Who Cares?

September 9th, 2015

Another summer has come to an end, and we’re already two weeks deep into the fall semester. I spent part of my last day of summer freedom updating my calendar for the semester, and it was not pretty. So many classes, so many office hours, so many meetings.

I’ve seen a variety of approaches that professors take to the first day of class. Some just review the syllabus and call it a day. Some play icebreaking games and have students introduce themselves, while others dive right into the first chapter of the text. For me, I spend most of the first lecture addressing the question:

Why should I care about organic chemistry?

In broad strokes, we go over what we will learn in the class and why this information is important for scientists and health professionals. Here’s the opening slide from the deck:


If you can’t make a strong case why your class is important to students, why should they waste time studying it?

For me, the argument extends beyond why organic chemistry is important in and of itself. While I hope that some of my love of the subject rubs off, I am under no delusions that everyone will enjoy the class. Many students take it simply to fulfill a requirement for their degree or pre-health program. In these cases, I equate the class to Brussels sprouts. While the dish might be hard to stomach, eating it is good for you and necessary for mom to bring dessert. If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to have to do well in organic. So do it. If your career goal is what motivates you, let it motivate you to do well in orgo.

My view on “who cares?” or “why should I care?” extends to attendance. I don’t take attendance, because it’s irrelevant. My job as an instructor is to: (i) teach course material and (ii) judge student mastery of the material. If students see fit to invest their time in something other than my class, that’s just as likely a statement about the ineffectiveness of my lectures than a statement about their lack of motivation. The student is in the best position to judge my value to them as a teacher. If a student believes their time is better spent elsewhere, that’s fine. When grading, I’ll be calling balls and strikes the same way I would for all of the other students. Once again, attendance is irrelevant—except for mine.

Providing a compelling answer to “who cares?” is just as important outside of the classroom. When giving a talk, you need to invest a few minutes at the beginning to help your audience understand why your research is important. If you don’t, what’s going to stop people from checking their phones and tuning you out? If you find yourself having trouble explaining to your audience why your research is interesting or important, perhaps you should work on something else.

And when writing a paper, one of the first things you should address is why anyone should care about your work. If your reader doesn’t think your research is interesting or important, why should she read it? Why do so many papers in chemistry journals open with sentences like “Dullicin B is a toxin produced by the Ithacan slug, Limax cornellicus“?

Who cares?

Is your paper about the isolation of the compound? No. Do chemists care about mollusks? Not especially. So why would you waste prime real estate in your opening paragraph talking about these pieces of trivia? By all means, share these details, but do it later in the paper after you’ve already hooked the reader.

Journalists are taught this approach as the inverted pyramid, and they use it because readers are prone to move to the next story at any moment. Perhaps scientists would use a similar approach if anyone bothered to teach us about writing.

31 Responses to “Who Cares?”

  1. Chem Unjobber Says:

    Sorry Paul, but day #1 in OC 1 is already time to get serious about teaching. You see, the majority of your students already have a prejudice against the subject, and you need to help them by teaching them it and relating to them in the context of teaching. Philosophising about it may help YOU, but it doesn’t help THEM.

    I have taught the subject for eight years now; the only reason that I’m not a tenured professor is because of not having attended an elite university in this country.

  2. Professor Steve Says:

    This concept is an important part of my first day duties as well. I think Ken Bain calls it the WGAD principle, for “Who Gives a Damn?” I keep trying new pedagogical and assessment tools every year, but the need to hook students from the beginning is essential. That first day is huge for building rapport with your class, as is learning their names as soon as possible.

    Regarding the importance of orgo to the MCAT, it seems the 2015 version of the test is heavily deemphasizing our foundational subject. Having not taken it myself, last week I overheard a student talking about the test. He said there were only a few questions on organic chem. Personally, I find that hard to believe, but perhaps there’s an element of truth to it. What have you and your readers heard?

