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Distinguished professor John Holt leaves Bowdoin after 40 years

December 7, 2018

After 40 years at Bowdoin, John Holt will leave the College at the end of the semester. Holt, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies, will spend the spring semester at the University of California, Berkeley before moving on to teach at the University of Chicago, his alma mater.

Holt arrived at Bowdoin from Whittier College in 1978 following a recommendation from his doctoral advisor at the University of Chicago.

“I had never heard of Bowdoin and didn’t know how to pronounce it,” Holt said.

During his four decades at the College, Holt spent three separate terms as the Visiting Professor of History and Comparative Religion at Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya. He was awarded a Doctor of Letters from the same institution for his contributions to Sri Lankan and Buddhist studies. He was honored as the Alumnus of the Year by the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2007, and he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.

When Holt arrived in Brunswick, he didn’t initially know how long he would stay.

“I had chances to go other places that would have been more prestigious and lucrative,” he said. “However, I wanted to raise my children here in Maine. I love the state.”

Holt also noted his passion for teaching undergraduates, explaining that not having to worry about “teaching down” to Bowdoin students helped him maintain his enthusiasm for teaching.

Compared to other places he taught, Holt called Bowdoin “the most congenial context for teaching.” He also attributed his lengthy tenure at Bowdoin to the College’s willingness to allow him to pursue the fellowships he desired.

Holt plans on keeping his home in Harpswell and returning in the summer, but he admitted that he will miss walking across the quad in the winter.

“I’m going to miss feeling at home here,” he said.

Reflecting on what has changed in his four decades at the College, Holt said he appreciated how Bowdoin has diversified its domestic student body. He remarked that the student body primarily hailed from New England when he first arrived. However, Holt expressed frustration at the College’s lack of a substantial international student presence.

“We really lag far behind other colleges like Middlebury and Williams,” he said. “We should give far more attention to international applicants than we do.”

Holt explained that international students can be a catalyst for richer classroom discussion.

“If you actually have students in the class from Thailand or India, that changes the dynamic in the classroom,” Holt said.

Holt also said he felt the College has become increasingly corporate and that the role of the faculty in decision-making was diminishing.

“In some ways, the faculty has become peripheral as we’ve been defined more in terms of what our responsibilities are,” he said, “So we don’t participate in the way that we used to.”

In terms of the student body, Holt believes that students today are generally less engaged in contemporary social issues than those he first taught. Holt acknowledged that the increased pressure on students to be “well-rounded” coming out of high school has made them more focused on individual pursuits. He said that today he assigns less work than he used to because he believes students do not have as much free time. However, Holt said that he was never disappointed with the performance of his students.

“I think the intellectual rigor and the curiosity in other cultures and ideas is still there with students,” he said.

As he prepares to leave Brunswick, Holt said that he will miss some of the beauty that comes along with frigid Maine winters.

“I think that the time after a major snowstorm when the the dawn is clear and the sky is blue is really magical. It’s so quiet and peaceful,” he said. “I will miss those special moments.”


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