Multimedia for the People

Rachel Mercy Simpson on Teamwork and Community at BCC

By David Laidig

Rachel Mercy Simpson (left) discusses video editing concepts with students Asekang Ojoi (on right) and Tennessee Reed. Photo courtesy of David Laidig

A press release announcing the 2017 Faculty Innovation Award of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) for Rachel Mercy Simpson was succinct:

“Since 2009, Simpson has been instrumental in transforming BCC’s multimedia arts program into one of the leading such programs in the country. Simpson will be recognized for her award at the AACC’s 97th Annual Convention in New Orleans later this month.”

Her take on that: “For me, it’s really a love letter to everyone who has contributed to the success of our multimedia department.” She cites students, faculty, staff assistants, and administrators,  as well as those “who paid for this building, our amazing equipment, and shooting studio…fellow citizens who believe it’s important that people have access to an affordable education in media.”

During the recent AACC conference in New Orleans, she met with college and Silicon Valley leaders who talked about a problem they see with online education. In its focus on narrow technical skills, it’s not the “full package.” For media professionals to have resilience in their careers, they need to develop deep analytical and critical communication skills that are best obtained through interactive projects in a group environment.

Her concern for students is evident in the Implicit Bias Training retreat she set up for multimedia faculty and teaching assistants, one factor in winning her the award. The training was to show how prejudice can affect expectations and grading across the diverse range of students we have at BCC. Teaching assistants were also included, as they can be important guides for their peers.

She sees herself as part of a collective endeavor to create an active learning environment by thinking about what students need to do and involving them in the process. Collaboration and teamwork are essential. Lectures focus on software, but media is about communication, both visual and verbal. To help students communicate powerful ideas, she encourages them to continue their education at one of the many public colleges in this area with affordable options. Quite a few have gone on to UC Berkeley or UCLA.

This interview was conducted on May Day (her high school age son was on a march in San Francisco) which lead to the topics of economics and disparity. She has been concerned about the cost of living in the Bay Area and how this affects students and faculty, especially adjuncts (part-timers). Rents are continuously rising. Many students need full or part-time jobs to survive. Sometimes, for economic reasons, they drop out.

Simpson recalled her student days and how she benefited from an unlikely, but good education starting at “a tiny, ad hoc elementary school in Brooklyn.” It was in a diverse neighborhood with a lot of recent immigrants, like her family. Her father, from South Africa, had passed through England to Canada. Her mother, born and raised in Canada, had parents originally from Scotland. She feels a strong connection with Berkeley’s diversity.

She didn’t go to the local high school she thought she was destined for. Through fortunate family connections, she was sent to Phillips Academy, a boarding high school. After attending Wesleyan University on a scholarship, she went to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University where she had to scrub soup pots to support herself.

After several years shooting video documentaries, producing radio shows for NPR, and giving birth to her son, she decided to try teaching as a way to stay closer to home. Simpson couldn’t afford to leave town for days to shoot on location. Just as she once loved to wrap her own films, she now feels invested in her students’ projects and in developing BCC’s “beloved community.”

Before going full time in 2009, Simpson was an adjunct. She feels pay disparity between adjuncts and full-time faculty needs to be addressed. Adjuncts earn considerably less than full-time teachers doing the same jobs. “It is such a boon to our students to have adjuncts currently working in the industry. They help students in networking, finding jobs, and internships. Their skills are cutting edge.”

Simpson and Mary Clarke-Miller co-chair BCC’s Multimedia Department, working together to prioritize building closer ties with the industry and pushing for higher levels of rigor, skills, and opportunity.

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