A Story Worth Telling

I have been teaching organic chemistry at Jefferson Community & Technical College (JCTC) in Louisville (KT) since 1994. Although we are an open-enrollment institution, with a class size of thirty students or less, the chemistry classes at JCTC resemble those at a small liberal-arts college.

I met Joel Karty in 2005 at a conference. We spent hours at that conference talking about his work in progress, a “new” textbook for organic chemistry. I was a hard sell for his proposed reorganization of the material because I had found that a “bad” textbook did not prevent me from teaching a good course. Having been forced to teach out of books not of my choosing on several occasions, I hesitated to believe that a “good” textbook would have a major impact on teaching.

I was ready, however, for a dramatic change in the organic chemistry lecture course. (The reasons I had may be the topic of a later post.)

Joel’s arguments for a book structured around mechanism types—as opposed to functional groups—came with two types of evidence: First, he had done quantitative studies which supported his proposals; he has mentioned this work in an earlier post. Second, during the discussions we had about the organic chemistry classroom, Joel established his credibility as a teacher. He is an author who has devoted attention to students’ needs.

The initial draft of Joel’s book was so different from anything I had ever seen that I was fascinated by its novelty and was eager to try it. I suggested that JCTC class test the book and provide feedback. The first year’s trial was bumpy, but by the second semester it was clear that the new curriculum had changed how students looked at organic chemistry, and in a good way.

What were some of the changes? Consider two changes that indicate that the “story of mechanism” makes an excellent thematic structure for the course:

First, the text forced me to examine my understanding of organic chemistry. I had to read and research in order to either validate the text’s presentation or to justify my interpretation of certain concepts. In addition, the experience revealed that several of my assumptions about the organic chemistry course were false. For example, while I would have denied with my dying breath that I expected my students to memorize organic chemistry, experiences with students that year demonstrated that, clearly, in some ways, I had expected them to rely on memorization.

Second, students asked me the best questions I have ever encountered, some of which I have still not researched to my satisfaction. Questions never raised by previous students, questions that reflected a strong understanding of organic chemistry, questions that I had never considered. I frequently admitted, “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”

The questions alone made the classroom exciting. This was a story with a happy ending.

— Steve Pruett

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