Legendary Chemist Fired for Being a Hard Grader
A complicated case out of NYU.
Reporting for NYT, Stephanie Saul sets up an age-old query, “At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?“
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.
The officials also had tried to placate the students by offering to review their grades and allowing them to withdraw from the class retroactively. The chemistry department’s chairman, Mark E. Tuckerman, said the unusual offer to withdraw was a “one-time exception granted to students by the dean of the college.”
On its face, this is simply unconscionable. Absent evidence that Jones was singularly incompetent as a teacher or wildly harsh in his grading, it’s simply unheard of to overturn grades in this manner. Beyond that, it practically encourages students to file more grievances and puts not-so-subtle pressure on the entire faculty to lower standards. And one surely doesn’t fire a distinguished professor because he’s a hard grader.
After some quotes from administrators and faculty that add little light, Saul sets up the bigger questions:
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?
Before delving into the particulars:
Dr. Jones, 84,
Wait a minute. He’s 84?! Maybe he’s just out of touch with today’s students? Or just too damn old to be in front of a classroom?
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.
Hmm. He revolutionized the way the entire subject was taught? And focused it on practical application rather than memorization? That sounds like a good thing.
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.
And he wasn’t actually “fired” in any meaningful sense. Despite his illustrious career, he’s simply an adjunct with no expectation of renewal. Still: he’s still updating a widely-used textbook. That would seem to entitle him to preferential treatment in the adjunct pool.
“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.
To ease pandemic stress, Dr. Jones and two other professors taped 52 organic chemistry lectures. Dr. Jones said that he personally paid more than $5,000 for the videos and that they are still used by the university.
That seems . . . above and beyond. And they’re using his lectures, which he recorded on his own dime, after terminating his services? That seems . . . unethical?
That was not enough. In 2020, some 30 students out of 475 filed a petition asking for more help, said Dr. Arora, who taught that class with Dr. Jones. “They were really struggling,” he explained. “They didn’t have good internet coverage at home. All sorts of things.”
So, this was at the height of the pandemic, not last spring? Still, 30 students out of 475 isn’t a lot.
The professors assuaged the students in an online town-hall meeting, Dr. Arora 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.”
Now, this is a different professor altogether. But, I’m sorry, if you’re caught cheating on exams, getting into medical school is your last concern. You’re lucky to be allowed to stay in school.
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.”
That comports with what I’ve heard anecdotally from around academia. Hell, even our students— mid-career professionals with six-figure incomes—were less engaged and generally whinier last year than they have been historically. Still, I’m not sure how far Jones should reasonably have been expected to accommodate that. If students aren’t doing the work, they’re going to fail what has always been a very hard course—one designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Students could choose between two sections, one focused on problem solving, the other on traditional lectures. Students in both sections shared problems on a GroupMe chat and began venting about the class. Those texts kick-started the petition, submitted in May.
The students were allowed to pick which method they’d be tested by? That’s . . . beyond generous.
“We are very concerned about our scores, and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” the petition said.
It sounds like they very much were.
The students criticized Dr. Jones’s decision to reduce the number of midterm exams from three to two, flattening their chances to compensate for low grades.
So, if he changed the assessment method during the course, deviating from what he published on the syllabus, they have a legitimate bitch. If he simply changed it from previous iterations of the course, it doesn’t seem wildly unreasonable. Still, more assessments are likely better in such a demanding course.
They said that he had tried to conceal course averages, did not offer extra credit and removed Zoom access to his lectures, even though some students had Covid. And, they said, he had a “condescending and demanding” tone.
Offering extra credit in upper-level classes is unheard of in my experience—but I’ve never taught organic chemistry and don’t know what the norm is at NYU. I’m not sure what the rationale for removing Zoom access was, although I can attest that hybrid—where most students are in class and some are dialing in remotely—is the worst of all worlds from a teacher’s perspective. For the sort of lessons I teach, I’d say pure remote is maybe 85% as effective in person. But it’s really, really hard to pay attention to the computer screen to keep remote students engaged while conducting a live seminar.
I have no insights into Professor Jones’ tone but would not be shocked if he came across as condescending to whiny undergrads who didn’t do the work. And I’d be disappointed if he weren’t demanding.
“We urge you to realize,” the petition said, “that a class with such a high percentage of withdrawals and low grades has failed to make students’ learning and well-being a priority and reflects poorly on the chemistry department as well as the institution as a whole.”
Indeed, nobody is even applying to NDU anymore. I’m surprised they haven’t shut the place down, to be honest.
Dr. Jones said in an interview that he reduced the number of exams because the university scheduled the first test date after six classes, which was too soon.
Before my current job, which is unusual in that we have 16 conference groups all following the same curriculum with different sets of faculty, I’ve never taught at an institution that set a schedule for any exams other than the final. But I suspect Jones’ judgment on the matter is sound.
On the accusation that he concealed course averages, Dr. Jones said that they were impossible to provide because 25 percent of the grade relied on lab scores and a final lab test, but that students were otherwise aware of their grades.
I believe him. It seems offhand that he could have provided running averages of the lab scores but I just don’t know what the practice is in his field. Our courses tend to weigh seminar contribution rather heavily and, while counseling is designed to keep students apprised as to where they stand, we don’t put out interim grades.
As for Zoom access, he said the technology in the lecture hall made it impossible to record his white board problems.
