You might have heard that organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr. is no longer teaching at NYU. The news went global when Jones had his one-year contract taken away, not because of a crime or scandal, but because of a student petition against the way he taught his course.
This news surprised me. I had known of Jones when the news broke, precisely because of the way he taught his courses. Twenty years ago, Jones was teaching at Princeton and was one of the first to “flip” the classroom. Under this method, students first learn the material before class by watching videos and/or reading the textbook. During class time, they sit at tables in groups, working problems with the help of roaming teaching assistants.
I have a friend who spent his post-doctoral appointment teaching with Jones, roaming the classroom and helping students solve organic chemistry problems. This experience helped make my friend a legendary organic chemistry teacher. I have likewise experimented with “flipping” the classroom in different ways.
In 2007, Jones had left an endowed chair to teach at NYU. He explained his reason as follows: “I wanted to see if the technique I had introduced at Princeton, in which the talking-head lecture was deemphasized in favor of small-group problem solving, was transferable to another university.”1
Jones ended up teaching at NYU for 15 years before he was let go this summer. The one thing I know is that he wasn’t a “talking head” kind of teacher, so I looked for original documents of what went wrong. Previous to the Spring 2022 petition, Jones’ Fall 2020 students had also collected complaints, as published by the NYU student newspaper Washington Square News.2
As I read through the complaints, they felt familiar. When I was chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, a student started a petition against her chemistry teacher, which I talked down before it completed. Being chair also involved review of all evaluations in my department. And, of course, I’ve read my own, although sometimes I’m afraid to open them.
I take these comments and complaints as evidence but in a legal sense rather than a scientific one. Students have developed a certain “comment style.” They are immersed in requests to “take this survey to tell us what you think!” When they choose to respond, they sharpen their words to a point, as can be seen in the NYU student newspaper’s editorial. The authors approached their task like prosecuting attorneys: the New York Times article that broke the story was “misinformed,” “opinionated,” “incomplete,” and “ignorant,” and that’s just in one sentence!3
Only a few students use such passionate rhetoric, but all students enter numbers, so the quantitative evidence shows another view. The editorial reported evaluation numbers that look familiar to me, using the same 5-point scale we use at SPU. In the previous five years, the reported student evaluation numbers for Jones averaged “around 3.3,” while professors teaching the same course “typically had scores around or above 4.0.”
These numbers are low but not unrecoverably low. I wonder what they were ten years ago, after Jones had first moved to NYU. I wonder how the singular 2020 COVID year affected the average. I wonder if this is “overall course” or “overall instructor” (probably the latter but that’s not clear) and if a single averaged number might hide a bimodal distribution of high and low responses.
In Jones’ final semester, this score dropped to 2.4. This score was certainly swayed by the circulating petition, but there’s no way around this number. A 2.4 demands fixing. Other options exist beyond immediate termination of an existing contract that made a promise to a contingent faculty member (something the students didn’t even request). Especially if the scores were bimodal, I would seek objective changes in communication and support, and/or reschedule such a teacher into a chemistry majors-specific class.
The 2020 document has more numbers near the end, where students reported hours per week, stating: “Expected during a normal school year = 10 to 15 hours.”4 These are typical for most institutions—they are even printed in SPU’s catalog5—and a difficult but necessary course like Organic Chemistry may exceed them. The 2020 students itemized their time spent to report that they needed 11 to 19 hours per week, although a few items seem inflated.6
The students argued that Fall 2020 was an abnormal school year and that other classes cut back on requirements. The very first item in the document describes a Molecular Biology course with shortened pre-class videos and lab times. For comparison’s sake, at SPU our chemistry labs and lectures were kept the same length.7
The students prioritized the time crunch in their document, mentioning “work,” “workload,” and “time” first, last, and throughout the middle. A teacher could approach that aspect of the class positively. You could offer time management strategies or tips for completing work or reading the textbook more efficiently. If hours are the unit of complaint, then help the students use their hours better.
The “hours spent” metric is especially subjective in an age of constant distraction. I once had a student tell me that he watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy while writing his lab report, and I replied that, if so, not all of those nine hours were spent focused on writing.
The rest of the document involves words more than numbers, with issues such as tone, respect, and flexibility. These are troubling but don’t provide a specific firing offense. Rather, they point to pressures that boiled over two years later, after the 2020 emergency subsided.
