Volume 9, Issue 8
At the beginning of this year, one of my friends wrote a candid Facebook post in the 2015 JD group page. In it she raised the issue of failing a subject at Law School, as she had done the previous semester. The response she received from that post was overwhelming; students seemingly wanted to address the fear of failure, and immense pressure around grades, which exists at Law School. In semester one I had also failed to pass a subject (bloody Obligations!), which was something that was really hard to come to terms with. Last week she and I, with another student who had some similar battles finding his feet last year, sat down and had a frank discussion about failing. This is a complex and at times uncomfortable issue to address, but we hope by bringing it forward in a public forum we can encourage change at MLS that stands to benefit everyone.
So join in the conversation!
Around Law School, failure is a dirty, dirty word. Blame it on our adversarial judicial system and our need for a winner and loser. Blame it on bloody Harvey Spector effortlessly closing deals and that whole damn sham of a show. As much as we fret about our futures, up to this point, most of us at Melbourne Law School have been on an unbelievable hot streak through life. To get here, in one way or another, the cards we have been dealt have consistently come up winning hands.
Yet at some juncture in our lives, failure is inevitable. It might be that first take home law exam or moot, it may not happen until you run for Liberal pre-selection in 2036. It will still, eventually and inevitably, happen. So why not have this conversation now, at school, when we have the time and support to get comfortable with the idea?
The difficulties in failing at Law School are three fold. Firstly, the process that follows the receiving of a fail mark, namely faculty’s response, is not great. You fail. You receive an email telling you to go and speak to the wellbeing officer. You lament the fact that you botched the exam/semester/your entire life without any real chance of reflection on what materially contributed to this happening. In reality you are left with little guidance and a lot of questions; should I stay in Law School? Am I smart enough? Am I more Dennis Denuto than Atticus Finch!? (In my case, Yes!).
I was super fortunate that a 2nd year who knew I had failed, and had similarly done so, reached out to me. That gave me the chance to make an informed choice, on whether to continue my studies, having heard from someone who had been through the ordeal of repeating a subject. Yet most students wouldn’t have received this support and advice, because we are, as individuals, so hesitant to admit to having failed. That’s one of the most pressing reasons why this dialogue needs to be started. It’s ok if after a semester of Law School, and having received some bad marks, you take a leave of absence or drop out. But every student deserves to make an informed choice in doing so.
Secondly, a big part of the problem with this conversation is our student body. We treat failure like a disease, a highly contagious one at that. All three of us have experienced the same hushed tones when discussing having to repeat a subject, weak smiles and reassurances of ‘oh, you’ll be ok”.
WTF am I terminally ill!? You won’t catch failure by studying with someone who hasn’t passed, I promise.
Not that we blame our peers for that at all, this is uncomfortable to talk about for everyone, it’s certainly bloody hard to write about. Why? Because we all know the factors contributing to failure: personal issues, money, physical and mental health - problems that we don’t like, as egotistical high achievers, to address publicly.
Yet confront them we must, which leads me to my third and most important point.
The responsibility of facing failure is yours. Try and own it. Don’t be ashamed: learn from it and you can move on.
All three of us have tried to do that in our own way, because at the end of the day we have to live with our mark. Students fail subjects for a multitude of reasons, for me it was a slower adjustment than most to the frenetic pace of Law School. In others’ experiences the causes may not have even been something they could control, but something went wrong, and that’s life. What we would encourage, and what really came out of our conversation, is the fact struggling students need to take responsibility earlier in semester. We wish we had. To ask for help, to admit I am struggling and need some support. There are small mitigating factors in life that, stacked up and combined with the pressure of Law school, can become overwhelming. You don’t have to deal with most of these alone if you can just spot them early enough, swallow your pride, and ask for help. For every awkward response I got when someone discovered I had failed, there were dozens offering support, notes and great study advice (thank you!). People are amazing and do genuinely want to assist. So just ask.
Likewise, if you see someone struggling (hint: occasionally they won’t even know it themselves!), ask them if they are ok or need a hand; if they don’t, that’s fine. If they do, they’ll appreciate it untold amounts.
Most importantly of all, talk about it. If you are failing or have failed, don’t hide it, don’t deny it, discussing it is extremely therapeutic and beneficial, and you can help others as well.
We really hope that this can be just the beginning of a much longer conversation that benefits every student at MLS. If we can tackle the stigma at this extreme end of the bell curve, then surely the result can be a healthier, and happier, student approach towards all marks. We shouldn’t have students devastated by H3’s, nor 2nd years despairing any chance of a corporate career because they didn’t receive a clerkship.
We shouldn’t, and we don’t have to, if we are just brave enough to have a frank conversation.
PS: We are currently working with faculty to come up with a more holistic approach in assisting students who do not pass subjects: a survey aiming to identify contributing factors and a support group for students, by students, following the release of semester one marks. If you would like to assist (all help is welcome!) please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are struggling with your studies please talk to your friends, family and teachers, contact the MULSS Wellbeing team (email@example.com) or visit http://mulss.com/equality/wellbeing for more information on wellbeing support.
Henry Dow is a second-year JD student and the current MULSS Activities Director
The rest of this week's issue:
More De Minimis: