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For David Tompkins, the collapse of communism in 1989 was the moment that changed the way he perceived the world.
Tompkins said he remembers hearing Ronald Reagan talk about the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and feeling a need to learn more about both the history of Eastern Europe and what the fall of communism would mean to that region's future.
For Tompkins -- a Fulbright Scholar and history professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville -- the result has been a career filled with a study of European history, music, politics and languages.
Tompkins was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in June 2007 to take part in a German Studies seminar, his second Fulbright after a yearlong research fellowship in 2000.
“(Spring 2007) was a particularly interesting time because Germany had the six-month presidency at the European Union from January through the end of June 2007, which means they were setting the agenda and trying to make some major decisions about Europe,” Tompkins said. “The key thing that Germany was trying to do at this time was to renegotiate the entire treaty that keeps the European Union together.”
The more than 20 scholars that attended the two-week seminar began in Brussels for a few days and proceeded to Berlin to meet with politicians, policy experts and scholars.
“It was an opportunity for us to learn about the European Union, and more generally, Germany’s role in the European Union,” Tompkins said. “At the end of our time there is when this treaty was agreed upon by all 27 members of the European Union, so it was a very exciting time.”
Language barriers keep some people from experiencing all there is to experience in another country. But for Tompkins, this is not an issue when he travels to the places he loves the most.
“My first language is French, which I took in high school,” he said. “Then I studied abroad in the south of France when I was an undergraduate for a year, and that’s when I got proficient in French. I studied German as an undergraduate at Rice University and during a study semester abroad in Vienna and then as a graduate student doing research in Berlin.”
Along with these two languages, Tompkins also can speak, read and write Polish, which he learned during extended research stays in Warsaw and Krakow, and he has a working knowledge of Russian.
When it comes to classroom life, Tompkins uses an interesting philosophy. His primary goal, as stated on his Web site, is “to think deeply and critically about historical issues.”
In his classes, he tries not to lecture but instead combines minimal lecturing with discussion and interaction.
“I try to come in, be enthusiastic, get people engaged and interact with them,” he said. "And since it’s something that I enjoy doing, to read that students also find this interesting and rewarding is of course gratifying.”
That’s exactly what many students think.
Elisabeth Piller, a history major who is writing her honors thesis with Tompkins, said, “His teaching style seeks to engage his students to think critically about complex historical questions. He not only teaches a perfect amount of background knowledge but also introduces his students to historical debate and methodology.”
Tompkins is now studying the relationship between music and politics in early Cold War Poland and East Germany.
“I wanted to understand how everyday communism was lived, and I figured looking at something like culture, defined broadly … would give some insight into understanding how communism took hold and stayed persistent in this area,” Tompkins said.
He also is involved in the departmental honors program at the University of Tennessee. Each year, about 10 history majors write a senior honors thesis -- a 30- to 50-page research essay. Tompkins helped direct the program last year and is advising two of the senior honors students this year.
So it’s obvious that Tompkins likes to go the distance in his research and teaching, but he does the same thing outside the classroom. He loves running marathons, and when he came here in the fall of 2005 to teach, he trained for the Knoxville marathon and placed 12th. He also ran marathons in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati and Berlin. Tompkins said running is a great way to get to know a new city and its people.
What else is there to know about Tompkins? Well, he loves basketball, especially the Vols and Lady Vols. In fact, he traveled to Europe with the Vols where he taught a one-credit history course. He said he got to know Coach Bruce Pearl and the basketball players very well.
For a more in-depth look into the life of David Tompkins, please visit http://web.utk.edu/~dtompki3.