If the student-authored documents represent the plaintiffs, then the defendant Jones took the stand in his October 2022 Boston Globe essay. Jones led with a defensive title: “I was fired from NYU after students complained that the class was too hard. Who’s next?”8 He was talking to us professors with that fear-inducing question and summarizing the student complaint as that “the class was too hard.” But the students’ 2020 complaint was more that the class took too much time. There’s a disconnect here.
Jones claimed his class is a “rite of passage” producing the “ability to reason well.” Yet, he contended that the current bimodal distribution where “60 percent of my students still got As and Bs” and the rest floundered resulting in the former no longer being stretched” and the latter holding the former back.
Jones said these latter students became “unwilling to put in the necessary effort” and were “misreading exam questions,” resulting in “zeros on exams.” Given that 82 students signed the petition out of 350 students in the class, one-quarter of the class feared failing and responded with a petition, and with “anonymous emails, often just short of threatening.”
Both the professor and the students felt threatened. Jones demanded a lot from his students, as measured in high-stakes exams, but as my friend observed firsthand, he also provided support. During COVID, external demands increased. For a high-demand, high-support class, the previously established equilibrium between demand and support could suddenly shift and explode.
In 2020, Jones’s description of the high demands of organic chemistry sounded threatening to COVID-pressured students. Jones was consistent even back in the eighties, according to a story in the Princeton student newspaper Jones refused to excuse Luis Javier Castro ’88 from lab to play for a football game: “He just looked me straight in the face and was like, ‘No, you’re not excused.’ … That’s not what your priority is.”9
Jones was ultimately right: Castro is now a doctor.10 Yet the tone of his response bothers me. Students in the 2020 complaint asked a question like Castro’s, to be partially excused from the time demands of the course. When Jones said no, they wrote their document, and Jones “made some adjustments.”11 Then in 2022 the situation boiled over again.
So, as Jones asked of us academics, “Who’s next?” This phrasing perpetuates the cycle of recrimination and defensive justification. I ask the opposite question: “How do we stop this cycle?”
Looking at what the students said in 2020, I see several points where the relationship between student and teacher had fractured but not beyond repair. Many of these are stress points familiar to me as a chemistry professor. In the second post, I will address these points in the hopes of binding the trust that has been broken, in the light of my experience as a chemist and my reading of a parable.
- Maitland Jones Jr., “I was fired from NYU after students complained that the class was too hard. Who’s next?” Boston Globe, October 20, 2022, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/10/20/opinion/i-was-fired-nyu-after-students-complained-that-class-was-too-hard-whos-next/.
- Student document posted by Washington Square News, https://nyunews.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Organic-Chemistry-I-Concerns-Meeting-Washington-Square-News.pdf.
- WSN Editorial Board, “Editorial: The New York Times article on Maitland Jones was incomplete,” Washington Square News, October 5, 2022, https://nyunews.com/opinion/2022/10/05/maitland-jones-nytimes-response/.
- Student document posted by Washington Square News.
- “It is expected that students will spend at least two 50-minute periods of work outside the classroom for each 50 minutes spent in class.” Catalog text posted at https://spu.edu/catalog/undergraduate/20223/academic-policies-procedures/schedule-load.
- Specifically, “Reading the textbook = 2 to 3 hours if I even have the time.” This conditional clause raises my eyebrow, as is my observation that textbook pre-reading is not that useful in chemistry. If we split the difference and allot half the amount for this activity, the range becomes 10 to 17.5 hours per week, close to the average expectations. One sentence in the document states “I’m watching 4 hours of lectures, 3 hours of practice, 5 hours on post and pre lab. The workload is absolutely ridiculous.” Adding three hours of lab to this totals 15 hours.
- Students had to work individually rather than in pairs, so the lab exercises were reduced in scope for that, plus more flexibility was allowed, but the overall time required was unchanged.
- Jones, “I was fired from NYU.”
- Julian Hartman-Sigall, “Alumni respond to Professor Emeritus Maitland Jones Jr.’s termination from NYU,” The Daily Princetonian. October 9, 2022. https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2022/10/maitland-jones-nyu-princeton-professor-terminated.
- Carson Welch “Tiger of the Week: Luis Javier Castro ’88 Helps a Community Health Center to Grow and Serve,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, March 28, 2018, https://paw.princeton.edu/article/luis-javier-castro-88-helps-community-health-center-grow-and-serve.
- Hartman-Sigall, “Alumni respond.”