October 12, 2022

LEVIN | The Problem of Weed-Out Classes

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Last week in CHEM 2070: General Chemistry, Prof. Stephen Lee, chemistry, broke out in a paroxysm of rage against students after an underwhelming performance on an in-class exercise. The Macarthur Award recipient, son of a Nobel Prize winner, frustratedly yelled at the crowded lecture hall of freshmen and sophomores, boasting his knowledge of science and demanding that students try harder to emulate him.

Some were left weeping by the time Lee packed up to leave the classroom, multiple students present for the class told me. His general chemistry course is infamous among pre-meds: a weed-out class. Weed-out classes are defined by tests designed to make students fail, unsympathetic teachers, hours of homework like a full-time job without pay and, most devastating, their proclivity to make students abandon their professional dreams altogether. These classes, taken almost exclusively by underclassmen, are generally mandatory to continue in popular majors.

After Lee’s tirade, a whirlpool of memes swept Cornell social media, playfully mocking him for his self-importance, each post amassing hundreds of likes. 

To his credit, Prof. Lee would go on to issue an apology to students via Canvas announcement after somebody forwarded him one of those memes. “Dear class, I am very sorry,” Lee began, mortified. All this after he saw a meme face-swapping his professional headshot onto the body of Christ, as if to say I, Prof. Lee, can do no wrong.

We forgive you, Prof. Lee. What we students can’t forgive, however, are the dream-crushing classes that assign too much homework, that give tests engineered to be failed, that deluge students with too much material to feasibly learn. You teach one of those classes. 

Prof. Lee’s class and other weed-out classes are a symptom of Cornell’s hypercompetitive atmosphere, an atmosphere bent on proving students wrong rather than cultivating personal growth through learning, as education should. Other teachers are just as guilty for their callous indifference to the wellbeing of their students — at least Dr. Lee could own up to his actions. 

To be clear, any prestigious school would be proud to have a professor of Lee’s caliber, but with the mental health crisis surging, particularly among young adults, and with underclassmen having fallen behind in their educational careers during the pandemic, finding themselves unprepared for college, it’s time for teachers to be more accommodating and abandon weed-out classes. It’s also time for students to make their voices heard when aloof professors fail to listen.

At New York University, pushback from students is redefining what acceptable behavior looks like for teachers. There, an award-winning Chemistry professor, praised among colleagues as a pioneer in education for a famous textbook he wrote, was fired after 82 struggling students petitioned the school, complaining of an unfair course design. The professor offered no extra credit and criticized students for what he described as a lack of focus; he barred his undergraduates from watching videotaped lectures of classes they missed, even if they were out sick, and lowered how many tests he administered from three to two, allowing his students fewer opportunities to succeed. Students had already lamented his weed-out class long before he instituted that spate of changes that would push them past the edge of hopelessness. 

The professor still denies any wrongdoing despite scores of dissatisfied D and F students claiming otherwise. 

Like clubs with acceptance rates lower than Ivy League schools and fraternities that haze students to the brink of death before they’re even considered for membership, weed-out classes go to extremes to limit students, destroy self-esteem and add to the problem of student depression. Both in the classroom and campus community, what students are experiencing at Cornell is a rugged landscape of exclusion. The classroom should be a haven for compassion removed from the vanity of college life, but many teachers see no problem writing students off.

The job of a true teacher is to communicate ideas clearly and understandably, helping students learn rather than dashing their dreams. 

Teachers of weed-out courses do just the opposite. They shrink from the task of being responsible educators. They build the illusion that students aren’t good enough despite their best efforts instead of taking charge as teachers. Sure, it’s easier to place the burden of understanding notoriously taxing topics on inexperienced students, antagonizing them when they don’t get it right on the first try, than it is to put in the added effort of making a difficult subject clear and manageable. But just because it’s easier doesn’t make it right.

I come from a family of teachers: my parents are teachers; my grandparents were teachers. My grandfather was a high school English teacher who, like many weed-out professors, was hard to please. He prided himself on his rigorous teaching philosophy: “Very few people in life deserve an A,” he’d shrug when asked by students why he graded so heavy-handedly. Most of his students never saw higher than a B when report cards came back, if they were lucky. 

I disagree with him and other difficult instructors. In life, very few people succeed — my grandfather was right about that — but everybody at least deserves a chance. Courses where test averages are below failing, where standard deviation curves alone arbitrarily decide whose dreams survive, rob students of a fair chance and a proper education. My message for teachers is straightforward: do away with weed-out classes.

As for my peers, the only way to confront uncompromising teachers who host overburdensome classes is to, like the students at NYU, give them a reality check. Those memes that twisted Prof. Lee’s diatribe into comedy, helping him see where he blundered, are proof that weed-out classes and Ivy League arrogance can’t be taken too seriously.

Gabriel Levin (he/him) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.