  3. Hap Says:

    I don’t think it’s helping Paul to justify to students why they should care about organic chemistry. Most students take it because they have to (and know they have to), and that isn’t necessarily going to be enough to get through it or do well at it. If the reasons he gives to care about it aren’t valid, telling them isn’t going to convince anyone, and if they are, then he obviously knows them himself and doesn’t need convincing (so telling them to the class isn’t for his good). I don’t know if it does any good, though.

    When we gave talks in grad school, we were taught to spend time at the beginning explaining why anyone should care. If I’m the fifth talk in a pile of them, I shouldn’t spend half the time rehashing my reasons for doing this research and the numerous precedents for it, but there should be something to tell people why it should matter to them what I did (rather than why it matters to me).

    I don’t know if it’s true, but I wonder if understanding organic would decrease the amount you have to memorize or quickly understand in biochemistry and pharmacology to do well at it – if it were true, that would be another argument for pre-meds why it would be good to learn organic well.

  4. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Chem Unjobber:

    I think we have very different philosophies and styles of teaching. I don’t consider investing 25 minutes of the first class on why the subject is important as not being “serious about teaching”. I also think it is too cynical—even for me—to approach a class with the idea that “the majority of your students already have a prejudice against the subject”. For one reason or another, the vast majority of these students want to be there.

    My hunch is that most of what the students actually learn they teach to themselves; I don’t teach it to them. My time as an instructor is best spent facilitating this process, planting seeds of new ideas and helping them to make connections between the ideas they’ve already learned.


    While they might seem obvious to us, I don’t think all of the reasons I give for the importance of orgo are necessarily obvious to the students.

    And I agree about not always needing the “why care?” portion of a talk. The audience at a group meeting or Gordon conference should already have a solid idea of the motivation for the work, but the same can’t be said for departmental seminars and ACS meetings.

  5. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Professor Steve:

    I have heard similar about the MCAT. Basically, a lot of the physical organic material is deemphasized in favor of orgo in the context of biology and biochemistry. We did a complete audit of our courses at SLU to make sure we were covering all of the topics on the new MCAT in one course or another, but just because these topics are listed doesn’t mean they’ll write a lot of questions about them. I’d be very interested to see what types of orgo questions actually appear on the exam.

  6. Hap Says:

    No, I was assuming that students don’t necessarily know why they are taking organic other than because they have to to do what they want – I was figuring that either your reasons were correct (in which case their exposition would be useful to students) or they were wrong in which case it was a waste of time.

    I generally figure that in some form a “Why do you care” discussion needs to be there – it just needs to be tailored to the audience and the venue. It also should have actual practical meaning (I’m tired or hearing how hydrosilylations with stoichiometric silanes are going to be useful for making fuels, or how making small- to medium-volume chemicals using CO2 is going to slow global warming).

  7. In principal Says:

    I have to respectfully disagree, at least concerning the question of “who cares?” In regard to research and publishing. The “correct” answer to “who cares” should be “I (the researcher) do” and the rest of the world is welcome to care, but it is not required. Sometimes there is a lag between when research is done and the applications are understood–do you think Stern or Gerlach was considering MRIs for medical diagnostics when they published their seminal paper on spin in 1922?

    When did the university become a business that sells solutions instead of a place where ones curioiusity is explored?

  8. Hap Says:

    Because other people need to know why they’re spending their time listening to you, or why listening to you isn’t a waste of their finite time. With funding, while no one knows exactly what will work out, funding agencies don’t have enough funding to fund everyone, and so they have to choose who to fund, and if you can explain why they should fund you rather than others, that would help them (and maybe you). If you can fund your own work, and don’t need anyone else, then “This is important to me, and maybe you’ll like it” is sufficient, but for most things, that’s not the case. (Even if that’s sufficient to perform the research, it’s probably not sufficient for other people to use the results you got.)

    For students, the nature of universities is not what it used to be (more for getting a job, less for personal and intellectual construction), and certainly the nature of authority isn’t either (“Because this is best for you” probably isn’t going to fly, considering at least in some cases, schools don’t care what is best for you, but for them). People have to show up, but they don’t have to give much of themselves if they don’t have some other reason to care. When people have a reason to care about the material (rather than “Because I say so”), others might get more out of it too, and everybody wins.

