Faculty Spotlight

Brian Burtch, soon-to-be professor emeritus

December 22, 2015

By Christine Lyons, FASS Communications Officer

SFU Criminology’s Brian Burtch is familiar with the financial struggles that come with pursuing graduate work. Retiring as Professor of Criminology and associate member of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS) at the close of this year, Burtch will assume the title of Professor Emeritus in January 2016. Just prior to his retirement, he established the Brian Burtch Graduate Award to provide recognition and funding to an outstanding graduate student in the third semester of a master’s degree program in the School of Criminology. Christine Neudecker, a master’s student in Criminology, is the inaugural recipient of the award.

Recounting his early days at SFU, Burtch recalls coming to teach in 1980 as a sessional instructor in Criminology. Having just started his doctoral studies in Sociology at UBC, he was living off the modest budget that comes with being funded by a SSHRC scholarship, teaching-assistantships, and/or sessional instructorships. Burtch was offered a full-time appointment at SFU in 1985 and credits people in Criminology like Simon Verdun-Jones for giving him encouragement and motivation: 

“At that time, I was able to finish my dissertation because I had income, encouragement and resources. I look back at it with a sense of fondness and disbelief. I was finishing my dissertation, teaching new courses, and parenting my daughter, Leora. It was a very exciting time as Criminology was continuing to grow, and they remained very supportive and accommodating.”

Burtch is no stranger to philanthropy, having been a participant in the Terry Fox Run at SFU for many years, and having established a bursary in the name of a friend: “when William Gordon, a friend of mine, died in the 1980s, I got together with some friends, family and colleagues, and eventually established a bursary at SFU to honour him.” Burtch says Gordon had immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and, “like a lot of newcomers, he struggled financially when he first arrived. That bursary was really meant for people like him, in need. And it has gone to people in need, like single moms, for example. What’s more, when William’s mother passed away, her gift matched what was already in the bursary, so that legacy is able to continue.”

Burtch’s research interests have been wide-ranging; he’s published widely on the sociology of law, gender and midwifery. His second book, Trials of Labour: The Re-emergence of Midwifery (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994) came out of the research he completed for his dissertation at UBC. At the time, the legalization and regulation of midwifery was controversial. 

“While we had many allies in Canada who worked on the topic—lawyers, doctors, researchers—I was surprised by how welcome my approach to the topic was. I would sometimes start rather apologetically—being a man studying what is largely a women’s profession—yet the midwives I interviewed for my research and who provided birth records were very happy to have someone with academic training to document and write about the profession.”

Although the arguments in support of midwifery legalization are hard to refute, the profession was not legalized and regulated until the mid-90s in British Columbia. Burtch says that some of the pushback came from midwives themselves: “There were some midwives who felt that being legalized was a “sell out,” of sorts. That now they would be regulated by the colleges and the state, they would become more conservative in their practise. More like medical midwives as opposed to “true” midwives. So the formalization, regularization, did see some push-back from within the community.”

Burtch says that he’s had “great support” from Criminology to foster his ties to the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. “I remember initially feeling a bit out of place [in Criminology]. Here I was, a sociologist doing my PhD work was on midwifery, when I arrived at SFU.” Burtch had done his MA in Criminology at University of Toronto and his training at UBC included the sociology of health care, the sociology of law, and critical criminology. As a researcher interested in feminism and women’s rights (as health care workers, and as expectant mothers), Burtch’s eventual affiliation with GSWS was no surprise. His most recent publications reflect that interest, having published and co-published work on homophobia and transphobia in public schools and on LGBT movements in Western Canada.

Burtch finished teaching at SFU this past spring semester, and shares an anecdote from the last class:  “I played this bittersweet jazz love song at the end of one of my classes. It was sort of humorous and ironic. It’s called, ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well,’ and it’s one of the most beautiful songs; but, as you listen, you realize that the singer is not getting along very well at all. They’re a complete mess.” Burtch says that while he enjoys teaching, he’s looking forward to having more time with his wife (Carol Hird), pursuing more pleasure-reading, doing his own creative writing, and keeping active and fit. Burtch currently serves as President of the BC Book Prizes Board and plays on SFU Faculty of Health Sciences hockey team, “The Epidemic.”  “I enjoy teaching and research, overall. But I’m also at a point where, I think, if you feel you’ve made your best contributions, you step aside and make room for someone half your age. That might sound strange but it’s part of what keeps me going: knowing that someone else is going to come along and not just fill my shoes but make new ground."