In Response to: A Combustible Mix 

“The culture wars are fought by volunteer armies, but like Vladimir Putin and the old British navy, they sometimes grab unsuspecting conscripts and force them into battle against their will. Maitland Jones Jr. is trying to avoid being one of them.” Not an auspicious beginning; the culture wars are, by and large, fought by highly-paid mercenaries, not volunteers, though often enough their rhetorical arms target unsuspecting civilians — many of them teachers.

But that is not what I came to say.

The viral response to the story of Jones’ non-renewal by NYU brought up a multitude of old complaints from my academic experience (at two Ivy League institutions and a state school), the most salient in the form of questions: “What do grades mean?” and “How much effort should a single class require?”

I never took organic chemistry. But I did take a microcontrollers course that — like the one at Princeton — had a reputation for requiring 40 or more hours a week in lab. When I pointed out that it was possible to have more than one course with similar requirements in one’s schedule, and that, in any case, no one was taking only that course, the associate dean I was complaining too waved it off as “good preparation” for the engineering workplace. I’m sure Elon Musk would be proud.

What is accomplished by packing tremendous demands into a single course? (Are there [more] courses that should be split into multiple semesters?) While Jones denies that his course is a “weed-out,” organic chemistry notoriously is exactly that. If well-prepared students at elite universities, who are determined (I’ve TA’d many courses, but summer physics for pre-med students featured the absolute most determined students I’ve encountered!) to succeed, and willing to put in the effort, aren’t able to succeed, then I submit that there’s something wrong with the class or the teaching — not the students.

There was plenty of abysmal teaching while I was at Princeton: the Linear Algebra section that was so incomprehensible that they had to open a new section (taught by a grad student, who was actually the best teacher of the three) after the alternate professor’s section grew and grew in size; the Logic Design class taught by a new faculty member for whom English as not a first language, using the previous professor’s slides; the Differential Equations class that in which they decided to take attendance, and give in-class quizzes, after no one showed up to class the previous semester; the Intro to Physics professor who openly asserted that, “You can’t teach physics; you present the material and those that can, will.” But the one that seems to have brought me closest to the NYU orgo experience is probably the weed-out Electronics class in which the professor graded on a curve ... around a B- in a department that required a B average.

In order to facilitate his curve, the professor in question gave impossibly long exams, which did have the desired effect of stretching out the distribution of scores: the few people with previous familiarity with the subject material (or actual geniuses — they certainly exist at Princeton; or, I suppose, those who could devote all their energies to that one course — I was taking four others at the time) were way off to the right, then there was a pretty wide gulf, and then the rest of the normal distribution. Normally a good test taker, I panicked and got bogged down trying to solve a problem that I should have skipped, and was near the bottom on the midterm. I did better on the final, but only well enough for a C overall, and ended up in a different department. (It took a roundabout path and a few years to get my MSEE; I now work in tech.)

What is served by grading on curve in an elite institution? By forcing an artificially wide distribution onto a cohort of by-definition above average students? No one was even trying to evaluate our objective mastery-or-lack-thereof (to say nothing of our effort!) of the material — all the effort was put into relative ranking to weed out the “least fit.” I can’t honestly tell where Jones’ teaching and class fall — he sounds like he was at least once a pretty dedicated teacher — but I suspect that no one in the NYU administration was particularly surprised or bothered by low passing rates in Organic Chemisty, at least until the organized revolt. There’s been a practical mandate to use it as a pre-med gate and keep the supply of medical doctors low (and salaries high) since the mid-’80s, at least.

It’s disingenuous to decorrelate effort with success and then wring your hands about “lowered standards,” though that doesn’t seem to bother the myriad armchair “cultural warriors” for whom this is a call to arms. There are real, important questions about teaching, testing, grades, effort, and expectations (on all sides) here that deserve a much more significant examination than they’re getting in this he said/she said presentation — questions that aren’t new or popular or well-studied (or if they are well-studied, their solutions have not been widely adopted). It would be good if it didn’t take more serious crises with casualties on both sides for this to get more serious attention and study.

Alex Broadhead ’90
Guelph, Canada