    Almost everyone has someone for whom they work, and it’s generally a good idea to give some thought to them, even if why they care isn’t why you do.

  9. J.S. Boc Says:

    I’ve adopted the “who cares” lecture for the first day and received a lot of positive feedback from my students. When they come in on the first day, all they’re thinking (for the most part) is “this class is gonna be so hard!!” My impression is that at the end of the lecture at least some of those students change their tune to “this class will be challenging but it will be interesting”.

  10. Xrayjay Says:

    “My hunch is that most of what the students actually learn they teach to themselves; I don’t teach it to them. My time as an instructor is best spent facilitating this process, planting seeds of new ideas and helping them to make connections between the ideas they’ve already learned.”

    You must have just about the smartest 2nd year orgo students on the face of the earth if that is true.

  11. Howard Peters Ph.D. J.D. Says:

    Hmmm. I find some interesting comments here. But then Paul’s posts are usually never bland. And as I look back over 50 years ago to my undergraduate O-chem courses, I realize that there was a lot less to learn back then. There were fewer O-compounds. Analytical/spectral methods were primitive, etc. In O-chem there were/are volumes of material to master and organize. I was motivated – because it was a required course. Back then I did not recognize it, but I had at least one advantage: The ability to think in three dimensions. I now consider the ability to master O-chem is correlated directly to the ability of the student to think quickly in three dimensions. Are there now tests for that? What do you think? FYI – After Stanford grad school, I spent 12 years in O-chem lab chemistry in high explosives, etc. at Dow and SRI Int., then night law school working full time and 30 years as a patent attorney in the Silicon Valley – now retired. Chemistry provides the basis to understand the many changes in the physical world around us.

  12. luysii Says:

    Well this retired neurologist thinks that every pre-med should take and pass organic chemistry (and not solely for its intrisic beauty or relevance to biochemistry).


  13. luysii Says:

    Actually there’s more you should think about when beginning to teach organic chemistry to pre-meds. The following was posted 5 years ago but it’s still true


  14. bad wolf Says:

    I have long thought about something like Paul’s approach, mostly on the basis of “what i would have liked to have heard when i was in their position”, although i would of course have different interests and rationales. Paul is more materials-oriented while pharma/medchem might be a point of interest. I would throw in a few other things trying to delineate the difference between Organic and Gen Chem, Organic and Biochem, and illustrating what sorts of things this field can be applied to. And maybe a little about approaches to studying the material and that it shouldn’t be overly intimidating.

    Chem Unjobber’s approach (and attitude) may be more traditional but that doesn’t mean things can’t be updated without turning the whole process into a dog-and-pony show. Still, maybe the lack of a big-name school isn’t the only thing holding him/her back.

  15. Lara Says:

    I have been teaching organic chemistry for 6 years, first at a top liberal arts college, and now at a research institution, and I always use a large part of the first class in Organic 1 to address the “why organic chemistry is important” issue. I’ve never gotten any negatives feedback. In fact, students tell me later, some much later, that that first class helped them get a handle on their anxiety about the course. Others come up to me right after the lecture to tell me how excited they are about the course. If nothing else, getting them excited and giving them something to look forward to is worth the time. I agree with Paul on this one.

  16. Lara Says:

    I should add that my approach is to present the big picture – medicinal chemistry/pharmaceuticals, materials science, food science, biomedical research and, just to get the last few who are still not convinced, I throw in Breaking Bad. I also talk about the process of learning how to solve problems, because, let’s be honest, few medical students/doctors ever think about the Diels-Alder reaction but they often have to solve problems they’ve never seen using information that they already have.

  17. luysii Says:

    Lara ” let’s be honest, few medical students/doctors ever think about the Diels-Alder reaction but they often have to solve problems they’ve never seen using information that they already have.”

