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A LIFE IN SCHOOL by Jane Tompkins


What the Teacher Learned

by Jane Tompkins

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-201-91212-0
Publisher: Addison-Wesley

 Tompkins's whiny musings on the state of American education, told through her own story of a lifetime in academia. Tompkins (West of Everything, 1992) seems to have had a pretty easy time of it: She grew up white and middle class, attended Bryn Mawr and Yale. She landed a teaching position immediately after graduate school, took some time off, got another teaching position, and was then tenured at Temple University. After leaving her second husband for the legendary scholar Stanley Fish, she and Fish were soon picked up and tenured by Duke University, where Tompkins now teaches English. It sounds like an academic's dream come true, but Tompkins doesn't see it that way. Here she picks through her schooling, finding fault with nearly everything she encountered: She didn't like going to school when she was young. She tried too hard to please the teachers. She once wet her pants in front of her sixth-grade class while giving a book report. Her mother, an insomniac, took naps in the afternoon. She hated a classmate who said something clever in a graduate English class. These somewhat disjointed remembrances and other anecdotes are Tompkins's proof of a malevolent force behind our educational institutions--the obsessive quest to educate (as opposed to a shared exploration by student and teacher). Her prescription is for teachers to adapt her style of instruction, using open discussions, intensive interaction, fluid syllabi. This may work for college English classes, but what about courses where a mastery of set material is more important than the immediate pleasure of the student and teacher, such as, say, medical school? While a nonstressful, nonconfrontational school environment is a wonderful goal, Tompkins offers little practical advice on how to attain it.