Wednesday, October 5, 2022

NYU Professor Fired Because His Class Was Too Hard

The NY Times reports that after 82 students signed a petition complaining that his organic chemistry course was too hard, NYU terminated Maitland Jones' contract. 

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?

Jones is the author of a widely used textbook on organic chemistry and was known for trying to turn the subject away from memorization and toward “problem solving.”  He retired from Princeton in 2007 and has been teaching at NYU on a series of year-long contracts.

About a decade ago, Jones 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.
Petitioning against Dr. Jones started in 2020:
“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.”

I'm not writing to mock these students, but to ask these questions: what does it mean to make student learning a priority? And should we continue with the old tradition of “weed out” classes that are made intentionally difficult?

The people who fired Jones questioned his demanding style, saying that he rather austerely set a high bar and asked students to meet it rather than engaging with them and encouraging them. Students had changed, said the Dean, and Dr. Jones failed to change with them. Is that a real thing, or is it just a code for lowering standards?

If, as studies suggest, students just don't work as hard as they used to, what should a university do about that? Lower its standards? Change its approach? Or just fail a lot of students until they start putting in more time? And can a university dependent on competing for students afford to be tougher than other places?

I think this is another sign that American higher education is in a grim place, with no obvious routes toward improvement.


szopeno said...

I'm affraid it's not just American education. I have multiple anecdotes to tell, but I won't as they would made me immedietely recognizable. The number of students who cannot learn at their own, who cannot understand simple statements, who think that tying a bunch of buzzwords into nonsensical sentences prove they have learned anything - that number is growing every year. There are more and more students who show an attitude for which we have word "postawa roszczeniowa" for which neither "entitled" nor "demanding" is a good translation - they think they deserve good grades, they do not think more than bare minimum and only if they want, and anything more is a grave injustice.

Fortunately my university is still ruled by oldtimers, so I am somehow protected. And still majority of students still genuinely want to learn. But exceptions slowly start amassing to the point they no longer are fun examples to be told at parties, but to form small visible minority.

szopeno said...

Anyways, studies are not for everybody. In the old time it was said that to understand materials in academic format you would need at least 115IQ, which would mean 10-20% of population at most should be expected to get a degree. Right now about 42% of Poles in 25-40 age range have finished university or equivalent school. And many people complain it's still not enough. Absurd.

I have a privilege to work with creme de la creme of Polish students, but in the past I've also teached less gifted students and my experiences can be summarised only by repeating: studies are not for everybody.

John said...

Szopeno- I agree that we already send too many students to college. We keep pushing for this because we don't know what else to do with them, or what other measures to take that might improve our economies.

David said...

"a grim place, with no obvious routes toward improvement" sums up the situation quite well.

Anonymous said...

As Mr. Miyagi put it:

"No such thing, bad student. Only bad teacher."

As Ronne Dugan put it, "what a load of horseshit!"

szopeno said...

THere ARE bad students. If you do not believe it, you either never teached any difficult subject, or were incredibly lucky.

szopeno said...

Let's say students got used to the new ways of learning, which leaves them unprepared for learning from a guy who is using the "old ways" (or, if you like, the guy is unprepared to change his style of teaching to accomodate new students. It's the same, just said in another matter).

I believe those are the possibilities:

(1) Students "new ways of learning" are worse and leave them less prepared to learn in general. That means, they were harmed during earlier stages of education and therefore boomer guy is blameless - he alone can't be expected to fix the harm done during decades of earlier eduation.

(2) Students "new ways of learning" are either better or neutral, they were not harmed, they just need to be teached in new way, and then they would achieve comparable results as earlier generations of students.

Now the question is - how to evaluate whether "new ways of learning" make students better at what they are expected to do? Any ideas?

Anonymous said...


Nobody's going to read your endless rants. What are you going on about, comedians?
Using a quote from the Karate Kid is a perfect example of your pop-culture understanding of education. There are bad students. Sorry, not everybody is equally bright.

and your students ~en masse~

"82 students signed a petition". Try reading the article instead of going into an overheated froth and attacking the keyboard for half an hour.

If you are selling a service, and people complain en masse about that service (if only 82 people complain about your business, that's pretty good! people complain about every business on the planet), the problem isn't with your customers - it's with your service.

Then let's make education a full service. Your grades are based on cost. The more money you pay, the higher your grade. Isn't that how a service works? You get more the more you pay. Students can pay for the platinum Grade A service, or a lesser package. The customer gets what they want, just like with any other business. If I want to pay for the upgrade package and the manager of the store refuses to give it to me, they get fired, right? Should be the same with education. Students want good grades. If the teacher refuses to give them, they're gone.

Anonymous said...

Businesses have a saying, "The customer is always right". Education is a business like any other. The students are always right. 2+2=5? Sure, you're the one paying. You got it. A+.

Why should there be tests or grades at all? If I go to Taco Bell and buy a burrito, they don't test me. I don't have to fill out a form. They just give it to me. THAT'S HOW SERVICES WORK. Students should be able to set their own grades. They're the ones paying!

"And if your new-fashioned style of teaching can't manage to impart valuable knowledge unto the college students whose tuitions fund your salary, they're going to tell the college administration just how dissatisfied they are with your courses and the service your provide, and the college is going to decide not to employ you to teach for them any longer. Service based education is based on student satisfaction and nothing else"

David said...

