Haste Makes Waste

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

A cousin of mine sent me an article about a professor at NYU who had been fired after a group of his students signed a petition outlining complaints about his Organic Chemistry class. The professor had spent over forty years teaching at Princeton University and had even written a widely used Organic Chemistry textbook. He had revolutionized the methodology for working with students by emphasizing problem solving in the class rather than standard lectures. This required the students to ask and answer question and engage in critical thinking. 

The professor insisted that he had been observing a general decline in student engagement that increased during the months of remote learning prompted by the Covid epidemic. He furthermore attested that students were not coming regularly to class and that even those that did were often unprepared. He even bemoaned the fact that he had created a series of videos for the students to watch that many of them never bothered to view. The result was that  students were misreading exam questions and making scores as low as zeroes with almost one third of them failing the class.

The students who signed the petition insisted that they were putting a great deal of effort into learning the material for the class all to no avail. They claimed that the professor was condescending and even insulting at times. They complained that he did not make himself available for tutoring and that he discouraged questioning. In the end they believed that he was doing little to demystify the difficult coursework and that his attitude toward them was openly hostile. 

As a former teacher and a Dean of Faculty I was drawn to this scenario with great interest. I view teaching as an art form. A masterful educator is able to skillfully explain even the most difficult concepts while also challenging students. Engaging all of the students requires both mutual respect and a willingness of all parties to embrace high expectations. The best teachers and professors begin from a place of understanding and then gradually increase the level of difficulty until the majority of the stakeholders reach not just a place of comprehension, but the realization of successful accomplishment in a quest to learn something that is generally difficult.

Years ago I became enchanted by the story of a physics professor who made his lectures so understandable that students were flocking to his class even if they had no intention of majoring in the subject that he taught. His methodology was to use everyday demonstrations to actually show students how a particular concept worked. Once they understood what was happening the formulas and mathematics made perfect sense. He became known not only for his contributions to Physics, but also as an outstanding teacher.  

I am not privy to all of the information regarding this issue at NYU, so I am only able to suggest what may have been happening. In any classroom there are going to be students who work very hard and master concepts with or without a great teacher. There will also be those who arrive with lesser skills, knowledge and study habits. The wise teacher strikes a balance between these kind of disparate groups. Certainly the best and brightest deserve a pace that keeps them interested while the less prepared must never be left to simply sink or swim. A good teacher will reach out to every student with opportunities that encourage them to ask questions, seek extra help, stretch themselves a bit more each day. When everyone realizes that it is safe to admit to deficiencies most will usually take advantage of the encouragement that the teacher is offering.

I suspect from what I have read that this kind of teaching and learning was not happening in the particular Organic Chemistry class at NYU that resulted in student failure and the firing of a legendary professor. I would not expect the professor to coddle students by making the coursework easier, but I would ask him what he might have done to provide more support and encouragement for his students during the learning process. He needed to dialog with them about not just his expectations, but also the avenues by which they might receive the help they needed when they found themselves drowning. Humans are such that they will run from a situation that they perceive to be dangerous. They will also sometimes take advantage of those that do not hold them accountable. Somehow the communication between the students and the professor was tainted with neither side feeling comfortable about the other. 

I worked with award winning teachers who unpacked the mysteries of Chemistry, mathematics, and literature in ways that made it not only accessible but exciting for their students. Many young people became so inspired by the classes with these teachers that they changed the trajectory of their lives. Some found confidence and abilities in themselves that they did not know even existed. When everyone inside a classroom is actually enjoying the experience regardless of how much it is challenging them, miracles happen. 

I think the situation at NYU was quite unfortunate. I suspect that there were students who became overwhelmed by the class but were afraid to ask for help lest they be ridiculed. At the same time the hasty decision to fire the professor need not have happened if the Dean had taken the time to discuss ways that the professor might have been more encouraging to his students and thereby helped a few more over the hump. Everyone needed to learn and nobody really did. It was too easy to fail students and make assumptions about why they did so and it was also too easy to simply fire the professor while making assumptions about his work. I suspect that everybody lost in the haste to sweep the issues under the rug. Sadly the university ended up failing as well. This would make a great case study for educators everywhere to consider. Haste makes waste as the saying goes and this time it had very unfortunate results.