A Sense of Purpose Leads to the Tenure Track in Formative Education
An anthropology alum with wide-ranging interests about Islam, development, and education in Africa joins a new department at Boston College.
This fall Caitlyn Bolton (Ph.D. ’22, Anthropology) will start a tenure-track position in a new department at Boston College devoted to formative education — a holistic view of education that is aimed at helping students develop intellectually, socially, and spiritually.
The new department is bringing in scholars from an array of disciplines and backgrounds, making it a good fit for Bolton, who grew up in Pennington, New Jersey, and went on to learn Swahili and Arabic, study abroad in Kenya, and live in Egypt and Tanzania. She has a B.A. in anthropology and Africana studies from Bard College, and a master’s in Near Eastern studies from New York University. During her time at the Graduate Center, Bolton received research funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Fulbright-Hays Program, and the American Council of Learned Societies. She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her upcoming position and her unusual path:
The Graduate Center: What made you interested in joining this new department?
Bolton: I imagined I would either be in anthropology or religion, but then this came out of nowhere for me. I was really interested in looking at whole-person education, and what it means to educate in a holistic way — rather than siloed academic disciplines or just focusing on economic success, thinking broadly about: What does it mean to be a purposeful human, and what kind of knowledge coheres toward that?
The language of formative education emerges from the Jesuit context of Boston College, although the department itself is not tethered to that specific genealogy. And I think that because I bring expertise in other religious traditions, that helps broaden the scope of the department as well.
GC: Your dissertation was on the role of Islam in development projects in Zanzibar. Do you think that helped position you for this new role?
Bolton: Yes, definitely. All of the Islamic development organizations that I worked with worked through education in various ways. This department is trying to break the mold of what education means and to expand our sense of what it means to know and learn, and so the fact that I don’t come from an education department — I think that was very appealing for them.
I’m planning to go back to Zanzibar this summer for a collaborative project related to climate change and Islamic ethical orientations towards the environment. I worried when I was applying for this job, Oh, is that project too outside of education? But the chair of the new department said he’d wanted to have a class on education for ecological consciousness, so when he saw my CV, he got super excited. I’d thought it would place me too outside the scope, but they wanted someone who makes connections to very pressing world issues, so I think that that actually worked in my favor, even though I was unsure that it would.
GC: You won a lot of prestigious grants during your time at the GC. What advice do you have for current students who are seeking fellowships?
Bolton: I think when applying for grants, it’s always very important — while being very rooted in the weeds and details of your work — to be really clear about the broader stakes and why your project is important and interesting, beyond to those working in your region or on your exact topic. You need to clearly articulate its widest relevance and interest, both scholarly and for the world.
GC: How did you first become interested in your area of research?
Bolton: When I was an undergrad, I felt committed to trying to understand the places of the world that I felt that Americans understood the least, or had the most stereotypes about: Africa, the Middle East, Islamic communities. Those were really at the top of the list.
I began studying Arabic throughout my undergrad years. I studied abroad in Kenya, where I started learning Swahili, and Islam in Africa was an overlap of these various interests. I did my undergraduate and graduate work on political Islam in Sudan.
And then, after living in Egypt, I thought that I might do a Ph.D. project on Egypt. But during my first year here, through my adviser, Professor Mandana Limbert (Anthropology, Middle Eastern Studies), who works on Oman and Zanzibar connections, I ended up reviving my Swahili and then shifting to Zanzibar, which has this fascinating history — it was the capital of the Omani sultanate at one time, a connection across the Indian Ocean, with very long-standing exchanges with the Arabian Peninsula.
GC: It sounds like your interests took you far afield from your background.
Bolton: Yes, that’s likely related to me being a Bahá’í. I joined the Bahá’í Faith when I was in high school. In my process of learning about the Bahá’í Faith, which emerged within an Islamic context in the way that Christianity emerged within a Jewish context, I also learned a lot about Islam. A central teaching of the Bahá’í Faith is the oneness of humanity. I think that that kind of global consciousness was part of my motivation.
GC: What did you find particularly valuable in your Graduate Center experience when you were searching for a tenure-track position?
Bolton: My education at the GC was very, very rigorous. Colleagues who were at nearby universities who entered at the same time — our first few years were very different. And I think that having to search for grants made my résumé strong. Also related to that is the fact that at the GC we teach, and we don’t just TA — teaching is central to what we do. When I started this process, I had a lot of teaching experience and could speak confidently about teaching. That, I think, was a big strength as well.
GC: Is there anything that you wish you’d known earlier, when you were just starting out as a Ph.D. student?
Bolton: When I was applying to graduate programs, I had a lot of people say to me, “Don’t apply,” given how challenging it is to make a career in this line of work. I think that if one is in this just because it could be a good job, it is going to be difficult. I think for many people, if they’re feeling that the norm is to graduate and then for three years apply for and then find that perfect fit — that’s hard.
For me, and this does obviously relate to this department I’m joining, but I’ve been really driven by a sense of purpose and even calling. So it’s not just about getting a job but also doing something in the world, in a kind of a larger sense, that motivates me. I think that following that thread is what has kept me going and even allowed me to be successful in different ways.
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