By Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law
Usually about this time in June—during the early-to-middle weeks of the summer break—is when I do an assessment of my teaching from the past academic year. By now, all of my final exams have been scored for a while and grades have been submitted. Students are gone off for their summer jobs and internships. A sense of quiet resides within the faculty hallways and invites contemplation. For me, it’s a great time look back because the distance from finals grading has dissipated any visceral feelings—positive or negative—that might have otherwise influenced a look-back at my teaching. I want any assessment to be as honest and objective as possible.
In looking back this particular year, I note the presence of a few more non-traditional, older law students in my first-year courses than usual. Because of their increased presence, the challenge of trying to support them was thrust upon me from fall to spring. Of late, I have seen many great pieces in current law teaching literature focused on teaching law students from the millennial generation. However, when curiosity got the best of me and I searched for current articles on teaching and supporting law students outside of the millennial generation, I found some statistical knowledge, but not very much constructive observations or information. For those likeminded folks who have also wondered how to better teach and support our older, non-millennial law students, I have a few observations from my own experiences this year.
- Non-millennial law students are not a homogeneous group. Just because they are beyond the current mainstream generation of law students in age, does not mean that they resemble each other either. Many of my non-millennial law students varied in age and background from each other as well. As a reflection of that variation, they brought to the student body many differences in socio-economic status, career backgrounds and goals, and life experiences. For me, as the instructor, this variation also meant trying to use different strategies to make them feel included in the dialogue in the classroom—often relying on their practical experiences before law school to invite conversation. For instance, in Contracts, cases dealing with homebuying or employment relationships often allowed my non-millennial law students who own property or have had working experiences to engage in the material from a more practical way and offer insight.
- Non-millennial law students often prepare differently for classes than younger law students. One very observable characteristic between my millennial and non-millennial law students has been in their method of preparation. Whereas my millennial law students will often find something in their case reading is relevant only because it’s relatable at the time to a concept that we were readily and simultaneously learning in the course, my non-millennial law students will try to broaden what is relevant and significant by asking themselves, “Do I need to know this just in case?” This difference translates into their preparation for my classes and final examination. While I have to sustain relevancy for my millennial law students, I have to show my non-millennial law students what material or information might be extraneous.
- Some non-millennial law students tend to become important emotional pillars in the student body. Because of their life and career experiences prior to law school, my non-millennial law students often become role models in extra-curricular positions or become sources of emotional support to their millennial counterparts in the first year. This occurrence often does put added stress to their own studies and time management. As the professor, I often will remind my non-millennial law students to take a moment and assess what they can or cannot take on—especially for those students who might also have an active family life or work responsibilities outside of law school.
- Non-millennial law students learn just as quickly and as readily as millennials. I have no quantitative or qualitative statistics here. This observation is just anecdotal. However, I have witnessed the successes of many non-millennial students in my various classes, which gives me confidence in making this statement. I do concede that success could be attributed to the amount or type of preparation that non-millennial students put forth rather than natural ability. But I stand by this assertion, nonetheless. It is an observation that counters biases against any societal perceptions of “handicaps” to learning as an older law student.
- Non-millennial law students bring a contextualized experience to the dialogue of the classroom. Often, this observation is touted as a reason to welcome the admission of older law students in law student body. It adds to the diversity of the student population and can be seen as generating different viewpoints in class dialogue. That is true to some extent. However, I have noticed that sometimes the prior work, life, or industry experiences outside of law school can also impair ways to see the other side of a situation—especially if they have had some extensive work experience in something related to my course. So I often will spend time in the classroom welcoming their viewpoints but also de-contextualizing them by countering with hypotheticals that might get them to see other possible sides of an issue.
These points above are generalized observations and not all non-millennial law students exhibit these traits. However, I hope my descriptive observations here give some guidance and food for thought to other law teachers out there who are interested in making sure non-millennial law students succeed just as well as their millennial peers.