That doesn’t shock me at all. Few schools, indeed, were set up to deliver remote instruction until the pandemic and I doubt NYU invested the resources to equip lecture halls to do so in a hybrid environment. During fully remote instruction, I suspect Jones and colleagues were able to use a small camera at their workstation to show how to work problems.
Zacharia Benslimane, a teaching assistant in the problem-solving section of the course, defended Dr. Jones in an email to university officials.
“I think this petition was written more out of unhappiness with exam scores than an actual feeling of being treated unfairly,” wrote Mr. Benslimane, now a Ph.D. student at Harvard. “I have noticed that many of the students who consistently complained about the class did not use the resources we afforded to them.”
Lazy students complaining about the consequences of their actions? I am shocked to hear of such a thing.
Ryan Xue, who took the course, said he found Dr. Jones both likable and inspiring.
“This is a big lecture course, and it also has the reputation of being a weed-out class,” said Mr. Xue, who has transferred and is now a junior at Brown. “So there are people who will not get the best grades. Some of the comments might have been very heavily influenced by what grade students have gotten.”
There are rumors that this is more common than one might think. Indeed, some studies show that student evaluation of teachers is almost entirely a function of grades and social biases.
Other students, though, seemed shellshocked from the experience. In interviews, several of them said that Dr. Jones was keen to help students who asked questions, but that he could also be sarcastic and downbeat about the class’s poor performance.
That’s very professorial of him. Those who get doctorates and go on to teach are, shockingly enough, passionate about their subject and tended to be pretty good at it in school. One imagines that’s especially true for those who spend their careers at elite institutions like Princeton and NYU. It’s not the least bit surprising that they would be depressed when students who sign up to take upper-level courses don’t put in the work or simply aren’t up to the task.
But here’s the thing: if you can’t get through undergrad org chemistry—and I would have struggled with it—aren’t cut out for medical school. And that’s okay! There are lots of other careers available to graduates of elite universities.
After the second midterm for which the average hovered around 30 percent, they said that many feared for their futures. One student was hyperventilating.
So, here, I simply lack context. I was known as a hard grader when I taught undergrads. I likely still am. But I’ve never had averages that low. Again: this is intentionally a weed-out class. But what were other sections—those not taught by Jones—averaging? And was this simply one bad section or were most of his sections doing poorly?
But students also described being surprised that Dr. Jones was fired, a measure the petition did not request and students did not think was possible.
Well, again, he wasn’t technically fired—he just didn’t get another one-year contract. But if he’s getting more than his fair share of student complaints, it’s not that surprising.
The entire controversy seems to illustrate a sea change in teaching, from an era when professors set the bar and expected the class to meet it, to the current more supportive, student-centered approach.
Dr. Jones “learned to teach during a time when the goal was to teach at a very high and rigorous level,” Dr. Arora said. “We hope that students will see that putting them through that rigor is doing them good.”
James W. Canary, chairman of the department until about a year ago, said he admired Dr. Jones’s course content and pedagogy, but felt that his communication with students was skeletal and sometimes perceived as harsh.
“He hasn’t changed his style or methods in a good many years,” Dr. Canary said. “The students have changed, though, and they were asking for and expecting more support from the faculty when they’re struggling.”
It’s been twenty years since I taught undergrads but this certainly comports with everything that I’ve read. Steven Taylor, who has not only continued teaching but has been in university administration, would have better insights. I’m not sure I like the idea that professors are supposed to be emotional support animals for whiny teenagers. But if that’s what the job has become, it’s up to faculty to adapt.
N.Y.U. is evaluating so-called stumble courses — those in which a higher percentage of students get D’s and F’s, said John Beckman, a spokesman for the university.
“Organic chemistry has historically been one of those courses,” Mr. Beckman said. “Do these courses really need to be punitive in order to be rigorous?”
I don’t know what that means, exactly.
Hard courses are going to be hard. Since certain courses have shown themselves to be stumbling blocks, it’s perfectly reasonable to set up support systems to help students who haven’t previously struggled work through both the material and their anxiety. But, at the end of the day, there has to be a standard.
I would be fine with a policy that “stumble courses” allow a nonpunitive withdrawal of some sort, even after the fact. They could show on the transcript as an audit, for example. That way, students who got weeded out of the chemistry or pre-med majors could simply learn what they’re not good at and move on. But there has to be a way to signal to students that they’re on the wrong path and to allow professional and graduate programs to identify those likely to succeed.
Dr. Kirshenbaum said he worried about any effort to reduce the course’s demands, noting that most students in organic chemistry want to become doctors.
“Unless you appreciate these transformations at the molecular level,” he said, “I don’t think you can be a good physician, and I don’t want you treating patients.”
That . . . seems reasonable to me.
In August, Dr. Jones received a short note from Gregory Gabadadze, dean for science, terminating his contract. Dr. Jones’s performance, he wrote, “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty.”
Dr. Gabadadze declined to be interviewed. But Mr. Beckman defended the decision, saying that Dr. Jones had been the target of multiple student complaints about his “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading.”
Dr. Jones’s course evaluations, he added, “were by far the worst, not only among members of the chemistry department, but among all the university’s undergraduate science courses.”
So, again, student evaluations are well-understood to be loaded with bias. Students may well be holding his age and mannerisms against him unfairly. Still, consistently abysmal ratings are a red flag.
