One of my former professors, a great but humble man named Scott Simpkins, died this morning, in his home in Denton. I don’t know any more about his death except that he’d been in poor health for some time, and that he will be dearly, dearly missed.
One of the great joys of academic life is meeting people who excite you intellectually. Scott Simpkins was more than that: He was excited by the intellect of others, which, in academia, can sometimes seem like a rare thing. We get so caught up in our own work, in what we are arguing or who is reading us or how quickly we’re advancing through the ranks, that we forget that the work of others is our work. But Scott Simpkins seemed always aware of that symbiotic truth, and he loved it. I knew him only briefly and mostly through the classroom — he taught my critical theory course and my course in Gothic literature, both with as much humor and enthusiasm as brilliance and insight — but I never saw the man in or out of the classroom, never passed him in the hall or stopped by his open office door just to say hi, without encountering a smile and smiling in return, and I never stopped for a chat without learning something or — more important, perhaps — unlearning something. He was excited by the ideas of others and so he excited new ideas in me. He did that to everyone: He lit us up.
It is through us, I like to think, that Scott is still alight himself. Within minutes of news breaking within the department, Scott’s colleagues and former students began posting memorials in their Facebook statuses and on Scott’s Facebook wall. In everyone’s digital voice, there are notes of both sorrow and gratitude, comments of loss and regret as well as the sincerest thanks for all Scott taught us, his former students, his friends, his colleagues.
Of course, Scott might challenge my reading of that. He might challenge my reading of all this — he made a living out of challenging assumptions. We’re talking about a man who wore t-shirts, cargo shorts and sandals to teach every day partly just because professors aren’t “supposed” to dress like that. In his Facebook photo albums, he included a picture of himself jumping up and down on a black suit and tie he’d just cut from his own body, an act of what he describes as “performance art” to teach composition. He was Descartes’s evil genius if ever there was one, and he just loved upending assumptions.
But there is no upending this: He is loved by all who knew him, and we all are better off because of him.
He was also one of the coolest people I ever knew. The guy was into everything, and while he would never have claimed to know everything about everything, he definitely knew a little bit about everything and a whole hell of a lot about most things. But he never let his intellect get in the way of a good time. While some of his students and his colleagues were hunched over yellow legal pads in the library or typing up essays in their dark rooms, trying so desperately to “get ahead,” Scott was enjoying a beer with students or hiking in Palo Duro Canyon out west or cycling across town or just kicking back with a book. And he still thought circles around most people, still had a hell of an impressive publication record, still enjoyed the respect of his colleagues. And he had fun doing it. His faculty profile photo at UNT shows him wearing a backpack in the hills; his personal website begins with a quote from Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. This is a man who knew how to make academia fun, how to make academia cool.
Sometimes I feel like we only get a few of those in our lives. I value and revere all the teachers I’ve ever had, even the ones I sometimes disagreed with, but I can name maybe one or two professors from each stage of my career — middle school, high school, grad school, my doctoral work — who’ve had a deep and lasting impact on my approach to academia and to my work both as a writer and a teacher. Scott Simpkins easily ranks among them (and it’s no accident, I think, that he was the most-requested “second reader” on creative writing theses and dissertations at UNT — he had this kind of impact on everyone).
So here’s to Scott Simpkins. The world is a lesser place today, but only a little and not for long, because we who love you will always remember you.