recognize the struggle with time management as I juggle class prep, grading, individual counseling sessions and administrative meetings. It is time to practice what I preach.

Lesson #2: Time management. Easier said than done. 
There is an argument that today’s law student does not know how to manage their time but what about the current academic support professional? I’ve learned that I am not always the best at managing my time. I struggle with managing multiple duties as an academic support professional while also keeping up with essentials like sleeping, eating, and interpersonal relationships. While I work tirelessly to teach time management skills to students, I frequently ignore the same advice. Time management is an evolving process, to be learned and relearned throughout life, as responsibilities and time constraints change. This is a skill that needs to be modeled to students, and constant reevaluation of this skill benefits us in law school as well as in practice. Keeping a calendar, evaluating productivity levels, and taking advantage of the lull periods are incredibly important to maintaining oneself and a successful program.

Experience #3: Student C has a standing appointment with me every Monday morning at 10am. I’ve worked with him throughout the semester but, unfortunately, he does not perform well on final exams and is dismissed. I go home from work that day feeling defeated and doubting my abilities as an academic support professional.

Lesson #3: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. 
Cliché (I know) but true. So far in my career there have been several days that I’ve felt this way. I also know that I’m not alone in this feeling as I discussed this topic with many of my colleagues on several occasions. The guilt of “there must have been something more that I could have done” can consume a workday. I’ve learned that it is important to remember that I am only a small piece of the puzzle for a student. There is a constant conflict between an ASP’s empathy for the student and the emotional stability required to cope with inevitable student attrition; I must be emotionally cognizant of the reality that certain deficits are extremely difficult to fully resolve.
While I’ve learned some valuable lessons during my swim so far, there are more challenges for this new fish to overcome.

Challenge #1: Making friends and networking with bigger creatures in the ASP ocean.
At my very first AASE conference in Fort Worth in 2017, I felt overwhelmed with the sheer number of attendees. It is often quite challenging for the new fish to connect with the sea turtles who have populated our surf for 10, 20, and sometimes 30 years. Established relationships between long-time members of the ASP community enrich our profession but are intimidating and sometimes scary for the new members who are just beginning to learn about the field. An increase of individual leadership opportunities for new members could help expand the social connections of our community and push us new fish to ask for advice from the many sea turtles gliding besides us waiting for a chance to help.

For example, Executive boards of AASE and the AALS ASP section could require that new members of the ASP community submit a proposal for a presentation within the first two years of their employment. While this approach may throw a new fish in the deep end, it also teaches them how to swim. In addition to the established social gatherings, another way to promote growth is through small group activities that require the well-known sea turtles to lead the discussions. AASE might organize more structured social events, such as scavenger hunts, competitions, and game nights, to bring our community together to further develop new fish-turtle mentorship. Perhaps even a new position on the AASE board, an ambassador to new members, could help provide additional guidance throughout the year.

Challenge #2: Practicing self-reflection and self-assessment 
As a new fish in ASP, one of the most frequent questions I have is “am I doing this right?” After AASE, AALS, and regional ASP conferences, I return to my home base with new ideas I am excited to implement and affirmation that, maybe, I AM on the right track. However, once back at home, I find that I sometimes second guess my application of the new skills I was excited about just days or weeks ago. I imagine that I am not alone in this feeling and that we all need additional tools for better self-assessment. Additional training on applying self-assessment and self-reflection would help not just the new fish, but the sea turtles who are enhancing their ASP offerings and expanding student services and want to know how to measure what works. This is an area where outside professional expertise, in the form of a one-day training, would help all of us in the ASP community.

Challenge #3: Managing the transitions and maintaining equilibrium during upheavals. 
Part of the experience in the ASP community is transition and change: assistant directors move or become directors, lucky directors become faculty, programs expand, missions change, and bar exam performance fluctuates. Each one of these transitions involves new ways of interacting with the academy, students, colleagues, and peers. Challenges during these inevitable transitions include getting to know the student population, working with ASP-averse faculty members, understanding individual professor’s teaching methods and philosophy, navigating institutional history and culture while collaborating with faculty and helping students, differing methods and increasing demands for data collection, approaches to individual counseling, and establishing rapport with members of the community. New fish need more guidance on techniques to thrive in their environment so that they can better acclimate to their new setting. Like the “New to AALS” seminar held at the beginning of each annual meeting, new fish could benefit tremendously if the 2019 AASE “Newbie” pre-conference explained the broader layout of ASP, the resources available to our community, and some general advice on thriving during the expected upheavals in a long-term career in ASP.

Thus far I’ve encountered some valuable lessons, had my fair share of challenges, and even avoided a few sharks along the way. I know that my journey will continue, and I’ll trust the advice from our sage sea turtles guiding us through the currents. And to all the new fish joining in with me, as the great Ellen DeGeneres says, “just keep swimming.”

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