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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Erik Simpson

Part of a continuing series about people who inhabit, or who have inhabited, the confines of Grinnell College.

The other day, I was talking with a colleague about the folks on campus we most consider active allies in the fight for something like my vision of Grinnell. I was trying to consider people with a particularly strong focus on that fight, in that they bring to bear strong institutional memory, a habit of reading all of the verbiage that appears on campus, and a willingness to publicly ask questions. When I was a young faculty member, it felt like we had a large cadre of senior faculty with those characteristics. I’ve certainly become one [1,2]. But I also think that a lot of faculty have become a bit frustrated by issues, and either focus on particular matters or give up the fight altogether. In any case, one of the names that quickly came to mind was Erik Simpson. Erik is one of the faculty I consider central to shaping much of what I love about Grinnell.

That’s probably not the best way to introduce Erik. More precisely, the lead-in about those characteristics is not the best way to introduce Erik. That last sentence of the first paragraph is not only true, but an appropriate introduction; Erik is indeed one of the faculty I consider central to Grinnell. So let’s consider why Erik is important to this institution.

Erik is a professor of English. And, in that role, he has a reputation as a teacher worth having. He’s thoughtful in the classroom, concerned about students, passionate about his subject, and willing to push his students to do better. He’s also innovative in his scholarship, pursuing not just the books that are central to the humanities, but also projects in digital humanities, projects that have often involved students. And he’s been doing that more-or-less since he arrived at Grinnell. All of that would make him an important part of Grinnell, as Grinnell defines itself as a place filled with these kinds of teacher/scholar/mentors.

But Erik is so much more than that. He’s a leader on campus. Right now, he is the faculty director of our joint Mellon grant with UIowa on the Digital Humanities. You think that would be enough. He’s also a public face of the planning committee for the new Humanities and Social Science Complex [3,4]. Before that, he’s served on Executive Council and other positions I’ve now forgotten. In all of my interactions with Erik on these kinds of projects, I find him thoughtful, considerate, eager to hear other perspectives, and able to synthesize differing opinions. He’s also willing and able to advocate for faculty perspectives.

Something I both appreciate and hate about Erik is that he is so much better than me at many of the things I do. He is much more articulate than I in his complaints about technology on campus [7]. His ’blog, available at, addresses a much broader range of topics. And, as you’d expect, his writing is far more enjoyable to read than my workmanlike [8] prose [10]. Michelle remembers things about his post on the Web site much more than my post on the same topic. I think he’s also a more successful teacher [11,12]. His footnotes put mine to shame [15]. He may also be more successful than I am in taking on an unreasonable workload. That makes me worry.

As I think the previous two paragraphs suggest, there are good reasons that I think about Erik as an ally. He pays attention, knows a lot, cares a lot, shares many concerns, and is able to articulate those concerns well. He is also very well respected by the broader College community, which makes him a particularly strong ally.

On a completely separate note, I find Erik a useful exemplar in conversations about hiring. When someone says We should prioritize this candidate because they went a liberal arts college, I remind them that Erik is considered one of Grinnell’s exemplary faculty, and he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia [22] and a graduate student at UPenn [23].

I’ve left out many aspects of Erik: Jazz musician, Baseball fanatic, developer of interesting parenting techniques (with [Carolyn Jacobson]) [24], and others I don’t yet know about.

In the end, what I most appreciate about Erik is that I always find conversations with him to be compelling and interesting. He’s well spoken, well informed, and thoughtful. We’re lucky to have him at Grinnell [25].

[1] By one, I mean an older faculty member with those characteristics.

[2] And I am perhaps too much of one.

[3] For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, the new complex is Alumni Recitation Hall (ARC) + Carnegie - the former bookstore - the old mailroom + about as much space is already contained in those spaces, if not more.

[4] It seems that people are coming to call this HSSC. I’m looking forward to having an alum (or alums) donate enough money that we name it, either in their honor or in honor of some influential faculty member. I’d love to be able to refer to it as Mohan or Wall or the Caulkins complex or Dobbs or Fyffe or Ferguson or maybe even Simpson, just as people call the science center Noyce, the arts center Bucksbaum, and the physical education complex The Bear [5,6].

[5] No, I don’t know why some buildings end up with an article before their namesake.

[6] Yes, I realize that all of my examples are named after donors, rather than influential Grinnell faculty. But I can hope. We do have Main hall, after all.

