In 1967, after finishing a fancy education, I received an offer to be an assistant chemistry professor in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan. I took it and opened a laboratory in May of that year with the intention of doing something original in organic chemistry research. It didn’t turn out to be very useful research considering that the focus was on the nature of a chemical world in which all the molecules were so separated as to never come into contact with each other. This means that there would be no such thing as temperature. In those days, in the 1960s, a scientist could do things like that and attain praise and financial support – not possible now, when it’s important to show that something practical can come out of what goes on in the lab.
In September of that year, I met a large class of students, many of whom were trying to go to medical school. I remember standing there in front of about 250 of them whose main purpose, I correctly feared for too many, was to get me and my course out of the way so they could get where they wanted to go. Well, that’s not a great source of motivation for learning and I imagined I had a better source. How about showing these students the interesting stuff that organic chemistry is responsible for, like rubber and gasoline and even sexual hormones and then helping them discover the principles I was trying to teach by taking that “stuff” apart – good idea. However, as for any young professor, there was publish or perish to pay attention to and at any rate, no text book in the world took that approach, which could be called “backwards learning.” It seemed a shame because that’s clearly the way kids learn. Kids learn from exposure to things that are too complicated to get the meaning of right away. Mom does not hesitate to say, “I love you,” until the baby learns to speak. Anyhow, survival in the academic world came first, so I dropped that backwards idea and did what everyone else was doing and let the students hate me and the course. They can’t get you fired for doing the standard approach, so let it be. But, I was fired anyhow.
The Vietnam War was heating up while I was watching the kids in my classes avoid the terror of fighting in the war by being in my class. That was the way it worked then, before the draft lottery came in 1969. There was a great deal of anger around the campus. I had not made a secret of my antagonism to the war just as I had not kept my idea of teaching backwards to myself, which I was told caused some serious anti-war people to approach me with an offer. “Professor Green – we have some photographic slides showing how the principles you are teaching are being used by the US military in Vietnam as weapons that had been outlawed by the Geneva Convention and the weapons are being manufactured by large chemical companies that are supporting the department of the university you work in.” Quakers were the source of these slides (National Action/Research on the Military-Industrial Complex (NARMIC) working out of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The students got all riled up and I felt good about contributing to the protest against the war, a war so many of us felt was worse than unjustified, which now almost everyone agrees with. However, others who had the power to fire me convinced themselves that I had given up science for politics and therefore did not deserve to be a professor of chemistry at this wonderful institution. Sorry Green, no tenure for you. Be gone.
I did stay in the academic business, taking a circuitous path which included both being blackballed and being treated with great kindness and am now a tenured professor at the engineering school of New York University. I stopped working on worlds without temperature and switched to asking questions about how a helix can distinguish left from right. I published a lot and got plenty of grants. When I reached an advanced age, I closed my laboratory and got around to that backwards teaching idea I had so many years ago in Ann Arbor. This time, I’m approaching it in a way that is not so dangerous to the establishment: I’m writing books in which students can learn the principles of the science based on what is important to us, things that arise from application of these scientific principles. Here’s one of many: the identical chemical characteristic that allows the petroleum industry to make high octane fuel is at work in our bodies on the pathway to make the molecules that decide if we are male or female. Here are the books: Organic Chemistry Principles and Industrial Practice, 2003 co-written with Harold Wittcoff, a doyen of the chemical industry; and Organic Chemistry Principles in Context: A Story Telling Historical Approach, 2012. I’m using these books to teach the kind of class I imagined back in 1967, to motivate students, and it actually seems to be working.