Professors in the chemistry department have pushed back. In a letter to Dr. Gabadadze and other deans, they wrote that they worried about setting “a precedent, completely lacking in due process, that could undermine faculty freedoms and correspondingly enfeeble proven pedagogic practices.”
Nathaniel J. Traaseth, one of about 20 chemistry professors, mostly tenured, who signed the letter, said the university’s actions may deter rigorous instruction, especially given the growing tendency of students to file petitions.
“Now the faculty who are not tenured are looking at this case and thinking, ‘Wow, what if this happens to me and they don’t renew my contract?'” he said.
Alas, I strongly suspect the administration will view that as a feature, not a bug.
Dr. Jones agrees.
“I don’t want my job back,” he said, adding that he had planned to retire soon anyway. “I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
So long as they keep students happy, it won’t.
TL: DR after 15 paragraphs.
Perhaps you addressed this later, but was dude justified in his grading methods or was he just being a harsh dick because he could?
That is the question. Until we see the work, we cannot judge.
Ffs, edit your output, man.
Lots to unpack here, as you’ve done. When I first heard the story, I figured it was a situation where a professor has decided to grade on a curve, or force a bell curve. Or, possibly, one of those professors who refuses to give an A because “everyone has more to learn.”
This doesn’t seem to be that at all. My hunch is that he likes being the make-or-break teacher who has decided it’s his responsibility to rid the world of mediocre med students.
It feels like a mix of someone who should maybe retire combined with residual pandemic ennui and a splash of student entitlement.
Professors are not gods and those who subjugate their students to a bleak binary outlook will justifiably get multiple criticisms.
Some quick observtions:
1. I would underscore what James noted: not getting an adjunct contract renewed is not being fired. Without any judgment as to whether it was the right thing to do overall, the odds are good that the level of headache the professor was generating had to have reached a fairly high level for administrators to make this move. It was unlikely to have been capricious. OTOH, if there is a place where it is probably relatively easy to find adjunct faculty is it metro NYC.
2. I haven’t taught undergraduates in almost 7 years, but it does seem that they are more needy than they used to be.
3. There is no doubt Covid and its aftermath are a huge part of this. It was wildly disruptive.
4. The real question, and it links to #1, is what did administration (department chair, the dean, etc.) find to be true about other org chem classes (or similar classes taught by other faculty in the department/college)? My guess is that Jones did represent a deviation and that led to the non-renewal. Since I would guess that NYU has a solid tenure-track and senior faculty, that is not nothing.
Perhaps the crux of the problem? For many rote memorization is far easier than understanding the subject well enough to apply the knowledge to solve problems. Given the time, Covid, remote learning and inadequate tech, rote memorization would be far easier for a student to get a ‘good’ grade. That the poor grades would result in needing to find a different career going forward and facing disappointed (helicopter) parents…
But the real villain here isn’t Jones, nor the whiny students, but the NYU administration. Whatever the admin’s goal was in this mess, what they’ve achieved is to sully the reputation of the institution.
As Jen said, there is a lot to unpack here. And it boils down to how we, in the US, conduct higher education and it’s impact on all kinds of behaviors. I’m going to take the perspective of the student.
This organic chemistry class was supposed to be a weed out course. Well, from the student’s perspective, they have goals (let’s say medical school). Why would I go to a rigorous school and get maybe above average or excellent education but mediocre grades? If the measurement is grades, I should go to a mediocre school, take a mediocre organic chemistry class, and have top grades.
We’ve all taught ourselves that everything is a consumer product. Even education. The ideal is an excellent education as the product but if the product is really the grade, I would demand value for my money, the actual education be damned.
Having raised three kids who’ve all graduated college, I’ve seen the pressure on them for grades. Far more than when I was growing up. I was in the Top 6 percent in my HS class (42 out of 672). My average as an 89. With no extra credit for AP course. My youngest had similar standing (which allowed him automatic admission to UT-Austin). His average was something like 104 (lots of premium for the AP classes). My two oldest when to Texas Tech, a good school also. They were very good, even excellent students at Tech. My youngest was average at UT. Which was the better decision?
It is the system that is rotten and it is hard to justify for both professors and students.
What Dr. Kirshenbaum said,
To which you responded,
Me too. Isn’t that the bottom line, that I want my MD to understand organic chemistry, not to have been hand-held through the course.
This is reminiscent of my student days at Illinois, during Vietnam. There was a certain amount of grade inflation because no teacher wanted to flunk someone out, costing them their student deferment. To me a more understandable position. No one’s going to die because they flunked out of Dr. Jones Organic Chem class.
I once had a tenured professor who could not teach his way out of a sack and his exams were a mess. I asked one of my fellow students how were they able to pass and the simple answer was homework, and when there problems he could not grasp he went to the resource center. Often students need to be self motivated and improvise but in my experience the number of professors who cannot teach is substantial. That’s to say, being a good teacher is a real talent.
Like others, I have no real idea what is going on here. But I get immediately suspicious when I see phrases like this:
“Those young’uns are just too damn soft, I tell ya…”
This is a huge part of the problem.
This is absolutely the case. We really don’t know. LIke I said above, I wold love to know how the course outcomes compared to other sections. That would tell us a lot more than this piece does.
Indeed, while I do think that the pandemic era has specific, unique challenges, I tend to be very skeptical of any discussion that boils down to “kids these days” since we have been saying it since at least the ancient Greeks.
