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Blog 7: The ‘hidden curriculum’ of Recognition & Rewards

A Recognition & Rewards system can contribute to a thriving and more equitable university. However, the process of establishing such a wide-ranging system comes with a key challenge: that navigating Rewards and Recognition simply becomes embedded in existing, hierarchical, and often hidden structures of knowledge, access to which is unequal. Recognition & Rewards aims at explicitly acknowledging and incentivizing wider aspects of academic work. This includes, but is not limited to, teaching, public engagement and societal impact, as well as administrative tasks and service to the academic community. It should allow staff to decide, within the constraints of their job requirements, to specialize or broaden their focus depending on individual interests and skills.

How does one learn to navigate these paths? Which types of recognition genuinely profit one’s career, and which others are only nice-to-have? Who gets nominated to prizes? How does one produce the type of public engagement or impact likely to be rewarded?

To the extent that navigating Recognition & Rewards (and the corresponding number of HR directives, regulations, handbooks, and checklists) is left to the individual staff member, it becomes a professional skill with considerable impact on one’s institutional success. This skill, however, is not usually formally taught. It risks becoming part of the professional ‘hidden curriculum.’

Under the term ‘hidden curriculum’, scholarship has focused on a series of untaught skills and uncommunicated expectations inherent in higher education that students are still supposed to pick up, or simply know and practice well during their studies. The professional hidden curriculum functions as a selection mechanism in individual career progression for staff. The professional hidden curriculum entails those skills and expertise necessary to traverse the academic system. These skills and expectations may determine, to a considerable degree, the type and speed of institutional success (e.g., promotion). Recognition & Rewards systems often assume that these skills are equally distributed. But they are not – they are hidden (to some). We often do not make sufficiently systematic efforts to unveil this hidden curriculum.

In particular, the aims, core mechanisms, incentives, and support structures inherent to newly developed Recognition & Rewards systems often remain unclear and ambiguous – especially to early career staff, those from outside the Netherlands (like myself), or those otherwise not used to or familiar with navigating institutional complexities, handbooks, regulations, and hallway chatter. I have been able to offset some of these challenges because I am fortunate to come from an ‘academic family’ that familiarized me, if indirectly, with the norms and rules of academic life (parental education levels have been shown to correlate strongly with successful academic careers for a reason). I can also bank on the guidance of supportive staff, line managers, and mentors, which makes it easier to learn where and how to access training, ask for nominations, connect with stakeholders, find relevant regulations, or negotiate individual career trajectories. Others cannot. They must rely on transparent and formal institutional guidelines that ideally profit their individual trajectories, rather than take further time away from them.

I am not suggesting that we the institution (or indeed we academics) do not communicate or teach these skills and expectations at all. Indeed, there is a whole plethora of different trainings, workshops, etc. dedicated to one or several of these skills, and to navigating even newly developed Recognition & Rewards systems. There is also overlap with some of the skills training faculties, libraries, impact units and other university services or professional associations offer. Entire administrative departments are dedicated to third-party funding acquisition or science communication.

The problem relates not to availability per se but to unequal availability, and to lack of awareness and systematic instruction on Recognition & Rewards at staff-to-staff, departmental, faculty and university level. Establishing Rewards & Recognition as a university-wide system, then, needs to pay close attention to transparency, simplicity, communication, and equitable access – no small feat for a culture change bound to play out over the longer-term and across the entire sector.

~ Gustav Meibauer