Should Organic Chem Professors Ease Off On Today's Stressed-Out Premeds?
10/04/2022
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From the New York Times news section:

At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?

Maitland Jones Jr., a respected professor, defended his standards. But students started a petition, and the university dismissed him.

Students said Maitland Jones’s course was too hard and blamed him and his teaching methods for their poor showings.

By Stephanie Saul
Oct. 3, 2022

In the field of organic chemistry, Maitland Jones Jr. has a storied reputation. He taught the subject for decades, first at Princeton and then at New York University, and wrote an influential textbook. He received awards for his teaching, as well as recognition as one of N.Y.U.’s coolest professors.

But last spring, as the campus emerged from pandemic restrictions, 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him.

Students said the high-stakes course — notorious for ending many a dream of medical school — was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores.

The professor defended his standards. But just before the start of the fall semester, university deans terminated Dr. Jones’s contract.

Organic chemistry is a crucial course for a college, since it serves as the chief weed-out course for pre-meds.

NYU is, these days, a famous and prestigious college. (Like USC and George Lucas, NYU has benefited from Martin Scorsese’s long close association with it as a student and teacher. Indeed, Lucas recently gave a major gift to NYU to establish the Martin Scorsese Institute of Global Cinematic Arts. My view is that while it’s natural to resent their cultural influence, hugely successful individuals like George Lucas and Martin Scorsese are, actually, on the whole, excellent human beings who have made our lives better.)

But NYU doesn’t have a huge endowment per student. So it’s more dependent than H-Y-P-S upon a lot of affluent people paying a lot of tuition for their kids to attend. There is a lot to be said for that market-responsiveness, but there are also downsides.

“The deans are obviously going for some bottom line, and they want happy students who are saying great things about the university so more people apply and the U.S. News rankings keep going higher,” said Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who has worked closely with Dr. Jones.

Professor Jones is 84. He retired from Princeton, where he had tenure, in 2007, and was since teaching at NYU on a non-tenure arrangement.

One of NYU’s distinctive strategies is that New York City is full of smart people who can teach, so don’t hire tenured professors, hire smart folks without tenure.

Jones is apparently a famous teacher.

But I can imagine that the various complications of learning to teach during the pandemic with new remote methods, hybrid methods, or whatever would not have been his strong suit.

As for Zoom access, he said the technology in the lecture hall made it impossible to record his white board problems.

I sure don’t intend to learn any new technologies in my 80s. I’ve barely used Zoom in my 60s.

That said, it could well be that kids are getting lazier and dumber during the Great Awokening and especially since the 2020 cultural double whammy of COVID and George Floyd. Which bodes ill for future patients, such as, well, us all.

In short, this one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body. Should universities ease pressure on students, many of whom are still coping with the pandemic’s effects on their mental health and schooling? How should universities respond to the increasing number of complaints by students against professors? Do students have too much power over contract faculty members, who do not have the protections of tenure?

And how hard should organic chemistry be anyway?

My impression is that doctors generally aren’t Dr. House–level genius diagnosticians. But… they tend to be fanatically hard-working. And I appreciate that.

One reason for that level of doctoral diligence is that to go to medical school you have to do decently as an undergrad in Organic Chem, which is a really hard course.

Dr. Jones, 84, is known for changing the way the subject is taught. In addition to writing the 1,300-page textbook “Organic Chemistry,” now in its fifth edition, he pioneered a new method of instruction that relied less on rote memorization and more on problem solving.

After retiring from Princeton in 2007, he taught organic chemistry at N.Y.U. on a series of yearly contracts. About a decade ago, he said in an interview, he noticed a loss of focus among the students, even as more of them enrolled in his class, hoping to pursue medical careers. …

“Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate,” he wrote in a grievance to the university, protesting his termination. Grades fell even as he reduced the difficulty of his exams.

The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic, he said. “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” he wrote. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”

After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said. …

Many students were having other problems. Kent Kirshenbaum, another chemistry professor at N.Y.U., said he discovered cheating during online tests.

When he pushed students’ grades down, noting the egregious misconduct, he said they protested that “they were not given grades that would allow them to get into medical school.”

Cheating is a growing problem in American education. Long ago, I went to a Southern college that had an honor code because it expected students to ask themselves, “What would Robert E. Lee do?” But to many students these days, “What would Jordan Belfort do?” seems a more relevant question.

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By spring 2022, the university was returning with fewer Covid restrictions, but the anxiety continued and students seemed disengaged.

“They weren’t coming to class, that’s for sure, because I can count the house,” Dr. Jones said in an interview. “They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.”

The Not So Great Reset seems to be a general slacking off.

Strikingly, this article doesn’t bring up any Diversity angle, although I presume there was one to a moderate degree. An interesting question is whether a pay to play college like NYU has a greater or lesser Diversity Problem than richer colleges.

[Comment at Unz.com]

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