This reminds me of one notorious instance at MIT where a certain professor was put in charge of one of the required freshman courses and…..wasn’t that great a teacher. She managed to teach them so badly–and organised her testing—such that the passing grade on the final exam was higher than the average score. Needless to say, neither the students nor the administration were happy.
IIRC, she did NOT get tenure….
I agree with the commenters who observe that there are unanswered questions here. I never took chemistry beyond high school, but I took a lot of math: I could write a first year calculus exam that fairly covers the material of a calculus course, and I could also write an exam on that same material that all but a handful of students would fail. Students would have a legitimate gripe about the latter. It’s impossible to know based on this article what situation this is.
Dr.’s Taylor and Joyner have expressed much of my thoughts on this better than I might have. However, I suspect that students and colleges today have a different attitude toward college, driven by the increasing price of college. My father and mother managed to pay their way through college by working part-time with little help from their parents, while they were very heavily involved in my college education; both in terms of paying for it and working with the school to get me help. I think that as price increased, parents got more involved, and both parents and students have grown less and less tolerant of “killer” or “make or break” as those who failed were left with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and nothing to show.
In this case, the students seem rather entitled, and the professor, extraordinarily reasonable. Giving unqualified students a pass is a spectacularly bad idea for med school in particular. However, any sort of push for stricter requirements or a better attitude, is going to face massive pushback from students and parents who’ve bet tens of thousands of dollars from what seemed like a sure thing.
Organic chemistry is one of my favorite subjects ever. It’s been a big part of my career. I LOVED my first organic course.
That said, it’s a difficult course for a lot of students. James says he would struggle.
Part of the difficulty is that it requires a lot of spatial thinking. Tetrahedral, trigonal, and linear carbon and so many other elements to bond to.
I agree that it’s a very good thing for doctors to know, but I have never known a doctor who really understood it. They did a good job anyway.
I think the key to this story, not knowing all the details, is that this professor thought of it as a weed-out course. That attitude is losing its popularity (among professors!) in favor of helping students learn. The physical sciences have a long history of weed-out courses, usually taught by white male professors, and they have long been predominantly white and male. Huh.
Here’s my tweet thread from yesterday. And a very good thread from someone who’s done more teaching than I have.
What he said about students haven’t forgotten how to study really hit with me. I only teach occasionally but there was a noticeable difference last year. Most student were fine but there was a tail of student who … it was like they didn’t know how to school anymore. And I’ve heard the same from other professors. Asking questions of a class and having none of them know the answer. It’s bizarre.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I cannot speak to current students, but I will share that one of the things I remember from my two years teaching and as a graduate student instructor in Anthropology at Cornell was how tightly-wound the pre-med students were… literally from day 1.
Especially at elite universities its hard to describe how focused they are on grades and making sure they can get into med school. Most were incredibly conscientious students and often some of my most engaged in both classrooms and discussions. But man, would they fight for every point they could get. And I was teaching liberal arts courses, not even core science courses.
It’s also not surprising that those kids had some of the highest mental illness and suicide rates on campus at the time. I don’t also think cultivating that type of ongoing stress is good for the medical field as a whole either (especially as it really will not let up until you’re past your residency… more or less a decade later).
And to @Cheryl Rofer’s point, Organic Chemistry has long been considered a weed-out course for a lot of programs. Back in the 90’s is was a requirement for Computer Science and Engineering students at RIT. And I had a number of friends wash-out from those programs after failing it twice. I’m not sure that really reflected on their programming abilities.
Likewise, for med students, I 100% support Cheryl on this:
@Steven L. Taylor:
Yeah, kids these days…
I never took organic chemistry but have several chemist and physicist friends who did and every single one of them had the habit of saying, “Well, it’s not as bad as organic chemistry.” in reference to any horrible thing.
I wonder if part of the problem here is America’s deeply puritanical streak and the resulting belief that suffering is, in and of itself, a good thing, and the current generation starting to push back on various things that seem to be set up to cause trauma for no real reason other than causing trauma.
My mom went to college as an adult, when I was a kid (I was ~3rd grade, I think). She was a food & nutrition major, and I remember clearly that organic chemistry about broke her. To this day she reviles that course, so yeah, it’s also subject matter at play here. The thread that @Cheryl Rofer linked to by Dan Singleton notes the class size, which is an interesting side bar to all of this–I think he’s right, that large a group limits interaction and feedback and then the cumulative nature of the material can mean that students used to powering through and catching up just aren’t able to do so.
100% to this. And this is a huge issue in higher ed. Grad students for example are six times likelier to have depression and anxiety than the average population. I haven’t looked at the med school numbers but I’m pretty sure they are worse.
I half joking suggested that if someone wants to understand Max Weber’s argument about the role that predestination has on our culture, just look at pre-med and medical student culture which is completely about suffering and delaying any satisfaction in hopes of getting into a good medical school and then getting a good residency. That is not a great start to a profession that’s supposed to be about caring for others.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Which also speaks to a broader issue in higher ed–that key classes (to Cherly’s point, if you consider this a “weed out” class then that highlights its importance in the curriculum) are being farmed out to adjuncts who have very little protection when issues like this come up.
Also given the wonderful simulation abilities that computer programming now gives us, it seems to me to be a bit of a throwback insisting that You. Damn. Well. Need. To. Learn. Organic. Chemistry. From. A. Textbook.
