The two-way street of collegiate academics

Photo credit: Julia Monteiro Martins

As a self-proclaimed humanities kid, I treat chemistry the way Dr. Suess advises us to treat the Grinch — I wouldn’t touch it with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole. But for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, chemistry is an inevitable part of their collegiate careers.

Organic chemistry is a notorious “weed-out class,” intended to determine who has the dedication and skill to pursue a career in the STEM fields. In the recent case at New York University (NYU), a group of students blamed their organic chemistry professor, Maintland Jones Jr., for making the class nearly impossible to pass. 85 students filed a petition stating the professor was “too hard” of a grader and “lacked resources for help.” Shortly after, NYU terminated Jones Jr.’s contract.

Jones Jr. spent 43 years teaching organic chemistry at Princeton and 14 years at NYU, even writing a textbook on the subject. Clearly, he is a master of the content, so the issue at hand lies in the instruction. Since his termination, people have been pondering what this incident means for academic institutions.

Are students paying to earn a degree or to easily receive it? How should students exercise their power and what responsibilities do students and professors have, respectively, in the outcomes of education?

In fields that are high-stakes and require precision, we want people to be highly-educated before entering them. Math and science courses are known for building upon themselves — each level serves as the foundation for the next. If you cannot succeed at understanding the first level, then how are you supposed to succeed going forwards?

Foundational classes like organic chemistry are important, but they should not be structured to gatekeep people from the careers they are working toward. Research indicates that success in difficult courses is largely determined by access to resources rather than students’ capabilities. By using these courses as hurdles on the road to pursuing STEM careers, students of color and students from lower income backgrounds are disproportionately impeded.

The issue lies in what we define as success in college courses. For most, success is measured by the letter grade received at the end of the semester. Unlike in high school, college grades are primarily composed of test scores. Exams are weighted far more than individual assignments, so a test grade can make or break a student’s overall grade. Students who are not savvy test takers might understand the material but can’t demonstrate it through a timed exam, while some students who ace exams may only be good at conforming to the test format, not at understanding the material.

In classes with clear cut objectives, professors have to recognize that not all students are good test takers. They should supply other means for students to demonstrate understanding, whether that is projects, essays, or handout assignments.

This is not to say that testing should be eradicated. Every class has essential elements that students must know before moving forwards and testing is a good way to make sure those ideas are cemented, but putting total importance on tests simply does not allow every student to paint an accurate picture of their comprehension.

This is not a one-way street. Students have to recognize that a college education is not like other purchases. Typically, when we purchase something, the product comes with no expectations. We bought it so we own it and we can do what we want with it.

A college education is different. Not only do people have to foot the bill, but they first must be admitted into a university. This process of applying implies that there are expectations placed on us once we are accepted.

Being a student is not a passive role. Just as professors must remember that learning is an effort, students must understand that learning takes effort. Students must attend classes and engage. Sitting in the front few rows and going to office hours is a great way to be proactive in seeking an education.

Professors want to help students succeed, but they can’t do that if their pupils aren’t making an effort. In the NYU case, Jones Jr. claimed his students were not attending classes or watching online lectures. He and an assistant professor even hosted a digital town hall when they realized how much students were struggling to answer questions.

Despite this, Jones Jr.’s students maintained in their petition that their test scores were “not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class.” Clearly, they thought their effort should be graded, not their test performance; however, if Jones Jr. was taking effort into account, it sounds like many still would not have passed.

Regardless of which party is at fault, there is a big lesson to draw from NYU’s firing of Jones Jr.: students are not powerless. As a student, you have a voice, and you must use it responsibly. If you really want to change a course, you need to be thorough in course evaluations. Don’t flippantly select a number one through five when rating different aspects of the course. Take the time to consider how you felt the professor did in each area. If you feel very impassioned to make change, go a step further and use the additional comments box! This is the easiest way for your voice to be heard. The same rules apply to online platforms, such as Rate My Professor. Your comments can affect someone’s livelihood and shape future academic experiences. Be responsible when taking action and make sure you have thought through the effort that was put in on both ends —- yours and your professor’s.

Students have to remember that professors are people too. They may be facing stress in their personal lives that reflects in the classroom. We are a society intimidated by labels and titles. Don’t let the “professor” or “doctor” in front of someone’s name prevent you from seeing them as a human being. Always be open to communicate with them if you are struggling or find something unfair. A good professor will take your concerns into consideration and work with you. This is another benefit of a college education: we can grow interpersonally just as much as we do academically.

There is a purpose to every class, even if it seems like nothing could be more boring or unimportant. It is up to you to maximize how much you get out of your college education. Your degree is something you have to earn and you can put in as much or as little effort as you desire. Success may feel entirely measured by grades, but effort will never go unnoticed. Even if you don’t succeed by the standard of letter grades, putting in effort to learn material will always serve you well.

Until multiple vehicles for demonstrating understanding become the standard, we each have to do the best we can. Before making rash judgments about a professor and their class, evaluate where you stand. What kind of effort are you putting in and is that effort being adequately recognized? Perhaps if the 85 NYU students who filed complaints had considered these two questions, the situation would have played out differently.

Sabrina Wilson is a freshman from Winfield, Kan., majoring in Broadcast Journalism.