Prologue: Wild, irresponsible stereotyping ahead. Beware.
The student part of Exam 1 in Organic Chemistry 2 is over. I now have a stack, thankfully a much smaller stack than usual, to grade. I also have two or three other things that are time sensitive so I will probably attend to those first. And then I’ve been invited to play soccer and eat Indian food with the relatively few students in town for the long weekend. The exam is over so I think I’m safe. I joke that I never accept invitations from students to do even mildly dangerous things before an exam but that arises from a real situation I once found myself in.
When I was a TA back at Duke, I was teaching a recitation section of general chemistry for Professor James Bonk. Famous guy, for a general chemistry teacher. Anyway, this one girl hung around a lot. She was very friendly and filled notebooks with chemistry scribbings. And she had a D. She was a very interesting person, involved in a lot of activities, friendly, charming, wiser than most of her peers. And she had a D.
One day, she mentioned that she was involved, I think she was an officer or something, in a local skydiving club. Of course, I mentioned that I had wanted to skydive which, and if I’d thought a little faster I’d have known this was coming, led her to invite me to join them that weekend.
My first thought: “She has a D.”
Now, I’m very, very sure the invitation was genuine. She was very active and very nice and, as it happens, TAs don’t matter so much to final grades as I thought at the time. But I couldn’t see my way to it making any sense to letting a student, any student but much less one who is really struggling, push me out of an airplane.
I hope she did okay. I’d guess she didn’t go to medical school as she’d hoped. She was a junior, which is late for a pre-med to be taking general chemistry, and I’m not entirely sure she maintained her D, if you know what I mean. But she had so many other skills and interests that I hope she was able to find a satisfying way to both make money and “help the world.” She certainly had much to offer. And, maybe, she got in. Who knows?
This was around 20 years ago. That student is now 40 years old. I’m going to take a little pause to get the pollen out of my eye, I’ll be right back.
Okay, even then, the proverbial “pre-med” was a bundle of stress. Their stress level was high most of the time but ahead of exams, especially ahead of chemistry exams, it skyrocketed. Ahead of organic chemistry exams it shoots even higher until you can actually see them shaking. The stress manifests in two ways:
First, there are the students who just can’t hold it in. They are constantly moving, can’t sleep, can’t not tell you they can’t sleep even as you start to see them age in front of you. They can’t be separated from their textbooks and notes, are always drawing mechanisms, sometimes correctly, on bits of paper or unused white boards. Before the test they try to write everything they know about organic chemistry on the back of the test. Sadly, they rarely fill the page. During the test they are fidgety and, immediately after, they want to discuss it with you.
The second type sits quietly, occasionally saying things like, “I’m so calm,” all the while sitting ramrod straight, staring straight ahead and blinking every five minutes or so.
I’m used to this. I find an excellent way to deal with them is to not be in my office at all the day of the exam. Look, if someone needs to ask you how many bonds carbon makes an hour before an exam in Orgo 2, they’re screwed. There is no need for us to discuss the level to which they are screwed. Better for everyone if I’m not around. (Lest anyone think I’m shirking my duty, I am very, very available in the days leading up to an exam, just not the day itself.)
So, as I say, I’m used to pre-med students behaving this way. My colleague with whom I share an office suite is not. He’s a professor of economic history or a historian of economics or…I don’t really know his title but his class, which I’m sitting in on, is fascinating. Anyway, he does not teach pre-meds. He teaches humanities students. And, well, not to put too fine a point on it, they have an entirely different point of view on this whole education thing. To them, education is “deep” and about more than grades. It is about expanding one’s horizons and seeing the other side of issues and fitting arcane bits of information into a cohesive, coherent whole.
You know what? I absolutely agree. See above: sitting in on an economic history course (or something). There is so much to learn on Planet Earth and, if you’re exceptionally lucky, you have a century in which to learn it. Which isn’t nearly enough time.
On the other hand, these humanities students who talk about the depth of education generally use that as justification for skipping class frequently, the reading occasionally and, I suspect, smoking a lot of dope. They are anything but stressed.
When I finally turned up in the office yesterday, this colleague asked me, “How do you get them to care so much?” referring to my students who were, in turn, zipping about our mutual study area or sitting ramrod straight in corners. I laughed. I don’t get them to care this much. I don’t do anything but show up as an organic chemistry professor whose lot in life is to deal with the stress caused by the real motivating factor: medical school admissions boards.
Most of my students are pre-med. The ones that aren’t are pre-something. I suspect this has changed considerably in the last 25 years. I knew a handful of pre-med students at OSU and felt unusual in wanting to go to grad school. Getting into grad school is not nearly the same as getting into med school. There are far more people who want to be doctors than spots in medical school. There are more qualified people who want to be doctors than spots in medical school. And being a doctor is about so much more than the science. You have to like, or be able to tolerate, people. Even sick people. No such requirement in graduate school. Graduate programs focus, razor sharp, on your abilities in their subject. Because, after all, that subject is the only one in the universe. Show me an academic discipline that can’t, or won’t, mercilessly insult all other disciplines and I’ll show you a bunch of losers.
