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What do chemistry problem sets, a manifesto, a picture of the Unabom suspect and a quote from former president Richard M. Nixon all have in common?
They have all appeared in postings on the Chemistry 5: "Introduction to Principles of Chemistry" discussion group on the World Wide Web.
Scattered throughout the list of questions that beg for help on course homework are a string of laments and a war of words among students and teaching fellows (TFs) which has more flame than a Bunsen burner.
In particular, one student's brash criticisms of the course's depth have caused students and staff to examine the delicate balance between commentary and chemistry in the discussion group.
It all began with the first exam.
"Why? why? this sucks, damn chem. damn it" one student posted using the name "afailure."
The student was later joined by others bemoaning their grades on the Oct.j7 18 test.
Section leaders and even the course head himself, James E. Davis, lecturer and head tutor in chemistry, responded to the postings, trying to encourage the disheartened. "You WILL get the hang of it," wrote Davis.
But not all of the students sympathized with their classmates.
"We are in college now. Act like it. College is about perseverance, not giving up after the first test," posted one student.
The discussion group quieted down after that. That is, at least, until the manifesto.
"WHO WRITES THESE PROBLEM SETS????" screamed the blinking headline of the posting by a student calling himself Bromobenzene Boy. "There are a whole bunch of badly written and inaccurate questions problem set 6 [sic]," he wrote on Nov. 1.
He went on to allege that the data in the problem sets are inaccurate, that they "reinforce bad habits" and that the wording is unclear.
"This sort of stuff has been going on all throughout the course," he said. "On one hand the teaching staff nitpicks details, on the other it plays fast and loose with those same details."
Bromobenzene's comments did not go unnoticed.
"I am quite concerned about this 'Manifesto,'" TF Ted West wrote. "My own philosophy is that problem sets are an opportunity for students to learn about how to think about the material discussed in lecture and covered in the text."
"[Problem sets] should challenge students to think about the subject matter...They SHOULD do [that]. Which is to say, I don't think they do," replied Bromobenzene.
"The 'answer you are looking for' is usually the product of a quite plug'n'chug formula application," he wrote. "I see no depth in the problems, only good ol' down home high school style busywork."
At the bottom of his reply, a flashing signature sits above the well-publicized FBI sketch of the Unabom suspect.
Bromobenzene was joined by other students who expressed their frustration at the course.
"I agree totally with Bromobenzene Boy," reads one posting. "The problem sets are so unclear...it's just plain badly written."
But TFs in the course disagreed with Bromobenzene Boy's assertions.
"All of the questions were clear enough, and there were no glaring errors. [Bromobenzene] attempts to nitpick, but he fails to dig anything up," wrote TF Tim J. Dransfield in an e-mail yesterday.
Most of the students who posted replies did not side with Bromobenzene either.
"Little Boy - please grow up," wrote one student.
"Enroll in Chem 10. Maybe then you'll be happy," wrote another.
Members of the teaching staff also questioned Bromobenzene's motives in their replies.
"If you want to learn something deeper, BBB, it is your responsibility to do so!" wrote Dransfield. "This course cannot delve into Quantum Mechanics, but you can, if, as you say, you are truly interested in learning more, and not just spouting half-truths and nit picking."
Other TFs expressed concern about the effect on the discussion group.
"I am afraid that the discussion group has devolved from its original design as a source of academic help," wrote John F. Love. "I fear that your monopolistic use of it as an avenue for combative personal expression may have a chilling effect on others' willingness to use this wonderful tool of technology for more noble ends."
Love called Bromobenzene's writings "self-indulgent, computerized warmongering" and the use of the Unabomber's photo "of the lowest possible taste."
Davis joined in the dialogue, perhaps a little less bothered by the postings than his teaching fellows.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate for people to blow off steam on the discussion group as well as to ask for help with the problem sets," he posted.
He added that he was genuinely interested in some of Bromobenzene's allegations.
"I would be very pleased to meet with you to talk about the things you raised in your piece...I'm not angry, just concerned," Davis said.
Bromobenzene later wrote that he is dismayed at the way people interpreted his writings but that he is glad that they prompted discussion of the course.
"Discourse is exactly what I was looking for," he wrote.
But Bromobenzene decided to call it quits, citing concern about his grade should his identity be discovered.
"You won't have Bromobenzene Boy to kick around anymore," he wrote in his final posting on Nov.4.
After a final message from Davis on Nov. 6, which urged Bromobenzene to call him, the discussion group has proceeded onto more academic grounds.
In midterm evaluations of the course received this week, many students expressed disapproval of Bromobenzene's messages.
"Please ban manifestos," reads one. "Down with Bromobenzene Boy," says another.
Davis said he is considering dividing the discussion group into two, one for "straight chemistry" and one for general discussion.
As for how his students feel about the course to date, Davis said he doesn't think Bromobenzene's view is representative of the class.
"I think from the informal evaluations that it's not a widely held viewpoint, but I would love to pursue it," Davis said.
"Everybody's entitled to their opinion," he said.
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