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Quanto puo’ essere difficile un corso di chimica organica? [EN]

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Stephanie Soul sul New York Times discute della causa del licenziamento del professore Maitland Jones Jr., rispettato e premiato professore di chimica organica alla New York University, ovvero una petizione lanciata da un gruppo di studenti che ritenevano il corso del Prof. Jones troppo difficile:

Students said the high-stakes course — notorious for ending many a dream of medical school — was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores.

The professor defended his standards. But just before the start of the fall semester, university deans terminated Dr. Jones’s contract.

L’università ha prima provato a placare gli animi degli studenti e dei loro genitori:

He said the plan would “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills,” an apparent reference to parents.

Questa risposta ha però scontentato sia molti studenti che i colleghi del prof. Jones; questi ultimi notano come situazioni simili possano trasformarsi in ricatti per i professori a contratto: il pericolo di perdere il lavoro se il loro corso venisse percepito come troppo difficile li potrebbe portare quindi a preparare esami più semplici o tagliare il programma.

Questo caso può quindi fornire spunti per varie discussioni:

Should universities ease pressure on students, many of whom are still coping with the pandemic’s effects on their mental health and schooling? How should universities respond to the increasing number of complaints by students against professors? Do students have too much power over contract faculty members, who do not have the protections of tenure?

Il profesor Jones, che è rinomato per aver introdotto un nuovo metodo per l’insegnamento della chimica organica, difende la sua posizione, imputando il calo dei voti alla scarsa attenzione e mancanza di metodo di studio.

L’articolo del New York Times ha anche aperto un dibattito sulla stampa americana, con varie voci a difesa degli studenti o del professore. In un articolo di risposta sul New York Times, la professoressa Jessica Calarco propone di rimuovere i coseddetti corsi blocco (weed-out courses) per rendere i corsi di laurea più equi.

The weed-out approach used in fields like chemistry, biology, engineering and other STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) exacerbates inequalities in student performance and discourages students from completing STEM majors and pursuing opportunities like graduate and medical school.

Il Daily Princetonian, giornale della Princeton University, dove il professor Jones ha insegnato per buon parte della sua carriera, riporta le reazioni di vari alumni e colleghi:

“I’m sure there were a lot of us back in the fall of 1984 that would have signed such a petition,” Mark Taylor ’88 said. “But if we had succeeded in getting the difficulty level of the class watered down, eventually we would have been disappointed with the results. I think it’s better to stick with a challenge.”

Speaking on his colleague’s approach to teaching, Erik Sorensen, a Princeton professor who worked with Jones, said he finds fault with the NYU students’ complaints.

“Maitland Jones is one of organic chemistry’s finest teachers. He possesses the ability to inspire students who have an affinity for the subject,” Sorensen wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’

In un altro articolo, apparso su Slate, John Warner intervista via email Dan Singleton, professore di chimica all’Università Texas A&M, a proposito della difficoltà dei corsi di chimica organica e delle sue proposte per migliorarne la didattica:

 We know what works—working problems with feedback. That takes time, which takes both university resources and the students being able to take advantage of those resources. My university surely tries—we have a long-term commitment to relatively small classes, maxed at ~100, with each having an extra supplemental instruction leader and with the instructors holding extra problem sessions. But we know it isn’t enough, because we lose about 20 percent of our organic chemistry I students as DFQs (people who get D’s and F’s, or who drop the class). That is too many. I think we could save half of those without lowering standards, but getting students the required one-on-one interaction and feedback is harder and harder with larger classes.

Sulla necessità dei corsi weed-out, ed in particolare sulla scelta di chimica organica come corso weed-out, il professor Singleton risponde che, nonostante non sia a favore dei corsi weed-out, ritiene che i risultati di uno studente nel corso di chimica organica possano avere un certo valore predittivo:

But with that said, I will perhaps get myself in trouble by saying that o-chem success is worthy of careful consideration. O-chem is the first course that many students take where being a rich child who has had every prior advantage and the very best preparation is of little help; being lazy but very bright won’t cut it; falling behind, then cramming, is a sure recipe for doom. O-chem can’t equalize everything—as we said above, having the time and ability to get help comes with privilege, and we can’t get away from it entirely—but I suspect it is a fairer measure of students than gen chem or calculus or composition, all of which will be greatly influenced by their high school. So the lore is that the organic chemistry grade is the best indicator of how someone will succeed in the first two years of medical school.

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