Abigail Padilla
Staff Writer

English Majors on campus are perhaps familiar with the friendly face that is the chair of the English department. Professor Jonathan Burton is quite the busybody, even when no one is leaving the house. He is constantly going to meetings, teaching classes, giving feedback, and attending to his duties as a husband and father. He told me his 16-year-old daughter went out and got her first job, and that she is “not letting the pandemic stop her” from doing her thing. His wife also just opened a high school, and she is hard at work on that. 

During our interview, Burton’s kindness and understanding really showed. My Internet is mediocre at best and often cuts out when I am talking. He was understanding enough to answer my questions on a document.

As a dad and a husband trying to ‘keep up” with “these two amazing women in [his] life,” Professor Burton has taken up the job of fueling their bodies. Cooking is a creative outlet for Professor Burton; he elaborated, “I am a big fan of the [NYT] Cooking Page and App — especially Melissa Clark. I suspect I’ve cooked upwards of 60 of Melissa Clark’s recipes since the pandemic began. In the past week alone, I made empanadas, mushroom barley soup, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, and Indian-ish nachos with black beans and chutney.”

I ask all professors I get the pleasure of talking personally with about their college experience. “I went to Haverford College, a small, Quaker-founded liberal arts college just outside of Philadelphia. So, when I [decided] to become a professor, the kind of place I had in mind as a dream job was some version of Haverford. I taught for 12 years at a big state university, but, eventually, my dream came true,” said Professor Burton. He did not dive straight into his Ph.D.; he explained, “After my undergraduate degree, I taught middle and high school for three years, and then did a two-year Masters and a five-year Ph.D. While I was doing my Ph.D. [in New York City], I was also teaching two classes per semester.”

 Before settling on teaching, Professor Burton ran a concert series and “produced 19 concerts in three years. I thought I might go into concert and event production, or maybe radio.  But, I had a friend who was also running a concert series, and his series was so much cooler than mine.”  In the beginning of class, he usually has music playing. Oftentimes it is something I have never heard before, but, sometimes, I hear something, like Prince, that I can groove to. “You’ve probably gotten the impression already from the entry music for my classes; I’m a bit of a music-head,” he said. “I’m pretty omnivorous in my tastes, but, lately, I’ve been most into Sault, Khruangbin, and Waxahatchee. I’m listening to music at least a few hours every day, while I’m grading, while I’m cooking, [and] definitely while I’m walking [my dog] Dingo.” 

Once he had made his career choice, Burton went to teach in Washington D.C. and in Lahore, Pakistan. “I just loved being with students, seeing their lights grow brighter, their volume increase, and their posture straighten. I’ve always felt like, if there are lights and mirrors, I’m more of a mirror. I want my talent to be in amplifying someone else’s light and shining it back on them.” As a student, I can verify that I feel this type of energy. Professor Burton works extremely hard at giving his students feedback to help improve their writing. That is so much time, effort, and care that is not required, but he does anyway because he is passionate. 

Professors are very passionate and intelligent people; no one goes to school for upwards of 10 years with no particular rhyme and reason. When I have talked to teachers and professors, they can usually name multiple people who have had an effect on them. When I asked him to cite certain professors who had a big influence on him, he answered, “While I could cite my own undergraduate Shakespeare and African-American [Literature] professors, or my tirelessly generous dissertation director, your readers might be most interested to learn that I’m most influenced by my colleagues at Whittier, and especially those who I witness truly connecting with their students. Have you ever seen Jose Orozco and Laura McEnaney talking to students in the [Campus Inn]?  It’s interactions like those that excite students and make both the student and professor feel accountable to each other. But, I also want to shout out some staff colleagues. I went to a 6 a.m. women’s lacrosse practice last year, and, despite the hour, I learned a lot about motivating and teaching from Coach Sylvia Queener. She has a knack for identifying one thing that each athlete needs to work on and getting them to focus on just that one thing. I’ve tried to adopt something similar for writing instruction.”

On the topic of admiration, I also wondered what authors he admired. “I don’t actually admire all the authors I teach,” he revealed. “Sometimes, I choose to teach an author because their work is provocative rather than something I fully endorse. But, some of the authors who regularly move me include Colson Whitehead, Valeria Luiselli, Suzan Lori-Parks, John Donne, Karen Russell, Emily St. John Mandel, and, there’s this guy you may not have heard of: William Shakespeare. He’s alright.”

Shakespeare actually brought Professor Burton to one of his most memorable teaching experiences. He reminisced, “Two years ago, I taught a class called Shakespeare in American Life, and the class participated in a national project that I designed and oversaw called The Qualities of Mercy Project.  The project’s name came from a line in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and the project included fourteen colleges and universities representing 11 different states each producing a video scene from The Merchant of Venice and resetting the play in their community and/or rewriting it to reflect local concerns and local expertise. The entire project is up on YouTube, and I wrote and published a short piece about it along with current Whittier student Yasmin Mendoza. But what was most rewarding about that experience was watching the students become makers, rather than consumers of meaning.” 

Professor Burton really stands out to me because of his ways of facilitating engagement on Zoom. “This is the name of the game now, isn’t it?” he said. “I try to constantly ask myself ‘what are they doing?’ If my students are writing something, sharing ideas aloud, creating, collaborating, problem-solving, or debating how to proceed, then they’re growing. If I’m talking [to] them, I’m probably only reaching a handful. So, the trick is balancing the value of modeling ways of thinking and writing with creating opportunities for students to practice their skills and advance their own ambitions. I want to get better at this. In some of my classes, students just take over the Zoom chat and create a parallel class where they are offering ideas, supporting each other, and making jokes all while engaging with the material. That is just awesome. When I think back on my own time in college, what I remember most is my peers. I’ll fade out of my students’ memories, and what they’ll remember is what they learned from each other. I want my classes to be places that foster those peer-to-peer experiences.”

All around, Professor Jonathan Burton goes above and beyond for his students. This last module, I had the pleasure of taking Hamlet and its Afterlives, which was such an amazing course and inspired me to really learn to appreciate Shakespeare. He took the time to address what was going on Jan. 6, and also placed importance on watching the inauguration. Having the privilege to be taught by someone so invested in their craft is one that should not be taken for granted by students at Whittier College.

 

Featured Image: Courtesy of Professor Jonathan Burton

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