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Continuing in the Family Business

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)

 

For Erik Simpson, English is more than a discipline; it's the family business.

He grew up in Olean, N.Y., the son of an English professor at St. Bonaventure University. His mother, too, is in academe, running the learning center at the local community college. His parents met -- as did he and his wife, Carolyn -- in an English graduate program. Simpson's father teaches the British Romantics; so does he.

That said, Simpson stresses that he never felt any pressure to walk the same path his parents walked. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"My parents encouraged me to explore other options so that I didn't go into English thoughtlessly," he says. "There's no question, however, that my upbringing made it easy to imagine life as a teacher, and that my parents knew how to give me books that would interest and challenge me."

Simpson says his decision to study British Romantics arose from "a fluke" rather than parental influence.

"When I went to the University of Virginia to do my undergraduate work, Jerome McGann, a titan of Romantic studies, had just redesigned the introductory course in English," he says. "To see how it worked, he taught a section of it my first semester; the rest were taught by graduate students he was supervising. When my father heard that McGann was teaching one of the sections, he told me that was the one to take. It was a magnificent course. At the end of that semester, I declared my English major with McGann."

Simpson says he considered other options along the way -- physics, law, music, consulting, computer programming -- but always circled back to English again. But though it's third on this list of other vocational possibilities, music has always been more than a passing fancy for him. He is, as was his father before him, a serious jazz saxophonist, and while he was an undergraduate at UVA, he was known first as a musician -- playing in Virginia's jazz band and working with musicians such as Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Bob Moses, and "some of the guys from the Dave Matthews Band, which was then playing in Charlottesville most Tuesday nights for a $5 cover."

When he moved on to do graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, music had to take a back seat to his studies.

"I have never again played music regularly," Simpson says. "I still love playing when I find the time and opportunity, as I occasionally do in Grinnell."

No surprise, then, that Simpson found a way to combine his love of music with his study of English: his dissertation topic -- literary representations of minstrels and improvisers -- when he remarked in a grad school paper that the compositional process of Byron's The Giaour had something in common with a jazz solo.

The professor suggested that I should look into what British writers were saying about improvisation in the 1810s," he says. "When I did, I discovered two things: that the language of improvisation had just entered the English language at that time, so writers were in the process of deciding what it meant; and that they largely defined improvisers as Italian figures who represented an alternative to British and Irish minstrels. Those minstrels, I discovered, were simply everywhere in the writing of the time, and in my dissertation I set out to figure out why."

Simpson is busy with a book on the idea of the mercenary in British and American literature from about 1750 to 1830. It's a project that has developed alongside another compelling project he's launched with his wife, Carolyn -- namely, their son Pete, who turned 2 in January. Simpson is quick to say that the effect on his work has been salutary.

"Academic work tends to make one feel that one should be working nearly every waking minute, and often some of the sleeping ones, too," he says. "Ours can be a guilt-driven life. Having a young child creates boundaries: if I'm at the playground or reading a book with him, I can't be grading another paper or reading another book. I can and must clear my head and pay attention to the demands and wonders of Pete's rapidly expanding world. (I don't know how many experiences can match that of watching a human mind come into language.) Contrarily, knowing that I'll be spending evenings and weekends with Pete has given me a newly intense kind of concentration during the days and nights when I'm working. I've enjoyed the clarity of this separation between my work and family time. Fatherhood has focused my professional life in many unanticipated ways."

One can't help but wonder, too, whether a third-generation English prof isn't getting his start in the family business. -- Mark Baechtel

Roberts Theatre

The Roberts Theatre semi-thrust stage, seating 450, was renovated and restored under the design of Cesar Pelli and Associates (New Haven, CT). The project was completed in 2000.

For more information about the Roberts Theatre please call the Technical Director at 641-269-3130.

 

Flanagan Studio Theatre

This theatre was built in recognition of Hallie Flanagan Davis's (class of 1911) work. Ms. Flanagan was national director of the Federal Theatre project, among many other wonderful commitments to the theatre world. With a catwalk and tension grid combined with flexible seating and stage arrangements, the Flanagan is our most versatile theatre. The space usually seats up to 126; however, some productions require smaller seating numbers.

Print and Drawing Study Room

Prints, drawings, and photographs in the Grinnell College extensive art-on-paper collection may be viewed and studied in the Print and Drawing Study Room which is under the auspices of the Faulconer Gallery.

The facility houses over 3000 works on paper, including: John L. and Roslyn Bakst Goldman Collection of German Expressionist Prints and graphic art by William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, and William Kentridge as well as photographs, drawings, and examples of all types of printmaking. The Print Room is located on the lower level of Burling Library.

Call Kay Wilson, Curator of the Collection, at 641.269.3371 for more information or to make an appointment.

Peace Grove

The Peace Grove was dedicated during the 1991 Reunion Weekend by the Class of 1970. In 1970 the College's administration responded to student protests against the Vietnam War and shootings at Kent State University by closing campus two weeks early and cancelling commencement, allowing students to travel and engage in social activism throughout the nation.

The Peace Grove was dedicated in memory of that time and hope of peace; the rock at its center bears an engraved plaque stating "May the diverse species of trees, which represent the many differing opinions of an outspoken class, grow tall and provide the campus community a place to contemplate and appreciate the beauty of a peaceful world."

Burling Gallery

Located in the lower level of Burling Library, the Burling Gallery presents exhibitions comprising works from the College's extensive collections of works on paper throughout the year. Summer hours begin May 19: Monday - Friday 8-5

Sebring-Lewis Hall

Sebring-Lewis Hall, opened in 1999, seats 338 people in a 4,050 square-foot space. It is the home of most music department performances and numerous guest artist events. One of the first ensembles to perform in the hall, the American String Quartet, described it as "one of the two or three best halls in the country for chamber music." The rich colors and cherry wood details in the hall make it as beautiful aesthetically as it is acoustically. Electrically adjustable curtains in the upper back of the hall allow for a tunable acoustic. A well-equipped control room and numerous computer data and sound connection points within the hall itself allow Sebring-Lewis to accommodate experimental computer music as well as chamber and ensemble performances.