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Why Subject Matter Matters

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Anna Neumann

Anna Neumann, outgoing President of Association for the Study of Higher Education

It would seem obvious that, for most college and university faculty members and the students they teach, learning stands at heart of the education experience. Yet in the language that many policymakers, professional development specialists and even education researchers use to talk about higher education, "learners and learning are often invisible," says Anna Neumann, TC Professor of Higher Education. "There is a huge discrepancy between how someone like [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan talks about improving learning and what really happens in the classroom."

Neumann expanded on those ideas this past week in Las Vegas at "Freedom to Learn," this year's meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), where she was taking her final bow after a year's service as the organization's president.

"I have a personal stake in the freedom to learn," said Neumann, whose own research has focused on, among other things, teaching and learning in urban colleges and universities serving first-generation learners. "In 1958 my parents chose to immigrate to the United States-' more than a decade after their liberation from Auschwitz and from the Ukrainian labor camp of Shargarod. There was no time in my father's American life and very little in my mother's to pursue the freedom to learn. They left that for me. It's been quite an incredible gift and one that I've come to cherish still more as I've watched my mother age."

As ASHE president, Neumann has championed the freedom to learn in two distinct but complementary ways. She has sought to position the organization as more of "an actor in the world that can create public spaces in talking about public education." Most notably, on her watch ASHE has co-signed an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas, an affirmative action case currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, joining with seven other leading scientific organizations in providing evidence that diversity in education is, in fact, a compelling governmental interest. More broadly, ASHE has created a task force to propose policy guidelines for considering issues on which it might be appropriate for the organization to take public stances.

At the same time, Neumann has also prodded ASHE and its members to "look inside classrooms, at how teachers and learners interact."

The ASHE annual meeting clearly reflected both of these emphases. Seven presidential sessions organized by Neumann ranged in focus from a consideration of what learning means and what the next generation of research on the learning of college students might look like, to a consideration of four highly visible news headlines -- summarized as "lawyers, guns and money" -- that have forced higher education "out of a secluded ivory tower and placed it under a glaring public light." The conference's two keynote speakers were Mike Rose, an education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, whose topic was "The Power of a Second Chance: A View from One Community College," and Bob Moses, the former civil rights activist and founding President of The Algebra Project, Inc., who spoke on "quantitative and language literacy as a feature of constitutional personhood."

In her own remarks at ASHE, Neumann took her audience inside the classroom of an undergraduate philosophy course she had observed weekly during Spring 2011 at an urban university where most of the students were of color and receiving financial aid, and where many were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Through actual scenes in which the instructor, Sofia, and her students grappled with Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, Neumann illustrated three assertions about the nature of learning that have been made by a long line of scholars that includes John Dewey, Lee Shulman, Gloria Ladson Billings, Carol Lee, Deborah Ball and many others.

The first of those claims is that learning in higher education requires that a learner encounter and interact with a subject-matter idea culled from a discipline or from an interdisciplinary field. Or in short, that "subject matter matters," Neumann said.

But an encounter with a new idea also typically "surfaces" a college student's prior knowledge of the broader subject of study. "Culture shapes this prior knowledge," Neumann said. "Ideas that are their starting point for learning are deeply rooted in students' family and community lives, past schooling and personal experiences. This prior knowledge can feel personal, even sacred, to students."

Finally, Neumann argued that learning in higher education ultimately occurs when a student "acknowledges and works through differences between her prior views and beliefs, and new ideas that instructors or texts represent."

In Sofia's classroom, the new idea that students encounter is Descartes' notion of doubt -- his fear that what he takes to be his experience of the world might be simply a dream, or a part of another being's dream; that the world he sees, hears, smells and touches might not truly exist.

Somewhat to Sofia's surprise, the students immediately relate Cartesian doubt to the movie "The Matrix," in which a vast computer system keeps people immobilized in a dream state. She lets them pursue this line of comparison for a while, but also "nudges it forward" into deeper waters, such as why they resist the possibility that the world as they know it might not, in fact, exist.

"Sofia leads her students deeper and deeper into Descartes," Neumann said, until "students refer more and more to passages where Descartes is saying these things," and "references to -'The Matrix' dissipate.'"

Based on this vignette, Neumann posited that good teaching must include "an orchestration of an encounter of subject matter ideas," as well as "creating classroom conversations that support students in surfacing what they know already" and helping them work through "the cognitive and emotional features of encounters between their own long-held understandings and new ones that texts and teachers help them glimpse."

Yet policymakers and others do not talk about teaching and learning in these terms at all. Having waded through "eight years of the public statements" of Duncan and his predecessor, Margaret Spellings, Neumann provided a "distillation of the ideas they hold dear." The language of her summaries is strikingly devoid of reference to the actual substance of learning:

Higher education exists to enhance the quality of the U.S. labor market, and to enable students to develop lifelong skills to adapt and compete in a changing global economy.

Learning outcomes, indicated by broad tests of students' knowledge and skills, also are important to holding institutions of higher education accountable, as are cost containment, productivity and transparency.

The most important thing that the federal government can do is provide information on how institutions are succeeding at these goals, so that students and families as consumers, and states as funders, can make rational choices about their investments in higher education.

"Teaching and learning get surprisingly little attention in this policy discourse," Neumann said. "Worse, in my view, college teachers and learners are silent-' they are invisible. Their struggles do not seem to matter. I have no way at all to translate what [they] do and think and feel and accomplish into a language of -'what counts' in the current policy landscape."

Neumann worried that the general public, as well -- and the journalists who inform them -- knows and understands "virtually nothing" about "the deep and important work" that goes on in higher education classrooms.

"I  think that it matters a lot that those of who study teaching and learning in higher education orient our research to account for the power of a subject of study, well taught, to shape a learner's mind and to chart a fulfilling life," she said in closing. "It is time for our field, collectively, to stake a claim on the learning that we ourselves have experienced in higher education -- the learning to which all of us have dedicated our work, our careers and our lives."
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