So, as I was saying, the really high-strung folks in my class want to go to medical school to be doctors. Ask them why and you’ll hear variations on “I want to help people in need” which is, I think we’ll all agree, a noble sentiment. They’ve basically been told the way to do that is to be a doctor. Of course, nurses, PAs, etc. help people in need in the same way. Beyond that, many, many people in a society – most people – help people. And, as it happens, none of us do it for free.
Now, I’ve spent a fair bit of time the last couple of years hearing how my chosen profession – both university teaching and science – is ruining the world. I’ve heard this from people who also tell me how proud they are of my station in life. Odd cognitive dissonance there. But anyway, I think I help people. For certain I am paid to do this and the people I help are, usually, paying some of that bill. I interact everyday with people trying to figure out their direction in life and in trying to help them get over the hurdle of organic chemistry that medical school admissions board have (justifiably in most respects) placed in front of them. Helping these students helps society. Doing science helps society. I am absolutely convinced of this and have a hard time understanding the point of view of those who don’t see any value in what I do. That is not to say I don’t see some very valid criticism in how universities operate today. I do and accept the criticism. What flaws in how we work don’t mean, however, is that the system is without value.
I try very hard to convince the students that a little perspective is a good thing. Real education, not to mention getting good grades, does, in fact, require hard work and some sacrifice. But it does that for all who want to succeed in any field. I also try to prepare them for not getting into medical school. A lot of applicants don’t. And a lot of people go on to lead happy, fulfilling lives in which they “help” people without a M.D. Moreover, I strongly believe no one should be a doctor simply because other adults in their lives drill that into them as the only reasonable goal which happens surprisingly often.
And my students, in general, work hard. We’re in Santiago and the students are far away from parents or strict authority figures (it seems like they have one but that person doesn’t come to mind at the moment and, anyway, I hear he’s pretty laid back). Yet, I heard numerous stories of skipping dinners and parties thrown by their Chilean friends to prepare for Exam 1. It isn’t sitting in a bunker in Afghanistan on your 19th birthday for sure but they’ve got a goal and they’re willing to sacrifice and work hard for it. They may not record a passing grade on my test but I have great confidence that they will emerge from our university productive citizens.
They take a lot of crap, really, these students. We’ve (the adults in the United States) constructed a ridiculous system by which we measure “achievement”, forcing them to do really bizarre bits of “service” in lieu of actually learning practical skills. Later, of course, we rag on them for lacking practical skills. I’m not taking blame here, this is on how we treat students well before they get to university. The amount of homework and activities we lay on children in good schools is absurd. As is the amount of such things, going the other way, we lay on students in poor schools. Once they’re at university we continue the cycle. They are busy with schoolwork, yes, but also with an unbelievable array of minutiae that they rightly judge as important because the people doing the hiring, selection for professional school, etc. view the minutiae as important.
All the while, they’re paying huge amounts of money for this, often with loans that will be difficult or impossible to pay off. Of course, the job prospects for folks without a degree make that bargain worthwhile as far as it goes.
My point, in wrapping this up, is that I hear a lot about how weak today’s college students are. And, to be fair, you can find examples to back that up. But, as always, I can find examples in your line of work that, if we’re allowed to paint with a single brush, make you look like a real asshole. Do you really think there aren’t crooked doctors? Unethical bankers? Abusive cops? Criminal soldiers? Pedophilic coaches? Lazy teachers? Of course there are. All these professions are filled with humans. They’ve all sinned. We’ve all sinned. It seems to me one of our biggest sins at the moment is not differentiating individuals in groups we perceive to be “other”. The sins of those in our, or affiliated, groups, is, rightly in my opinion, put on the individual. If a cop is a bad cop, he is a bad cop. If a teacher is lazy, he is lazy.
In contrast, sins of individuals in groups we perceive as “other” are sins of the group. The teacher views the sin of a bad cop as being attributable to all cops. The cop views the sins of the bad teacher as being attributable to all teachers. This contributes mightily to the current yawning chasm of disunity that plagues our nation.
The title of this piece is “Motivation.” I’d ask you, if you’ve had these thoughts about folks in groups that you see as “other” to search your soul for your motivation. Does it really help you to write off entire groups of people that are vital to our success as a country, as a world? Cops, soldiers, teachers, lawyers, bankers, doctors, and many, many others are vital. Imagine a world without them. Just because you can find a terrible person in that group does not make them a terrible group.
And students are all of these groups, as yet unformed. All heroes and villains were once just some dumb 18 year old. I’m not saying let them push you out of a plane. But cut them a little slack.