Professor lives back-country adventures

Courtesy Photo / Sean Prentiss
Professor of writing Sean Prentiss

Courtesy Photo / Sean Prentiss Professor of writing Sean Prentiss

Josh Brunsting

Famous British novelist Pico Iyer once wrote, “Travel is not about collecting passport stamps, but keeping your eyes open.” If such is the case, then Grand Valley State University assistant professor of writing Sean Prentiss’s eyes are wide open.

The always-in-motion Prentiss has not only visited 48 states in the U.S., but has also lived or worked in 15 of them.

“Over my life I’ve spent months sleeping in my car, at least 1,000 nights in a tent, and have had the chance to build a cabin in the mountains of Colorado that when I write, I call home,” he said. “I built it with my hands and the hands of my best friend, who helped. It’s off the grid.”

An avid hiker and published writer, Prentiss has written creative nonfiction, poetry and short stories. To him, his success is as personal as the time he spends in the wilderness.

“Any success I have had can be credited to my father teaching me to work hard and then much harder still,” he said. “My mom also taught me to only follow my passion, to always do exactly what you love. I am exactly my parents’ son. They created the person I have become. I think about the debt I owe them, about making them proud of whom I have become.”

In a cursory way Prentiss currently aids Grand Valley State University’s new Poetry Project spearheaded by professors Henry Matthews, Patricia Clark and Andy Beachnau.

“I merely assist with this, but their idea is to bring poetry to campus in the same way that GVSU has so successfully brought art to campus,” Prentiss said. “The long-term idea is to have poems from students, from faculty, from published poets scattered across campus. We might frame a poem. We might paint a poetry line across a wall.”

Since coming to GVSU as a visiting professor in the fall of 2008, Prentiss has made an impact not only on the students he has taught, but the teachers he calls his contemporaries.

“Sean Prentiss teaches like the natural athlete he is — with discipline, commitment to excellence and attentive to all the small moves of success,” said Austin Bunn, an assistant professor at GVSU. “Every time you speak to him, he’s just come back from one adventure and soon to be off on another. The writing department is lucky to have him.”

While colleagues praise his efforts at the university, it has been the students who have come into his life that Prentiss sees as the most rewarding piece to his profession.

“I am amazed at how lucky I am to work with such talented and driven and passionate students,” Prentiss said. “It is a joy to come to class each day to see those great students spread throughout the room, the students who are never satisfied with mediocrity or goodness or even very-goodness. My favorite students want only one thing – greatness – and I get to help them on that journey toward greatness as writers, as thinkers, as humans.”

With writing, Prentiss has been able to do what many only dream – mix two obsessions into a single profession. He lives for and writes about the outdoors as if Mother Nature and its seasons are his ephemeral mistress.

“With teaching, I’m also a professional ski tester,” he said. “Backcountry Magazine brings me – and about 30 other skiers – to Utah to test skis and then to write about those skis. I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend my days.”

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