On Mentoring in the Environmental Humanities

By Stephen Siperstein

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

-Gary Snyder

For the past ten years I have counted myself lucky to be a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Traveling to biennial ASLE conferences has always felt to me like coming home, and this year’s conference in Detroit, Michigan was no different. Attending an ASLE conference means building and sustaining meaningful relationships—at the registration desk and the opening reception, during the concurrent sessions and the plenary talks, through field trips and over drinks in the evenings. My wish, and why I continue to support ASLE, is for such experience to be commonplace and available to everyone in the Environmental Humanities (students, professors, independent scholars, creative writers, community organizers, secondary school teachers). My hope is that all who attend an ASLE conference leave feeling as I do: joyous, refreshed, energized. And ready to do the difficult work of teaching, service, and writing to protect our environment—work that in today’s political climate is more important than ever.

But while community has always been central to my understanding of ASLE’s purpose, this year something new hit home for me: at its roots what ASLE is really about is mentorship. ASLE has since its inception had a robust graduate student mentoring program. The program supports the ASLE community in many ways, and you can read more about its specific functions on the organization’s website. As a graduate student, in addition to the support of faculty at my own institutions, I found support and guidance through the ASLE mentoring program, and the unofficial relationships that grew organically at ASLE throughout the years.

Two years ago I contributed to this blog a post about how graduate students could imagine a multiplicity of career paths, including ones that are not pre-determined by the organizing narratives (or myths) of our fields. The post grew out of a roundtable session on “The Environmental Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track” that Clare Echterling, Mark Long, John Tallmadge, and I organized at the 2015 ASLE conference in Moscow, Idaho. We invited a range of panelists to speak about their various career paths. Their stories were dynamic and inspiring: stories about charting new directions, about the unexpected turns they took, about their failures and missteps, and about finding different forms of fulfillment and joy in their work. With guidance from the panelists, as well as the imaginative and interactive activities led by John, those present at the session began thinking of their futures in more empowering, and less passive, ways. The panel encapsulated Gary Snyder’s poem, The Trail is Not a Trail, in which he reminds us of the possibilities when we are “Out in the open / Everywhere to go.”

 

DSC_0657
Walking in the open on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

After that panel I began to imagine many potential career opportunities. I imagined paths that were rarely straightforward, except maybe in retrospect. I imagined many futures for myself. It was exciting, but also disorienting. When we have “everywhere to go,” we need guides.

At the time, I was a PhD student about to enter the job market. The ASLE panel was a turning point in my career (I can see this now in retrospect). The insights I gained from it helped me both finish my dissertation and pursue multiple career paths, which led to my current position in the Department of English at Choate Rosemary Hall, an independent high school in Connecticut. As part of my job, I live at the school’s environmental immersion program; teach courses in Environmental Humanities, American literature, and expository writing; run the writing center; advise the literary magazine; and take part in all aspects of school life.

The position is challenging for many reasons. The roles I have to inhabit are many and shift constantly. The pace is demanding. The institution is facing some of its own difficulties. And lastly, taking a job like this was not what I was expecting when I was a graduate student. Indeed, though I gravitated to the idea of exploring multiple career possibilities (i.e. alt-ac), the reality was that for at least eight years (the time I was in graduate school), and perhaps even longer than that, I had a particular vision for the path my career would take. That vision was of a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college or research university. Even with all the goodness of my current position—especially the opportunity it affords me to work with students passionate about environmental justice—I have not been able to give up my original vision of what my career would be. It can be tough giving up a vision, a preconceived notion of what you’ll be doing or who you’ll be. However, with the ongoing guidance of mentors, both old and new, such “giving up” can been an opportunity for growth, and for me it has been a way for me to discover the dimensions of my work, and of my identity, that I value most.

