A room of her own: A woman's college professor unexpectedly leaves her $75,000. But why?

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By Karen Houppert
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Recently a professor of mine, whom I'd studied with 20 years ago at Bennington College, died.

Two weeks afterward, I learned that she had made me the beneficiary of her life insurance policy, leaving me $75,000.

I found this out only because the school where she was then teaching, Phillips Exeter Academy, sent me a letter asking that I fill out "the enclosed form from Prudential." When I called the administrator who had signed the cover letter, she informed me of my windfall.

This is a true story.

For the longest time, I puzzled over it: What in the world motivated her to do it? With no note attached? No explanation? No instructions?


"What do you think?" This was Marcia Carlisle's standard response to nearly every student inquiry. She liked to puzzle her students -- she called it "forcing them to think" -- with a dash of philosopher John Dewey's "learn-by-doing" and a sprinkle of Socratic method. The mix meant she'd never give you a straight answer to anything. Ever.

I first encountered Marcia's methods in 1982, when, in the second semester of my freshman year at Bennington in Vermont, I took a history class she taught. I wasn't particularly curious about Industrialization in America, but a friend had raved about Marcia, and, hey, her class worked with my schedule.

After I turned in my first paper, Marcia sat me down in her office and explained exactly what was wrong with my poorly crafted essay and gave me a crash course in structure -- the one I should have gotten as a high school freshman. I was surprised that a teacher would make such an effort, and grateful, since the academic rigor at Bennington had left me foundering a bit. Gradually, it was dawning on me that the mostly A's I'd received in high school were a reflection of my public school's low standards rather than my superior skills. But Marcia didn't think this an insurmountable obstacle; I'd just have to work a little harder.

And Marcia made learning positively seductive. She had a stealthy approach to teaching history, luring us in with novels and diaries and memoirs that brought an emotional understanding of the period and its hardships. Once we were hooked, she reeled us into broader inquiry with facts and analysis. She insisted there was no simple line from one historical event to the next. History, she taught us, was a complex matrix of circumstances.

She was big on inference.

"Look at what you do know," she would say. "See what is already there in the text. Where does it point you?"

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