Old Truths Made New: Interview with Toronto Pursuits Leader Mandy Burton

We are thrilled to welcome new leader Mandy Burton to Toronto Pursuits. Mandy comes to us through Toronto Pursuits’ education manager Mark Cwik. Participants in her seminar Power, Rights and Personhood will benefit from her true spirit of inquiry that crosses disciplines, and will read classics old and new. Classical Pursuits director Melanie recently talked with Mandy about what she has planned for us this July.

Mandy Burton

Melanie Blake: Would you tell us a bit more about yourself and what you do?

Mandy Burton: My PhD is in religion and literature, and my early scholarship is all on children’s and YA fantasy fiction, exploring how the world-building in different books intersect with their portrayal of self-making, and of ethical formation in particular. Shortly after I graduated, I more or less accidentally crossed paths with some computer scientists and got recruited to coauthor a conference paper about using science fiction to teach ethics to computer science majors. I accepted the invitation, on the grounds that it seemed like an interesting short-term project before I got back to finishing the book on Narnia. Well, it’s three and a half years later – and the Narnia book isn’t done, but I’m teaching ethics to computer scientists full time, and developing a science fiction based ethics curriculum with the same coauthors from that one little side project that was slated to take a couple of weeks.

So that’s what I’m doing now! I’ve got some other things cooking in the background — a couple of articles on other YA novels, and a collaborative project on fan fiction and religious interpretation. Who can predict which ones I’ll get a chance to develop? If there is one thing the past has taught me, it’s that you can’t predict where you’re heading.

Melanie: Your work brings together many fields — literature, religion and theology, ethics, and computer science. What do you like about this interdisciplinary approach?

Mandy: I think of myself as animated by questions rather than by particular bodies of knowledge or disciplinary architectures. It’s always been important to me, as I have gotten further into academic training, not to tumble down some esoteric rabbit hole in pursuit of questions that only have purchase for experts or specialists. That can absolutely be valuable work, it’s just not what gets me up in the morning or keeps me awake at night. My goal has always been to marshal my training to do a better job asking the questions I started asking a long time ago.

Because of that orientation toward grounding perennial questions, I didn’t have much choice about being an interdisciplinary scholar! There’s a good reason people do get caught up in more discipline-specific questions. Every discipline has its limits, and the only way to keep its fundamental questions fresh is to put them in conversation with the values and world views of another discipline. Because I work at the intersection of many fields, I am able to continually challenge my own assumptions and refine my capacity for basic inquiry.

That all makes it sound very deliberate, but the fact is, I have a hard time resisting the urge to chase down and interrogate a truly new way of seeing when it crosses my path. If you do that long enough, you end up as an interdisciplinary scholar.

Melanie: Participants in your seminar will read a rich range of works. How did you choose these particular texts?

Mandy: Well, each of them is a classic of its kind. If you take a traditional view of the literary canon, there isn’t much science fiction (though Frankenstein definitely counts!) and no graphic texts. But if you were to ask an expert, “What single graphic novel or memoir should I read, if I’m just going to read one?” you’d have even odds that they would urge you to read Maus. Not only because it’s a foundational text for graphic novels and memoirs, but because reading it will absolutely break open your sense of what a text can do. It knocked me flat when I first read it twenty-some years ago, and I have seen it do the same to students in my own classrooms. Because that’s what the classics do, isn’t it? They make contact with us in ways we don’t anticipate.

So all of the texts are like that, works that can break open our settled uncertainties and make old truths feel new again. I think there’s something especially wonderful about being able to make that connection with a kind of text that one had previously imagined to be alien. The more surfaces of contact we have with the world, the richer our experience can be.

Melanie: One of the primary questions your seminar will ask is, Who gets to be human? In your view, has the way societies make this determination changed over time? Are there any constants in the way we answer this question?

Mandy: The basic storyline is always the same: Those in power get to define who a real person is, deserving of full subjectivity and the opportunity to flourish on their own terms. Those who are downtrodden have to bear the further indignity of having the world remade to explain to them that they deserve to be where they are.

Different periods and cultures build their hierarchies on different qualities and metrics, but there is a common underlying architecture. There has never been an age when the drowntrodden have not had to fight for recognition of their basic humanity. And it’s such an old story that you would think we would be getting better at it! But the truth is, it is very hard to unlearn the myths we are steeped in. It’s very hard to recognize how we ourselves participate in the dehumanization of others, because the daily injustice we do them just looks normal. It *is* normal, which is the really awful part.

And that’s why it’s worth learning the silent languages of relative value that different societies have used to humanize and dehumanize its members: to see through that veil of what the world tells us is the natural social order, and reconsider the organizing categories that have made so many other people invisible to us as people.

Melanie: What would you say to someone who wants to take your seminar but may not be familiar with science fiction or graphic novels?

Mandy: Mostly that I am tremendously jealous of you, that you have these fresh kinds of reading experiences in front of you! Some of that freshness may break in waves as soon as you pick up the text; other parts of it will likely come later, when we discuss the texts together in seminar. When someone picks up a text in an unfamiliar genre for the first time, they will probably miss a lot of what is most interesting about the text on that first reading — simply because it is asking for a different kind of attention than they are used to giving. In fact, the better a reader you are of one kind of text, the more frustrating that first reading experience can be. But I promise, it’s worth it! For the kind of folks who seek out these seminars in the first place, there is little that’s more rewarding than developing new ways of perceiving and of paying attention, new ways to see the world. That’s what reading in a new genre can be like. There is a learning curve, but the payoff is huge.

Melanie: What are you doing when you’re not teaching or writing?

Mandy: This is an embarrassingly difficult question! I also write fiction, though I haven’t sought publication. But that is not really getting out from under the condition. I love to cook, and I read fiction when I can, which sadly is not as much as I’d like. I’m also a knitter, although that is a challenging hobby when there are cats in the house!

Melanie: Thank you to Mandy for her time and thoughts. We invite you to explore the topics we have discussed today more deeply in her seminar Power, Rights and Personhood: Who Gets to Be Human? To learn more, read her blog post Strange Eyes for Strange Landscapes.

 

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