Op-Ed: Listen up, college students. You don’t ‘get’ a grade. You have to earn it

https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-10-09/college-rating-professor-jones-petition-students

Op-Ed: Listen up, college students. You don’t ‘get’ a grade. You have to earn it

By Jillian Horton

October 9, 2022

Every fall, my mental timeline is flooded with memories of the teachers who changed my life. And last week — when I read about the controversial termination of Maitland Jones Jr., a distinguished New York University professor whose courses in organic chemistry were deemed too hard by students hoping to get into medicine — it took me back to the September I met my toughest teacher.

It was 1994, and I was a 19-year-old student in my third year at Western University in London, Ontario. I had signed up for a course in the department of English taught by one Donald S. Hair. My first clue that professor Hair would defy expectations? He was bald.

Standing at the lectern in a three-piece suit, he took roll, ever-so-properly referring to each of us as “Miss” or “Mister.” It was a distinct shift from the vaguely beatnik tone of many of our other professors, with whom students could sometimes be found drinking beer at one of the campus pubs.

A few weeks into the class, the professor administered our first test. I didn’t think I had anything to worry about — until he handed my exam back the following week with a 67 written on it in red ink.

Sixty-seven! I’d never received such a low mark. I was dependent on a scholarship, and any grade below 80 put my future in jeopardy. My seatmate’s murderous expression revealed her mark had been miserable too. We fumed silently: Professor Hair was an old weirdo! How dare he derail our GPAs? What was the old boy’s problem, anyway?

But the real problem was this: He was right. I knew it as soon as I’d cooled off and taken the time to digest his comments. My writing was sloppy, my understanding of key concepts superficial. Like many of my peers, I was used to earning top grades. Now, for the first time, a teacher had introduced an uncomfortable question. Were we actually “earning” them?

The next day, I went to his office. With burning cheeks, I told him I knew I’d butchered the exam. To my childish surprise, he wasn’t a “weirdo” in the least. He was funny, warm and uncommonly patient. He assured me if I worked hard, I’d achieve my potential in the course, and he’d be available to help me.

I went away, read and read some more. The more I read, the more interesting his classes became, and soon, his complex, spellbinding lectures were the highlight of my week. I worked my guts out in that course. The grade I earned in his class was the lowest I’d receive that year. But I had earned that grade. Nearly 30 years later, I’m still proud of that.

As an associate dean and teacher of medical students for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what usually makes a good doctor — and it isn’t organic chemistry. I disagree with the colleague of professor Jones who told the New York Times that he did not want anyone treating patients who did not “appreciate transformations at the molecular level.” The comment struck me as slightly less outdated than keeping a bag of leeches for emergency bloodletting. There is ample evidence other paths prepare students extremely well for a career in medicine.

That issue is a sideshow anyway, because the strong public reaction to this story is largely about something else: the commodification of education. For U.S. medical schools, the Assn. of American Medical Colleges oversees a rigorous and detailed accreditation process, which relies on the collection of mounds of data — including an exit survey that can heavily influence the school’s accreditation outcome. The survey begins by asking students to rate the degree to which they agree or disagree with this statement: “Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my medical education.”

Is that the right way to ask someone to evaluate their education? It seems more appropriate for rating their Starbucks latte. My job is not to ensure my children — or my students — are always “satisfied.” That metric would worsen the quality of my parenting and my teaching; both require me to do unpopular things if I am to do my job well. “Satisfaction” is the language of consumer experience, and when it becomes a target metric, it alters something fundamental about the interaction between people.

I have felt that shift as an educator. I’ve witnessed, and championed, long-overdue changes in the learning environment, including a focus on the psychological safety of students. But I’ve seen disheartening changes too — namely the evolution of a relationship with students that sometimes feels transactional, as if the primary objective is no longer just about turning them into doctors but, rather, keeping them constantly satisfied, the teacher less preceptor than proprietor.

That shift is deeply, deeply unsatisfying.

Long after I’d moved on from Western University, I heard professor Hair had been nominated for an award for excellence in teaching. “Professors are often afraid to employ his high standards,” I eagerly wrote in a two-page letter of support. “Setting the bar higher may initially be uncomfortable, but it gives students … a sense of self-respect and pride which is stolen from us when we work in circumstances where such experiences do not exist.” He won that award. And he also earned it.

If my low grade in professor Hair’s class had been a barrier to me becoming a doctor, would I feel differently? I really don’t know. I suppose I thought he had a right to be tough as long as he was also trying to be fair. The irony? What I learned from him made me a better doctor. Not because I was satisfied.

Because I grew.

Jillian Horton is a writer and physician. She is the author of “We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing.”

October 9, 2022. Tags: , , , , , . Dumbing down, Education, Health care, Social justice warriors. Leave a comment.

New York University dumbs down its pre-med curriculum so students who are too dumb and/or lazy to pass organic chemistry can still become doctors

https://web.archive.org/web/20221004011409/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/03/us/nyu-organic-chemistry-petition.html

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.

By Stephanie Saul

October 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.

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.”

Marc A. Walters, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, summed up the situation in an email to Dr. Jones, before his firing.

He said the plan would “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills,” an apparent reference to parents.

The university’s handling of the petition provoked equal and opposite reactions from both the chemistry faculty, who protested the decisions, and pro-Jones students, who sent glowing letters of endorsement.

“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.

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?

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.

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 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

“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.

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. 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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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

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.”

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.

After the second midterm for which the average hovered around 30 percent, they said that many feared for their futures. One student was hyperventilating.

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.

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.”

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?”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

October 7, 2022. Tags: , , , , , , , , . Dumbing down, Education, Health care, Social justice warriors. Leave a comment.