Links October 4, 2022

With my family no longer in crisis because of service and school disruptions during COVID, I’m changing up what I’m doing here and in the substacks. In addition to the usual education and family life posts, I’m returning to my blogging roots. I’ll link to and write about the eclectic politics and culture topics that have always amused me.

More random. And just more.

I haven’t written a higher education article in ages, but that might change. With all my research on community colleges and technical colleges as part of our efforts to help Ian, I have a backlog of information. In the meantime, I’ll link to some hot topics.

One hot higher ed topic du jour: An adjunct professor at NYU who taught the notoriously difficult organic chemistry class was fired, after students filed a petition complaining that he graded toughly. Did the privileged students bully an adjunct professor? Some say that college freshmen should not be graded at all.

In education news, a third of public school children were chronically absent after classrooms re-opened. New York City has backed down from radically changing their elite public high schools.

Family welfare: New York Times explains that povery in rural ares is very tricky to support, because social services come through the schools — but it can be impossible to get to them. This NYT editor took her autistic son to Mets games this summer. “My son will need some way to pass the time when I am gone. And baseball is nothing if not a pastime.” Post-pandemic, spending on children is dwindling. (I have some quibbles with how federal money on children was tabulated. For example, the federal government gave more money to schools, but did children directly benefit from those school expenditures? Debatable.)

Celebrity culture. Last week, I wrote that the American media wasn’t doing a great job covering celebrity issues and instead just reprinting press releases from powerful public relation firms. The next day, Kim Kardashian got in massive trouble for promoting some crappy cryptocurrency her millions of followers, adding to her billion dollar fortune. Just hours before that decision, I wrote on my blog:

On the other, the Kardashians are more than just Barbies on tv. They seriously own billion dollar companies. They earn huge profits from their lip gloss, underwear, even socks. They have millions of followers on social media, where they sell their followers more garbage. They turned their bodies into silicone, bulimic, distorted, exaggerated versions of women, which totally fucks with young girls’ images of themselves. If they have an opinion on anything, they make a call to Hoda and they’re on your television the next morning. They are more than celebrities. If Kim ran for public office, she would win. 

So, even dumb things like a sex tape is of the “public interest” when it concerns someone with that much soft power. 

There’s also a problem when the media portrays a celebrity in glowing terms, when there is a mountain of evidence and tons of Internet buzz, which says the complete opposite. The media is supposed to pay attention when a whole lot of people are talking about something. When they are on a completely different page than very credible sources, then they look like idiots and people lose trust in them. If they publish the lies of celebrities on page six, and people know it, they won’t believe what that same paper puts on the front page.

Cooking: At this weekend’s party, my brother made great steak and chicken using this Korean-inspired marinade.

Picture: Quebec City, Summer 2022

33 thoughts on “Links October 4, 2022

  1. “The next day, Kim Kardashian got in massive trouble for promoting some crappy cryptocurrency her millions of followers, adding to her billion dollar fortune.”

    Kim Kardashian entered into a plea agreement for *having been paid to promote* a cyrptocurrency and not disclosing the payment, not for promoting the crypto to her 328 million!!! followers. This article was a pretty good summary of why she paid a 1.3 million fine (she’s been paid 250K) and agreed she won’t promote crypto for 3 years. I think its important (with everyone) to parse when US laws have been violated v moral laws).


    1. Shocking, yes, and, apparently they take her advice for buying crypto. The Matt Damon commercial was vile, challenging other men to a macho contest of bravery in buying crypto. And, of course, they are very differently situating than him. He can take a random gamble in ways that most people cannot.


  2. Lots of thoughts on the orgo instructor who was fired (or, contract not renewed?). Someone I know took orgo from him 37 years ago and tweeted that he taught a transformative class for her. But, she also opined that at 84, he might not be the right fit for teaching the material to new crops of students.

    My undergrad had pass/fail for all freshman when I was there. No one took the core classes (calculus, chemistry, physics) which were required lightly at least partially because you needed to know the material for the next year of required (math & physics & chemistry classes).

    My current freshman’s school has pass/fail (or, as they seem to call them now credit/no credit) classes 1st term freshman year. Yesterday, older kiddo said that people might use that option “strategically”, but younger said that he wasn’t seeing that.


