Dr Samantha Walton was Environmental Humanities Visiting Research Fellow at IASH from June to August 2016, with the project ‘Ecology and Mind in the work of Nan Shepherd.’ She is Senior Lecturer in English Literature: Writing and Environment at Bath Spa University and is currently an AHRC ECR Leadership Fellow on the project Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing: Connecting Health and the Environment through Literature.
I was delighted to be invited to IASH as an Environmental Humanities Visiting Fellow in 2016. It was the first year of the Environmental Humanities scheme, and it was particularly exciting to be part of the establishment of Environmental Humanities at the heart of research agenda at IASH. It was also a great pleasure to return to IASH, as I previously held a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship there (from August 2013 to December 2014). When I first applied in 2013, I had just finished a PhD in crime fiction and psychology at the University of Edinburgh, and IASH had proved receptive to my rather sketchy plan to start a new project on a little known Scottish Literary Renaissance writer Nan Shepherd. Three years on, I returned to IASH as a slightly more ‘established’ researcher, with a much more developed plan to write a book on Nan Shepherd. Shepherd too had transformed into a much-beloved and popular writer, whose works were back in print, and who had been selected to be featured on the Royal Bank of Scotland five pound note!
IASH is a very special place. While most Fellowship schemes demand lengthy applications often running to tens of thousands of words, the IASH application is far more streamlined and open to explorative research. Time is such a precious resource for scholars of all stages, and academics are under ever increasing pressure to publish, present research, network, win funding, and excel at teaching and mentoring students. In this context, IASH can feel like an oasis. It is somewhere to think, read, write, and have fascinating and often unexpected conversations with scholars from different disciplines and from around the world. That is not to suggest that IASH is cut-off from academic life: one of the most exciting things about being an IASH Fellow is the close contact the institute has with academics at the University of Edinburgh, who break away from teaching to attend lunchtime seminars and who welcome out-of-the-blue emails about research, collaborations, and good places to get coffee.
Reflecting on the two periods of time I spent at IASH, I can now see how important it has been to my academic career, my research, and my personal development as well. As an ECR coming into the job market in 2013, I was pessimistic about the chance of finding a job and suffering from the inevitable feeling of imposter syndrome that plagues many postdocs, and acutely affects female academics. IASH was a home and base for me in that transitional stage between study and work. It helped me gain the confidence to make job applications and gave me the support to sketch out the plans for a new research project, at a time in which the PhD still loomed large in my thoughts. During my time at IASH in 2013, I made friends and established connections with scholars that would lead to research publications (including an ecopoetic sound collaboration with former IASH fellow Dr Jonathan Prior) and involvement in the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network. I am also fairly sure that my IASH Postdoctoral Fellowship was a central factor in me getting my job at Bath Spa University, putting me in an immensely privileged position in the current climate in which ECR posts are so scarce.
When I returned to IASH in 2016, I was doing so as someone keen to take a pause from the demands of teaching, having just completed an exhausting bout of summer marking. The lively discussions, intellectual freedom and access to vital archives at the NLS helped remind me why I had become an academic in the first place (after marking over 100 essay scripts—even good ones—it is possible to forget). It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to be able to present the outcome of my research on Nan Shepherd, and to announce that I had begun work on a monograph. I was also able to host a symposium on Poetry and Ecology, supported by the IASH team, which featured scholars connected to the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, artists and poets, and a number of PhD students. Of course, I insisted that they apply for a Fellowship at IASH after they have submitted their theses.
I finished my Fellowship in August, but IASH won’t get rid of me that easily! In February 2017, I was able to host a Speculative Lunch on the theme of Nature and Wellbeing, and will return again in June to hold a symposium inspired by the outcome of those discussions. Universities can be competitive and inhospitable places, and scholars can feel lost within large institutions bent on meeting targets and quantifying their impact. In this context, the personal commitment that IASH makes to developing scholars and to championing us during and beyond our Fellowships deserves to be celebrated. It provides a model for what universities, and the humanities, can and should be: nurturing, intellectually engaging, and transformative.