Select Page


News broke early this month that school officials at New York University fired an adjunct organic chemistry professor named Dr. Maitland Jones, after 82 of his class of 350 students signed a petition, that charged Jones with making the class too hard. The mean grade on one midterm was 30%.

In their petition, the students did not ask school officials to terminate Jones’s employment, but just to address his degree of difficulty when grading.

Jones is eighty-four years old, and was a well-respected and long-time professor at Princeton, where he wrote 225 academic papers, plus the 1300-page textbook, “Organic Chemistry.”

In his defense he said that the students, “weren’t coming to class; that’s for sure. They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions. Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate.”

Some sided with Jones, saying that organic chemistry is, by its nature, hard, “that it has a mythical status as one of the most difficult classes in undergrad science education, and that it serves as a filter or a gatekeeper to determine which students get into medical school,” and which do not.

Another chemistry professor at NYU, Paramjit Arora, said, “[Jones] learned to teach during a time when the goal was to teach at a very high and rigorous level. We hope that students will see that putting them through that rigor is doing them good.”

To succeed at organic chemistry, a student must learn “to mix memorization and problem-solving. She or he must commit to memory dozens of flow charts, as each type of reaction will need different conditions and catalysts depending on the precise nature of the starting materials.”

Once a student has jammed the flowcharts into his or her memory banks, she or he can then solve problems, “which combinations of reactions will build simple raw materials into a complex chemical, like an antibiotic or a polymer.”

John Beckman, NYU official said, that the school was justified in terminating Jones, because “his course evaluation scores were the worst of any undergraduate science courses, and multiple student complaints about his dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension, and opacity about grading.”

Was Dr. Maitland Jones too hard? Or were the students unprepared for a course of this difficulty, or were they failing to work hard to the level required? The truth lies somewhere in between.

This past weekend I attended my fifty-year high school class reunion. I listened to numerous stories of my fellow students’ lives: where they lived now, what educations they attained, what careers they completed, and what families they created.

One friend explained that in the 1970s, he was studying music at the University of Northern Colorado, when his Music Theory professor suggested that he should drop the course, that he had an “F” now, that it would not improve much, and that he should drop Music and study Speech instead.

So my friend said he stopped studying Music one day, and began to study Radio and Television production in the Speech and Communications department the next. After graduation he worked at a station in Denver, producing television shows. He enjoyed it, but he still longed to play music.

He began playing classic rock on his guitar evenings wherever asked, and was soon making more money than he did at his day job. At one point he grew tired of playing a prescribed set of songs, and began to request songs from his audiences, for fun, too keep him sharp and ready.

He said, “that decision saved my career. If no one in the audience mentioned a song, I would just stand there, on stage, with guitar in hand, and wait until someone did.” His audiences dictated his performances, what he played, what he sang.

I find my friend’s story most interesting. His level of knowledge of playing and singing classic rock guitar songs was so deep that whatever the audience tossed at him, he could play it, in an instant, with little thought. Because he had memorized hundreds of flowcharts, his confidence soared.

Columbus’s “Nina” and “Pinta” were caravels, ships with lateen or triangular-shaped sails, that allowed them to tact, that is to “sail in a forward zig-zag direction against a headwind.” In other words, moving sideways, at an angle, the ship could make forward progress into a headwind.

To master any body of knowledge—albeit chemistry or music—requires a trained mind, the ability to imagine files and rows and cells on a spreadsheet, a series of flowcharts, or an entire wall of pigeon-holes, and in each cell or pigeon hole lies an incredible amount of data, available to withdraw and use.

In life, we sometimes have a tailwind, and we soar. Other times a crosswind, like Music Theory or Organic Chemistry, flips us over. Yet, sometimes we face worse, a ferocious headwind, and it is then that we learn to tact, at a forty-five degree angle, in a zig-zag style, making slow progress forward.