helen day on revealing the hidden language and literature curriculum

Since my last post, I’ve thought further about the significance of cultural studies for the literature curriculum, and done a little bit of additional reading about Meyer’s and Land’s notions of “threshold concepts.” In the course of my reading, I found an interesting article by Helen Day about the process of curricular discussion and reform at the University of Central Lancashire [avail. at Project MUSE].

Day begins by claiming that departmental curricula represent a prime opportunity for faculty to test their ideas about education:

It is through curricula, argue Barnett and Coate (2004: 25), that ideas about education are put into action: “Through curricula too, values, beliefs and principles in relation to learning, understanding, knowledge, disciplines, individuality and society are realised.” Yet, they continue, there is little considered
collective reflection on the curriculum, especially involving those who experience the curricula firsthand — the students (534-5)

The absence of collective reflection, either among faculty in the same department, or among departmental faculty and students more generally, leads to the common problem of departmental curricula developing piece-meal and irregularly over time, resulting in a mish-mosh of good intentions and hidden agendas.  Curricula in this historically stratified condition become difficult for faculty to discuss, or for students to learn from. Whatever portions faculty are unable to agree upon, they may very well leave tacit, even if students will experience the same portions as either contradictory or compartmentalized (“culture means x in one classroom, and y in another”) The portions of the official curriculum that have accumulated their own separate, largely tacit uses and meanings from teachers and students, Day treats as the “hidden” curriculum.  Day separates the formal from hidden curricula in the same manner that a literary scholar would distinguish authorial intention from audience reception.  This has some important consequences for how we view curricula.

The first consequence is to take seriously the temporality of the curriculum.  As Day points out, students will almost certainly experience the curriculum differently from how it was constructed anyway, since their linear and temporal experience of threading through the curriculum over time strongly contrasts with a faculty-member’s vertical and segmented organization of knowledge.

The second consequence is to attend seriously to the lessons that the hidden curriculum teaches its students, whatever the intentions of the faculty who designed it.  In Day’s own department, these were only disclosed in a survey of students in their third year in the program: lessons included sentiments like, “lecturers teach according to their disciplines” and “students are not encouraged to take a holistic or ‘helicopter’ view of the modular structure of their degree.”  Even in an avowedly interdisciplinary program, students were not taught to recognize the overlaps or connections between the different “modules,” but instead to assume that the knowledge represented by each box in the grid was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient.

What I found most intriguing about Day’s account was that this largely-tacit notion of compartmentalized sub-specialties “owned” by particular specialists, each with their own self-contained methodology and subject-matter, was not even recognized until the students were surveyed and required to reflect upon what they had learned.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the students did not initially enjoy the reflection-process entailed by the survey (though they valued it afterwards), nor did the faculty necessarily welcome the insight into the unintended effects of their curriculum. Nonetheless, this exercise in mutual reflection did make possible a kind of collective action that otherwise would not have occurred.

To bring it back to cultural studies, what this article suggested to me was not that literary scholars should stop cultural studies, but that we certainly need to provide students with  opportunities to reflect upon what we, and they, are doing, when we engage in this kind of approach, and to make clear to them the conceptual overlap–or dependence, even–between cultural and literary studies.



2 responses to “helen day on revealing the hidden language and literature curriculum

  1. Kathryn Temple

    What strikes me about the “hidden curriculum” is that I’ve been arguing for years that we should help students find it. In other words, we as professionals know that there is no straight-forward map to the English/American Studies/Cultural Studies curriculum and no agreement at this point on what should be taught. Why we persist in insisting to students that coherence exists is beyond me. Attempts at asserting standard methodologies/coherence/canon were transparently false to me when I was an undergraduate in the late 70s and continue to feel false to me now. The beauty and excitement of our area of interest lies in its endless multiplicity and “incoherence,” so why not make this exciting sphere of possibilities available to students? Is our insistence that students need to experience “coherence” condescending?

    I want to add a thanks to David for explicating the thresholds and bottlenecks concept. I have found those ideas very helpful to my teaching and would like to spread the word, but haven’t found the time or energy to do so lately.

  2. Hi Kathryn,

    I agree that the hidden curriculum is something we should be talking about with our students, rather than wishing for a coherence that has never existed in the curriculum, and never will. It’s worth considering, though, why humanities profs (perhaps only lit studies profs?) worry so much about coherence. My suspicion is that “coherence” is one of those concepts that reassures us that “mastery” of a (unified, transparent, uniformly accessible) subject area is possible. These imagine an idealized curriculum separate from the partiality, fragmentariness, and multiplicity of the students’ reception. And the hidden curriculum, disclosed by students in surveys and interviews, constitutes evidence that the linked notions of coherence and mastery constitute an ideology that supports certain institutional arrangements.

    I’m grateful for getting introduced to this body of thought, because it made immediate intuitive sense to me, since I direct a Center for Teaching Excellence here at my institution. I get to peek in on curricular discussions/disagreements in a lot of different departments, and this perspective reveals a lot about the determining effects of university organization, and the peculiarities of individual disciplines. Thanks for the conversation.