    1. Organic chemistry has always had the mystique of being the scary class you need for pre medical requirements but it really just requires a lot of time and focus. I found it kind of fun. The instructor notes in the article the lack of involvement of the students over the last few years. More pandemic fallout?

      NYU is also a pretty competitive school. It can be shocking to go from being tops in your class and just getting As with minimal effort to suddenly having to actually study. I experienced that – in my high school I generally could get As by paying attention in class so when I started college I had to learn how to study. My sister actually did better than me her first year in college because she had to study more in high school.


    2. I authentically found organic chemistry one of my most difficult classes (and, I’m not underestimating my skills, there are lots of other classes other people think are hard that I don’t find difficult). I think because my weakest cognitive skill is spatial visualization and manipulation and our class leaned on this ability).

      I think one of the reasons that orgo becomes a boogie man is that students have often been tested on other skills (analytic skills, verbal skills, math skills, . . . .) and excelled at them to get to the point where they are taking organic chemistry but have not tested themselves on the organic chemistry skills. The same happens to some students when they encounter different kinds of math, which do not all rely on the same cognitive skills. True also for those who can’t rapidly read and comprehend and then talk about what they’ve learned, in speech and writing, which are required for some subjects (and some surprising subjects, like biology). I see that most frequently among non native english speakers. They can often deal with these asynchronous skills by choosing fields, but, organic chemistry is required for med school so it becomes a gatekeeper.


      1. In the Times article, the professor notes: About a decade ago, he said in an interview, he noticed a loss of focus among the students, even as more of them enrolled in his class, hoping to pursue medical careers.

        “Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate,” he wrote in a grievance to the university, protesting his termination. Grades fell even as he reduced the difficulty of his exams.

        The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic, he said. “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” he wrote. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”

        After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said.

        The College Board introduced revamped APs around 2012-13. That would fit with a “loss of focus” among top-tier pre-med students, as I would expect them to have taken AP science courses in high school. This year’s freshmen would have had their high school studies switched to remote in their Junior year of high school. It’s tough to do labs remotely.

        Add to that the general confusion of high school science preparation. In olden times, (my high school years) students had Bio, Chem, Physics and then chose one science for AP classes in senior year. But then an explosion of advances in the sciences made courses in Environmental Science, Engineering, Forensics, Computer Science, etc. very attractive, not to mention trendy “cross-disciplinary” courses. It is likely the new courses are more exciting for the teachers, than teaching the same basic courses year after year, but maybe student preparation was neglected.

        Which is to say that an 84 year old instructor may be better able to gauge a decline in academic preparation than professors who began in the last decade.

        The anxiety about grading is a system-induced malady. Traditionally, STEM fields have graded harshly. Trying to minimize the trauma just postpones the time of recalibration to what, med school?


      2. I don’t have a lot of time for overprivileged students whining about ‘hard marking’
        There are several possibilities here – almost none of which are the fault of the professor:
        * The students don’t know the material (Attend class. Do your labs. Learn how to study)
        * The students know the material, but can’t read and/or answer questions in a structured or informatively useful way (Learn how to read and/or answer questions in exams. Research exam questions/answers from previous years. Look up the marking criteria.)
        * The professor produced badly worded questions, and/or introduced material not covered in the course (Protest is legitimate. However, highly unlikely scenario)

        I think that as financial pressures go on universities – they become more sensitive to the demands of the students (or, more probably, their parents) who are paying megabucks for little Johnny to fail organic chemistry.

        As someone else said, if you can’t master this material, what makes you think you can ace med school? Fail now, or fail later.


  3. “The students know the material, but can’t read and/or answer questions in a structured or informatively useful way”

    The prof complained about this issue specifically, that it seemed that they weren’t reading the questions and that there were some tests on which the students were getting many questions wrong.

    I’ve just been experimenting on myself, taking a test in an introductory neuroscience class. And, I think you are wrong about poorly worded questions, which I think are easy to write.

    In addition, there are “tricky” questions. I’m not that sympathetic to students who are actually taking the class missing those questions because they have just been given the opportunity to learn the material, but they are questions that I sometimes missed (for example, the variables in the Nernst v Goldman equations). Taking this kind of test is, as you say, a skill. I think it is a skill that has been more weakly learned during the pandemic (and that I, out of practice using the material and not having taken tests for years am also weak on).

    (BTW, that skill of test taking is one of the factors that affect the measures of learning gain in national tests in K-12, too, and might sometimes over estimate the lack of learning, though I am not saying that doesn’t mean the tests are still important).


