Some Thoughts on the Fired Orgo Professor

Last week, the NY Times, in its ongoing effort to cover every single academic controversy that might involve the Dreaded Wokeness, had an article about an NYU organic chemistry professor who was fired based on bad teaching reviews–it’s worth noting that the students didn’t want him fired. Anyway, some thoughts on the subject:

  1. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like this: I’ve personally witnessed this in 1989 and 1998–an elderly orgo professor can’t understand why students are performing poorly, and the students are frustrated. The 1989 experience was all the more… interesting as said orgo professor literally died in class….
  2. A structural problem is many biology undergraduates spend their first two years taking non-biology courses: if they wanted to be chemists, they would’ve majored in chemistry. A serious problem, one that a biology professor told me about in 1991 is biology majors spend their first two years studying very little biology (four semesters of chemistry). Simply put, the motivation isn’t high. The biochemically-minded biologists usually end up taking ‘chemistry for chemists’, but other biologists really don’t want to be there. I’m all for eating your vegetables, but four semesters is a lot (put another way, I received a B.Sc., and four of the twenty-one science courses I took were chemistry. This needs to be reconsidered.
  3. These are often designed to be weed-out courses–and you don’t have to fail students, a low B or C grade will destroy a student’s GPA just fine. Given a limited number of good grades, students are forced to compete against each other. Underclassmen are at a real disadvantage in this competition. Again, this is very demotivational.
  4. Orgo is hard, because, unlike inorganic/general chemistry, students have never had any of it before. Everything is new, and if you fall behind, it’s really hard to catch up. Combine that with the two previous points, and that can lead to a lot of frustration, especially among underclassmen who might not have developed good study habits yet.
  5. At the risk of being mean, why is an 84 year old teaching students? I get that people can be energetic and vital well into old age (I hope I am!), but there might be some gaps here that are just hard to fill.

Just some observations.

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7 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Fired Orgo Professor

  1. John says:

    You might send a letter to colleges that don’t have freshman biology classes about that.

  2. coloncancercommunity says:

    Thank you for that. It is so true. I have taught at several institutions (biology not chemistry) as an adjunct and have seen this frustration in students. There is literally too little biology for biology majors. It’s like the stuff they came to study and would be using in their daily work is only going to be given as reward for passing an obstacle course of chemistry, calculus, and physics.

    The critical question is whether this is eliminating some very fine biologists/pre-meds who would make great contributions in their fields. Let’s face it, all fields of study have elimination courses. If you need to have weed-out courses, shouldn’t students be weeded out from course work that is within their field?

  3. I agree. Why is an 84-year-old professor still teaching? Retire already & let some younger person teach. It’s just ego, holding onto your position like that. On the other hand, the students shouldn’t have that much power.

    • Kaleberg says:

      If I read the article correctly, the university fired him.

      The students definitely had a right to petition. That’s a perfectly reasonable way of providing important feedback. It is easy to dismiss individual student complaints as non-representative, N=1. Universities and their departments don’t have a class inspection mechanism with professionals observing professors, vetting their curricula and so on, nor should they. A petition provides useful data, N>1. In this case, the university decided that something needed to be done.

  4. Dana says:

    I teach chemistry and I don’t think these classes are weed-out classes on purpose any longer at most schools. That being said, an awful lot of students who say they want to be doctors do not seem to have the math skills or work ethic to make it to med school. If a student can’t handle chemistry 101 then they really aren’t going to be able to handle med school. It doesn’t do them a service to delay that realization until so late in their college career that it’s hard for them to think about what else they might like to do. I do think classes like microbiology (and biochemistry) make a lot more sense after a chemistry foundation. Whether everyone really needs a full year of organic is another story. Some schools now accept one semester of organic and one of biochemistry instead of two semesters of organic.

    • David Taylor, MD, PhD says:

      “…an awful lot of students who say they want to be doctors do not seem to have the math skills or work ethic to make it to med school. If a student can’t handle chemistry 101 then they really aren’t going to be able to handle med school.”

      While that is true, the issue might be that you are referring to success in the first two years of traditional medical school curricula, which is devoted largely to lab/science courses. But there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the students who excel at those pre-clinical courses do better in their clinical rotations, and no evidence that they make better physicians. Most of us forget the details of the biology and organic chem within a few years of graduating from medical school anyway. (I remember my first stint on our medical school admissions committee, evaluating applicants to our medical school, and one of the physicians on the committee noted that too many of our applicants think that their patients will all be rats — lots of good lab experience, but little that spoke to abilities as a clinician….)

  5. Ross says:

    My father is an organic chemist and I gather it’s pretty hard to find younger people in the field. It took him a long time to find someone he could train to take over his job so he could retire, and I’m not sure he was entirely successful.

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