[7] Of course, neither of us have been particularly successful in those complaints, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. However, I do think that administrators still listen to Erik, and I’m pretty sure that at least a few have now tuned me out.

[8] Is there a non-gendered equivalent to workmanlike [9]?

[9] To head off an expected comment: Yes, I realize that the definition of workmanlike makes no suggestion that it is gendered. However, I also expect that some readers will naturally find it as such.

[10] No, I am not fishing for compliments. I generally write clear and readable prose. But I also know that there’s a difference between clear and readable prose, and well-crafted sentences.

[11] I do realize that it is difficult to compare the teaching of literary analysis and the teaching of computer science. However, I will note that when I teach writing, I regularly rely on Erik’s resources, particularly his instructions on thesis writing.

[12] Once again, I am not fishing for compliments. I know that I’m a good, and, on occasion, great teacher. But I also know that there are some flaws that interfere with my teaching [14], and I see Erik as being much more consistent in his approach.


[14] Say, for example, my inability to grade promptly, if at all.

[15] Here’s an illustrative example from Literary Minstrelsy, 1770-1830: Minstrels and Improvisers in British, Irish, and American Literature.

  1. An exception to the general lack of Irish sources, the Goldsmith epigraph to Fragment XVIII, proves the internationalist rule of the Continental citations. The reason for the Irish intrusion is clear enough: the fragment is titled Home, and the note to the opening line (Sad, deserted, and alone) reads,

This trifle was scribbled on a tablet when the recollection of endeared home opposed itself to the comfortless solitude of an inn; for surely the term solitude is arbitrary in its application; and the heart, independent of situation, may, in the midst of the busiest haunts, shrink back upon itself solitary and unanswered. (79, emphasis original).

The fragment connects the alienation possible within one’s country to that felt by foreigners or exiles. Where Scott strove to consolidate Britishness through animating the national ground with stories, The Lay of an Irish Harp uses sensibility to imply communities of feeling that subtly suggest a transnational alternative to accommodating British interests. A Trumpener writes, the Lowlanders’ carefully sentimentalized relationship, sixty years after Culloden, toward Highland culture, has no easy parallel in Ireland (132). [16,20,21]

[16] Simpson, 172. [17]

[17] I realize that I should have just put the reference to page 72 at the end of the longer quotation (in that case, I think I should have just written (172)). However, it then feels a bit ambiguous; is the (172) Simpson referring to something else (like the (132)) or me referring to Simpson. There’s probably an MLA rule for that [18], but I don’t know MLA style very well [19].

[18] Well, there probably used to be an MLA rule for that. My understanding is that the new MLA says something like Do whatever feels natural to you.

[19] I went to The University of Chicago. Kate Turabian was still Registrar for must of my career. I learned Chicago Style. There were no other options. I still appreciate that Chicago style includes the author in the text, which provides information to the informed reader. But I’ll admit that these days, I am less careful about the style I use, in part because my professional society seems to be varying its own recommendations.

[20] I must admit that, in transcribing this endnote, I ended up translating single quotation marks in the Trumpener quote to double quotation marks. Why? Because I confused the apostrophe to indicate a possessive after Lowlanders with an end quotation mark.

[21] Should we make a list of how I would have done this differently, other than my inability to do this level of analysis? Probably not, a complete list, but perhaps a few. I probably would have made a joke about how one scribbles on a tablet, taught my readers that XVIII is read eighteen, and riffed on the question as to whether, the the in the fragment is titled should have been capitalized. But none of that would have advanced the primary thesis of the chapter, and so would not really belong there. Oh, yes, I would have probably included a long digression on the difference between minstrelry and minstrelsy, although that probably would not have appeared in this footnote.

[22] I’m pretty sure that an institution with about 16K undergraduates is not a liberal arts college.

[23] One is rarely a graduate student at a liberal arts college. But one can do a postdoc at such an institution.

[24] I so much appreciate that when their son decided that he wanted a Nerf gun in spite of their objections to weapons, he wrote a long, footnoted, argumentative essay to convince them. I even more appreciate that they sent it back for revisions.

[25] I hope that Erik is not sucked into the vortex on the other side of Park street [26], as often happens to many of our strongest faculty who also do a lot of service. If he is, I hope he follows the lead of Jim Swartz, Paula Smith, and Leslie Gregg-Jolly and eventually crosses back across Park.

[26] That is, chooses to become an associate dean or other administrator.

Version 1.0 released 2016-11-07.

Version 1.1 of 2018-08-17.