World Mental Health Day and Multicultural Awareness

October 10th is World Mental Health Day, instituted by the WHO to raise “awareness of mental health issues around the world” and mobilize “efforts in support of mental health.”  Many members of our profession, are challenged by depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.  In 2016, the ABA created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being partly in response to the increased ubiquity and pressure of the digital age.

The ubiquity of email, text and other technological advances, all of which make the advent of the fax machine feel downright quaint, have only exacerbated our legal responsibilities. The pressure is constant. And in the midst of taking care of everyone else, we all too frequently ignore our own stressors and health in the process.  Over time, the subtle adverse effects go unnoticed and mask the existing crisis …..

The Task Force was conceptualized and initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). In August 2017, the Task Force released The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Wellness Study).  Many state bar associations – such as New York’s – highlighted the need for lawyer health. 

Law students, too, are subject to similar ubiquitous demands of the digital age while competing, learning, interning, seeking permanent employment, representing clients under supervision, and, for many, accruing debt. My law school, like many others, takes seriously the need to educate and support law students’ well-being and has been fortunate to receive funding from a loyal alum and board member for a Wellness Initiative. This week our Dean of Students and her office have planned a series of educational and supportive events.

Mental Health Week

Another project run by students partnered with alums helps with the economic stress of having to purchase professional clothing and suits. And our Center for Excellence in Law teaching sites provide links to self-help apps for students .

This focus on well being is not simply an administrative task. It is incumbent upon law teachers to discuss these subjects in doctrinal classes, seminars and experiential learning courses while mainstreaming ethics, professional identity and multicultural awareness into the curriculum.  Wellness intersects with several of my law school’s learning outcomes  for JD students. In particular, wellness and mindfulness are important tools in mitigating implicit bias and facilitating students ability to

Demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to be competent and effective lawyers in a multicultural world. (Albany Law JD Learning Outcome #6)

I experimented with linking the two in class this week. I started the class by reminding students that it was Mental Health Awareness week and the reading a poem by Mary Oliver to get them to slow down.  We also meditated for about 1 minute and 30 seconds by placing a raisin on our tongue and using that time to “Uni-task” by just focusing on the  smell, taste, feel and effects of saliva on the raisin.

We discussed vicarious trauma, implicit bias and how it affects Science.  For homework students had taken implicit association tests,   acquired some new cultural knowledge, read about transgender killings and viewed Hidden Injustice: Bias on the Bench.”  We then discussed how Implicit Bias might work against victims/survivors of domestic violence or privilege abusers which led into discussions of voir dire and Batson.  Students expressed surprise that judges cared about Implicit Bias and that NYS now requires a 1 credit CLE in Diversity and Inclusion. 

We ended class with discussing how to mitigate our own implicit biases.  This is where well-being and mindfulness come in:

  1. Reflection is a tool for mitigating bias. Emphasizing the importance of reflection as a life-long lawyer habit is something we teachers can embrace. Thus mindfulness is not only an important part of well-being, it is a tool to become a more competent lawyer.
  2. When we are tired and exhausted, we are more apt to rely on unconscious patterns, which swings the door wide open to implicit bias reactions and away from thoughtful and considered responses.

The students appeared to understand the connection and to acknowledge its potential. In the final moments of class, I led the students in a LION yoga pose. This was a real treat for me.  As the days get shorter and mid-semester stress hits, there is nothing better than seeing law students laugh at themselves (and me) as they loosen up their tight facial and jaw muscles.

How are you honoring Mental Health Awareness Week at your school or organization?  Do you see the link between mitigating bias and wellness/mindfulness?

Experience with Peer Support, Peer Review and Feedback on Teaching?  

We are all familiar with engagement in peer review of scholarship. Law faculty culture prioritizes peer input and review of scholarly ideas and articles. Sending drafts of articles to colleagues for feedback, “workshopping” preliminary ideas, and vetting scholarship is part and parcel of the work we do. We visit other schools, make presentations and attend conferences because we value peer discussion and  input. It is the basis by which we create and communicate knowledge.

I don’t believe, however, we have a similarly pervasive culture for formative peer review when it comes to teaching in law schools, although such culture exists at other higher education institutions. According to The University of Texas Faculty Innovation Center, an academic culture which prioritizes informed peer collaboration, review and input on teaching benefits everyone,

Good teachers continually learn and develop. Peer Review, which combines the examination of course materials with in-class observations and collegial discussion, helps prompt this learning among faculty. Ideally, these interactions and conversations can create opportunities for us as colleagues to reflect on and adapt our teaching practices in order to become better teachers and increase student learning.

Northeastern University Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research recommends a four step process:

  • Initial conversation between the observer and the observed
  • The observation itself as an informal data collection and distillation process
  • Follow-up conversation in which the observer shares the observations and collaborates with the observed teacher in any kind of brainstorming or troubleshooting that the observations invite.
  • Reflective summary written by the observed instructor, integrating what was learned from the process and how this will influence future teaching.

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching includes the goal of “enabling more intentional and mutually supportive communities of scholar teachers.”

It is true that we have made some progress in elevating the role of teaching in law schools in the past decade. Legal Education certainly woke up to the need for a culture change around curriculum and teaching following the publication of Best Practices for Legal Education  and Educating Lawyers.  The economic downturn heavily affected the admission process and the need to focus on student learning. ABA requirements regarding student learning outcomes also redirected attention and resources towards what students actually learn while in law school. Moreover, organized efforts such as the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning  and the AALS Section on Teaching Methods  have converted many to the idea that teaching and learning are matters worthy of scholarship, innovation and peer discussion.  Places like this blog and others support exchange of ideas, methods and innovations.

It is also true that as far back as 2008, pioneering legal scholars Gerry Hess and Sophie Sparrow studied factors which encourage or assist the professional development of law teachers including peer observation. So there are many resources available to improve teaching in law schools. Yet, across the academy, are we truly immersed in a continual process of formative feedback for law teachers? If so, the web shows little evidence of it.

I think some of the culture gap is explained by the fact that historically peer review of teaching only happened during a promotion and tenure process that resulted in an up or out decision by the faculty — hardly a formative approach. A voluntary formative program of peer support and review – not used for personnel decisions – should allay those fears.  Appropriate concerns about interference with academic freedom in the classroom might explain some of the culture gap. Except that, even more concerns about academic freedom arise with respect to peer input into “controversial scholarship,” since draft writings can be more easily captured and reproduced than can observations of a single class session. What I think explains the gap, instead, is that we have not properly trained or equipped law faculty with the tools and methods for conducting and receiving helpful peer observations.

At Albany Law, we have promoted a culture of inquiry around teaching and learning for many years now — colleagues sit in each others classrooms from time to time, our Academic Dean prioritizes teaching support, our Center for Excellence in Law Teaching showcases teaching ideas and invites collegial discussion through teaching workshops, and our Director of Online Learning and Instructional Technology facilitates flipped classrooms and other innovations. What we haven’t done is formalize a voluntary peer support and review program. This year, we are planning to revisit our very loose approach and learn from the ever evolving resources and experimentation of others.

So readers, contributors and chance internet searchers, please post here what if any processes have you implemented to support peer observation of law teaching? Is it a voluntary program as we envision at Albany? How has it worked? Or, if you have an opinion about faculty peer review programs, let us know what you think!

I hope to compile the results and report back later in the year!

P.S. If you are more comfortable with e-mail than a blog comment, feel free to contact me at mlync@albanylaw.edu. 

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