A Tribute in Memory of Professor Jonathan Burston

By Professor Romayne Smith Fullerton

Jonathan BurstonJonathan Burston was an impressive academic, an inspiring colleague, an influential teacher, and also, to many of us here in FIMS, a cherished, much-loved, close friend. He died suddenly though peacefully on October 15, 2019, and his many accomplishments are detailed in his obituary, in The Globe and Mail.

For the past 16 years, Jonathan has been an associate professor here in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. We were lucky to have him; his academic pedigree is of the gold-standard. As a graduate student, he held a Commonwealth Scholarship, and earned a Ph.D. from the prestigious communications program at Goldsmith’s College, the University of London; he also won a Fulbright, and promptly secured a tenure track job in another world-class media program at New York University, then under the leadership of Neil Postman. Jonathan chose to give this up, and come to FIMS because his family was also important to him, and in 2002, he returned to Canada. Jonathan always set--and held himself to--the highest bar, and his scholarly legacy is prodigious.

Alison Hearn knows Jonathan well. Along with Nick Dyer-Witheford, they co-edited a special journal issue of ephemera: theory and politics in organization, based on the proceedings of the 2009 FIMS conference, “Digital Labour: Workers, Authors, Citizens.” Hearn called Jonathan’s scholarly writings “ground-breaking and important. She notes that his numerous chapters and peer-reviewed articles continue to be cited and have impact today.

“Jonathan had an uncanny sense for where the field of political economy of communication was headed,” Hearn said. “His work on the ‘Disneyfication’ of Broadway and the rise of megamusical, on the impact of new sound technologies on the work of professional stage actors and singers, on the rise of what he called ‘militainment’ and the confluence of Silicon Valley with Hollywood and the US military, and his focus on the emergence of AI and automation in the form of the ‘syn-thespian,’ were truly ahead of their time.”

Nick Dyer-Witheford recalls working with Jonathan as a member of the organizing committee of “Digital Labour: Workers, Authors, Citizens” conference This was a massive and pioneering undertaking that, in Dyer-WItheford’s words, was one of FIMS’ finest hours. At the heart of it was Jonathan.

“The scope of (the conference’s) formulation, its combination of concepts usually kept apart, and its political boldness, for me typifies Jonathan's energy and imagination,” he said. Dyer-Witheford remembers Jonathan in that organizing role: “intensely committed, super-humorous, hard-working, admirably ambitious, and intellectually incisive in debate and discussion.”

Associate Dean Pamela McKenzie also remembers working closely with Jonathan on the Digital Labour conference, but her recollections begin to open a window into the kind of person he was, beyond or perhaps informing, the impressive academic. While he insisted on an impossibly high bar for himself, he was unfailingly generous about overlooking the foibles of others. He had a knack for making each of us, colleagues and students alike, feel special: you were the most interesting, most amazing person he’d ever met.

“He always called me PM,” McKenzie said, “which made me feel like a movie mogul. He had the most wonderful laugh, which I heard often.”

In her administrative role, McKenzie also saw Jonathan in less positive circumstances, when there were instances of plagiarism—which sadly do occur—or when a student was in a difficult situation.

“He was kind, fair, and staunchly committed to his students, even when they were in the wrong,” she explained. “He was always concerned about doing what was right for them, and he put his heart and soul into his teaching.”

Anyone who had an office near his knew this to be true; Jonathan was an incredibly popular prof, and his approachability was legendary. When he held office hours, students would line up outside his door. He would patiently unpack the work of Habermas, or Marx, occasionally breaking into song to explain a concept or re-orient the conversation. He’d keep it light so no student ever felt like this was something they ought to know, by singing, “Let’s start at the very beginning,” from The Sound of Music, or some other relevant musical.

Jonathan was a born performer, spending his adolescence dancing with the National Ballet of Canada, and he brought the same passion and dramatic flair to his classrooms. Eric Lohman, now a faculty member in Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was once head teaching assistant for Jonathan in a large undergraduate, Political Economy of Media class. Lohman notes the profound effect Jonathan had on him, and on his undergraduates. He said he still teaches some of the material and concepts in the same way that Jonathan taught him. But he didn’t choose to follow all the models Jonathan set out. Ahead of his very first lecture, Jonathan invited Lohman to his office, which he usually shared with his beloved Schnauzer Chief, to float a plan he’d been considering for his initial lecture. He was considering screaming the word, “POWER” to frighten the class into attention.

“At first, I didn’t believe he was serious, and he asked my thoughts on this idea, which made me feel really special that he wanted to know how I felt,” said Lohman. He told Jonathan that while this would definitely work to garner attention, there might be other less dramatic ways to do this.

But no, Jonathan was firm. This was his plan. And so, he orchestrated the grand opening of that first lecture. When Jonathan screamed, “POWER,” Lohman’s job was to change the title slide to one that depicted powerful media personalities, like Donald Trump, Ezra Levant, and Rupert Murdoch.

As they arrived at the lecture hall, Lohman filled in the other TAs so they wouldn’t be shocked.
Lohman still remembers the story unfolding in minute detail.

