My Advanced Organic Chemistry professor was taking my class to task today because she is (rightfully) disappointed in the average performance and apparent level of commitment we are demonstrating. When she asked who was actually reviewing the material on a daily basis, not cramming in ten hour stretches on the weekends, I don’t think anyone could truthfully say that they are focusing on organic chemistry every single day.
“You don’t want to be toll collectors, do you?” she asked, annoyed, “I mean, you’re taking this class because you want to go on to med school, or grad school, to dentistry school….”
She continued by explaining the need to “get used to this level of work” and learn to manage the volume and complexity of problem sets “if you’re ever going to pass the MCATs or become a doctor.”
I was kind of nodding and accepting my chiding along with everyone else, when I was kind of stricken. Nowhere along the line was she indicating the necessity of… learning chemistry. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I didn’t sign up for a crash course in how to overextend myself and scramble around memorizing things. I want to understand carbon-based molecules and their reactions. I want to look at chemicals and be able to predict and explain why they do what they do.
Most of the students in my class are Biology majors, and most of them indicate that yes, they are preparing for med school, to become doctors. I understand that universities need to prepare these students for the types of questions they’ll have to excel at for admissions exams, but it truly bothers me that the course, which is a fundamental building block of chemistry, seems to have been altered into an MCAT-preparatory session or some absurd packing-in of chemistry related trivia without the full depth and complexity it deserves.
Just as high schools are becoming increasingly faultier for emphasizing college preparation over actual meaningful learning and development of critical thinking skills and creativity, I fear that undergraduate science programs are falling victim to teaching to tests and sort of glossing over the actual significance of the material at hand.
When I took Organic I, it felt extremely and problematically rushed, but I figured that was because it was over the summer and I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. Even then, though, the professor (who was also the department head at that school) said he felt that Organic Chemistry really deserved three or even four semesters, but universities have to cram it all in since they are already requiring the Bio majors to take Gen Chem I and II before the two semesters of Orgo.
I don’t like this idea of stuffing it all in, instead of learning the material for its own sake and getting something meaningful out of it. I think about high school students who don’t necessarily go on to college, but who are forced to sacrifice the classroom time that may have been spent developing writing skills, or general knowledge about history and science that would equip them for life, preparing for SATs and practicing college admissions essays. I know I was required to write no less than seven practice admissions essays in various courses, but when I actually applied to college, I used the common app and earned a full-tuition scholarship submitting the first draft of an essay about brushing a Monet with my cheek in the Brooklyn Museum, which, by the way, broke all of my teachers’ rules about a “good” admissions essay.
So what will I take away from Advanced Organic Chemistry, if I pass it? The enormous relief I felt when I passed Orgo I, with the private intention to never look at “that nonsense” again? The knowledge that no matter what else I did in life, no one could make me do that again? An experience of not sleeping for weeks or months on end and wearing myself out trying to make sense of the minutiae of hundreds of reactions?
I’m not coming away with an experience of rigor and discipline. It’s just extremity and excessive demands, to give the illusion that I’ve put “enough” effort and time into it and would, I don’t know, make a good sleep-deprived doctor? I reckon it’s because I’m coming at this material from a different perspective than most science students, but I feel downright resentful that the big experience is in getting through the class, wholly inconsequential to actually understanding chemistry or not.
So like I said, it’s distressing. And a little demoralizing. But I don’t really have time to think about it, since I’ve got hundreds of pages of reading to do.