Why Columbia did the right thing when it offered to defer exams

By Aaron N. Taylor
 
Columbia Law School recently made headlines when it allowed students to petition to have exams rescheduled, due to trauma and activism associated with the failures to indict the police officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Even though the law school’s decision was criticized by some and even lampooned by the Onion, it represented a highly appropriate acknowledgement of their student’s outside priorities. This was not coddling, as some critics have countered; this was sound academic practice, bolstered by extensive research.
 
The renewed sense of activism that has gripped many of our campuses has been an encouraging counter-narrative to the negative stereotypes about millennials.  All over the country, students are defying the questionable notions of apathy and self-centeredness, and exhibiting passionate engagement with larger issues. The imagery has been powerful, harkening back to a time when colleges were birthplaces of social movements.  
 
Student activism is core to the higher education experience. Indeed it is part of the educational process. Activism can spur the type of deep intellectual and social engagement upon which college mission statements are often based. My institution, Saint Louis University, aptly used student protests over police killings of unarmed black men to spur community-wide engagement on “the circumstances that continue to trap so many of our brothers and sisters in a mire of chronic, systemic injustice.”   
 
But do our academic policies reflect the central role that student activism can play in the education process? More broadly, do our policies acknowledge that our students are real people, with cares, concerns, and priorities that lay outside the confines of our classes? These questions are important because the extent to which we support students’ lives outside of the classroom can affect outcomes inside the classroom.  
 
Findings from the 2014 administration of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) illustrate this trend. Students who reported that their law school provided the support they needed to cope with non-academic responsibilities were more likely to feel their law school aided their acquisition of job-related skills and knowledge, including improving their writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills.  Unsurprisingly, these students were more likely to rate their entire law school experience highly and report that they would choose the same law school again. The effects of this non-academic support were almost as intense as those associated with academic support.
 
At its core, non-academic support is about not only acknowledging that students have outside priorities, but also reasonably accommodating those priorities.  It is about validating the student, caring about the student’s well-being, and removing needless obstacles to the student’s success. Non-academic support could be formal programming on, say, stress management or simply a listening ear when a student needs to vent. Oftentimes, there is no clear demarcation between support that is academic or non-academic in nature — and there does not have to be. The effects of the support, not its technical classification, matter most.
 
As the name highlights, LSSSE is centered on the concept of student engagement, which is based on the premise that the more engrossing the educational experience, the more students will gain from it. Student engagement is a useful proxy for student learning, and is greatly influenced by what we do as educators, including those things that transcend the classroom. In 2014, almost 22,000 law students from 70 schools completed the survey.
 
LSSSE poses another question that seems particular relevant to the topic of student activism. Students are asked to assess the extent that their law school experience has deepened their concern for the welfare of their community. The effects of this perception on skills development and the overall quality of the law school experience were even more intense than those related to non-academic support, generally.
 
As educators, we must resist the temptation to assume our classes and our assignments are the only things our students should be concerned about. What we do is important, but the world does not always revolve around us. And that’s a good thing.
 
Aaron N. Taylor is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement.
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