Hidden Curriculum

I had an interesting experience this week.

A student missed class because he was sick. He emailed me to let me know and I asked him to come by my office to catch up on things. When he came to my office for his appointment he was visibly nervous: uncomfortable body language, never made eye contact with me, spoke erratically.

After about 30 minutes, he told me that he’s never gone to a professor’s office hours before. I thought to myself, WHAT??? YOU’RE A JUNIOR MATH MAJOR! HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE????!!! I didn’t say that, of course. We just kept chatting and I encouraged him to email me with questions and to stop by again. Thankfully, he listened to my encouragement: we’ve been exchanging emails like rapid-fire IMs the last few days.

Perhaps this kind of thing is not unusual at larger institutions, but Harvey Mudd College is a small school with just 820 or so students. Faculty and students get to know each other well and it is a very close-knit community. In the 14 years I’ve taught here, I’ve not heard of a third-year student who has never gone to a professor’s office to ask for something. So on one hand it seemed to me a really unusual thing to happen.

But on further reflection, I started wondering if maybe it was more common than I realized. In every class I teach, I estimate that 1/3 of the students come to my office regularly, 1/3 come occasionally, and 1/3 never come at all.  I suspect that latter 1/3 group is mostly made up of students who never visit a professor’s office.

This interaction made me think about the “hidden curriculum” of higher education–those unspoken things about college that some of our students (mostly those with a lot of privileges) know, and that others don’t know. For example, one colleague shared about how she went to college and thought it was strange that there were so many people named “Dean” until she realized that “Dean Smith” meant “Dean of Something-Or-Other whose last name is Smith”, not that the person’s first name was Dean. The fact that students are supposed to go to office hours to interact with their professors is another thing that many students don’t realize. Some students think that going to ask for help is a sign of trouble or weakness, whereas other students have figured out that going to talk to a professor is a normal and routine part of going to college.

So to teach inclusively means that this welcome spirit must also extend to my interactions with students outside of the classroom. Am I making it clear to all students that they are welcome–no, expected–to come to my office to chat with me? If I don’t do that, then I am, deliberately or not, favoring some students who know about the “hidden curriculum” over those that don’t.


2 thoughts on “Hidden Curriculum

  1. Hey D!

    That students actually came, and in big numbers, to office hours was something that really surprised me when I was at Mudd. It was really great because I felt much more a part of the class than just the guy up the front of the class.

    Back home in Brisbane, my office is actually in a secure building! Students can’t come to it unless I go swipe them in! This year I started having “office” hours in random locations around whichever campus my course is at. So I’ve had office hours at picnic tables near the dance studios, at a bench near the busway terminal (where a lot of students enter campus), on timber terraces and on benches outside a lecture theatre. It’s far more interesting for me and students seem to be cool with it too.

    But back to your point – as a first-in-family university student (that includes parents, grandparents etc), I suffered somewhat from this. There is such a culture to college/uni that you just don’t know about until you get embedded in it… and sometimes still don’t get it! We need to keep that in mind I think, particularly the longer we stay in our institutions.


  2. I went to Swarthmore in the 1980s and was quite shy about office hours. I thought they were only for the special or the desperate or the pushy, so I think I only went if I had a very specific reason. Now it seems like a wasted opportunity. However, junior and senior year classes were small enough that my profs and I definitely interacted a lot.

    I went to Columbia next (late ’80s, early ’90s) and one of the early experiences I had is exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about here. They had a rule that no one could sign up for a research group before some date (say, November 1). I thought that meant I shouldn’t bug the professors about it till Nov. 1. So I showed up to express my interest in one prof’s group mid-day Nov. 1, only to find that Nov. 1 was the first day profs could accept students, but other students had been expressing interest in his group over the last few weeks, and he’d already accepted them over me that morning because he didn’t know I was interested. His slots were full, so I ended up with another advisor who was a poor fit, and ultimately didn’t finish the PhD program. I’m not at all sure that was a bad thing in the end, and I have no idea if I would’ve made it to Happy PhD Land and found a job I liked if I’d been in the first guy’s group, but it’s certainly more likely.

    So, yeah, definitely a hidden curriculum.

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