The Long View of Teaching’s Impact: A Tale of Film School and Pandemic Survival 

By Robert Alan Simpkins 

When I teach my Anthropology classes, I understand that most or all students in those classes will not become Anthropology majors or pursue a career in Anthropology.  My hope is that I will give them something through the class that they will remember, and that might shape how they think or see the world.  What I do not know is what that ‘something’ is, and how it might provide some benefit to them in the future.  In the early weeks of our college’s closure under the pandemic in 2020, I unexpectedly found myself drawing from my early college experiences in an unexpected way, while my family was all at home and unsure when schools and businesses would reopen and if it was safe to venture outside.   

My first semester of college, I was not studying Anthropology.  I was a film major at New York University, where I had received a scholarship.  As a film major, I of course was enrolled in film courses in that semester – which I enjoyed – but also through work study as part of my financial aid was trained as a film projectionist in the Cinema Studies department and had this role for two additional classes that happened to be taught by a husband and wife at the university.  I immersed myself in film that first semester, using the resources of their film library to watch on my own time movies that were not available to me growing up, but had read about in books.  In the era before streaming, this kind of access was thrilling for me.  For a number of reasons (financial, cultural, and personal) at the end of the semester I decided not to continue with the program, and soon after that, I decided not to pursue filmmaking for my education or my career.  I never stopped loving movies, but I never took another film class again. 

A few decades later, in a household full of uncertainty about the future under COVID-19, I was busy learning how to transition my classes to online instruction while my wife and I waited for news from our children’s school about their plans for assignments, technology, etc.  With all of us being home all day every day, and with watching television as something we could all do together, I had an idea: I would create a film school curriculum, and teach our children about film history and improve their cultural literacy.  We had already watched a number of age-appropriate classic films, so I skipped those and made a list of additional films we had never watched together.  I grouped them around themes, with a roughly chronological order.  Each day we would gather in the living room, where I gave a short introduction to the film, providing some details about the making of the film and its cultural significance and influence (minus spoilers).  I was delighted when everyone seemed to enjoy and want to discuss the films, and even more delighted when they spotted the influence of the films on other works later. 

After we worked our way through the silent film era and to the Golden Age of Hollywood, we got to some selections where I was unsure how, for example, our seven-year-old daughter would react to Citizen Kane.  Yet she and my son sat through it without complaint, and she gave it a big thumbs up at the end.  Not long after that our son and daughter were watching a cartoon with a ‘Rosebud’ gag that my son paused and called me in to see.  But re-watching it brought back memories of NYU film school and my time as a projectionist for a professor’s Orson Welles course.  When I was given a choice of classes in which to work as a projectionist, I picked that one in part because although I had seen several of Welles’ films in high school, many were not available on home video and the Cinema Studies film library seemed to have them all.  Reflecting on that class, I remembered how much I enjoyed his lectures, and wondered if it was possible, over three decades later, that he was still teaching.  I searched and quickly found an NYU email address for him, and sent him a message about my time there and his class, and my ‘Kid’s Film School’ concept and how I was drawing from what I learned during that semester in Greenwich Village to share with my family.  His wife’s class was on the cultural history of New York City, and in my reflections I thought of her class too, and decided to try to find her email and share the story with her as well. 

Before long, both had replied to my emails, and thanked me for writing them.  My Orson Welles professor was about to retire after a career as long as my own life.  His wife had been a Dean at another college since I was at NYU, and was already retired.  With so much unknown about the future under the pandemic conditions, I was happy that I was able to share with two teachers from so long ago that their classes didn’t just have an impact on me, I was passing along what I learned to my family, and to our children.  I may not have become a filmmaker, or a film professor, but for a while at home while we sought ways to stay enriched and engaged as a family during tense and uncertain times, I got to play that role.   

As I shared with both teachers in my email:  “While universities, faculty, and administrators may think in terms of their most distinguished alumni when viewing their legacy, I wanted to show how there are these little legacies too, where even a student who spent only one semester in the program absorbed a great deal and appreciated the opportunity and years later found a use for the education in creating the next generation of film-lovers.” 

My Orson Welles professor shared with me in response: “Receiving a note like this at a time like this means a great deal!  Thank you so very much.  I’m so pleased to learn of what you are doing.  We are finding that film, poetry and music….all the arts, really, are such an enormous help in these dark times.  It means a great deal to us to know that our teaching still has some impact after such a long period of time, and that it is being passed from generation to generation.” 

I don’t know what impact my teaching has or will have had on my thousands of students now after more than two decades in this profession, but hope that I have left some of those ‘little legacies’ as well that might manifest themselves in unexpected moments, and that can spread beyond the individual students in my classes, to the people around them.  The time we spend with our students then is about more than what we are teaching at that moment and for that assignment.  It is also about that opportunity to give them something long-lasting and impactful even if they don’t realize it at the time, and even if its value isn’t apparent to them until half a lifetime later. 

Robert Alan Simpkins has been a Professor of Anthropology at Porterville College since 2012, where he also is currently the Academic Senate President and faculty lead for Guided Pathways.  He previously served two terms as the Social Science Division Chair, and organized PC’s CHAP (Cultural and Historical Awareness Program) series for five years.  Prior to coming to PC, he was an adjunct at De Anza College and at San Jose State University.  He has an MA and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and BA from San Jose State University.  As an Archaeologist, he is interested in the relationship between roads, architecture, cultural landscapes, and socio-political organization.  His particular focus has been the Golconda kingdom in the Indian Deccan region, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation and on which he has presented his research internationally and published extensively, most recently in the article “Inferring Road Networks and Socio-Political Change from Elite Monuments of the Golconda Kingdom” in South Asian Studies in 2020.  Although a native of the Bay Area, he enjoys the farms and orchards of the central valley and the proximity to the mountains, and going on drives and exploring the region with his family.  He has a weakness for books, toys, classic movies and animation, art, stories, and anything that he finds amusing.