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.”


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.

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.

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.


Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org:Simmons Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: Terrain.org. I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of Terrain.org and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, Terrain.org and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. Terrain.org couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, Terrain.org has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. Terrain.org doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.