Organic chemistry is a difficult and important course, a rite of passage for future medical doctors, scientists, and many engineers, professions that require the ability to reason well from a set of new data. No longer is “orgo” a memorization course — those of us who teach it aim to produce critical thinkers, future diagnosticians, and scientists.
Neither of the traditional participants in the course, the students and teachers, are doing well. Many students seem increasingly unwilling to put in the necessary effort to master the material, and teachers are burning out at a rapid rate.
Even before COVID-19 disrupted classrooms, there were signs of trouble. I came to New York University in 2007 after 43 years of teaching and research at Princeton, where I had both tenure and an endowed chair. I wanted to see if the technique I had introduced at Princeton, in which the talking-head lecture was deemphasized in favor of small-group problem solving, was transferable to another university.
All went well at first as students prospered in the problem-solving setting and younger faculty began to adopt it. But about 10 years ago, I noticed that students were increasingly misreading exam questions. My careful attention to the wording of problems did not help much. Exam scores began to decline, as did attendance in the traditional large lecture section of the course then COVID hit.
Coteaching with two excellent professors, Paramjit Arora and Keith Woerpel, I commissioned and paid for a series of 52 videos to substitute for canceled in-person lectures. Students rarely watched them. They performed abysmally on exams that would have seemed too easy only a few years ago. A few did attend the zoomed office hours, but they were the best students in the class, not the ones who needed help.
Exams that should have yielded a B average dropped to C- or worse. Single digit scores became common and we even had zeros on exams, something that had never happened before. Despite those declining scores, about 60 percent of my students still got As and Bs this past semester. At the same time the bottom was dropping out under the poorly performing members of the class; the top students, while still deserving their excellent grades, were no longer being stretched. Previously, they would be getting 90s, now they were routinely getting 100. Their A grades would not change of course, but they were not being challenged and thus not learning as much as they should. It wasn’t their fault, it was ours.
Student evaluations, once highly useful, have become just another social media opportunity to vent. Evaluations are now often personal and sometimes profane. The good ones swell your head, and the bad ones upset you. It’s a pity that their usefulness has disappeared.
My coteacher and I began to receive anonymous emails, often just short of threatening. In the fall of 2020, we were accused of being insufficiently sensitive to the stressful issues of the day. We were urged to make “accommodations,” such as online, multiple choice exams. This spring some students sent a petition to the NYU deans evidently complaining about procedures and grades in the course. The deans never revealed the contents of the petition to me so I was unable to refute it in any way. After several months of silence on their part, on Aug. 2 the deans fired me over the objections of the chemistry department. The administration summarily dismissed the grievance I filed.
The point is not that I was unjustly treated. My reputation as a chemist and educator has not been seriously damaged. NYU is still using the videos I had made and the approximately 200 problems I developed for the problem-solving version of the course. In any event, I had been teaching for many years and the time for me to step aside was probably upon me.
What is overwhelmingly important is the chilling effect of such intervention by administrators on teaching overall and especially on untenured professors. Can a young assistant professor, almost all of whom are not protected by tenure, teach demanding material? Dare they give real grades? Their entire careers are at the peril of complaining students and deans who seem willing to turn students into nothing more than tuition-paying clients.
Nor are tenured faculty unaffected. At NYU some refuse to teach undergraduates any longer. The teaching in the chemistry department has been negatively affected, both by the decline in student capacity and the intervention of third-party administrators.
In a university, the feeling of community crumbles when trust is lost. If tenured faculty cannot depend on fair-minded support from departmental and university leadership, they cannot transfer their knowledge and experience to the next generation of students and teachers. If nontenured young teachers dare not explore rigorous material with students, they will never maximize their teaching skills as they once hoped.
Everyone has a part to play in rectifying this declining situation. Students need to develop the ability to take responsibility for failure. If they continue to deflect blame, they will never grow. Everyone hits limits at some point, and it is a vital life skill to use “failure” to overcome and improve. Failure should become a classic “teachable moment.”
Teachers must have the courage to assign low grades when students do poorly without fear of punishment.
Critically, the growing number of administrators, major and minor, who are often without any expertise in a given subject matter, need to learn to stand back from purely academic matters and to support the faculty. Deans must learn to not coddle students for the sake of tuition and apply a little tough love. They must join the community in times of conflict to generate those teachable moments.
In these times when critical thinking skills are desperately needed, it is more important than ever to dedicate ourselves to the high standards of education. Without those standards, we as a nation will not produce those individuals — doctors, engineers, scientists, – citizens! — who will guide us toward a better future.
Maitland Jones Jr. taught at New York University from 2007 to 2022.