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.