The Invisible Curriculum

Brian Taylor

November 02, 2010

As an undergraduate, I had a survey course in American literature with an affable professor who was also a movie buff. He would frequently mention film versions of the books we were reading, or would compare themes in works we read to films that were current at that time. That may not seem all that unusual now, but keep in mind, this was the late 1980s, not too long after the arrival of the VCR player, and long before the advent of DVR and instant movies on your computer.

During one of his discussions about a movie, he paused and threw out a bit of marital advice to the class: "If you want to have a long and healthy marriage," he said, "watch at least one movie a week with your spouse."

As much as I enjoyed his course, and felt that I had learned a lot about American literature, that comment is the only specific thing I remember hearing in his classroom. It sounded like good advice to me at the time, although I haven't followed it religiously. In any case, the rest of the course may have offered revolutionary new readings of canonical texts, or it may have been a mishmash of stale lecture notes culled from his dissertation, I honestly don't remember.

I'm sure that most faculty members can point to a moment like that in the classroom, if not from their days as students, then certainly from their time as professors. You are cruising along, lecturing or moderating a discussion about your area of expertise, and suddenly some bit of wisdom or life lesson pops into your head. You feel the urge to share it, and so you do.

A friend who is a high-school teacher refers to those moments as manifestations of the "invisible curriculum"—spontaneous instances when we move away from the stated learning objective (the "visible" curriculum) and respond on our feet, offering unplanned lessons on life or education.

Those moments are memorable precisely because they give students a glimpse of us as people—as opposed to professional educators. The sad irony for us, as teachers, is that one lesson in the invisible curriculum can sometimes make more of an impression than the entire visible one.

The invisible curriculum has been on my mind lately, after I received and read a copy of a new book from Harvard University Press: David Perlmutter's Promotion and Tenure Confidential, a sharp advice book based on columns he wrote for The Chronicle. It's aimed at helping graduate students and new faculty members successfully navigate the complex set of challenges they will face as they attempt to chart a course toward tenure.

My interest in the book, for the purposes of this column, led me to focus on the chapter called "Student Relations," which is where Perlmutter discusses strategies that new faculty members can use both to teach well and to document that they are teaching well. His advice, as elsewhere in the book, notes the importance of both elements: You should do your job well, but you should make equally sure that doing your job well can be documented and demonstrated to your promotion-and-tenure committee.

The chapter on working with students covers a wide range of topics, from classroom teaching and supervising teaching assistants to writing letters of recommendation. It ends with a longer section that focuses on grading papers and conducting office hours, both of which strike me as spaces in which the invisible curriculum frequently comes to the fore. In both activities we are responding to our students' work or concerns, rather than presenting them with an organized lesson, and so we're more likely to speak to them outside of the stated curriculum.

But Perlmutter categorizes those tasks in a different way. He describes them as oft-neglected opportunities to show students that you care about them. The emphasis on "showing" that you care—as opposed to actually caring—may strike skeptics as a cynical way to think about student relations. But Perlmutter doesn't hesitate to point out that you won't have a very satisfactory academic life unless you really care about your teaching, and do it well. He opens the by describing his own experience, early on as an assistant professor, when he viewed students as obstacles to his research, and his subsequent realization that he had to find a better balance between teaching and research.

I don't know Perlmutter, so I wrote to ask if he could elaborate on the balance he found and also explain why the book puts such emphasis on responding to student papers and holding office hours.

True to the spirit of his book, Perlmutter responded to the latter question by noting both an educational reason and a professional one. Our written responses to student papers and our conversations with students during office hours, he said, are "often missed opportunities for teaching and learning." Those "two venues," he added, are ones that he's found "probationary faculty know least how to use effectively" to show that they care about students.

He explained: "I can't tell you how many times I've seen or heard a junior faculty member radiate unconcern, irritation, and outright standoffishness through, for example, cutting their own office hours, looking harassed if students intrude during that time, leaving the door open only a crack with the lights dim, and other assorted anti-student manners and actions."

Such actions, as well as giving a hurried or minimal response to student work, may teach students a lesson from your invisible curriculum that you may not intend to send. It will certainly put obstacles in the way of a smooth career path for you if you view students as "extras in the screenplay of your exciting research career or, worse, irritants in the way of your real job or social life."

On office hours, Perlmutter argues in the book that "academics should be evangelistic for face-to-face contact with students outside of lectures." His specific advice might horrify faculty members who see office hours as an opportunity for writing or class preparation: "For all classes, you should find a way to assign or entice each student to see you at least once per term." (He issues the obvious caveat that this may be impossible for large lecture courses.)

He confesses that working with students during office hours may be his favorite form of teaching. "I've often thought," he writes, "that the office hour is where the modern higher-education instructor best approximates what it must have been like for Plato and Socrates to philosophize with their students in the first olive groves of academia."

His advice on the subject of office hours is sensible, and focuses mostly on how to make yourself both physically and mentally available to students during designated contact times: how and when to schedule your hours, how to organize the space in your office, and what kinds of office-hour activities will enable you to be productive without chafing at "interruptions" from students.

On responding to student papers, Perlmutter also takes a bit of an evangelistic tone in the book, pointing out what a rare opportunity it presents for students today. "Once upon a time," he writes, "if you submitted a novel to an agent, or a story to a magazine, you would get back some detailed comments, even in the case of rejection. These days, the form letter or e-mail is ubiquitous. Higher education is the last place you can get a credentialed expert who cares about you and your work to respond to you regularly and reliably. Students should (Perlmutter's emphasis) treasure such an opportunity."

A helpful list of suggestions on how to respond to papers follows, one of which struck me as particularly insightful: "Tie in comments to points made in class. Students often don't see links between reading, class lectures, and discussions, and the term paper."

I am frequently surprised and disturbed to see papers that seem to have taken no account of the writing strategies we reviewed in class, and Perlmutter's advice here reminds me that I need to be more explicit about helping students make connections between classroom time and their work outside the class.

Perlmutter also writes about the process of handing papers back to students in class, and offers helpful suggestions there as well, so I asked him to tell me about the process he uses when he hands back papers in his own courses.

"I pretty much now have only one comment on papers," he explained. "'See me.' They do not get a grade unless they see me and I sit there and go through the paper and explain my reaction to it. That way, at least I'm sure they know what I think, and I think I know what they were thinking."

I confess that upon reading that, I found myself daunted by Perlmutter's intense commitment to working with students individually. But he argued that the payoffs make it worth his time. "No matter what teaching situation you're in," he wrote to me, "you will never truly be happy, or even satisfied, if students are just ranks and files of faces under baseball caps. You'll never discover that one student a semester who uplifts your spirit because you inspired her or him."

For Perlmutter, searching for that spirit-lifting moment in your teaching now and then is not merely a selfish pursuit, one that will leave you happy and fulfilled—although it should, and that may be reason enough. But it has practical effects as well. "You will not be a good teacher," he writes in the book, "if you don't enjoy being a good teacher."

And you are more likely to be a good teacher, I would add, if you enjoy teaching. For some of us, that enjoyment may come from a well-delivered lecture or a stimulating class discussion, as well as from our contact with students in one-on-one meetings. But for all of us, Perlmutter's book suggests we should not hesitate to demonstrate to students our pleasure and satisfaction at working with them.

Doing so may help convey perhaps the most important lesson we can offer from our invisible curriculum: that our students' education matters to us, that we want to see them succeed, and that we are happy to help.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at