Everyone talks about organic chemistry as if it were the dark road through the mines of Moria with goblins and balrogs lurking at every turn. I’d heard horror stories about organic chemistry before I even knew what it was and I’m just not convinced that it’s the demon everyone makes it out to be. I realize that I’m setting myself up here, but I just don’t believe the hype.
If I do get shelled in this course, I want to really embarrass myself, so to that end, I’m going to list a few predictions and presumptions and then revisit them at the end of the semester to see how accurate I was.
First some comments on the course:
- There are 70 people in my section, of which about half are the traditional second year students and nearly everyone is aiming for something in the health sciences.
- The professor is widely regarded as a good professor, but very hard. Previous classes have commented that they believed the course was beyond its level. Whatever.
- My section is part of a pilot program for an honors course, so it’s expected that we’ll go beyond the normal scope of the course. And no honors credit either.
With that said, I still don’t believe that this course is the widow maker that everyone says it is. Here are my impressions of organic chemistry and why so many people find it to be a nightmare:
- The majority of organic chemistry students have never actually been challenged academically. High school education in the United States is a joke and first-year university classes aren’t necessarily much more rigorous. I think a lot of students that whine about how evil organic chemistry is have never actually had to study for a class before. Stop complaining.
- First-year courses aren’t rigorous enough and students show up for organic chemistry without any basic understanding of things like energy, electrostatics, and thermodynamics. Reading through my textbook the last few days has convinced me that if you don’t take a year of physics before organic chemistry, you’re asking for trouble.
- Freshman chemistry is little more than memorization, so incoming organic chemistry students have no fundamental understanding of things like the origin of orbitals, VSEPR theory, intermolecular interactions, and scores of other things. They may have memorized a bunch of charts for their exams, but they have no idea why something like water has a higher boiling point than hexane or why carbon forms four bonds and not five.
- Organic chemistry seems to focus upon understanding the mechanics behind how reactions proceed and why one is more or less favored over the other. For most students, no other course has ever required them to understand things at that level.
- While there are exceptions, second year university students have awful study habits. I’m amazed how few students read their textbooks before coming to lecture and wait to start the homework the night before it’s due.
- The hype. People believe organic chemistry is impossible because they’ve been told that it’s impossible. I don’t buy it. Difficult subject matter, sure – but not impossible if you put the time in.
- They don’t like it and don’t study as much as they should. Let’s face it – people tend to do better in subjects that they like because they’re more willing to put the time in.
After a week of lecture, I have to say I’m stoked to be studying organic chemistry. At the end of the semester, I’m going to come back to these comments and do a nice self-evaluation to determine whether I was right or wrong. It’s possible that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth during the first exam, or that I’ll have shaved my head and be walking around in sackcloth by semesters end, but I doubt it. I guess only time will tell.