    That’s exactly been my experience as a practicing neurologist from ’68 – ’00 (after a Masters in Chemistry from Woodward ’60 – ’62). Have a look at — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/why-organic-chemistry-should-always-be-taken-and-passed-by-pre-meds/ — for more detail.

    Feel free to pass the link on to your students.

  18. Chem Unjobber Says:

    Hi Paul,

    My approach is not cynical, but rather is based on my interpersonal experience with undergraduates. They want to hear that the faculty member is on their team and respects them as a person, because that helps them relate to a subject which most – and by that I mean 80 to 90% – find to be neuropsychologically challenging. Their brains just don’t naturally process pictorial information in the same way as we do. You may appreciate this after you have taught for a few years.

    Consequently, the method which I use I relate to students was determined on a trial-and-error basis: Students are not dumb, and already know what they want: I don’t have to explain that to them. Otherwise, they would not endure a class on a subject which has a notorious reputation. I use a personal, 1-on-1 stage presence and a few gimmicks to interact with the entire class. For example, I invited the students to point out my errors on the whiteboard. If they can do so, then I threw them a piece of hard candy. of course, who cares about a piece of candy, but the students sure as heck followed what I write on the whiteboard. In preference to text messaging or checking out the neighbor of the opposite gender. The strategy is to find the lowest common denominator.

    That is why I received very good student evaluations through this approach. The backward university which fired me because my research was suddenly declared to be non-relevant to the State even received a petition supporting me from those same students. We are talking about Orgo I here.

  19. bad wolf Says:

    @Unjobber–Still, perhaps you could try such an introduction at a future opportunity. Just because you are rated ‘good’ doesn’t mean there’s no possibility to improve. Lara’s approach sounds great to me personally.

  20. John Spevacek Says:

    Wow, so late to the discussion.

    Paul, I agree with your approach. In my first lecture (albeit, Gen Chem, not Org Chem), I had them laughing and then later crying with pictures and videos of what I had done throughout my career, and how when I was a freshman some 30 years ago, I never, EVER thought that taking General Chemistry would lead me to running chemical experiments underground in a Colorado mine or how the proudest day of my career would be when I found out I had made a woman cry…

    And then I laid down the hammer, and told them they weren’t in high school anymore and…and then I picked them back up and told them that lots of help was available if they would ask and…

    And that’s the beauty of teaching. And for those that get it, it is the most incredible thing. And for those that think it is the prize at the end of a long and fought after battle, one that all their previous teachers have held out to them as such an incredible reward, it will just be…………….I honestly don’t know what.

    It will still be rewarding and such, but it won’t feel the same. It won’t. It can’t. It isn’t.

  21. Chem Unjobber Says:

    Hi bad wolf ,

    You do indeed have a point, and I do not exclude further improvements along the lines of your suggestions, should the opportunity present itself (albeit not as a VAP or adjunct :-( ). This follows from my belief that teaching can always be improved.

    On the other hand, I must metaphorically ask what the agenda of a university or a department really is: evidence -through feedback- that both teaching and research can be epitomized within the same faculty member is not readily apparent. Instead, one seems to quasi-automatically follow from the other. At least in terms of accolades by university wonks.

    I realize that in saying this, that I walk on thin ice.

  22. wolfie Says:

    oha :_ I have given up my prior life altogether, and now I am a privatier.

  23. wolfie Says:

    Of course : I dont’ have to teach black students over bavarian beer at St. Luois or not

  24. wolfie Says:

    cause I’nm from Havevord, or hEaven, which is almost the same


  25. wolfie Says:

    to you

  26. wolfie Says:

    Benju Sezen

  27. wolfie Says:

    mai o mai, it’s Octpberfest

  28. wolfie Says:

    And :I do not care.

  29. Nobel Says:

    No nobel prize prediction this year, Paul?

  30. bad wolf Says:

    @Nobel–Apparently he doesn’t need to waste it on his own blog now.

  31. nike 3 Says:

    [Wet Republic] is my favorite pool.
    nike 3 http://www.25jahre.org/m184/

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