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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Don’t Critique What You Don’t Know How to Fix

"You talk too fast. You have to slow down. So work on that, okay?"


I heard that critique more than once as a student advocate and as a trial attorney in the Army JAG Corps. I would try to slow down—really I would—and sometimes I could be successful for as long as a minute or two. But when the adrenalin began to flow, I would forget to slow down, and once again, I would talk too fast. I was aware of it, but I didn't know how to stop, and no one who told me to slow down ever taught me how to do it.

A critique that identifies a problem without providing a solution that works is useless to the student. Nothing will change. In fact, things may become worse for the student as she becomes more conscious of her shortcoming, yet frustrated by her inability to solve the problem.

A few years ago, I adopted a critiquing mantra that I adhere to religiously: don't critique what you don't know how to fix. If I don't know how to help a student and can't figure something out in that moment between the end of their performance and the beginning of my critique, I stay away from it. . Paraphrasing Mark Twain, I've come to believe in such situations that it is better to be thought a fool by my silence than to open my mouth and remove all doubt. It's better for me, but more importantly, it's better for my students.

I developed this mantra after sitting through some very awkward advocacy critiquing sessions, watching folks dispense such sage advice as: "You don't talk loud enough. Talk louder so people can hear you." "Your movements are distracting. Stop making distracting movements. That way, the jury won't be distracted by your movements." "I don't like what you're doing with your hands. It's annoying. Put them somewhere else." And so forth. The teachers had identified genuine problems, but had given a tautological solution that was of absolutely no use to the student. And by the way, I do not excuse myself from this condemnation; I've given many useless critiques to students over the years

It's easy to identify advocacy mistakes, but much harder to fix them. So the question naturally arises, if we don't know how to fix things, how do we learn? The answer to that is easy. Teach with others, borrow freely from them as you watch them solve advocacy problems, and reach out to colleagues when you need some help. Sometimes, even in a short advocacy course, a brief conversation with someone else can provide a solution that you can then offer to the student later in the course. Often, I'll take note of the problem and contact a friend for help (I'll admit, I've even written to the Advocacy Agony Aunt on this blog and, using Hugh Selby's advice, helped a student solve a problem).

When you can help a student change an advocacy weakness into a strength, you are participating in something that is truly transformational. It can even be life-changing. I went through this myself several years ago as a student in Joshua Karton's course at the Army JAG School, and I have seen him work his magic on many other students since then. I watch in awe, and I take away from Joshua what I can and use it with my own students.

I've attached a link to a video that Charlie Rose and Hugh Selby took this summer at a NITA course. The three of us had a student who could not slow down yet had been told for years that she needed to do so. Watch Hugh in this video, and then, when you face students with the same issues, try the technique. It works.

I tried it again this last week in a trial advocacy course. The student that I was working with spoke so fast it was difficult to keep up with her. So I stopped her, asked her to take off her shoes, and walked her through Hugh's toe-flexing exercise. She was embarrassed at first—and on the verge of tears at one point—but she did it. And, most importantly, she slowed down. She is on one of our school's appellate advocacy moot court teams, and she told me that people have been telling her to slow down for years, but no one ever told her how to do it.

Thanks to Hugh, I learned how to help her, and I was able to provide the solution to her problem. But if I had not gained this knowledge from him (or someone else; I'm sure there are other effective techniques in use), my critique would have been worse than useless to her. It would have been the same empty phrase she'd heard many times before.

Don't critique what you can't fix. But remember—everything can be fixed. If you don't know how to solve a student's advocacy problem, reach out to someone who does, learn what to do, and then return to the student and help them. It will change them—and you—for the better.



1 comment:

  1. Let me add just a small comment to my observations above. You can always find something in a student performance that you DO know how to fix. Fix those things instead of giving useless critiques such as "you need to slow down."