IMG_4543
The Kohler Environmental Center, where I live and teach—an opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful, and grateful too for the mentorship that guided me here

At the more recent ASLE conference in Detroit I had the opportunity to contribute to a roundtable session on mentorship. Organized by the two current ASLE graduate student liaisons, Aubrey Street Krug and April Anson, the session featured three pairs of mentors-mentees speaking about diverse professional paths in the environmental humanities and their own mentoring relationships. I spoke alongside Stephanie LeMenager, who served as my adviser at the University of Oregon. When I was a PhD student, Stephanie encouraged me to be loyal to my own vision(s) for what the future—both my individual future and what I saw as a broader future for the environmental humanities—might look like.

“Students look to mentors,” William Deresiewicz writes, “to give them what [others] won’t or can’t: the permission to go their own way and the reassurance that their path is valid” (178). As a mentor, Stephanie gave me permission to go my own way while also steering me when I seemed a bit lost. I developed a hybrid dissertation form that fit my topic (on pedagogy in the environmental humanities), and with Shane Hall, a PhD student in the UO Environmental Studies Program, we three collaborated on a project that eventually became the volume Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (an experience that helped me both develop “transferable skills” and more capaciously understand the field of environmental humanities). These experiences, among others, allowed me to cast a wide net during my job search and eventually to find my current position.      

In her remarks during our session, Stephanie emphasized that at their best, mentors reflect their mentees’ gifts back to them. Mentors can be mirrors, showing us who we really are. But they also play an important role in helping their mentees build the courage and the capacity to fail, and the imaginative capacity to take risks. Or in other words, mentorship builds resilience. In the ecological and political times that we find ourselves in today, we all need such capacity for resilience, and thus we all need mentors, likely more than one. James Engell explains this kind of mentorship as follows: “Who, in this welter of activity, can act as a mentor? To this challenge confronting everyone who engages—from whatever angle—climate disruption, mitigation, and the need to lessen dependence on fossil fuels, this essay offers one answer: we must act as mutual, reciprocally subservient co-mentors. Multiple mentorship pays great benefits, and we need it” (25). As Engell points out and as Stephanie reiterated during her remarks, we must all be “co-mentors.”

Since leaving the University of Oregon, I have continued to turn to Stephanie for mentorship (and she has continued to offer it, always graciously, always thoughtfully), but I have also found other co-mentors. For example, Jason BreMiller, who teaches at Exeter and directs the Environmental Literature Institute, has helped me transition into the world of secondary education. And there have been other mentors too along the way: Allison Carruth, Bill Rossi, Mark Long, John Tallmadge, Lee Rumbarger, and Jason Schreiner, just to name a few. I hope too, along the way, that I have provided my fair share of mentorship to others.

Every time I left Stephanie’s office or the coffee shop where we often met to discuss the most recent chapter of my dissertation, I felt like I had been given a gift and all the energy that comes with a gift feeling flowed through me. I felt grateful, and as Robin Wall Kimmerer has eloquently argued, gratitude provides an opening for reciprocity. So I try to pass on the gift of mentorship to others: to my students, my department colleagues, my friends at ASLE. This is reciprocity, what Robin Wall Kimmerer explains as the “matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving” (Kimmerer 165). Receiving the gift of mentorship always comes with a responsibility to use it for the benefit of many. When mentorship is in motion, it can last forever, finally taking root in our education institutions and academic organizations and flourishing into a culture of mentorship, in which everyone knows that the gift will “follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again” (381).

Ultimately, this culture of mentorship requires a life’s practice, one undertaken in broader communities—both in our academic institutions and beyond them. When we step off the familiar paths and venture out into the open, we can still follow the circle, and the gifts of mentorship will flow back to us.

IMG_4109
With Mark Long, friend and mentor, during the 2017 Environmental Literature Institute at Phillips Exeter Academy

Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Engell, James. “Climate disruption involves all disciplines: Who becomes a mentor?” Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, edited by Stephen Siperstein, Stephanie LeMenager, and Shane Hall. New York: Routledge, 2016. 24-30.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.