Friday, April 4, 2008

Moron...I mean: more on textbooks

Ask any Organic Chemistry teacher and they are sure to have an opinion on textbooks. I would guess that 98% of those asked would say that there is no perfect text out there. The 2% would include those who have written texts or work with those who have.

We teachers are all different, but I suspect what we have in common is that we tend to teach the way we learned. This may not be true all of the time, but my anecdotal evidence[1] suggests it is true more often than not.

The text I used when I was learning Organic back way back in the olden days was written by Stanley Pine. This book can't even be found on

My ideal (and evolving) approach to teaching Organic is this:
1) Review bonding, orbitals and hybridization.
2) Teach functional groups and nomenclature of almost EVERYTHING.
3) Teach physical properties of almost EVERYTHING.

The reason is that Organic is like going to a different country. If you can't speak the language, you can't communicate. So, basically the first two weeks are spent learning the language and basic "customs" of Organic Chemistry.

After learning the basic language, we can talk about mechanism. I emphasis the fact that everything in organic comes down to Coulombs law: opposites attract. If you can tell where the electrons are most likely to be, you can tell a lot about how the molecule will react.

Basically, I've adopted the philosophy of a grad school prof I once had. He said[2] "If you want to understand organic synthesis, you must fully understand physical organic chemistry first." I think he was right.

Now, to find the perfect text that presents the material how I want to teach it.....stay tuned....

[1] I regularly remind my students that "anecdotal evidence" is NOT evidence. It only suggests a trend that is worth investigating scientifically.
[2] I'm paraphrasing.


Liberal Arts Chemist said...

I don't know. Front loading your organic program with physical organic sounds like it will become a chemical death march where only the fit survive. That goes with the biblical size textbooks as well. It seems that we all adopt an almost Right Stuff approach. If the syllabus and text worked for us (who had the Right Stuff) it will work for you (who should have the Right Stuff). The rest of the students are basically here to pay the bills so sit quietly, pay your tuition and fail.

What I like about what you said is that the students should already know the rudiments of groups and nomenclature so they have some confidence with the material initially.

It's like I said on another blog. We can't teach the bottom 30% anything and the top 20% will learn in spite of what we do so our job is to somehow help the middle 50% without boring or losing the top 20% and to keep the bottom 30% in the course until the course drop deadline.

I don't know it sounds cynical but that is the way it seems to work.

the incomparable mjenks said...

In undergrad, I used the Fox and Whitesell text. It was fairly serviceable, and I think it is laid out in a manner similar to the style you teach.

At Notre Dame, they used the Loudon book (with the Knight reference in it) because Loudon was friends with Marvin Miller. When Miller didn't teach organic, they went back to McMurry. Between the two, I like McMurry slightly more than Loudon.

At NC State, they were using Carey's huge tome, and the girl I was tutoring seemed lost in the book. The size alone might be daunting for some undergrads, but overall the text was fairly easy to read and the mechanisms were good and easy to follow.

That's my $0.02...or input...or whatever.

Chemgeek said...

I won't elaborate at this time, but I find great benefit in comments like both of these.

Sorry to wax philosophical and/or sentimental, but one of the reason I started this blog was to expand my network of "colleagues" beyond the one (yes, singular) I work with (he is a great colleague, but he is just one).

Comments like these have helped me "hone my craft" so to speak. I may not always take the advice, but I always consider what is said. And that has value all by itself.


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