Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Dan Baldassarre is lying about my friends

I’m never surprised to read complaints about the teaching and learning of organic chemistry on Twitter. It is an evergreen topic to the point that I used to be amused about the complaints, and then I was offended by them and now I am merely saddened. 

However, this post on (the former) Twitter by Dan Baldassarre was a new low, because Professor Baldassarre is a current professor, and not simply a random medical student or recently graduated physician. 

Continually flabbergasted by organic chemistry professors who don't interrogate their course design despite half the students failing. The callous, inflexible, sink-or-swim culture around this course is so gross. If half your students regularly fail, you're not doing your job.

He had the unfortunate circumstance of having his tweet become quite popular. He doubled down with this: 

O chem profs getting together to celebrate failing half their students and preserving the holy sanctity of med school 

The accompanying gif is that of some odd folks dancing wildly. On being asked about it by Debbie Gale Mitchell (a friend, and a teaching professor of chemistry), he had this reply: 

I’m not referring to any one person, merely to the preponderance of such professors across the field. As evidenced by the replies and quotes, they are quite common. I don’t doubt there are systemic issues at play as well though.

There are three factual claims here: 

  1. The failure rate for organic chemistry students is 50% 
  2. Professors have created a “callous, inflexible, sink-or-swim culture” and are celebrating the failure of their students, and are directly or indirectly attempting to preserve med student quality. 
  3. Organic chemistry professors who celebrate the failure of such students are a “preponderance”, that is, a majority of organic professors are happy to see their students fail. 

What I like about Baldassarre claim 1 is that it’s immediately falsifiable. What I learned is that there is not a lot of data out there. A brief informal survey indicates that current DFW rates among professors is well below 30%; a cursory look at the chemical education literature indicates that rates at 50% are indeed documented (as far back as 1999, and as recently as 2008.). I have a strong sense that the recent rates at Professor Baldassarre’s own institution are not nearly so high - I wonder if he has investigated? Nevertheless, the data is equivocal. 

What I am much more bothered by is Professor Baldassarre’s second claim - that organic professors are genuinely happy to fail students, and this position is held by most organic professors. I count A LOT of organic chemistry professors as my friends. Over the years, I’ve seen that they genuinely want their students to learn, and care about their students learning the material. I have heard none of the hundreds of organic professors I’ve talked to over the years celebrate the failure of their students; rather, I hear these professors doing their best (contra Baldassarre) to learn, to care, to listen and meet their students where they are. What is even more specious about his tweet is that chemistry professors care a whit about medical school admissions. Rather, I have found organic professors to view the MCAT as a burden to be shouldered, when they have talked about it at all. 

It’s true, I'm biased. I was, for something like 20 years, a professional organic chemist, and even now, I work in industrial organic chemistry. I genuinely love my field. It's the chemistry of life and I think organic chemistry is the perfect synthesis of science and craft and art. I know that professional organic chemistry educators try to communicate that same love to their students, even the pre-meds. Organic chemistry education could always be better - but that’s not Dan Baldassarre’s claim. Rather, his claim is that my organic professor friends are uncaring sadists. He’s wrong, and I wish that he would stop lying about my friends.

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