Organic Chemistry’s Reputation Built on Unnecessary Anxiety

CJ Blair, Columnist

If Principles of Organic Chemistry were assigned a character based on its reputation, it would be the shark from Jaws swimming in a pool of undergraduate minnows.

I can’t think of another class so notorious that its reputation extends beyond the people who take it. Every non-science major at Oberlin can tell you about friends in organic chemistry who have panicked over failed exams, botched labs or plummeting GPAs. These stories have held true for generations, and taking orgo is now seen as a formative experience of suffering that unites all Biology and Chemistry majors. But organic chemistry has more or less stayed the same all this time, so it’s worth asking why students still haven’t figured it out.

The answer is complex, and if it weren’t, everyone in my class would have an A and would walk into class smiling — but they don’t. After almost a full semester, I’ve decided that organic chemistry is infamous because it marks the transition between thinking you know a subject and actually knowing it. This transition happens in all areas of study and in life, but orgo is a rare instance in which it is given a name, face and notoriety.

Organic chemistry typically comes after a student has taken two semesters of introductory chemistry, classes consisting of a hodgepodge of concepts related by drawing dots around capital letters. After general chemistry is complete, organic makes a simple request: Apply those principles to chemical reactions. This is when students realize that it will no longer suffice to use one concept at time. They must now apply them all at the same time to complete every single problem.

The request to integrate concepts isn’t uncommon for college classes, but the intimidation surrounding organic chemistry adds unreasonable pressure for students to succeed. Students taking it hear absolutes like “It’s the reason people don’t finish pre-med,” and “It’s the first grade graduate schools look at,” every day. Even if these statements are true, the crippling anxiety these claims induce can crush a student’s chance for success rather than encourage them to excel.

This brings me to my point: Students do poorly in organic chemistry because they’re afraid to fail. This may seem like a paradox, but consider a baby afraid to speak before it can say a full sentence, or a saxophonist who won’t play a note until he knows every John Coltrane solo. If people shied away from everything they did until they were natural experts, they would run into something that requires practice and shut down. When a goal is daunting, I tell myself it will be hard to achieve, but never really consider that I’ll have to screw up along the way. When I started orgo, I realized this fear of getting anything less than the best ensured I would miss the learning that is inherent in failure.

To do well in organic chemistry, I believe that my classmates and I have to embrace the demoralizing feeling that comes from not understanding the material and use it to figure out what we’re missing. If we don’t dare to be wrong, whatever we get right will come from luck. As a Biology major, it’s hard for me to say that I enjoy orgo, but it’s already taught me more about the process of learning than any other class, and I’ll be a lot more content with the experience if I walk out understanding the content than if I get an A.

When asked what drove him to practice so hard in spite of his handicap, blind jazz pianist Marcus Roberts said, “I [didn’t] want to be participating in the noble, savage notion of being an artist who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.” If students in organic chemistry took this to heart and chose to value genuine understanding over faking their way to an A, then I guarantee the cloud of anxiety surrounding the class would be diminished. And who knows — they might see their grades improve, too.