Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Organic Chemistry

For the past few months, I have been doing some tutoring on the side every now and then to earn a bit of extra money. It's not much - the most I have had is two hours a week - but it has been nice. It's not so much that I like having a 'job' (honestly, it's a bit of a hassle), or even that I like getting the money. No, what I'm enjoying is the academic side of it. I really am a huge nerd. :-)

The first class I tutored was high school honors Geometry. Those who know me well might remember that due to moving between three different states in three years, I missed out on a good bit of Geometry. That would NOT have been my choice for a first tutoring assignment! But it turned out well, even though I spent most of the time learning along with the student.

Next, I took on College level pre Calculus and Business Calculus. That was fun, and I learned that I remembered a lot more about those subjects - which I hadn't formally studied in just about 10 years - than I thought I did.

And now... well. Now, I have a student who wants help with Organic Chemistry II. Many of you who have never taken an Organic Chemistry course - I believe in my extended family, my mom and I are the only ones who have - might have heard just how awful a class it is. Well, it wasn't quite that way for me. I always loved my Organic courses. They were fun, exciting even. I am almost ashamed to admit this, because it will go to show you just was a complete geek I am, but I found the exams to be fascinating. "With this certain starting product, devise a mechanism to create this ending product." You can't use a formula to devise it, and you there is probably more than one right answer - but it's not as open-ended as writing an essay for English, for example. In my opinion, there is almost nothing more genuinely fun than working Chemistry problems. Incidentally, I also felt this way about my high school AP Chemistry course, and I came out of the AP Chemistry exam excited, in a way I can hardly describe to someone who hasn't felt it. Some people have test anxiety. Well, for these classes, I had something more akin to test euphoria. That's not to say I wasn't nervous going in, but once I had a look at the problems all the nerves melted away and I started to get excited. I could do this, and I knew I could do it well.*

So tutoring for Organic Chemistry II should be a snap, right?

The problem I face is two-fold. First, for most people (and especially those who need tutoring in the subject) it doesn't come so easily to them. How am I supposed to teach the mechanics of something I've just always understood? That's like a 10-year-old trying to teach English to a foreigner. They don't know enough about the rules to understand it; they only know enough to use it. The second problem is that, while Organic Chemistry came very naturally to me, it also required remembering some basic rules that went along with it. Markovnikov and Anti-Markovnikov processes, the behavior of hindered molecules, Lewis acids and bases and Bronsted-Lowry acids and bases. Then you had to memorize the types of reactions: substitutions (SN1, SN2, etc), elimiations (E1, E2), hydrogenations, dehydrations... and then undestand the mechanisms of all of them. Oh, and you have to memorize a very complex naming system. All of that must be understood and in your memory before you can apply it to the problems.

And I haven't touched it since I passed second semester Organic Chemistry in my Junior year of college. In other words, to help in second semester O Chem, I have to relearn first semester in about a week, and learn it well enough to teach it. I'm not sure I'm up to it.

But then again, I haven't had so much fun in ages. Calculus is all well and good - and requires very little prep in order to tutor it - but it's just so bland in comparison. The first tutoring session is on Friday, and I'm about halfway through with my only-the-essentials review. I am starting to think I'll actually be finished with it by the time Friday rolls around. I just hope I've done enough to help the student. Because, despite the fun I'm having, the purpose of this review is to help him get a better grade in Organic II than he got in Organic I.

*My success in AP Chemistry was very nicely balanced by my complete lack of success in AP English. I traded bottom marks with a handful of other students all year, and barely scraped out acceptable grades. This was partly because I can't spell (yay for spellcheck!) and have a poor concept of English grammar (strange, as I always excelled at foreign language grammar), but mostly because I have NO talent for writing. Those of you who have been reading this blog long are probably not very surprised by this! My arguments aren't very cohesive, they lack organization, and conclusions - they are the bane of my existence!

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6 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Iris

    Oh wow, that's cool that you've been tutoring! I think it's pretty interesting (not geeky) that you enjoy O-chem so much because I've never met someone who likes it, period. I think the majority of people I've talked to who have taken it, dislike it.

    I imagine it would be hard to teach all the exceptions (pronunciations, spelling, etc.) to the English language to someone who doesn't understand it. We've learned the exceptions and it's second nature to us, so of course it's easy. Also, it's like certain words in the English language - you know what context to use them in, but sometimes you have trouble defining them. For example, yesterday I was talking about a motto that I live my life by, and my mom was asking me what a "motto" was. I honestly could not define it! =P

    I hope the tutoring goes well!

  • Ewokgirl

    I am sitting here in awe. I'm a language person, which is why my degree is in English. I could do math, but I never understood why I was doing it. I can plug numbers into a formula just fine, but it frustrated me not to understand the formula itself.

    I totally understand what you mean about having difficulty teaching something that you've always just understood and has come easily to you. I've always been that way about writing. I've never been a formulaic writer; I just do it, and usually do it well. When I was an English teacher, I hated to teach writing because I found it difficult to break something that I've just always done down into formulaic steps that the average student could follow.

    Best of luck to you with your tutoring job! I'm sure you'll do well. The student is already a step ahead just by having a tutor who is passionate about her subject.

  • Alan

    Ok, here's your chemistry problem. Starting from water and dirt, produce gasoline. Time starts.... Now!

    I'll help file the patent application, and then we can both retire!

  • Laura

    What a geek. ;-) But, seriously, sounds like a great opportunity. I think of my husband's math TA job... they give him the same Precalc and Calc classes over and over again, so it's a treat for him to do anything more advanced. Enjoy it while you have it; Organic II probably won't come around for you very many times!

  • Thehotrod5

    Wow! Honestly, I had never heard of O chem. Not that I a ignorant, but I took the core courses required in high school then took the courses that would help me in my career (at the time it was nursing so I was taking A&P in high school). I am definately more of a math and science person as opposed to English and History (although History is now one of my favorites to teach with the kids). Hearing you talk in this post though, it sounds overwhelming!


  • Harmony's Mom

    I must have totally forgotten all Organic Chemistry I ever learned as nothing you said sounded familiar! I can relate, though, as I was that way about Genetics after taking Biology in 9th grade. I just wanted to do more hereditary combinations, and more complicated ones, so much so that I asked my Dad to get some books with more problems from the Biology teacher at the Community College where he taught. I also feel that way about Algebra & I enjoy teaching it every year.