In the previous post, I compared the arguments of overwhelmed NYU students to those of their organic chemistry professor. NYU professor Stephanie Lee’s tweet sums it up: “I could write compelling defenses for each party – students, Prof. Jones, my department, NYU admin – bc everyone is operating under different pressures.”1 In this post, I ask what we professors should do about these pressures.
Complaints and course evaluations accelerate a spiral of threats, resembling that cliched movie standoff where three or more people are pointing three or more guns at each other.2 How do we interrupt the scene, flip the script, and lay down our weapons?
One thing that doesn’t help is automatically siding with either professors or students. Neither defensive academic talk about “high standards” nor administrative pandering to save enrollment will do anything but further imbalance the system and accelerate the centripetal spiral.
When a system is under pressure, we should identify places to relieve that pressure: what can change and what can’t. Jesus himself questioned those who kick against the goads (Acts 26:14).
In chemistry, like in other sciences, we need to conform our brains to the shape of the natural world. Therefore, practical precision is paramount. My colleague Karisa Pierce culminates her analytical chemistry lab by having students quantify the amount of iron in given samples of ore, aiming for accuracy within 5%. Since 2009, every year at least two-thirds of the class have accurately quantified their ore sample — except for Fall 2020, when only half of the class did.
Due to the pandemic, Karisa had intentionally and preemptively reduced the workload in 2020, just as the NYU students would request. The students completed the activity but didn’t reach the same level of practical, implicit knowledge so important in science. The good news is that the 2021 and 2022 classes, with normal workloads, met the standard. But in 2020, something was lost.
During COVID, we lost a lot. It was a scary situation, but some used that fear to manipulate others, measuring success by the metrics of likes and retweets rather than genuine physical and mental health. Even when such fear-based motivation “worked,” it left scars. Temporary reductions in workload and isolation became habits hard to break. One graph shows that people actually spent more time alone in 2021 than in 2020.3
Some students got used to learning through a screen, alone, rather than attending class in person. When meeting in person for class becomes “not worth it” then you begin to think that somehow you yourself are “not worth it.” A teacher can make up for this drift and show the students that they are worth it. Love casts out fear, so if a teacher’s “tough love” is producing a paralyzing fear in students, it is no longer worthy of that name.
And we don’t have to wonder what these students are afraid of. They tell us in their complaints, once we look past the incendiary, frustrated veneer to the insecurities underneath. From two decades of reading comments, I conclude that the same issues are showing up in chemistry post-COVID and are questions of attitude more than standards:
Myth #1. Organic is just an unnecessary “weed-out” course.
Some version of the term “weed-out” appears four times in the 2020 student document and more often in the online comments on this situation, including “students should be encouraged to stay pre-health and not be needlessly ‘weeded out.’”4
No student is a weed, and no teacher should design a course with the goal of removing students. However, weeding out can be a worthy goal if we flip the metaphor. Inside each person there’s a garden, and sometimes it grows internal weeds—which are habits without fruit—and such weeds can seem pleasant at first.
In the Parable of the Sower, the weeds are not just worries but also the “riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). Weeds take over when useless growth chokes out true life, crowding the heart, misdirecting it from its goal. If a student wants to be a doctor because of status or money, then that motivation is a weed that needs to be removed for the heart to focus on what matters.
So, students need an internal weed-out process for a high-status, high-reward career like medicine. Organic chemistry teaches both how to focus on the atomic level of bodily function, and how to heal when that goes wrong. It’s hard to think like an atom, but it’s worth it, because then you can build a vaccine out of atoms and explain how others built one.
My biochemistry students read a paper on the exact structure of the membrane lipids in the mRNA vaccines, which they cannot understand without organic chemistry. Every day I ask my students if they did something in organic chemistry: “Do you remember what an aldehyde smells like?”; “Did you ever notice how anhydrides are unstable?” If they become doctors, they will need to be able to integrate such knowledge on their feet in a stressful situation and make life-and-death decisions based on it (a drug with an anhydride may break down easily). The stress of making connections in class prepares them for the stress of a busy night at the ER.
This reality counteracts the students’ charges from the 2020 document that the course is “unnecessarily difficult and frankly sadistic.” Organic chemistry is hard, but so is having (and treating) disease. Difficult occupations require difficult pre-requisites.
Myth #2. Chemistry professors don’t care.
My promises that the students need to know something don’t matter without trust. Several comments from the NYU students in 2020 mistrusted the motives of their teachers: “[T]hey like to make us suffer”; “They seem to want to ‘break’ us”; and “How do we know they won’t totally jack up grades and make it like a 90 to get an A.”
