“Affected by the Things We Study”: Professor Marie Orton on Merging Scholarship and Service

If you ask Professor Marie Orton for her philosophy on life, she will answer, “In my family, we say for most any experience: it’s either a good time or a good story.” She exudes a contagious fervor for her work, for mentoring, and for life in all of its complexities. And she captures this fervor in her scholarship, which focuses on the literary productions by migrants to Italy and the larger cultural implications of migratory movements.

Dr. Orton herself is a labor migrant of sorts, a relative newcomer to BYU. She arrived in 2016 from Truman State, a small liberal arts college in Missouri, where she taught with her spouse, Brent, whose doctorate is in the History of Culture. “We were living the dream,” she recalls, “We had planted fruit trees!” But she and her family uprooted that life and headed west. When she interviewed at BYU, Dr. Orton felt drawn to the university in a way that she had never felt before—impressed by its well-supported language programs and committed faculty. And, while she appreciates the spiritual atmosphere, she admits, “Gospel values are ethical values; anywhere you are, everything you do, you live your values and teach your values.” 

Her research interests were certainly inspired by these ethical values. During her graduate program at the University of Chicago, she served with the youth in the Hyde Park ward, many of whom were growing up amid the violence and poverty of the inner-city. She became concerned with the way these teens talked about their future—in terms of “if I grow up,” not “when I grow up”—and so she became involved with a charitable trust founded by several members in the ward in order to help the youth. The program, now called the Inner City Youth Charitable Foundation, still exists today.

This experience brought Dr. Orton to the question that initially informed her research: “It was evident that violence alters an individual’s whole concept of identity. A life marked by violence doesn’t just give one a different life; it gives one a different identity.” Her dissertation examined autobiographies of those who experienced trauma and explored instantiations of violence, how people’s identity is tethered with their experiences of violence. Dr. Orton interviewed Italian Auschwitz survivors, African migrants to Italy, and former members of the Red Brigades. “My students would ask me, ‘How can you study those things and not be depressed all the time?’ And I thought—there would be something wrong with me if I weren’t. We should be affected by the things that we study.”

Two of her current research projects are translating a history of Jewish women in Italy and co-editing a volume entitled Fictional and Critical Stories of Transmigration through Italy. This will be the first critical study of migration literature in Italy that includes original creative works by migrant authors alongside the scholarly articles that discuss them, mitigating the typical power differential displayed when critics talk from a position of privilege and distance about the work of minorities. “It’s a collaborative work—it shows that we’re all talking about these issues together,” Dr. Orton explains.

There is certainly a kind of holism evident in her work. As she continues to research and bring attention to the cultural productions of minorities and migrants, she also practices an ethical pragmatism in the mentoring and service she performs in her capacity as a professor. One her favorite courses to teach is Italian 446, “Multicultural Italy,” and she is currently teaching a course entitled, “Women and Global Migration” (GWS 390R), with Professor Kif Augustine-Adams of BYU’s law school. She also supervises and trains the Student Instructors who teach the Introductory Italian courses, is the advisor for the Italian majors and minors, as well as advising the Global Women’s Studies minors who are graduate school­–bound, and recently helped organize an outreach program for incoming first-generation and minority students at BYU.

Dr. Orton is especially passionate about these opportunities to serve on an individual level, citing her adherence to Practical Christianity. “We can often feel clumsy and inadequate in our attempts to serve people and care for each other. The answer is: try to do something. We won’t alleviate all the suffering in the world, but we can do something.” And, in the process of learning to serve one another, we might find not only good times and good stories, but compelling new directions for future research.

This post was written by Morgan Lewis, Humanities Center Intern.

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