April 17, 2009

Bad chemistry

The most fun I have ever had as a chemistry major was the time my second year when the chemistry department moved out of Searle before its renovation. The labs had all gotten brand-spanking-new equipment to match their brand-spanking-new quarters in the GCIS across the street, and everything they had left in Searle was up for grabs.

It was incredible. I spent the better part of a week exploring and pillaging, as did many of my Snell-Hitchcock friends, who were busily preparing for Scav Hunt. There must have been tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars of equipment that had simply been left behind. I took a blast shield. I took ring stands and aspirators and beakers and pieces of glassware that looked suspiciously like bongs. One lab had left an entire mass spectrometry apparatus, complete with a DOS computer terminal. Other labs had left intricate synthesis set-ups: dozens of feet of interconnected tubes and beakers and valves, straight out of a mad-scientist movie. One of my friends took a jar each of sodium and potassium, both stored under mineral oil to prevent the violent explosion that happens when alkali metals are exposed to air.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite felt happier to be a chemistry major than I did that day. It was partly because raiding Searle was one of those “OHMYGOD THIS IS SO COOL” experiences, but also partly because the undergraduate chemistry program at the U of C kind of, well, sucks.

Do you know anyone who’s enjoyed Gen Chem or O-Chem? Me neither—and I actually like the subjects, unlike the bloodsucking children of Satan known as pre-meds who make up the majority of students in the classes.

But it’s more telling that few chemistry majors speak fondly of even upper-level chemistry classes. And in comparison to the two other majors in the physical sciences—math and physics—the chemistry major looks even worse.

For example, four separate people run the undergraduate program in math. It’s headed by Paul Sally, widely regarded as the best math teacher on campus, and run on a day-to-day basis by two senior lecturers whose full-time job it is to teach and advise undergrads. They even have their own secretary. Physics is similar, with a full-time senior lecturer and secretary devoted to the undergraduate program and an additional senior lecturer whose primary occupation is teaching and advising undergrads.

The chemistry major, by contrast, is run by a full-time researcher, a professor who receives the title of “Undergraduate Chemistry Advisor” as a departmental assignment, the main responsibility of which seems to be buying us pizza once or twice a year and telling us about how we can get scholarships for grad school.

Or consider electives. The math department offers 19. Physics offers 7. Chemistry? Zero. It’s almost as if the department expects us not to want to take any more chemistry classes than we absolutely have to.

Or consider course evaluations. The seriousness with which the physics department takes course evaluations is almost ludicrous. I distinctly remember filling out four different evaluations each quarter that I was in General Physics—one for the lecturer, one for the discussion T.A., one for the lab T.A., and one for the labs themselves. And even though most course evaluations are now online, the physics department continues to hand out paper evaluations in class, in order to keep a high response rate. Math does the same. But I don’t think I had ever filled out a single evaluation for a chemistry course until they started showing up in cMore. The department simply isn’t interested in feedback about the quality of its teachers.

Or consider the T.A.s. In the math department, graduate students can only T.A. courses after they’ve finished all their coursework. But T.A.s for Gen Chem and O-Chem are exclusively first-year graduate students—most of whom do not have any experience teaching, and many of whom are unfamiliar with the particulars of the American educational system and the basics of English grammar. And at the same time they’re supposed to be helping students with homework questions and lab experiments, they’ve got their own homework and classes to worry about.

Or consider who teaches. Chemistry classes are taught exclusively by professors. Ordinarily this would be a cause for commendation and not criticism, and as anyone who has taken organic synthesis with Milan Mrksich or thermodynamics with Aaron Dinner can attest, the department has some great teachers. But most of the professors make it no secret that they’d rather be doing anything than teaching undergraduates, who by and large will not go on to become chemistry professors like themselves.

Far more people learn about redox reactions and Gibbs free energy than would ordinarily choose to, thanks to the requirements of medical schools and the biology major. This is a fantastic opportunity for the chemistry faculty members to show these students how awesome their field is, and to pass on their passion for chemistry. They squander it.

Even if you haven’t taken chemistry, there are only so many times you can read course evaluations like “Made students cry” or “Aggressive and rude” before you realize the frighteningly antagonistic relationship that develops in these classes. It’s not about the material—it’s about professors versus students.

And that is the real tragedy.

Andrew Alexander is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. He is a Viewpoints Editor of the Maroon.