    1. My son is graduating high school this year and I don’t think his test-taking skills or his ability to handle tricky questions are great. There’s been a move towards more project-based work and less kind of the skills that do encourage critical thinking but are kind of particular to academics or fields like law I guess, where there’s a deliberate twist or test to the assignment to ensure you are not just trying to get to the answer but trying to understand the question.

      I’m not sure how we make up for that deficit but I’m going to assume that either he’ll hit it in an arts-focused tertiary program or…he won’t and hopefully when he becomes the next great artistic voice we can hire him a good lawyer for his contracts.


      1. I’ve had an interesting perspective on this over the last couple of weeks.

        Our qualification system is changing, so there will be pass/fail papers for English and Maths in our NCEA (National Certificate of Education Achievement).

        There are 3 levels of NCEA, set over your final 3 years of schooling – and you can gain each one by a mix-and-match set of credits in a range of subjects – including both internal assessment and external exams. Which, up until now, haven’t included mandatory literacy and numeracy.

        [The *assumption* was that you would be demonstrating literacy/numeracy in your other coursework. The assumption was wrong. Kids were gaining qualifications when they were technically illiterate (couldn’t actually read a sentence).

        That’s about to change, with these 2 papers – which you have to have a pass on to gain NCEA. You can, however, keep re-sitting each year until you pass.

        The change is rolled out next year, and my son is one of the cohort which were doing the ‘test’ version of this – a year early. [The bonus for them being guinea pigs is that a pass is counted – so they won’t have to sit the ‘real’ paper next year]

        They did 2 rounds of testing – and after the first one, the feedback was very strong, that the maths test questions were too ‘wordy’ (lots of verbal statements of number problems – which were catching out kids with excellent numerical skills, but only so-so literacy ones). A lot of kids who expected to ace the test with Excellence endorsements, failed.

        Mr 14’s maths teacher, did some intensive work with the class over ‘how’ to read and analyse questions, and turn them into number problems.

        He sat the ‘real’ test a fortnight ago – and we’re waiting on tenterhooks to see how he did.


  4. Another issue is what organic chemistry has become for medical school students, the weed out class (and not just the weed out class you have to pass, but the one you have to get an A in). I started hearing about this when I heard of other Ivy league students taking the Harvard organic chemistry course over the summer — apparently it has been circulated as an easier “A” than the classes at their own universities. In addition, many of these schools use credit/no credit systems in which the class disappears from your transcript if you get no credit. So, for a med student who needs a “A”, failing the class and retaking it can be a better solution than getting even a B. Those strategic methods means that everyone applying to medical school has an A (even if some strategies don’t mean better learning). So there’s broken systems further along the line.

    And, do you need an A in organic chemistry to be a doctor (what does the a mean? that you were a top scorer on tests in the class? that you developed a certain level of mastery of the material — which can mean that everyone can get an A? that you were a top scorer in a class that everyone did poorly?). I don’t think you need an A in organic chemistry to be a doctor, though I do think you need to understand the material well enough to use the ideas in other material you learn. That an A becomes a gatekeeper means we lose students who might be great doctors.

    (not, I think, too different from the people we lose, english language learners, people with verbal disabilities, . . . . when we use critical reading skills as a hurdle to other learning).


    1. Also, note that taking the Harvard orgo class in the summer is not a free option, so available only to those who can spend the summer taking the class they pay extra for (potentially not working or working less), that is the full pay students at the ivy league schools, not the substantial group who are getting full support from the university. That is, a student at UPenn who pays can drop the class they are getting a B in and take it over the summer at Harvard, but the student who is a full need student can’t. They have to get the A at UPenn.


  5. The pressure to get high grades in pre-med courses has long been a known factor, though. Organic Chemistry has been a weed out course for a very long time too. This is not new. As this professor taught at Princeton before he retired, he has a uniquely long history of teaching smart, ambitious students.

    He noted the decline started about a decade ago–about when the College Board last redesigned AP tests. The College Board made a big push to increase the number of AP test takers. At a minimum, making the tests more difficult would not have increased the audience.

    A larger issue popped up when I looked at NYU’s data on College Navigator. Only 23% submitted SAT scores, 9% ACT scores for the class entering in the fall of 2021. So that group of students had excellent scores, the 25th percentile scoring 700. One can assume that the students who got in but did not submit scores did not have such wonderful scores.

