Students and the Hidden Curriculum
Until recently, there was little focus on social work students' perception of their educational experiences (Grady et al., 2011; Miller, 2013; O'Connor & Dalgleish, 1986; Schreiber, 1989). Schreiber, in her study on the influence of peer groups in social work education, found that peer groups had a buffer effect and mediated the bewildering process of professional education in the large bureaucratic structure. With the support of peer groups, students learned to conceal their failures and manipulate their educational experiences, including ignoring or modifying what they experienced as the faculty's authoritative approaches. This practice is exactly what I observed when I began my graduate studies, and I still see evidence of these strategies in my daily work with current students and alumni who stay in touch. Students share how they are overwhelmed and must prioritize what to focus on while at the same time feeling that they have to appear as if they are on top of everything. In the literature, terms such as gamesmanship (Barbour, 1985; Snyder, 1971), survival and resiliency (Barretti, 2004; Gair & Mullins, 2001; Schreiber, 1989; Snyder, 1971), and even “unibluff” (i.e., university bluff; Bergenhenegouwen, 1987) repeatedly appear indicating the strategies students develop to counter what they perceive as the authoritative stressors put on them by the educational processes and structures. The term survival stands out here. Students literally use the term “survival” to describe how they feel during their studies. As mentioned previously, Kivel (2007) notes that human services practitioners, including social workers, end up as survival workers, as buffers, as opposed to social change agents working with service participants to create changes that will go beyond mere survival and actual increase people's quality oflife.
Snyder (1971) describes two orientations that students take on. The two orientations are seen in instrumental students and expressive students. Instrumental students are pragmatic. They seek utility and higher grades to further their future career or life plans. Expressive students, on the other hand, look for how what they learn is congruent with their values and how knowing themselves, their capacities, and limitations fit into their future goals. Instrumental students often deny or are unaware of the dissonance between the formal and the informal curriculum, whereas the expressive students struggle with integrating the two curricula, whether they are conscious about these two curricula or not. Depending on their orientations, some students might experience the presence of a hidden curriculum, whereas others might not. In discussing students in general, Snyder posits that a lack of recognition of the hidden curriculum results in students not being able to change when they are faced with new and unfamiliar situations. Roche et al. (1999) and O'Connor and Dalgleish (1986) claim that social work students are not given tools or the opportunity to develop approaches needed in order to facilitate social change. What is achieved instead is a mastery of selective negligence—that is, the ability to select exactly what the faculty is perceived to want and no more (Snyder, 1971). I use the term perceived because many faculty members are trying to cultivate learning environments that can be models for empowering practices, but many students do not experience or possibly distrust the intention of faculty. In the aforementioned example about the students not writing honest feedback on the index cards to the professor, I know that the professor welcomed the feedback—even the less than good feedback. How do I know that? Because I wrote this kind of honest, and often negative, feedback, and the professor and I often spent time after class to discuss my critique. As an educator myself, I have tried many different approaches to build an environment in which students can feel safe to provide honest feedback. An example on the lighter side is pointing out to students that they do not have to start each paper reflecting on assigned readings with “I found these readings to be very interesting. ...” I often encourage students who disagree with a reading or with me to share the disagreement in class. The intent is that students can do well in class even if we disagree and also if students risk voicing this disagreement.
Students' socialization has begun very early on—long before entering the MSW program. This anticipatory socialization (Bronstein & Abramson, 2003; Miller, 2013; Zeichner & Gore, 1990) comes through very strongly. During a student-selected group project in one of my classes (discussed later), Kathy, who had always been a straight A student, became very distraught. She became stressed because she had to rely on her peers for both the group process and the product. I verbally reassured her that she did not have to worry. This project would receive a very good grade given how all the groups sincerely struggled with learning the skills required of the project. Despite my good intentions and reassurance, Kathy clearly became increasingly stressed. I approached the group, and we discussed what the group could do in order to lessen Kathy's stress and reassure her that the grade was not something to worry about. After her peers' direct involvement, Kathy finally began to trust that she could focus on the learning process and not the grade. It became an important learning moment for me, however. Regardless of my good intentions, students still feel vulnerable and feel an incredible pressure to perform—a pressure that can result in breaking down or “bluffing.” Roche et al. (1999) and Snyder (1971) note that students experience the amount of work and its encroachment of it on the rest of their lives as overwhelming. The educational process has thereby been turned into a game of “bluffing” in which professors are to believe that the students are doing everything required of them.
Some students do resist—that is, develop strategies that, in this case, are meant to buffer oppressive forces (Margolis & Romero, 1998, 2001; Shor, 1996). Resistance can be proactive in that students take actions to create change. Resistance can also be passive as a strategy of survival. Students' agency—their action—is evident, but with different outcomes and consequences. Students calculate their resistance because of the risk ofwhat might be termed reprisal: blaming the victim, cooling out, and silencing. Blaming the victim refers to “social interactions that socialize students to define themselves as the problem, rather than exploring the structural causes for their experiences within the institution” (Margolis & Romero, 1998, p. 13). Cooling out results from the dynamics that force students, who would otherwise protest, to lower their expectations for their educational experience—a point also made by Shor (1996). Cooling out is closely related to silencing, in which students are socialized to not question the experienced dynamics and practices: “Breaking the silence is a violation of the unspoken rules of the hidden curriculum” (Margolis & Romero, 1998, p. 21). When students do break the silence and address structural issues, faculty might take the critique personally, resulting in an exclusion of the students (albeit not in an official form). Kathy clearly believed that she risked negative consequences if she did not adhere to a specific set of expectations as a student. As a student in the CHS, there are structures in place to (attempt to) address these specific challenges. These structures are addressed later in the chapter. Being socialized to espouse the characteristics outlined previously (e.g., inability to change, being silenced, or cooled out) flies in the face of the mission of social work. Social work students consequently risk graduating without the tools or impetus to fulfill the purpose of the profession.