Education is not a business like any other. In western civilization, its origins lie in the medieval cathedral schools set up to train priests and other "secular" clergy. Students join such a school because they (or their families) have decided they should train to join a profession, or become a certain kind of person, for which the school trains them. In other words, they submit themselves to the authority of the school and its personnel, which then does its best, according to its judgment, to turn them into that kind of person.

Institutional education's kin in our society are not consumer-oriented businesses. Their closer kin are institutions like military boot camps. Or, if you prefer, prisons.

This model has loads of problems, starting with the fact that the institution's judgment as to its methods may be flawed. But ultimately, the model that students submit to the institution's authority remains, for better or worse.

If we want to use the education as business metaphor, then currently students are more like workers-in-training than like customers.

All of this is, as I said, for better or worse. Personally, I'm ambivalent. Not being comfortable with being a command-and-obedience authority figure is one of the reasons I retired from college teaching. I'm well aware that this potentially says good or bad things about me, depending on one's taste.

If we want to make a revolution and turn education into a real service business--a branch of the entertainment industry, for example--we can do that. But I wouldn't want to go to a doctor trained in one.

John said...

@David- I think that is a remarkably clear description of what universities have traditionally tried to do, and by itself it explains why that model is in trouble today.

szopeno said...

In the context of education as a bussiness, the question is what kind of service actually this "business" provides.

I think it was a blogger Devin Helton (and I think Bryan Caplan too) who first argued that the only point of higher education is filtering and signalling, not teaching. The true learning, he (I think he) argued, is by students themselves. That is, you finished university X, which only accepts best students, and from which only the best students graduate. I might be wrong (and probably I am, my memory tends to fail me recently) he compared the students' earnings depending on when they left university and find out the massive premium of those who graduate compared to those, who left just before graduation. His conclusion was that if the real value is education, the difference should not be that huge.

A bit provocative, especially for me. But it might be that there is something in that.

Shadow said...

Can't wait until they become doctors and pharmacists. Actually, I don't think it matters how bad you are at organic chemistry. Just pump u the cuff and let the machine take the reading, and then prescribe blood pressure medication if he's over 40.

My goodness, but this is not new. Is he the only organic chemistry teacher? I doubt it. Every subject has a prof or two with the reputation for being difficult.*. Every subject has a prof or two with the reputation for being easy. Can't they seek the latter out?

* You need to know what difficult means: it usually comes in one of two flavors:

1) He isn't easy to understand or helpful.

2) He makes you work for the grade, but you learn a lot.

Know which one it is and which one you want.

It's not like there isn't a choice.

David said...

"and by itself it explains why that model is in trouble today"

Interesting. I don't disagree, but I'm curious what you have in mind here.

FWIW: Students are increasingly resistant to command and obedience, and to any kind of reprimand. It seems to me one question is, does this spring from a general crisis of authority, a resistance to authority of all kinds? I'm not sure. On the one hand, it seems to me much of the country still deeply respects certain authorities: coaches, the military, police, politicians with a commanding, forceful presence. They happily accept that rigorous, command-and-obedience models are necessary to produce the sort of people they regard as heroes. But, on the other hand, it could be argued the masses' respect for this kind of authority exists only as long as these authorities are seen as exercising their admired capacity for force against those the masses regard as enemies. As soon as the force is exercised against someone they identify with (eg., for the right, the FBI searching Trump's house), that respect can turn on a dime into hatred.

People seem ambivalent about other professions: doctors, scientists, quants of all sorts, lawyers, administrators, educators. But it's a different kind of ambivalence. People want their children to become them, students are going to college in record numbers to become them, and people in the marriage market look for them. But the authority, prestige, and wealth such people wield are also widely resented.

I wonder how much this is really a crisis of the kind of organized rationality that governs so much of our lives, for better or worse. People want to have this kind of power and prestige for themselves; but they aren't happy that most of them aren't able to earn that power and prestige (however one explains that inability), and they definitely aren't happy about being told what to do by them, all the time.

Anti-vaxism is, I think, a classic case. All the arguments on the merits are really beside the point. People are tired of being told what to do by doctors, and they're tired of the fact that it's always someone else, or someone else's kids, who gets the doctor (or other rational) authority (that authority not being open to them because they can't afford the schools, or aren't smart enough, or not cut out for that sort of book learning, etc., etc.).

Speaking of cathedral schools, our society is now governed by a priesthood of good students. This is what meritocracy means. The masses--the majority who, for whatever reason, are poor students--are saying they want more out of this arrangement. Good medicine, safe aircraft, full grocery shelves don't seem to be enough (and yes, sometimes the system fails, and the aircraft crash or the medicine is poison; but I don't think that's really the issue--it's just the wedge that opens a space for the deeper resentments to come to the fore). They want respect (I think it's more that than just more money, but perhaps I am wrong).

Anonymous said...

A big component of it is the "progressive" left's view of everything - that nobody is responsible for anything, the "system" is always responsible. If a student does bad, it's the teacher's fault. If minorities do worse at math than white students, math is racist. Humans have no agency, they are the passive receivers of a broken system, and that's that.

If the teacher is fired and students still do badly and complain, well then it's the entire system's fault. It must be torn down and replaced. If the math is racist equity program doesn't solve the program, it will in turn be declared racist and another program will replace it, ad inifinitum.