I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the hidden curriculum in university science departments. This is the idea that what and how we teach our students imparts information in addition to the content that we are delivering.
My parents both completed high school and then directly entered the workforce. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university. As an undergraduate student I spent a significant amount of time working out the expectations that faculty members had and how that translated into the marks that I earned in my courses. When I started doing a fourth year research thesis in the lab I discovered that I had a new bunch of expectations that I first had to figure out before I could even dream about meeting or exceeding them. I am not talking here about learning content or scientific concepts; I am talking about uncovering the unvoiced and not obvious rules of how to be a successful scientist. This professionalization process is fraught with challenge and danger for many of us. In some cases it is because our very presence in the academy challenges what was formerly the status quo. We will therefore find it difficult to plug in to a network of people who can help us to navigate what are to us uncharted waters. I often found it difficult to know what questions I should even be asking, let alone how to go about finding the answers. As educators it is well worth asking ourselves not only what content we are delivering, but whether we are intentionally or unintentionally delivering other messages as well.
As a topical example, a cool topic in today’s news is the Rosetta mission which represents a significant scientific achievement. This represents the first time that a probe has been landed on a comet. A series of YouTube videos are available on the topic. One of these is produced by Nature. It’s an exciting news story and is certainly cause for celebration as it’s been 10 years in the making. The money shot in the video pertaining to the hidden curriculum starts at 1 minute 24 seconds. This is when the interviewer starts talking to Matt Taylor who is a Rosetta Project Scientist. At first it’s kind of cool because Matt is showing off his awesome tattoo of the landing module and Rosetta. That’s pretty awesome because that tells me that scientists are just like anybody else and we can have tattoos and be successful and gainfully employed. Unfortunately, his shirt sends another message. I can’t listen to his content (what I’m guessing he’s trying to teach me) because I’m too blindsided by the other message he’s delivering. His sexist attire that is objectifying women tells me that I wouldn’t be welcomed as a member of his team or that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or respected.
I don’t need a Rosetta stone to translate that message, it’s coming through loud and clear.