    Dropping independent measures of academic preparation from the criteria for admission has a steep cost.

    On top of the pandemic’s effects, it is more possible than in the past that students who are not capable of doing well in Organic Chemistry are taking the class.


    1. “On top of the pandemic’s effects, it is more possible than in the past that students who are not capable of doing well in Organic Chemistry are taking the class”

      This is possible, that some students are truly not able to complete the class with their skills and preparation.

      But, I also believe that there is an old of style of teaching in which teachers teach the way they understand the material and make no effort to reach their students with different skills. In classes like O-chem (or physics or math) where the material being learned is standardized, there might still be multiple methods of teaching it and different methods might be more effective. I have used the example of the physics teacher who had only one method of explaining torque (the princess wave) as an example of a single-minded method of explaining. Uri Triesman, at UT, is my model, a calculus professor who has worked to teach the students in his classroom, not select the students who can learn the way he teaches.


    2. This Brown Economics professor writes on a similar concern (though with less clickbait the kids are wrong now sentiment):

      “As a long-time advisor for concentrations that combine economics with math, applied math or computer science, I have noticed how these time-intensive pathways are attracting more and more students who may not have the right skill set for them.”

      I think this can be true, especially for those skills that become hot for their promise of monetary success (medicine is one such profession and has been for a long time, but CS/math/ especially combined with economics is a more modern version).

      But, this Brown economic professor is a classic example of someone who may have a very strong model for how the subject he teaches is learned. He is blind (that’s mentioned in the article) and falls into the very interesting category of blind mathematicians who construct elaborate mathematical models in their head (it’s been studied). Thus, I suspect, he is less likely to teach the math required in algorithmic step by step ways.


      1. BTW, that doesn’t mean that blind people are good at math, but that those blind people who become math professors have extraordinary skills at doing math without easy access to the visual tools that many others rely on.


    3. I’ll note that the reading debate around phonics v mixed methods is also part of this kind of phenomenon. There’s a article that’s circulated recently about the Oakland schools and how much teachers hated the phonics when they were asked to use it and a teacher’s recent understanding that his opposition had more to do with how he wanted to teach than what might be the best way for his students to learn. And, indeed, people who learned reading easily often don’t remember the steps some require to learn it (especially those with reading disabilities, but, potentially, even the average student).

      I learned to read, in a language I did not read to speak, using no fixed teaching methods at all but just access to books, so I am an example of that kind of reader and it has made it harder for me to understand that others may need to learn reading using different methods.


  6. Schools with any enrollment concerns are obsessed with “barriers to success”/retention courses where students might get a D/F/Withdraw and then drop out. Any kind of math course, no matter how basic, is a problem, but I know it’s true in the sciences too. (Especially among, for example, people who watch CSI and decide forensic chemistry would be a fun major. No joke; there are a lot of them.) Not sure if NYU has that problem but it’s definitely an issue at many places. Schools don’t mind some whining but once there’s a real possibility the student will drop out or depart for another easier school, that’s a problem.

    There was also just recently an article in the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed on whether it’s fair to require “admission” to the most competitive majors (usually by GPA).


  7. Oh, and I’m in twitter land about the NYU professor now, so, in addition to the neuroscientist who remembers her transformative experience with Mait Jones, I found a more recent graduate (and new PhD) who wrote that in Jones used to post the lowest score in the class on tests and mock the student who received it. And, that in 2009, she was that student. She writes that she uses his behavior as an example of how she will *not* teach in her class, and has for a while. Students are also tweeting that the article badly expressed what their petition said and that their complaints about his condescension, mocking, and unprofessional behavior to his students.


  8. Jonah was a late lover of the sciences. He only started doing the honors and AP classes for sciences in his senior year. Subjects that he took as a freshman or sophomore were just the regular college prep class. Biology was one of this freshman science classes, so when he went into college bio, he was seated in an auditorium of 600 students, who all took honors bio, AP bio, AND went to a summer camp for bio. And had private tutoring to take the SAT for bio. Jonah just had one crappy class. He was SO far behind the other 599 students. That’s why he quickly went from a science major to a pol sci major.


    1. The switch might be just fine for him, though I hate to hear of a “lover of the sciences” who got weeded out so quickly. Those classes seem designed to drive people out, especially at large state universities that don’t decide to do something about it. Some do, but often only with someone who really cares, like Triesman at UT and math.

