A gazillion readers sent me a link to this NYT article, which I found horrifying. Others may not, and may characterize me as a grumpy old ex-professor who can’t change with the times. So be it; as Hitchens said, “I don’t need a second; my own opinion is enough for me.” But I think there will be plenty of seconds.
The article shown below recounts how New York University fired Maitland Jones Jr. , who was teaching organic chemistry as an adjunct professor after a tenured career at Princeton. Here’s a bit from his Wikipedia bio:
Jones’ field of expertise is reactive intermediates, with particular emphasis on carbenes. He has published extensively in the field of quantum organic chemistry, particularly focusing on the mechanism of quantum molecular reactions. His interest areas include carbenes, carboranes, and heterocycles. Over the course of almost forty years, he and his research group have published 225 papers, averaging some five papers per year or one paper per active group member per year. Jones is also the author of Organic Chemistry texts. He is credited with the naming of bullvalene, which is named after William “Bull” Doering, whom Jones was studying under during his time as a graduate student at Yale University.
After retiring from Princeton in 2007, Jones taught organic chemistry at New York University until spring 2022.
At Princeton he worked his way up to full Professor, holding that position at the school from 1973 until 2007, and then apparently retiring to teach at a variety of schools (not just NYU) throughout the world (see the Wikipedia bio).
Why was he fired? Apparently because he graded too hard and was not as “available” to students as they wanted. The students circulated a petition, and NYU canned Jones. (He’ll be okay, as he presumably has a pension from Princeton and was teaching at age 85 because he liked teaching.) His widely used book was Organic Chemistry by Jones and Fleming, now in its fifth edition.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Here are the details from the NYT. Note the article notes that Jones had considerable support from the chemistry faculty and some students students, and that even the students who petitioned against his teaching neither asked for nor expected his firing.
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.
Firm hand extended to the students? It sounds like a warm handshake to me! And, of course, the handshake also went to “those who pay the tuition bills”—the parents. What the school is doing here is to further a decadeslong movement to regard students not as humans to be exposed to one’s specialized knowledge, as well as taught critical thinking and a respect and thirst for knowledge, but as consumers. With tuitions going stratospheric, students and their parents have come to expect a number of amenities beyond teaching and learning, foremost among them a certificate that enables one to get a job after college. And to get that certificate, you need good grades.
This accounts for grade inflation, something that’s hit nearly every American university I know of, including mine. Here’s a bar graph from a site about the issue (see also here and here). “2” corresponds to “C”, which used to represent the “average grade, “3” corresponds to a “B”, and 4 to the highest grade, an “A.” As you can see, in just the last three decades the average grade has risen from a C+ to nearly a B+. This, of course, reduces the variation in grades that used to reflect achievement, and a way to determine who was doing better than others. As the variance decreases, the ability to ascertain merit—at least as reflected in grades—decreases as well.
Like the NYU students, everybody not only wants high grades now, but expects them. In one liberal-arts class I know of (not here), the professor, being woke, allows the students to grade themselves. What you think happened? The expected: of 60 students, 59 awarded themselves “A”s, and one more humble student gave him/herself a B+.
More from the NYT piece:
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.
There you go. Although Jones did grade hard (the average on one test was 30%), and you might attribute the low grades to the pandemic, which has been used as a partial excuse for nonperformance (and, to be sure, it is harder to learn via Zoom lectures), Jones says the “loss of focus” started well before that:
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.
And Jones did try to make adjustments for remote learning:
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.
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 grades that would allow them to get into medical school.”
There’s the rub. The students feel that they are entitled to grades that get them into medical school and a lucrative career. Tell me, do you want doctors to be brought up in a system like this? Do you want doctors who aren’t chosen for their performance either before or in medical school. Or would you be happy with a random sample of applicants?
Even after Covid restrictions eased, Jones’s students seem to have lost interest, something that other faculty I know have noticed.
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.
Now the students did complain about other aspects of Jones’s teaching, like reducing the numbers of exams and failing to offer extra credit (I never did that), but Jones has what seem to be reasonable explanations for these accusations. Read the article.
The article also reports, inadvertently, something that I see as disastrous. I’ve put it in bold below:
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.”
Well, you should listen to what students say, but just because they demand something doesn’t mean professors have to relinquish it. After all, who has more experience in pedagogy? But I’m not saying that faculty are always right. But I don’t see that, in this situation, Jones did anything wrong.
Other beefs: the article mentions “that Dr. Jones had been the target of multiple student complaints about his “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading.”
But are course evaluations, which are heavily conditioned by the grades students get, a good way to evaluate teaching? We used to have a booklet with ratings available to all students, but that has been abandoned because of the overt hostility. When I was a young faculty member at the University of Chicago, full of desire for reform, I set up a system in which faculty in biology would randomly visit the classrooms of other faculty, in their departments, observe their teaching, and evaluate them. That fell apart because of the logistics and because faculty didn’t really want to be observed in the classroom by their colleagues. But really, when teaching is evaluated for promotion or tenure, who better to do it than other faculty, who also evaluate research performance and service?
Here John Beckman, a spokeperson for NYU, addresses “stumble courses” that have a higher percentage of lower grades.
. . . “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?”
What he’s really saying here is that rating students by grades, is a “punitive” practice. I could counterargue that “it’s also rewarding to the students who do better,” but the fact is that grad schools need objective ways to evaluate students, and although grade-point averages aren’t perfect, they’re better than letters of recommendations (almost 100% positive), though perhaps not as good as Graduate Record Examinations (GREs).
According to the paper, Jones was fired in a note from the dean of science that said that Jones’s performance “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty.”
I’ll let one reader, who read the article, give the response that I would:
Thanks for the article! It was chilling. Absolutely chilling. These are tomorrow’s doctors, the people who will treat my kids when they’re older adults, and who will treat grandchildren if I have them. Organic Chemistry is a weed-out course–OF COURSE. As it SHOULD BE. Guess what? Not everybody who wants to be a doctor is capable of being a doctor. But now giving accurate grade is “punitive.”
This is why we shouldn’t adhere to the Dodo’s Dictum from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Although merit is being widely debased as useless or even racist, I think that rational people realize that abjuring merit can only lead to disaster.
In the case of Jones, letting the students run the show will also drive teaching faculty out of colleges as well as deterring professors from teaching “rigorously:
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.”
NYU’s behavior was reprehensible.