“When it was time to start, he stood with his back to the students and began taking very deep breaths, audible to many of the closest students. He then jumps and turns 180 degrees to face the students, an action which flung the microphone receiver out from his back pocket and it shattered the battery case as it landed on the floor, while simultaneously pulling the microphone from where it was clipped to his shirt. When he landed, his scream of "POWER!" was so guttural and his face so contorted, that I was frozen in shock, as was everyone in the hall. I quickly picked up his microphone and began putting the batteries back in, while he started explaining how political economy was essentially a study of power. In all the commotion, I forgot to move the slide forward, so it remained on the title slide. After a minute or two, Jonathan looked at the slide, and politely told me to go forward.”

But the story did not end there. After the lecture, Jonathan offered to give Lohman a lift home, and just before he disembarked, Jonathan thanked him for all the help, and asked whether Lohman thought the “power scream” worked to get the students’ attention. Lohman replied there was no doubt. It scared the daylights out of him, and he’d never ever forget it, to which Jonathan replied, "That's not a good reason to miss your cue, Eric."

In a more serious vein, another of his former students, Trisha Phippard, who is now doing a Ph.D in Anthropology at KU Leuven in Belgium, said he was an incredible mentor to her, and especially helped her with her writing. “I will always remember sitting in his kitchen in Stratford, and discussing my use of quotation marks,” she mused. “Ten years later, I still hear his voice in my head when I'm working on a text.”

Jonathan loved anything outrageous and over the top; everything was for show, and a bit of fun. For Shelley Long, Graduate Program Support, these attributes were embodied in a seemingly simple memory of ordering a new name badge for him when he was PMC Coordinator.

“When he saw the badge, he complained about how boring it was,” Long said, so she and co-worker Wendy Daubs bought some pink beads and sequins. “We ‘blinged’ it up for him, and he was so touched that we did that. I’m hoping that badge is in his office somewhere in a box—I would love to see it again.”

Jonathan could be so outrageous and loud, and so much fun that people sometimes forgot how brilliant he was. I never forgot—but I did like to tease him, as did a few others, about his complete and utter lack of talent for mastering practical tasks. Sasha Torres jokes about the number of sticky notes he had on his desktop computer. “I asked him once how he ever found anything,” said Torres. To which he replied, “I don’t, always.” So she spent many hours trying to teach him how to organize material into files, and learning how to put appointments in his palm pilot. There were still some panicked phone calls, because he’d forget how to do something, Torres recollects, with a small smile.

Not long after Jonathan began at FIMS, he purchased a house in Stratford, and because I lived in St. Marys, we called each other “neighbours.” His lawn at the Stratford house was an issue; it needed to be cut. He came to watch me cut my grass, and he asked me to teach him how to manage this chore. Together, we practiced pushing the primer, and then pulling the cord hard so the motor would jump to life. Then, I supervised as he walked back and forth, slowly, making the cut rows overlap. He’d turn it off, and start it again. We did this over and over, on my farm, which was secluded and no one would see until he felt confident to go it alone, at his house.

Jonathan wrote down the make and model of my mower. He went to the hardware store and bought the identical one. For him, the skills he learned on my mower might not be transferable. He didn’t want anyone on his street to know he did not know how to cut the grass, or even start the infernal machine.

Cindy Morrison, team leader in Graduate Student Services, has a similar story about the endearing juxtaposition of incredible intellect and almost no practical knowledge.

“I had the good fortune to work closely with Jonathan in his position as the Popular Music and Culture Program Coordinator those many years ago. Within his first couple of weeks in the position, he came into my office with this dead serious look on his face. When I asked what was wrong, he calmly sat down at the other side of my desk, slowly opened an Excel spreadsheet, looked me in the eye and said, ‘What the f*^k does all of this mean?’”

While Morrison chuckles at the recollection of his deadpan humour, she is quickly moved by another emotion. “Every time I walk by Jonathan’s office here at FNB, filled with nothing but boxes, I realize the void,” she says, sadly.

Corridors and hallways figure in nearly everyone’s memories of this wonderful colleague and friend. For Grant Campbell, a camaraderie grew out of their shared musicality and love of theatre, but primarily out of their identities as gay men, who came of age in a closeted era, when meaningful looks were exchanged, but not much more in public spaces.

In the open and more relaxed environment of FIMS, Jonathan and Campbell kept the tradition alive, as Campbell recollects, “by ‘cruising’ each other as they passed in the halls, exchanging badinage with just a hint of mischief.”

But it wasn’t all fluff and superficiality, for Jonathan had an eye for others’ worries, and he noticed when tiny details were out of place. Campbell relates a time when Jonathan thought he looked tired and depressed.

“He stopped me in the hallway and sang to me a brief stanza from a song by Blossom Dearie. Hallway exchanges with Jonathan were like tossing a pink tennis ball back and forth: one would toss, the other would catch, both would smile, and we’d go about our business.”

As I spoke with and gathered together these many recollections from colleagues, former students, and friends, I could not help but be moved by the incredible force that Jonathan Burston was: trusted confidant, gifted scholar, fabulous bon vivant, generous teacher and mentor. He has left a huge hole in our faculty, that cannot be filled, except with our memories, the better for being shared. To use one of Jonathan’s favourite expressions, we must learn to kiss the joy as it flies. It’s borrowed from William Blake’s poem, “Eternity,” and the line reads, “He who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

Godspeed, dear friend.