Professor Spotlight: Sid Simpson

Anna Cook   
Junior Editor 
Photo courtesy of Beylie Ivanhoe.

New to the University this school year, postdoctoral fellow in politics, Sid Simpson, has already established a quality reputation among students. When I mentioned to a peer during registration that I’d signed up for his course Punishment, they exclaimed about my immense luck in having claimed a coveted spot. Now, a few weeks into the class, I see why Simpson’s teaching style is appreciated. The fostering of a culture of open and good faith discourse, combined with a genuine interest in the distinct thoughts of every individual, creates a unique classroom environment.  

Well before teaching political theory to college students, for a period of time, Simpson coached elementary school kids in gymnastics. When asked how his approach to teaching differed from that point in his career to now, he assessed that very little had, in fact, changed. “A lot of things are the same. Kids in [elementary school] don’t want to be talked at, they want you to interact with them… and the same is true of kids in college. They don’t want to be talked at, they want to be engaged with, and pushed, and challenged, and to look back at the end of a semester and feel proud.”

This approach works in harmony with the often volatile material discussed. The course Punishment explores why humans punish one another, and their many given justifications for doing so. We debate law, hierarchy, deservedness, moral philosophy, and many other turbulent topics lacking clear-cut answers. In observing his teaching, I’ve noticed that maintaining gentleness without veering into patronization is crucial, as it allows for an environment of free and frequent inquiry, in which all speakers feel their contribution worthwhile. Given the subject matter, this is an effective way to produce dynamic engagement, as students of all ages can tell when they’re being patronized, and close themselves off. But they can just as easily open up when their ideas are probed and discussed with seriousness and respect.

Simpson credits a professor he had in college as partly responsible for his enthusiasm about teaching. He says, “He left a comment on one of my papers that just…made me want to do this. It said, ‘I disagree with everything you’ve written here, but you really are doing philosophy and that’s what matters.’” One can easily see how this experience translates to Simpson’s responses to student comments in class. Never is personal agreement or disagreement remotely part of the picture, the question is whether we’ve interrogated our beliefs and can defend them.

In addition to Punishment, Simspon currently teaches the course African-American Political Thought and has also taught courses in philosophy. When asked about a class in new territory that he would like to teach in the future, Simpson mentioned examining loneliness and its political consequences; (lonelier people tend to gravitate towards conspiratorial thinking and political extremism). This idea is an example of Simpson’s forward-looking and restorative thinking surrounding his field. While it may be easy to succumb to cynicism or nihilism in regard to the American political landscape, he doesn’t seem to see it in those terms. In his free time, Simpson enjoys reading and watching sci-fi, and he sees hope for humanity reflected in the genre. “Sci-fi is really good about envisioning what a better future would look like…It gives us a way to be critical of our world by abstracting from our world,” he explains.

In addition to consuming sci-fi, Simpson spends his time off campus rock climbing, shooting and developing film photography, and playing music. (He was part of multiple metal bands from seventh grade through graduate school). On campus, he is involved with multiple groups outside the classroom, including a committee focused on developing evolved methods of grading. One of the more difficult parts of teaching, he explained, is watching students get derailed from their interest in ideas and course content by qualms about grades. One alternative he discussed is “conference grading,” which allows students to self-assess their work alongside a rubric and then confer with their professor afterwards. This style once again returns to an emphasis on the autonomy of the student as an individual, as opposed to being a receptacle for information. Dr. Simpson is also in charge of a monthly movie viewing and discussion night hosted by the politics department. The next event is on February 28. The film is Padman, and he would love for you to stop by if interested!