(I’ve been trolling around on YouTube and am agog at the mathematical visualisation explanations that people have come up with. It is so much easier to understand R^2 and p-values now!)
(And I STILL think that anything in 3 dimensions is so much easier to conceptualise. I used to have to work on figuring out non-trivial mappings in five dimensions (looking for a higher-dimension equivalent of the KT transition in 2D) and bugger did it make my brain hurt….)
I mean, yeah, it kinda sounds like “kids these days” but covid was a major disruption. And for undergrad students, it came at a time when they were supposed to be forming habits that would last them a lifetime. I think there’s probably something in that.
On other thought is that it is can be very hard to be emotionally supportive AND be the person that needs to hand out Bs, Cs and (yes, I did this) Fs. Failing people who have failed to demonstrate a reasonable level of ability with the material is the duty of an instructor, especially a college one.
As a martial arts sensei, one has to walk that tightrope, which is something I did for maybe 15 years. Diligence requires you to be kind of a dick to students by showing them that what they are doing isn’t working. And then you have to figure out how to support them in such a way that they try to do better rather than walk away. But that’s hard, and takes a lot of specific focus. If a college prof can do that, great! I don’t know that we can expect it though.
And I’d also say that after X years of teaching, Dr. Jones ought to have a pretty good idea of what kind of performance from a class he is likely to see. I know I had it pretty dialed in after just a few times teaching the course. And then he sees a big swing in performance, and doesn’t know how to attribute it. I mean, it’s possible that both age and covid had an impact on him, too. But the crankiness of a prof usuallly seemed to me to be a second-order effect on student performance, and probably not enough to explain the difference in performance.
That said, I heard of physics profs – not in intro “service” classes – who expected the mean score of their exams to be a 30 (out of 100), because they liked nice curves, and wanted to send a message to prospective majors that physics was hard. This could easily play out like @Cheryl Rofer describes above.
Over the weekend I was reading an article about how common it is for college graduates, even after having not been in school for decades, to regularly have nightmares about realizing they forgot they had signed up for a class, hadn’t gone the entire semester, and it’s now the final exam.
Someone pointed out that if this was happening to combat vets, we’d consider it a symptom of PTSD and maybe we should ask what it is about the college experience that’s apparently traumatizing a huge chunk of the people who went through it.
I had some version of the following stress dream for years: I forgot to take a math class in High School and had to take an exam immediately and if I failed it then my HS diploma would be voided and thereby, so too would my BA and PhD.
Not really related, but I’ve got a couple of anecdotes from high school.
To begin with, the school I attended, Tec de Monterrey, was very focused on STEM. Meaning we got lots of math, chemistry, and physics, over two years. One math teacher infamously failed all his three classes on an assignment. This drew all sorts of attention, and it ended up with the fact he had set really advanced problems for what was an introductory calculus course. He left shortly after.
Chemistry was divided in two semesters, the latter was organic chemistry. I think Tinkertoy models would have been far more helpful than the four hours of class per week and one of lab every month, given how important geometry is to organic chemistry. Not everyone can visualize a tetrahedron with things bonded to it, much les chains of such things.
I did fail math twice and organic chemistry once. Two stints of summer school and one of the one-time only-for-graduation makeup exams.
@Steven L. Taylor:
The “I just found out I never really graduated” variation of the nightmare was also mentioned in the article =)
@Steven L. Taylor:
I’m reminded of this clip form The Simpsons.
You keep saying “he wasn’t fired”, just “wasn’t renewed”.
Except that’s not what the story says.
He had an active contract for the school year. The school cancelled it. That’s pretty much the definition of “being fired”. If they had declined to extend a new annual contract to him, you’d be correct. That is not what’s being described.
My version of this was somewhat different. As I freshman I took honors calculus, where the pace was “bat out of hell” and everyone was always behind. The prof would, in the middle of a proof, particularly one where he had deviated from the text, stop and look out across our faces and call on someone. He grew up and got all of his education in the South and was quite formal about it. “Mr. Cain. What comes next?” He picked me often enough that on the walk back to the dorm one afternoon, one of the women asked, “Mike, why does Prof. Lewis hate you?”
I had “Mr. Cain. What comes next?” nightmares long after I was through graduate school and being successful out in the real world.
@Stormy Dragon: @Steven L. Taylor: I’ve had a recurring dream so many times about not showing up in class and having to power through the course and final in a week that it has almost become a false memory. I can’t wait until my old age dementia kicks in and I repeat that memory to my kids as if it really happened.
I wonder how much the pandemic-caused disruption was a triggering event for this action? It seems possible, perhaps plausible, that two years is enough for students to develop any number of bad habits, and the consequences pushed them over some line. If it’s just a trend, we would have reached some sort of tipping point eventually, the pandemic may have accelerated it.
Thirty years ago I was involved in research in real-time multi-media multi-party communications over internet protocols. So far as I can tell, much of the software available today largely ignores the things we found were important back then. It’s a hard problem. Some of the seemingly simple technology we believed was necessary is still not generally available.
I’m not surprised biochemistry was a triggering class. Some subjects are just hard. Doing well in them requires both some aptitude, as well as all the time management, how to learn, how to study skills.
