Betsy Bolton: research and teaching interests

My work aims to contribute to a re-grounding of human life and values at this time of rising temperatures and rising tensions. By re-grounding, I mean both re-establishing cultural values on a more solid footing and also literally reconnecting with the earth through storytelling, listening, agro-ecology, and other strategies. Much of my energy goes into facilitating the work of others. Links to digital stories and other work and resources can be found in the image blocks at the bottom of this summary.

Research in Romantic literature

As a professor of English literature specializing in a period of radical change (coinciding with the French Revolution which reset the calendar to zero), I have paid close attention both to history and to the way formal structures (like poetry, drama, and fiction) make us reconsider assumptions about justice, gender, cause and effect.

In addition to my book, I have published an edition of Hannah Cowley’s play A Day in Turkey; or, the Russian Slaves as well as articles on gender issues both in Blake’s prophetic Milton and a lesser-known comedy by Hannah Cowley. Other areas of interest include the logic of spectacle and theories of agency in eighteenth-century and Romantic era theatre, as well as extra-human agency and proto-post-humanism in Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” and forced migration in Byron’s Don Juan.

In my Romanticism research, I am currently working on questions of celebrity, gender, and interiority. My monograph, tentatively titled The Secret Celebrity of Romantic Psychology asks why Romanticism is the period when celebrity culture takes off when it’s also known as a literary period focused on psychology and interiority. More specifically, I’m interested in three women writers (Mary Robinson, Mary Hays, Joanna Baillie) publishing respectively in poetry, prose, and drama between 1796 and 1798, who all asserted that the greatest service literature could offer was to track an obsessive and destructive desire to its origins in the human mind. Behind these three women, I see the shadowy figure of philosopher and novelist William Godwin. How do these four figures, all famous or infamous in their own way, define Romantic psychology and the shadow of its celebrity?

I’m also interested in Romantic era poet Charlotte Smith as a somewhat unlikely war poet and as a crucial point of inflection between epic and lyric form in this era. There may be another monograph lurking…


I have always been fascinated by teaching (and learning): the endless invitation to discovery on all sides. I had the privilege of co-facilitating Swarthmore’s first two faculty pedagogy seminars: Ken Sharpe and I wrote an essay about the first seminar for Inside Higher Ed. I’ve also been thrilled to help launch a new Master’s program in English literature in eastern Bhutan…

eager to work with local public school teachers in a Teachers-as-Scholars program; honored to teach creative writing workshops and honors seminars and experimental courses like River Stories, which started with an eight-day trip down the Delaware River; and delighted to teach Jane Austen’s novels in Swarthmore’s Lifelong Learning program.

I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Swarthmore’s New York alumni book groups for a year focused on food novels and the Washington DC alumni book group in 2019-20 for a year of climate fiction.

In summer 2020, I will teach writing in the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program and in fall 2020 I will teach Climate Fiction to Swarthmore undergraduates and Lifelong Learners. In spring of 2021, I hope to teach an Inside-Out course on Innocence and Experience with Swarthmore students and people incarcerated in a local prison.


As a creative writer, a professor, and past chair of Environmental Studies, I have explored some of the inter-relations of writing and nature, of natural history and imagination, focusing especially on the Crum woods that run along the side of the Swarthmore College campus. Early experiments in teaching through digital storytelling can be found at the course blog for Writing Nature (2010). Additional student work ranging from poetry to multimedia can be found at the course blog for Natural History and Imagination (2012).

Here are a few examples of my own digital stories, from an early retrospective on a brief stint as a peace observer in the aftermath of the Zapatista uprising, to a mingling of natural and national history (with Elvis!), to more straightforward memoirs about the Crum woods.

Believing we must all engage with the intellectual challenge of our environmental crises, I have grappled with basic climate science and economics in order to be able to teach this material. You can click on the images below to see some short teaching videos I developed for the Introduction to Environmental Studies.

With support from Swarthmore, I earned a permaculture design certificate as well as a certificate in permaculture teacher training for women. While chairing Environmental Studies, I helped establish the program’s new major. I also helped find support for a new college food garden, and helped found the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship, a flagship program in which students work with both faculty and staff on sustainability challenges on and off campus. I have supervised directed readings, student-led courses, and independent studies helping students connect with our local ecosystems.

I also helped stabilize funding and structure for an annual Swarthmore delegation to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties, and I traveled to Katowice, Poland with a delegation in December 2018.

In January 2020, I shared some literature about Antarctic, some travel writing strategies, and a call to climate action with an alumni tour to Antarctica.

Despite the travel recorded here, I remain deeply concerned about carbon emissions (exacerbated by air travel). I have been trying to encourage people to hold climate dinners to discuss with friends and neighbors the kinds of local engagement and creativity that might help us turn a corner in our climate crisis. Some resources here include slides I’ve created for such climate dinners (in need of streamlining and updating) and materials from Climate Generation.

Publicly engaged scholarship;
public diplomacy

As a Fulbright scholar to Morocco (2013-14) and Bhutan (2017-18), I have been eager to listen to other people’s stories and to learn a little about other cultures’ traditional ecological and social knowledge.

I learned from the Center for Digital Storytelling to use storytelling circles and digital media as a way of building community through shared storytelling, and I learned from Ruben Puentadura how to take this work in a more mobile direction.

I love to watch small groups support each other with the narrative and technical demands of this kind of storytelling. Moroccan teachers and university students both engaged wholeheartedly in the challenge. The artisans of the Fès medina told me, “We are the masters of our craft: you are the master of the iPod.” They welcomed me into their workshops so that I could try to help them tell their stories. This led me down the path of community-level documentary film-making, with a great deal of guidance from the fabulous film-maker Charles Dye.

Sample digital storytelling and mini-documentaries, Morocco (2014)

Mini-documentaries from the College for Zorig Chusum (traditional arts) in Trashi Yangtse, Bhutan (2017-18)

In Bhutan, we lived in Trashigang, in the beautiful and underdeveloped east of the country. Given what I had learned from traditional artisans in Morocco, I was eager to learn a little about the traditional arts of Bhutan. In November 2017, we received permission to visit the College of Zorig Chusum or traditional arts in Trashi Yangtse, the neighboring province. We made the following mini-documentaries…

Creative nonfiction

The project currently closest to my heart (and my daily writing practice) is a creative nonfiction manuscript tentatively entitled Crazy Wisdom for the Climate Crisis. In this book, I’m thinking through some of what I have experienced as a part-time climate activist–and I’m working to apply a few Bhutanese ideas to the kinds of impasses that seem to keep the United States stuck instead of responding to the crisis we face.

Fiction: Fantastique

Perhaps once I retire, I’ll be able to finish a half-written novel about the unhappy love affair between French composer Hector Berlioz and Irish actress Harriet Smithson as seen through the eyes of a modern theatrical troupe not unlike Pig Iron–and what that affair suggests about theatricality, music, and the challenges of love.

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