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It seems life all of higher ed Twitter has been discussing the story of Maitlin Jones Jr., adjunct professor of organic chemistry, who was not retained by N.Y.U. following the signing of a petition by 82 out of 350 students in the class who believed they were not being given the support necessary to learn.

Organic chemistry is a necessary pre-requisite for medical school, and often serves as a high-stakes, weed-out course for students walking that path. Students felt they were being weeded out unfairly.

I urge you to read the article for yourself (unpaywalled link here) in order to appreciate the full scope of this mess. No one is covered in glory, and as someone who is sensitive to the structural factors that lead to these problems, I see a number of different places where those things are clearly at work. 

Dr. Jones is an adjunct, having retired from a tenured position at Princeton in 2007 and then picking up the organic chem course at N.Y.U. As Chuck Pearson remarked on Twitter, having a faculty member without the protections of tenure overseeing a course that serves such an important gatekeeping function is a problem waiting to happen all by itself.

Jones says he noticed student “attention” slipping “ten years ago,” suggesting a disconnect between instructor and students that was understandably exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. 

Students didn’t even request that Dr. Jones be dismissed, and yet he was let go anyway.

As reported in the article, administrative responses seemed more focused on mollifying customers, rather than focusing on student learning, including a one-time offer to withdraw from the class retroactively. Explaining the rationale to Jones, the director of undergraduate studies said the idea was to “extend a firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills.”

Mess on top of mess.

Students see their degree not as a reflection of what they might have learned, but a credential towards the next thing they really want, sometimes without truly understanding if they want it. All they know is that there’s an obstacle standing between them and what they think they want.

Administrators see students as units of revenue, rather than the people for whom they are responsible to provide the best possible atmosphere for learning.

The article and the online discussion about the article seems primarily focused the nature of “Gen Z students” and notions of “rigor,” discussions that quite frankly seem stale and unproductive to me. Lots of students failing a course does not mean it is rigorous.

At the same time, lots of students failing is not necessarily the fault of the professor. Perhaps you noticed that there are 350 students in this lecture course, a size that may simply be incompatible with providing the kind of access and support students need to succeed in such a difficult subject.

I have been convinced by people who know much more than me that knowledge of organic chemistry is a necessary building block for future medical studies, and then ultimately engaging in the practice of medicine. We apparently want the people who do this work to know this stuff.

At the same time, I’ve heard from numerous people who have run the gauntlet of organic chemistry and medical school, and gone on to successful medical professionals, that they did “horribly” in organic chemistry, that they “almost failed” organic chemistry, and that they “forgot everything they learned in organic chemistry the moment the final ended and had to relearn everything in medical school.”

Given that all of these people are highly regarded professionals, this suggests that at least anecdotally, the gatekeeping of organic chemistry is not so much the acquisition of knowledge, but the ability to persist through a difficult challenge. It definitely does not speak to what they learned in their organic chemistry classes as a building block to future knowledge.

To a person, these folks report that their organic chemistry courses were primarily about cramming as much content into their brains as possible, brute force memorization. 

The meaning of organic chemistry, and its role as a foundation to understanding, for example, the pharmacological processes that happen when a patient is treated with a specific drug, were not clear to these people until much later. 

This strikes me as a remediable pedagogical problem, and my understanding is that it’s a problem the field has been trying to address at least since the era when my panel of folks did their undergraduate studies (when I did mine) several million years ago. 

This extremely illuminating Twitter thread from Dan Singleton, a decorated teacher of organic chemistry at Texas A&M, helped me understand why there seems to be an inherent level of difficulty to learning organic chemistry, even for the most dedicated and prepared students.

That said, Dr. Singleton also says, “I can teach organic chemistry to anyone, given enough time – it is by no means too hard for students to learn – but the system has to be set up to make that time and interaction possible.”

I smiled at this because I say the identical thing about teaching writing. 

Singleton goes on to identify the particular pedagogical challenges of teaching organic chemistry. The material is not only new, but also sequential. Falling behind in understanding makes it extremely hard to catch up or reset. 

This is a significantly greater challenge than teaching writing, where all practice is meaningful, and part of progressing as a writer is learning the unique ways one can solve a particular writing-related problem, rather than arriving at a common solution. All writing practice helps with future writing practice, and even though writing courses are often structured with sequential assignments, there’s no inherent need for it if the goal is simply to improve as a writer.

Singleton says, “Organic is a graphical language and logic, and learning it is to some degree like learning to write in Kindergarten. You can’t get it from just listening to a lecture, you can’t get it from watching a video.”

Learning organic chemistry therefore is something that must be practiced, and this practice must then be met with feedback. Singleton observes that the kind of feedback required by the course and material became virtually impossible over Zoom. 

The necessity of practice and feedback is familiar to me as a teacher of writing, as is the problem of lack of engagement cited by Dr. Jones in the original New York Times article. Like Dr. Jones, I also saw students start to become less engaged with the material – though I first noticed it more like 15, almost 20 years ago when I was at Virginia Tech and the first cohort of students who had been subject to Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams showed up in my class.

To be truthful, I never had very many students enter a first-year writing class with anything approaching enthusiasm, but there is a difference between lack of passion for writing, and the almost total lack of familiarity with what I think of as the core of a writing practice, communicating inside a genuine rhetorical situation, that I detected in students in increasing numbers over the years.

What I came to realize is that students had been subjected to a literally disembodied and dehumanized approach to writing, rooted in a system that valued standardization and credentialing over learning. They had been given rules to pass assessments that were fundamentally uninteresting and largely meaningless except as something to be passed according to a rubric. Students did them because they were dutiful and had been sold on the notion that doing well (enough) was necessary, but there was very little deep or substantive learning attached to those activities.

Students had been denied the chance to see writing as a fundamentally expressive endeavor that allows them to process their own thoughts, and then to share their ideas with others. They had been cut off from all the things that make writing interesting.

They were literally disengaged. This strikes me as similar to what’s reportedly going on in organic chemistry at N.Y.U. The class is “important,” but only to the extent that it is a gateway to medical school. If that gateway appears closed, you get the kinds of complaints outlined in the article.

To combat student disengagement, I evolved towards what I call “the writer’s practice,” an approach rooted in teaching  the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits-of mind that writers possess. I designed writing experiences that touch on all aspects of the practice. I wanted to give students a context in which what they were writing mattered for more than whatever grade they were going to receive.

My first priority was engagement because without engagement there is not even a shot at learning.

Prof. Singleton’s Twitter thread and other comments from teachers and students of organic chemistry suggest that the structures that support the teaching of the course and the learning of the students are not particularly well-suited to the task. This is another thing I am familiar with as a teacher of writing – too many students, not enough time, an endless process of triage.

But also I am heartened after eavesdropping on so many online discussions of instructors like Dan Singleton. There’s lots of people taking these challenges very seriously. 

But they are swimming against the tide of traditional practices and education folklore, particularly hidebound notions of rigor that have little to do with learning. 

For those who are wondering who to blame for this situation, the “out-of-touch” professor, the “entitled” students, the “pandering” administrators, my hope is always that we look at the systemic factors and structural conditions that seem to create these groups.

That’s where I find blame.

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