@Michael Cain: This anecdote will only work for a few people. I mentioned above going to Illinois. There was a screw up in the standard curriculum and a bunch of us ended up in an aircraft stability and control class the semester before we took differential equations. The instructor would say, “Here we use a LaPlace transform” and we’re all looking at each other going, “What the hell is a LaPlace transform?” I think we mostly struggled through with gentleman’s Cs or such. Then next semester in Diff EQ we’re all going, “Oh, that’s what that was all about.”
Yep. Had this exact nightmare for decades. Graduated from college in ’91, and remember having this exact dream at some point after I moved to NH, so 2006 or later.
@Jen: Me too, still, and my undergrad was over 50 years ago.
The answer may well depend on what basic philosophies are driving the system at large and its subunits in individual schools. For what it’s worth, one unspoken but still very real change I’ve seen in education is increased emphasis on the notion of the instructor as guarantor of student success.
In some ways, I get it. Ask me sometime about the report card that I saved from high school showing my second semester grades being “C” for the first semester, “D” for the second semester, and yet “B” for the final grade. Or ask Luddite about the class in which his work got 2 different grade marks–the one that any other student in the building would have gotten and the one he got because the teacher believed him to be a troublemaker. (I have no comment to make on the degree to which either Luddite or I were troublemakers other than that after the first quarter of junior high school, I played Calvinball with the system for 6 remaining years.)
In other ways it reminds me of the comment a parent in my little town here made in the wake of the school reforms the state made in the wake of “No
WitnessesChild Left Behind.” She noted that while she had believed that the state was going to go after all the bad teachers that her kid had, she’d been in favor of it, but that as she realized that they were also going to look at the amount of effort her child put into learning the materials, she wasn’t as satisfied that they were going the right direction.
@Scott, @Steven L. Taylor:
100% that school can create, or exacerbate existing, trauma* for folks. Part of my posting hiatus is because I’ve been finishing off a conference paper that is tangentially related to this topic (its on trauma informed and responsive research methods). Part of the discussion is the need for researchers and designers (many of whom have advanced degrees) to be stewards of their own trauma and past experiences in order for them to more responsibly and safely conduct research with others.
I’ll be presenting it in Amsterdam this Monday… once the preprint is available I’ll share a copy here as well.
* – The definition we use for trauma is any experience that happens too fast, too often, or too much and is coupled with a lack of support or safety that prevents it from being successfully metabolized by the individual. Its something that is at once physical (leading in some cases to literal changes in a person’s biology), psychological, and emotional.
Trauma is highly contextual and cultural. The same events can be experienced differently by different people with some left traumatized by them and others get through them without lasting impacts.
One thing to remember is that Organic Chem has always been hard. I never had to take it (thank the gods), but I had a couple roommates who did–one pre-med, the other a Chemistry major.
The chem major came home one day after getting his test grade back and was practically dancing. “Nailed it! 24%!” His was the 2nd highest score in the class. And it included 2 points for getting his own name right on the test paper (that’s how generous the prof was).
@Scott: “If the measurement is grades, I should go to a mediocre school, take a mediocre organic chemistry class, and have top grades.”
Sure (and I’ve advocated that exact approach in the past myself in some cases), but grades and where you got them are both factored into the equation. Even back in 1975 when I got my BA, we knew that graduating from Seattle Pacific, a good school, but not “famous” in the evangelical world yet, would not necessarily get us into grad programs wherever we wanted to go. “Go to a mediocre school, take a mediocre organic chemistry class, and get top grades” wasn’t a slam dunk in the 70s and it certainly isn’t now for getting into med school.
To @Just nutha ignint cracker‘s point, the expectation now adays is “good” grades from a “good” school in order to get into a “good” medical school.
@mattbernius: “And to @Cheryl Rofer’s point, Organic Chemistry has long been considered a weed-out course for a lot of programs.”
And some schools/programs use artificial processes to do the weeding out as well. I had a teacher in grad school who reported that when she was a teaching assistant, she was informed that the school policy for intro courses (XYZ 101 and so on) was that only 75% of the students could receive passing grades–the however many in number bottom students were to receive “F” without regard to the quality of their work relative to the course requirements. And I remember that in the teacher preparation program where I went, each student teaching supervisor was to select one teacher candidate to disqualify. Finally, while I was at Woosong U in Daejeon, ROK, in a class of 25 students, I was to award 2 “A”s, and 5 “B”s. All the other students were to receive “C”s or below. Fortunately, the computer did the ranking for me automatically in case I might have made a mistake. 😉
@Stormy Dragon: “to regularly have nightmares about realizing they forgot they had signed up for a class, hadn’t gone the entire semester, and it’s now the final exam.”
Yeah. I’ve had that nightmare occasionally. Some times, it has been so real that I’ve actually forgotten that I haven’t been in school for 30 years and immediately went to my computer to see if I could retake the class under school rules. The worst versions are for a graduate major I decided against taking up. Those are really scary for some reason I don’t understand.
This is the key passage and it is open to interpretation–depending on when the contract was issued, what the term of the contract was, and so other. Typically non-tenure track faculty are on year-to-year contracts (although sometimes they are multi-year). It is also not clear whether he was on a full-time or per-class contract. That would also matter.
So it is possible that he was fired and it is possible that he was non-renewed (perhaps that seems like a distinction without a difference, but trust me, my ability to outright fire someone is almost nil, but my ability to non-renew at certain moments in time is far higher). Just knowing how higher ed works, it is far more likely that this was a non-renewal situation (but I will readily allow that the story does not provide adequate information to know definitively).
