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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

NYU fires tough chem prof, raises complainers' grades

Maitland Jones, Jr. teaching chemistry at Princeton.

Would-be doctors have to get through organic chemistry, a tough class that can be a dream killer. When NYU pre-meds earned poor grades last spring in Maitland Jones Jr.'s class, some of them signed a petition complaining the professor was too demanding. The university fired him and agreed to review their grades, reports Stephanie Saul in the New York Times.

Jones, who's 84, the author of a major organic chemistry textbook, has won awards for teaching, Saul writes. He "pioneered a new method of instruction that relied less on rote memorization and more on problem solving."

After a long career at Princeton, he was teaching at NYU on an annual contract.

Jones noticed a loss of focus among students about a decade ago, he told Saul.

“Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate,” he wrote in a grievance to the university, protesting his termination. Grades fell even as he reduced the difficulty of his exams.
. . . “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” he wrote. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”
After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said.

By spring 2022, Covid restrictions had eased, but students "weren't coming to class," Jones said in an interview. “They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.”

Students could choose a problem-solving focus or a lecture focus. In both sections, they were unhappy. “We are very concerned about our scores, and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” said the petition signed by 82 of 350 students.

Who wants a doctor who's weak on chemistry? Photo: Pixabay

Among other things, they complained the professor had a “condescending and demanding” tone. Zacharia Benslimane, a teaching assistant in the problem-solving section of the course, defended Dr. Jones in an email to university officials. “I have noticed that many of the students who consistently complained about the class did not use the resources we afforded to them,” she wrote.

"The entire controversy seems to illustrate a sea change in teaching, from an era when professors set the bar and expected the class to meet it, to the current more supportive, student-centered approach," writes Saul.

In letters to the editor, a retired professor of marine and environmental sciences writes that he noticed a "loss of focus in students" starting about 15 years ago. They expect to be treated like customers, writes Martin E. Ross. "Students expect their professors to be like either Mister Rogers or Stephen Colbert, and woe to those less entertaining ones who dare to assign poor performers the grades they deserve." Tom Cutrofellow writes: "Years from now, if I notice an undergraduate degree from N.Y.U. in a future doctor’s office, I’m walking out."

At Davidson College in North Carolina, more students are failing Econ 101, writes Clark Ross on the Martin Center blog. Last year, "student performance was the worst by a group in 50 years of teaching."

Twelve of 31 students showed interest in economics and did well, he writes. Nine students received a "D" or "F." The student average on the final exam, which includes multiple-choice and short-essay questions, was just below 50 percent.

Davidson is a selective college, and students are used to earning high grades, Ross writes. But many of his econ students did not attend class regularly or do the work outside of class.

In addition, some of his students didn't have the math skills to set up and solve simple equations, he writes. "I use fewer calculations while teaching than I did 20 years ago. Still, elasticity and macroeconomic multipliers are vital to learn and do require the use of basic mathematics."

They also didn't come to office hours or use tutoring aid.

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