There is a story making the rounds about a group of students at NYU who started a petition because a quarter of them failed his organic chemistry class. The teacher was fired and the students given a free pass. I have a unique perspective on this one, having been both a medical professional and a chemistry teacher.

I am of two minds with this one. I could see the teacher’s point of view here. Organic chemistry is a difficult course. When I took “OrgO” as it is called, I had already been accepted into my grad school program, and all I had to do was get a “C” in the course, which I did. I probably could have gotten a B, but had other things on my mind and slacked off for the last couple of weeks. It remains to this day the only undergraduate course where I received a C. Skill in organic chemistry is not really required to be a doctor, instead it is one of those classes referred to as a “weed out” class, designed to weed out students who want to make a lot of money as a doctor or some other high paying profession, but who don’t have the academic skills or the work ethic needed to complete the rigorous program. There are a few of those courses scattered throughout the undergraduate pre-requisite courses, each more difficult than the last. I understand the academic rigor, and I understand the professor taking pride in teaching his subject. I can definitely see his side of the argument.

On the other side, I can agree with the students. Anyone who has taken any sort of course knows that any teacher can write a test that most students can’t pass. A great example of that is the TV game show “Are you smarter than a fifth grader?” I will say that there are some teachers who use tests as an opportunity to show off just how much smarter they are than their students. Tests are supposed to evaluate the students AND the teacher to see if the course objectives are being met. If most of the students fail the test, the teacher needs to ask where the problem lies: the students, the course delivery, or the test itself. In this case, we don’t know which of these was the case.

Since at least a quarter of them failed, we can surmise that most didn’t fail. This is corroborated by the fact that this particular professor had been teaching for years, and his rating at Rate My Professor for his time at Princeton was pretty good for what he was teaching (most professors teaching difficult material get subpar ratings). Even for his time at NYU, he got pretty good ratings. It’s important to note that the last 14 ratings he received at the time I wrote this were written after the news article came out, and were filled with comments like: “I am so glad NYU decided to fire his a$$. He made all his classes unnecessary harder than they needed to be. Hopefully we get some new profs who have easy chem classes and lower standards.”

Overall, I lean towards thinking that the students were a bunch of snowflakes who expect to receive an A as if it were some sort of participation trophy, then demand to be passed along so they can graduate from medical school and become doctors. I ran into the same problem when I was teaching a difficult course, and my students likewise attempted to get me fired.

But that is a story for a different day.

In this instance, there just isn’t enough data to know which is correct, but I am willing to bet it was the professor. In any case, it doesn’t matter because he is out of a job, and those 82 students are going to be your doctor when you reach the nursing home.

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Don Curton · October 5, 2022 at 11:35 am

Back in the 1980’s saw something similar (although no one would have thought to take it to the point of firing a professor, we weren’t that entitled yet). After a particularly hard test, the next class period would have half the students standing in line up front, each begging the professor for partial credit on various questions, or complaining about the grade, or basically doing anything to get their grade bumped up. The prof would finally announce to the class that he would “adjust all grades” based on a curve, so everyone just shut up and sit down. At which point everyone in line would joyfully return to their seats. It pissed me off. I spent hours the night before studying, plus all the time during the regular semester learning the material to actually earn my A. And now all the kids that blew the class off were getting their C’s and D’s bumped up to a B they didn’t earn.

And yes, in Engineering we had plenty of courses designed to cull out those who just didn’t make the cut. That was part of the system that made our degrees actually valuable. Not so much anymore.

JNorth · October 5, 2022 at 12:21 pm

Back in ’98 when I was taking my first college class, Calculus I, the auditorium it was in was packed, ~300+ students, the first thing the professor said was “the average failure rate of Calculus I is about 30%, in a class this size it will be closer to 50%, so look at the person sitting next to you, by the end of the semester they won’t be there.”

That’s pretty much how it ended up as well.

Thermodynamics was another big one, many ME majors switched to CE after that one.

    Daniel K Day · October 5, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    I majored in ME and got a 5 out of 30 on my first Thermo test. Splat.
    The next year, for one year only, our department changed the style of the Thermo class, focusing on practical matters the first semester and theory the second. I made it through that.
    It was, of course, my own fault that I did so badly the first time around. Everything the prof said had made sense; I just had trouble following procedures when it came time for homework and the test. I was stupidly averse to going to a TA to get help with a class.

Brewer · October 5, 2022 at 2:44 pm

Modern physics class went from 28 to 4. Prof ( my eventual thesis advisor) was notorious for tests and LAE’s ( left as exercises). The four of us had an oral final.

Fun class.

Simeon · October 5, 2022 at 3:54 pm

Calculus was a required course for entry into grad school (MS) for geology. I hate calculus. I failed it twice in a row, then took an accelerated night course one summer. I lived and breathed derivatives for six weeks. Passed with a C. Got into grad school, never used calculus again.

Point is, I wanted my MS and PhD bad enough that I did the work and ground out the C, no matter how many failures. I’m never a fan of people who try to take the easy way out for the degree and the paycheck. An easy A in geology means a missing fault/cave in on a mine, or a blowout on an oil rig cause ya didn’t spot that gas hydrate deposit for what it was.

Paulb · October 5, 2022 at 6:47 pm

OrgO IS an important weed-out class. I was grateful for it as an undergrad because the biology department was about 50% “I want to be a marine biologist because dolphins are so cuuuuuute!” Fun fact, though, one girl in my class did become a cetacean biologist. She was 5′ tall and looked amazing in a wetsuit, so she went to Sea World.

I damn near got culled though, both semesters in Orgo. There was a mandatory extra session every week for working through problems, but it fell on a day where I could borrow a friend’s crewman for my boat and go haul lobster pots, so that had to take priority. I Got the flu and missed one of the 2 exams, first semester, and 2nd semester I got blood poisoning from getting jabbed by a fish bone in my hand, spent a couple days in a hospital for that one, missing an exam again. Just bad luck. I squeezed by with a B- both semesters.
Orgo was the first real culling class for biology students- the calc professor who did calc for life sciences was a wizard who could teach a retard calculus, and did, and thus some chowderheads stayed in, but Orgo put paid to the cabbage patch. The teacher was an absolute bitch on wheels, and while I would have been happy to see he gone, I’m not so much of a raging cunt as to try to ruin her career.

wheels · October 5, 2022 at 8:52 pm

Back in the early 1970s, my second-semester “Calculus with Computers” professor was no doubt good, but he was expecting the class to be more excited about calculus than computers (he basically ignored the “with Computers” part), and much more conversant with calculus than we were. We kept telling him that we didn’t understand his class presentations, and he wouldn’t believe it.

When the mid-term test rolled around, he ended up applying a 56-point adjustment to the results. The high grade in the class, after the curve was applied, was in the mid-80s. I was one of three (out of about 30 in the class) who still failed.

We all did much better in the second half of the semester, because he became much better at explaining the concepts. Demonstrating that we didn’t understand him worked much more effectively than telling him.

    Gerry · October 6, 2022 at 9:16 am

    I sucked at math so when I needed to take calculus for my degree I knew I would have to go to every class and do every homework.
    The professor was Mr. Rubelio, who stated the first day, ” Rubelio knows no curves!” I sweated out a C but he was the best math teacher I ever had.

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