@Steven L. Taylor: (Of course, it is possible that the deans at NYU have better powers than do I).
Mine usually goes one step further: I can’t even find the room I’m supposed to take the test in. I wander around campus trying to remember where the room is, or what time I’m supposed to be there.
Fortunately, I haven’t had that one in a very long time.
But, as I note above, to really understand what may or may not be going on here, we would need to know about other org chem sections at NYU over time.
There simply isn’t enough here to actually judge.
If I were brought this exact scenario (complaining students and an allegedly unreasonable prof) I would need a hell of a lot more info than is in this piece to make a determination of proper action.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
I had a phys ed teacher in Jr. High who kept giving me Cs and told my parents it was because he thought I was doing too well in everything else and he didn’t think it was okay for people to be successful at everything.
@mattbernius: “To @Just nutha ignint cracker‘s point, the expectation now adays is “good” grades from a “good” school in order to get into a “good” medical school.”
And it was the same way mostly back in my time with the principal difference being a greatly elevated definition of “good” as in “good grades.” Back when I was in school, you could still get into a grad program with a B-minus GPA. By the time I’d finished grad school, the cut-off point for admission to the teacher preparation program–which, statistically, took the bottom quartile of undergrads going into specialized programs–was a GPA of 3.6.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Having been both fired and non-renewed (both in academic settings), the wording here reads as “fired” (“terminated his contract” and “cancelled his contract” are both presumptive of a contract being in place). Had it been a non-renewal, one would expect wording to that effect: “Was not asked back”, “was not offered a new contract”, “was told his services were no longer required”, etc.
I live an hour away from NYC. I hire docs from NYC. I avoid NYU. It is, in my estimation, overly invested in money and status and not education. Those kids complaining about not going to med school due to poor grades were almost undoubtedly all rich kids or near rich kids. They and their parents are consumers. They pay a lot to go to NYU so they expect to get good grades. If they dont they complain, like all consumers do today. The school responded. They dont want to lose other kids and they really dont want to lose donations from those well to do parents.
I dont think this is quite so true everywhere. I hire a lot from Columbia and I know for a fact they have dumped students/residents who were performing poorly even though the families were quite wealthy. I am sure politics matters at every school but my personal knowledge of NYU has always left me leery of the place. (Besides which, it is kind of hard to believe that is functioning quite as well at 84. There is a good chance he was hired for his big name and actually wasn’t that good of a teacher.)
@Mu Yixiao: And, of course, it’s absolutely impossible that the media source misstated/misrepresented what had happened to juice the click rate of the article. No media outlet would do anything even vaguely like that.
@Mu Yixiao: One thing is for certain, I certainly am not qualified to interpret the industry in question, so I suppose I will step back.
This has been a fun one for me to skulk around the corners on today.
Unlike most, I absolutely loved organic chem. No, seriously, adored it. Took every single science class I could – especially chemistry. Fortunately, I discovered early enough that the best-paying jobs with a BS (in the late 70’s/early 80’s) involved working in the recreational pharmaceutical industry, so that put paid to that dream.
That being said, the second worst experience* that I remember from college involved a summer class in OC (I had extra space in my schedule) and discovered at the UW the summer class was filled with pre-meds who HAD to get a 4.0. That was the ONLY class they took that summer. The class was graded on a curve, and IIRC, the cutline for an A was 3.8, and anything below a 3.2 was an F. Stupie pre-meds!
And Cracker’s heard me vent ad nauseum about the 8 students in my legal research class who went to the dean complaining that my 10-question (open notes, open book) final exam was too difficult. And that was nearly 20 years ago.
*And no, none of my top three involved drugs or alcohol.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
and everyone else who commented:
Everyone who has those nightmares has my sympathy. Fortunately, my waking-in-the-middle-of-the-night terrors rarely involve college.
I’m coming to this late. So instead of adding my 8.5 cents, I’ll merely observe that the commentary has been unusually circumspect. Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate that style. It’s just that I wonder what it is about this story (and/or topic) that made for such cautious opining.
A former student of his own twitter said that he had a habit of announcing the lowest exam grade and then making snide comments. That was in 2009. So something tells me that there’s a lot more to this story, and this fad of having a reporter leap into culture war issues isn’t working except on the clicks side.
@Stormy Dragon:..I had a phys ed teacher in Jr. High who kept giving me Cs and told my parents it was because he thought I was doing too well in everything else and he didn’t think it was okay for people to be successful at everything.
About 40 years ago the son of friends was held back a grade as he began high school. His mother was flummoxed. His grades were all good and there had been no notice from the school during the year of any problems. She went to his teachers who would tell her nothing. She finally went to the principal who, after some severe inquiry finally fessed up.
This is what the principal of the school told her.
Everyone in town knew that the boy’s father had been a professional football player. He even played a few games in the NFL. The boy was big for his age and had an interest in sports. The school’s football coach and the teachers and the principal conspired to hold the boy back a grade so that when he joined the football team he would be older and bigger and stronger than the players on the opposing teams.
Mom was furious. I don’t know how it all played out but the kid was not held back. I moved away from that town after all this happened and lost touch with the family so I don’t know if the kid ever did try out for the football team.
I think we vastly overestimate advanced mathematics in education.
