Guest post by Dr Sarah Lawrence, Head of Department, Literatures, Languages and Cultures
One of the questions that many academics rarely stop to ask themselves is why it is they are academics in the first place. We may have versions of an answer that speak to the genesis of our passions (my answer usually involves too much Asterix as a small child), or a version that involves a particularly inspiring teacher, or a scholarship opportunity.
When I ask this question, though, I’m really thinking about what it is that has made us both interested and employable as academics. And a component of the answer to both these questions is – almost certainly – the fact that we are very good at our area of study. It might be that we’ve had a natural affinity with literature, a gift for theatrical performance, an innate talent for the analysis of social or political trends, or a strong spatial sense of our environment. In any of these cases, it will often mean that the fields in which we specialise were to some extent natural to us. While most of us would recognise our good fortune in this respect, it also potentially puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to teaching our subjects. If something comes naturally to you, it can be very hard to see where the roadblocks and difficulties lie for others and to anticipate exactly where information and support will be needed.
This can be even more insidious when it comes to what is commonly called the ‘hidden curriculum’ – that is, all the knowledge that we don’t explicitly teach but expect students on some level to know or to pick up as they go along. I had a striking experience with this in terms of extensions; some years ago I taught a really lovely, diligent, and astute student who purely by chance let me know that they were delaying cancer surgery until after their Latin exam. I was absolutely horrified by this information and, when I pressed, they revealed that they had no idea that extensions were possible. They had not experienced our university environment previously and assumed that if they needed any help with completing a unit, UNE wouldn’t want them to enrol in any future units.
Less dramatically, I’ve encountered students who didn’t realise they could email a lecturer with questions, or who had no idea that the library could post them books. I’ve also experienced students who figured that, if they didn’t understand one word in a journal article, or had to work through a concept several times to grasp it, they were too stupid for the content. While many of the most easily identifiable aspects of hidden curriculum for us will be structural, erroneous beliefs around what study should or should not look like are potentially even more damaging for our students, particularly in terms of their self-confidence and – inevitably – their progression. For this reason, it’s valuable to ask students where they are encountering problems and genuinely listen to the answers, as well as continually challenging our assumptions about learning, especially if they are based on our own experiences.
It’s one of the most interesting and difficult challenges we face as academics to try to find ways to see the things that we don’t even really know are there, but we owe it to our students, and our disciplines, to try.