By James Ashenhurst
Last updated: March 27th, 2019
Feb 18, 2010: Wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my career. I wanted to teach, but after two years of failed academic applications, I didn’t want to go through that process again. The industrial job picture back in North America was looking pretty bleak too. With those avenues seemingly exhausted, and with more time on my hands than I was used to, I figured I could take some risks. After a lot of thought, I thought the best way forward was to start a small business. If everything worked out, I could work for myself, do something I loved, and solve our two-Ph.D. household problem. So I started this little blog with the idea of promoting an online tutoring service.
Putting up my first post on “Orgo Hacks” (wince) was terrifying as hell. Fortunately my fears were put to rest when I quickly discovered that virtually nobody read it. First lesson in blogging: people care far less about you than you think they do.
It took 2 months to get a student, and a long time to get any readers. I started off not knowing very much at all about teaching organic chem. But months later, after dozens of students (n=39) hundreds of hours of 1-on-1 meetings, and a year of writing blog posts, I feel that I’ve made a little bit of progress.
Here are some lessons from a year of doing this:
1) Not taking the basics for granted.
I had to re-learn what it’s like to see this course for the first time. My first few months of blog posts probably aimed too high.One thing that surprised me in talking to students was how much trouble many of them had with things I’d consider basic, like going from condensed formulas to line diagrams, understanding brackets, seeing “hidden” hydrogens, and rotating molecules. I underestimated that takes time and practice to develop these skills.
[Does anyone know of some efficient online tools out there that can help students pick up these skills more quickly? This is a bottleneck that can be addressed with automated drills.]
2) I haven’t found anything better than problem-solving as a technique for success. I still think that “just do all the problems” is lazy advice (however well-intentioned), but for a university level ochem course a purely conceptual approach is insufficient. There’s too much complexity. Just like there’s a difference between being able to read a language and knowing how to speak it, problems force you to apply concepts and develop skills. I still think that the choosing of appropriate problems for each student/course is essential, and I think there’s a lot of deep thinking to be done in assigning particular problems for the development of specific skills. Looking forward to getting better at this.
3) Motivation trumps all. At lunch with a distinguished academic a few years ago, I asked him if there was a distinguishing characteristic shared by his best graduate students. He named four factors. The first was scientific curiosity. The second was maturity. The third was work ethic. Intelligence actually came fourth. Having done this for a year, I don’t see a strong difference between the factors that make a great graduate student and those who do well in undergraduate studies. I think a coach can make a tremendous difference in helping a non-brilliant but hard-working student overcome their problems. On the other hand, I’ve seen really bright students basically mail it in and do poorly because they fundamentally aren’t that motivated. I don’t know what I can do about that.
Understanding the factors behind that maturity and work ethic is really interesting and not something I pretend to understand.
4) Videoconferencing has arrived as a technology.
I was fearing that technical problems might end up killing this little online tutoring idea, but Skype has been amazing. The only times things were really unworkable were Shabbat evenings in our Jerusalem neighborhood when everyone was jumping on the internet at the same time (now that we’re in Snowmobileville, this is no longer a problem). With applications like FaceTime coming onstream, the opportunities for people to have “virtual” office hours will explode.
5) This is really fun.
I was scared to start a blog and put myself out there. There may have been some raised eyebrows from former colleagues (“so what do you really want to do, James?”). That’s understandable. But guess what? Running a small business is fun. Writing about organic chemistry is fun. Working for myself is fun. The students have been fantastic. The money is… not good, but workable. I am confident enough in our finances that I’ve been doing this full-time since we moved back to Canada. I even invested in a $15 rice cooker this week.
If there’s a big lesson in all of this, it’s that I basically decided to stop worrying about building up my CV so that some hiring committee would be impressed by it and just go out and create something that people would find valuable. And although a lot of things on this website are far from perfect, the fact that some people have thought highly enough of it to bother subscribing, commenting, or writing in with suggestions and encouragement means that this has been successful in some regard. So on this blogaversary, I especially want to thank you, readers – 95,901 pageviews over the past year – for supporting “Master Organic Chemistry”. I plan to be doing this for many years to come. And I’m always looking for advice on how I can make it more useful!