Unless you are in a very specific line of work it is essentially useless. Or worthless in time spent.
In decades, I have not used anything beyond fairly simple geometry to get by. I think statistics is valid and salient throughout our lives. Trigonometry+ much less so in the experience of most lives. There is a there there, but it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t help unless you are in an extremely narrow line of work. Some people need to study it, but not every high school student.
I ended up working a pretty narrow technical field. It was mostly on the ground learning, but the college course I took the most away from was college linguistics and high school physiology. Identifying, classifying, typing, sorting. A taxonomy. An imposed structure. A grammar. That’s a noun became that’s an integer. By studying past queries I was fairly certain that nobody uses that in their SQL WHERE clause, so it does not need to be indexed. It’s just a tag along in the SELECT clause. Fuck it, index it anyway just to be safe.
I barely got through Inorganic Chemistry by cheesing by learning by rote a few standard formulae. I “learned” absolutely nothing beyond how to pass a series of tests without understanding almost nothing about the underlying concepts. I didn’t cheat per se, but I cheesed my way into a B+ even though I didn’t really understand or get anything. Is that cheating?
I did the exact same thing for trigonometry. All of it went over my head whoosh and I had no fucking clue as to what was happening. I got a B because I’d learned how to cheese the testing system by rote learning the basics. Not cheating, but kissing cousins to.
That is super bad education! Learning how to pass a course and knowing almost nothing.
Advanced math is a bad subject for general audience education. It is a niche subject much more salient in a college setting for a much narrower audience.
Asking future doctors to ace Organic Chemistry as a make or break class when they are barely out of their teens is just foolish. Doctors judge treatments on efficacy. Does it work? If yes, continue. If not, stop. Why does it work? Why doesn’t it? Studying multifactoral analysis is much much more salient.
Sounds like the current pedagogical method used in school to me, at least if I’m understanding the current programs. But then again, I am but an ig’nant Luddite…
As a current prof (I teach graduate students intricate details of cellular neurophysiology), I can’t imagine behaving like this. Your “worst student” is still a human being worthy of your best effort – this belief that the student who picks it up quickly is the best and the one who takes more time is the worst? Counterproductive and often very, very wrong. There are so many great researchers and scientists out there working in a field they originally struggled with – they often have the best questions because what they were taught didn’t make sense to them – but this only happens if their teachers and professors have the patience. This one has failed them.
The cautiousness comes from not being able to see the work. We don’t know, cannot know. No one is going to share that.
Is he a fair but stern grader or is he just being a dick? An authority person gone rogue?
Looks like does not necessarily mean is. Often, yes, but not always.
Judging by the way that faculty and department collegues responded, I assume he was being a prick because he thought he had the right, but it isn’t definitive or certain by evidence presented.
I’m fairly convinced based on the description, but 95% is not 100% and I have not seen the evidence. I think I know, but I don’t know know.
Caution, and hedging, in that circumstance is right and proper. We don’t know. I believe he was being an authoritarian asshole, but that is not established in fact.
If I ran the world, I would replace trig and calc in HS with Logic 101.
That, and statistics.
Tons more useful to a general audience.
I once assumed a managerial position where there was an on-staff PHD statistician. He was making pretty big bucks. Highest paid person in the budget. He added nothing.
Man, I loved the guy, he was such a mensch, a total good dude.
1. I am not a good manager, decent at best. I had been promoted into a position I was not prepared for, was objectively not good at, and was ill-suited towards.
2. Jeff was just dead weight. The mission was to make data analytics across the whole organization better faster easier cheaper. He added nothing. I tried to redirect his efforts. Here is a batch of 8,000 queries the marketing folks asked in the last two years. Find commonalities and potential sets.
3. It was a bad fit. I left in 11 months and joined a contract / consulting firm so I could do actual heads-down work again. I am not a manager. I didn’t entirely suck, but I mostly sucked.
Being promoted over your skillset resets your goals. Did for me, anyway. I knew what I didn’t want. I knew what I did want.
I really liked the concept of an on-staff big brain statistician. I just couldn’t figure out the correct way to deploy him. My failure.
@Flat Earth Luddite:
I was absolutely sure that the blotter tabs “prank” your HS friends played on you was one of them. Shows what I KNOW. 🙁
@de stijl: If it makes you feel any better, we recently added a stats option for general studies math.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
Well, that was high school. The elevator of giggling frosh coeds pointing and giggling at me was certainly a circle of heck for me
This is beside the point but it’s something that bothers me about writing about academia; even academics fall into this trap of describing academic jobs poorly. From what it says in the article I wouldn’t characterize his job as being an adjunct. There are more kinds of faculty than tenure-track and adjunct; since he had “yearly contracts” it sounds like he was what my institution calls “teaching faculty,” and I think NYU frequently calls “clinical faculty,” but in higher ed generally are usually called lecturers. Adjuncts, in my experience, are usually hired only one term at a time, not yearly. I happen to have taught at NYU for a few years, almost twenty years ago. I was a postdoc, taught one course per semester, was full-time faculty, was on a temporary contract, and was neither what you would call a lecturer nor an adjunct. “Contingent faculty” seems to me to be what people mean when they group all non-tenure-track faculty into one group, but they use the term adjunct instead.
@DA: The article is simply unclear. He was probably non-tenure track but full-time on a year-to-year contract. He probably wasn’t a per-course adjunct.