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A Hidden Curriculum (#1196)

Topics/tags: Academia, things I was writing anyway

This week, I participated in a workshop on The Hidden Curriculum. I’ve always thought about the Hidden Curriculum primarily in terms of the hidden aspects of college, the things that are understood but not always said explicitly, the things some students learned in high school and others didn’t. It’s problematic because not knowing things disadvantages you.

For example,

  • If you don’t know what Office Hours are, you won’t take advantage of them. There’s evidence that some students think of Office Hours as Faculty Protected Time rather than Time Faculty are explicitly available to students.
  • If you haven’t learned [1] how to read a syllabus, you will not be able to extract/take advantage of the relevant information [2].
  • If you don’t reciever explicit rubrics, or you don’t know what a rubric is, you may have significantly more difficulty meeting faculty expectations.
  • If you don’t understand something in a reading, you’re generally not supposed to skip over it. Depending on the situation, you might be expected to ask a peer, ask your professor, or do follow-up research [3].

As a few colleagues said, For some students, it feels like there was a memo that other people got but they didn’t.

In the workshop, I learned that there are really Hidden Curricula, plural, although I wouldn’t choose to call them that. There’s a Hidden Curriculum on how you’re supposed to behave as a junior faculty member (e.g., building a list of people who can serve as reviewers, knowing how to get invited to join an NSF panel). There are also Hidden Curricula in how you behave in different situations: at a concert, at a formal dinner, at the bowling alley.

I took the workshop primarily to explore how to better address the Hidden College Curriculum for students. But we’ve been spending a lot of time on other Hidden Curricula, too. Our assignment for the third day of the workshop asked us to reflect on them. Let’s see. What were the questions?

  • Identify a topic or area of hidden curriculum present in a broader context (Department, Division, Academic Field, Campus, etc.) you would like to discuss.
  • See if you can pick up on norms or values that are held by the College but not documented or written down.

Or is that one question with a follow-up? I’m not sure; I wasn’t at the workshop when the questions were asked [4]. I’m not even sure whether we can choose more than one, which is always my temptation.

So, let’s go.

One of the most important aspects of the Hidden Curriculum I see for our students is the particular details of each faculty member’s expectations, policies, and behaviors. Which ones will grant you an extension if you just ask? Which will grant you an extension if you give a good rationale? Which ones will start penalizing you the instant after the assignment is due? Which ones will pay more attention to issues of academic honesty, and what particular policies will they care about? Which ones will answer email at off hours (yes, I know that’s generally considered a bad practice, but students sometimes need help during off hours)? Which ones are okay if you drop by their office just to shoot the breeze? What documentation do they expect for various issues? What do they mean by excused absence and unexcused absences? Which ones will show up to your athletic, musical, theatrical, or other events? Which ones will be more understanding of mental health issues? Perhaps most generally, which ones are open to special requests (or don’t even consider them special) and which ones will be offended by such requests?

All of these can have a significant effect on a student’s experience in classes. Few are documented well.

I realize for extensions and absences, many people have tried to set up clear and unambiguous policies. But broader institutional signaling sometimes conflicts. For example, I know of a faculty member who has a policy something like two missed quizzes permitted; no excuses needed. What happens if, say, you get Covid and can’t make it to the quiz? It may be that they believe that illness is just one of many reasons to miss a quiz. It may be that they believe that Covid is an appropriate exception and should not count.

I don’t know that we can document all the hidden faculty behaviors and expectations, as well as the differences between them. I’m not sure many of us would want all of them documented. Sam is a softie; ask for an extension and you’ll probably get one means that people sometimes deprioritize my class. But it’s also that I don’t think we can predict every situation let alone document every situation.

A host of values seem to be at play here. One is instructor autonomy. Each of us is free to choose their own policies and practices and to document them (or not document them) as they wish. For some of the practices, such as extensions, I see a conflict between a value (?) of prepare students for the real world, where people don’t make exceptions and the alternate of perhaps everyone should be making exceptions. Alternately, there’s a conflict between equality (e.g., You can miss up to two quizzes; I don’t I don’t care why you miss) and equity (e.g., I acknowledge that some students may need multiple mental health days to get through the semester).

This past academic year, there was a problematic conflict between institutional messaging that encouraged faculty to be more flexible and institutional procedures (such as those from the Registrar’s office) that remained surprisingly rigid.