      It’s a problem in science for the late lovers. The professors are complaining about the students, but if the introductory biology class requires that you’ve already learned to do biology, that’s a problem.


      1. ” if the introductory biology class requires that you’ve already learned to do biology, that’s a problem.”

        I absolutely agree with this. But it’s hard to find a way around it. The reality is that some kids will be arriving at college with a biology education that’s a couple of years ahead of some of their peers.

        One way is to have a Biology Intermediate. Which you can test out of.
        This means that the kids with the extra knowledge, can go straight into year 2 Bio.
        And the rest of the class can up their game to the required levels. [You just have to be careful not to label it ‘remedial’ biology]

        It does put you a year ‘behind’ – but that’s probably not a major issue. And it can be a salutary shock for the ‘smart’ HS bio student to be dropped into a Year 2 bio class and realize that he’s just average, after all.


    1. At a conference in Germany during grad school, a German prof insisted we go to a Mexican restaurant,. He said it was great. No. They didn’t even get the margaritas right. They were so sickly sweet. I swear the rice had ketchup in it. Just awful.


  9. This story raises many issues, all of which make for a difficult system.

    But here’s the thing we’re overlooking. Everyone can’t be a doctor. The system in the US can only educate a limited number of new doctors each year. I happen to think we should educate more doctors in this country, rather than importing them from abroad.

    I only learned this year that the number of doctors is fixed, set by the number of internship slots available at US hospitals. So the demand for the status of doctor far, far outstrips the supply. If there weren’t weed-out courses, half the students at most leading universities would be applying to medical school.

    At some point, the number has to be decreased. Using a demanding academic course is probably more fair and more reasonable than basing it on connections. Which is what always happens when you do away with objective measures. I’m cynical because I’m old.

    And it isn’t as if being a doctor is a picnic. The field has about a 50% burnout rate.


    1. The number of doctors is fixed, because the AMA lobbied state governments to set up the limit of medical licenses issues in order to keep doctors’ salaries high.


      1. The licensing system is complicated — an interesting article on telehealth and licensing — I don’t think there are official caps, but there might be rules that amount to being caps.

        But, its also true that medical schools are expensive to run and difficult to start. There are a few that have started recently. Washington State U started its own medical school right before the pandemic (it was a big deal, and U Washington lobbied hard to prevent the WSU med school from opening — they wanted control and a branch campus). Kaiser Permanente is starting a medical school to open in 2024 (50/class).


      2. Oh my, and apparently, the program at Kaiser has a collaboration with Caltech, in which students can apply for Caltech’s PhD program!


    2. Aaah, yes, the guild protection for doctors, which keeps the salaries higher. Abraham Vergese describe the system pretty eloquently in The New Yorker: (the link takes you to a description of the article).

      The number of medical school slots (for MDs) is fixed and is smaller than the number of internships at hospitals. To fill those extra slots, hospitals, Verghese calls them “Ellis Island hospitals” because they are the under-resourced ones in the us, in inner cities and rurual areas, important doctors from other countries (often India).

      There’s a new twist appearing now in the modern years, the DO degree, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine), which has a different set of medical schools. People starting noting it when they realized that the White House Physician was a DO and now, you can search and find HMOs FAQs about how the DO is a perfectly good qualification, in explaining that its OK if your doctor is a DO. And its not surprising that HMOs want to expand the labor pool.


  10. I think the system for training doctors in the US is broken at a number of different levels in a way that is causing tweaks around the system in unplanned ways. The import of doctors from other countries has been part of system for decades, but now we have DOs, and the start of a few new medical schools, and more robust programs and career paths for nurse practitioners, physicians assistants and others taking on duties that doctors used to do.

    ” Using a demanding academic course is probably more fair and more reasonable than basing it on connections. ”

    I’m uncertain, because I think one of the effects of this form of weeding is that it selects in favor of academic minds for doctors. I knew someone who was an academic physician who was the attending at a VA hospital for a month a year. His major complaint was that the neurologists he was training wanted to find “interesting” cases (tumors, . . . ), not deal with and treat the run of the mill cases (strokes, head injuries, . . . .) that were the frequent cases.

    We need more people people in the medical profession. They need knowledge and analytic skills, too, but they need to be able to listen to people.


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