As a sophomore at Stony Brook University studying biochemistry and following the pre-med track, Kathryn Ravano is enrolled in an organic chemistry course. Without even delving into its content, the words “organic chemistry” carry an ominous weight. Students sigh at its mention. It is unofficially known amongst students as the “weed out” course for pre-med students.
Even with the stress of this course, Stony Brook students like Ravano are not discouraged or deterred from their future career paths; they know that if they put in the work, they can succeed in organic chemistry. Ravano feels that despite the course’s demanding nature, Stony Brook students have ample opportunity to get extra help.
Ravano’s perspective is particularly relevant in light of a recent New York Times article about Dr. Maitland Jones Jr., an organic chemistry professor at New York University (NYU) who was dismissed after a student petition about the course’s difficulty was presented to the university.
The original article paints NYU students — and college students in general — as unable to handle academic pressure in a post-pandemic world. The article makes it seem as if students were unhappy with their grades but were unwilling to try harder, so they complained to get Jones fired.
This could not be farther from the truth; the students of NYU were falsely depicted as lazy and entitled. Jones’ firing and the reaction to it reveal that educators must take a greater responsibility for their students’ success.
“The petition was never meant for [Jones] to get fired,” said a sophomore student at NYU who is studying biology and is also on the pre-med track. She prefers to remain anonymous.
The NYU student explained the situation from her perspective, starting from the previous school year when some of her friends were taking Jones’ course. As a freshman, she was concerned about organic chemistry because her peers warned her that students in the class were scoring 40s and 50s on exams.
“All of these kids, they are the smartest kids I’ve like ever known in my lifetime,” the student explained. “If you’re getting a 50, what am I going to get?”
The petition, which only received 82 signatures out of the 350 students taking the class, was submitted last semester. With these numbers, the petition should not have even worked. This means that Jones was clearly at fault; professors do not get fired simply because some students do not like them. There is a deeper rooted issue here that The New York Times did not express. The article attributes the situation to students’ academic decline emerging from the pandemic. Realistically, if students are struggling post-pandemic, their struggles are not only in organic chemistry. If that was the problem, other professors would be receiving complaints too. Jones’ dismissal is not representative of the success of student whining, but of his own shortcomings as an educator.
The NYU student described Jones’ pitfalls. She said that her peers who were enrolled in his course noticed that the material they were tested on was not covered in lecture. Her depiction of Jones — in combination with his clear reluctance to admit his own downfalls — paints the professor as stubborn and unwilling to make any changes to his teaching methods.
Since Jones has taught at Princeton and written his own textbook, perhaps he thinks he has earned the right to stand his ground and blame students for misunderstanding the material that he has mastered. He must believe that his success within the field gives him an excuse to ignore any grievances against him.
The student also expressed that Jones’ students felt as if they were left to fend for themselves, with many of them abandoning their medical school aspirations because they failed organic chemistry. She solemnly told me that her peers’ career goals were “literally crushed” when they failed Jones’ course and they were drained of the courage they needed to retake it.
From an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is evident that Jones has no plans of taking any accountability for his dismissal.
“I think they made a mistake,” he told the interviewer. That statement is followed with a bold claim: “they just overreacted, and now they can’t own up to that.”
Jones is displaying a painful lack of self-awareness. He wants NYU and its students to reflect on what they have allegedly done to him, while he fails to consider what he could have done better. Instead of accepting student feedback and improving his lesson plans to cater to their needs, he attributed their poor class performance to their weak work ethic.
Frankly, the argument that students have a weak work ethic or less of an ability to retain knowledge coming out of virtual schooling is tiresome. Educators must be held accountable for the performance of students in their course. It is true that the pandemic undoubtedly took a toll on how and what students learned, but we are almost two years out from our initial return to in-person academic lessons. In this scenario, Jones is using the effects of the pandemic to avoid reflecting on his own teaching methods and the fact that his practices are ineffective.
Professor Joseph Lauher of Stony Brook University’s chemistry department recounted his teaching experience in 2021 after returning to in-person classes. Like Jones, Lauher teaches organic chemistry.
“There was definitely a deterioration of effort from the students,” Lauher said. “And grades were lower than normal.”
Lauher’s tone was not condescending or even disappointed; he was matter-of-fact in his delivery. He explained that students have recovered in performance since then — as they are “as good as they’ve ever been” — and that he believes that they have all the resources that they need to succeed.
Unlike Jones, Lauher does not see students who “fell off a cliff,” only students with “a little bit more catching up to do.” This mentality is why Stony Brook University will likely not see the creation of any petitions; students have support. Before interviewing Lauher, I watched him go through coursework with a student during office hours. His patience and thoughtfulness displayed his eagerness to work with students and ensure their success.
My observations of Lauher sharply contradict my impression of Jones. Lauher pointed out that Jones did not need this job. He is retired and well off — probably doing some teaching to fill up his time. Perhaps this is why he was not willing to bend to accommodate his students, or even the university. Generally speaking, anyone with a status that is credible or established is more likely to have an arrogance about them. Alas, the educational realm has no room for egos.
Ravano summarized her thoughts on the matter: “I know organic chemistry is a tough subject. But ultimately, if the students can’t learn it, then it’s not going to be useful.” Organic chemistry students at Stony Brook will not be left to fail a course they need for medical school. Professors and institutions need to take accountability for their students’ struggles in situations like these instead of blaming students or other factors like the COVID pandemic.