I’d also say that we had a piece of the Hidden Curriculum come up in our early discussions, and that’s what students are expected to do when they hit a part of a reading, handout, or video that doesn’t make sense [5]. In some situations (e.g., when an instructor assigns 200 pages of reading between two class sessions), faculty might assume that students will skip over the parts they don’t understand and perhaps make a note that they should ask in class. In some situations, faculty might expect students to do some exploration or research to figure out more. In some, faculty might ask students to ask them.

One norm that seems to underlay this issue is that most faculty are the kinds of people—who either naturally or by training—dig into the terms or concepts they don’t understand (e.g., habitus, devolved regions of the UK, and BAME all appeared in one of our readings). We expect others to be similarly inquisitive.

The institution also values this approach; it’s part of being a life-long learner. (Is that a value? I think it is.)

Since I’m a broken record, or at least I play one on the Interweb, I’ll note that our policies on class workload provide a situation in which we have what appears to be a clear policy (a four-credit class should require approximately twelve hours of work each week, including both in-class time and out-of-class time) that leaves many of the details hidden (twelve hours for who and for what grade?) and that is not necessarily even followed by most faculty (e.g., I’ve heard some faculty say that they expect the number of hours students should spend for a class depends on the level).

We have also yet to have a substantive conversation on what a 48-hour base work week—not counting other expectations (paid work; clubs, arts, and sports; social development; etc.)—does to our students.

Unfortunately, the only value I see in this policy is that we do things for show, rather than with substantive analysis. Or perhaps it’s that we value following Federal guidelines, whether or not they make any sense.

There’s also a norm, although it took me awhile to unpack it. We assume that our normal students don’t have work outside of classwork, too, or that it should take second place to their schoolwork. That’s a horrid assumption to make.

As I said, I’m a broken record. I doubt I’ll ever manage to move the needle on this issue [6]. But I’m going to keep trying [7].

Postscript: On the third day of the workshop, we broke into groups of two to discuss some of the situations folks had raised. We decided to focus on attendance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, attendance came up a lot, including questions from the new faculty side. Are we expected to keep attendance? [8] If we get note about the absence from SHAW [10], Academic Affairs, Disability Resources, or elsewhere, do we have to count is as an excused absence?

Anyway, one of the things my partner and I came up with as a way of addressing not only attendance, but other hidden syllabus issues, would be to create a list of situations that faculty and students have experienced relative to syllabi (e.g., that quiz + Covid question above) and use them as a way to stress test syllabi [11]. For example, we could present each scenario to both a student and the faculty member and see whether they come up with the same answers. It could be a valuable thing to try. I’m not sure faculty would put up with it, though. And we did observe that instructor autonomy is a core value at Grinnell. But I find myself thinking that even coming up with the list of situations would be helpful for some faculty.

Postscript: I’m not teaching this coming year, but, as I move on to preparing class for Fall 2023, I look forward to thinking carefully about what needs to be better revealed in my teaching.

[1] Been taught? Received guidance?

[2] Some of us give quizzes to help students better understand the relevant information.

[3] That is, conduct a sensible Web search.

[4] For someone who is not supposed to be working this summer, I nonetheless find that I have far too many conflicting appointments and meetings. I had three at 3pm on the second day of the workshop, including the workshop itself. My appointment with the dentist won.

[5] I mentioned this situation above. I wrote about it as a response to the question(s), too.

[6] Did I mix metaphors there? Record players have needles. You need to move them when the record skips. But I’m not sure those too metaphors are used together. And move the needle usually refers to the needles that appear in instruments that measure things.

[7] If I succeed, I may have to change my classes significantly. I guess that’s okay. I will petition to move to two-hour classes for CSC-151, though.

[8] If a student fails and has stopped attending, we are expected to provide information on when they last attended class. That suggests that we are expected to take attendance. However, I don’t think that the Faculty Handbook requires us to do so. In the rare instance that a student fails because they’ve stopped attending [9], I usually approximate the date.

[9] Students rarely fail my classes. It’s rarer still that a student fails because they stopped attending. I tend to report missing students with some regularity.

[10] Student Health and Wellness.

[11] It’s not the phrase we used.

Version 1.0 of 2022-06-24.