The students aren’t challenged by the difficulty of the course but paralyzed by it. The sharp language in their comments may be echoing sharp language they perceived from their teachers. To counteract this, I constantly tell students I’m on their side, and I communicate hope. I still use red ink to grade, but I highlight the positives as well as negatives, like when they explain vaccine lipids well. When they bear fruit, I tell them, so when I mark a wrong concept, they know it’s not about them, but about a weed they can remove.
Myth #3. Organic chemistry should be (easier/shorter/simpler).
The students have a strong sense of how things should be, but little acknowledgment of tradeoffs. They use the modal verb “should” twelve times in their eleven-page document. Some “shoulds” were focused and fixable, but others were more sweeping:
“We shouldn’t have to cut back on working jobs, spending time with family/friends, and taking care of ourselves for this class”; “People shouldn’t only be able to succeed in organic chemistry if they have endless resources”; and another said you need a room of your own to have “absolute peace and quiet at all hours of the day to do assignments.”
This much hyperbole isn’t persuasive, but it’s intended to express, not persuade. What actually persuades me is the theological language: “grace should be given to students too.”
Grace is made tangible in works of student support—but some support is under-utilized. At NYU (and everywhere else right now), both lectures and office hours were underattended. Jones wrote that in 2020 “A few did attend the zoomed office hours, but . . . not the ones who needed help.” In fact, the term “office hours” does not appear in the student document. Time-starved students don’t have enough time to formulate questions, much less ask them. So, they need a different form of support.
We professors have our own weeding to do. Maybe the office hours concept is a weed that can be removed and restructured. Reading student comments is an act of academic gardening, discerning angry weeds from fruitful comments. Wading through the weeds is hard work. It took me several weeks to digest the student documents from NYU and get past my own wounded reaction when they weren’t even about me! But we must do it as part of calling students to avoid fruitless habits and patterns of thought.
We must work to weed out our own classroom practices because the external cultural pressure is crowding our student’s souls with more riches, pleasures, and cares than ever before. Time-pressed students eliminate the wrong things from their lives, removing fruitful practices rather than weeds, “ghosting” in-person lectures, office hours, and even test questions. As this behavior has increased, an entire industry has grown around capturing their attention through devices: always on, always in their pockets and purses. This must be more than correlation—it’s causation.
Bo Burnham summed up the problem with a colonial metaphor (he thinks of history, but I think of colonizing weeds): “We used to colonize land. . . . We colonized the entire earth. There was no other place for businesses and capitalism to expand into. And then they realized human attention [is a place where they can] colonize every minute of your life. . . . it’s coming. It’s coming for every free second you have.”5
These colonial forces, these are our enemies, not the students. The riches and cares of the world pull students in every direction but onward toward their goals. So, each of us must find and remove our own weeds to help the students do the same for themselves. Each professor must continually refocus and adapt our own methods and support—and tell the students we’re doing that—so that future doctors can refocus and adapt their own minds toward understanding and fixing these bodies made of atoms. We break the frozen standoff by turning away from blame toward our common goal.
- Stephanie Lee, Twitter post, October 5, 2022, 7:13 AM, https://twitter.com/leelab_nyu/status/
- The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly has a classic example.
- Derek Thompson, Twitter post of graph from Washington Post article, November 28, 2022, 10:42 AM, https://twitter.com/DKThomp/status/1597299988626780162 (Note that the 2020 point may be inaccurate because of complications with data collection; regardless, the 2021 point is surprisingly high.)
- Student document posted by Washington Square News, https://nyunews.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Organic-Chemistry-I-Concerns-Meeting-Washington-Square-News.pdf.
- Joshua P. Hill, Twitter post. November 2, 2022, 10:20 AM. https://twitter.com/JoshuaPHilll/status/
1587857229054705666. (Excerpted from panel discussion hosted by the Child Mind Institute titled “Self Esteem in the Age of Social Media” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmUm7oBqCVw.)
Thanks for these good words, Professor McFarland. It remains a challenge, but also a God-given imperative, to teach the students we have, not the students we wish we had. These students are the “neighbours,” the “near ones” we are required to love, and you provide us sensible and specific insights as to how to love them well.
I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of this situation.
Yes, thank you Professor McFarland. During the current quagmire of classroom context, your thoughtful analysis and suggestions are helpful. Lately, I’ve noticed that “ghosting” has become a real problem in some classes, especially in those with whom actual physical contact is minimal or nonexistent.