The Institute for Mormon Studies

January 15, 2007 | 18 comments
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The various threads about the position at CGU has gotten me thinking about what Mormon scholarship needs, and I think that it is probably not a chaired position in Mormon studies, welcome as such a thing might be (especially if it allows a prolific scholar to churn out a lot of high quality work on Mormon studies). Rather, I think that Mormons ought to look to the libertarian wing of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy for models.

In particular, I mean the Institute for Humane Studies. IHS was set up many years ago by a frustrated libertarian in Palo Alto who thought that classical liberal ideas were being lost in the academy. IHS, which is now housed at George Mason University Law School, evolved into something that is neither and academic program nor a think tank. Rather, it is an institute that tries to promote a particular kind of conversation within the academy. It does this in a number of ways. First, it puts on conferences for students in which IHS brings in various academics to talk classical liberal ideas. The goal is not indoctrination, but rather to expose students to a particular set of ideas and thinkers. IHS also fosters the careers of scholars friendly to classical liberal ideas in a number of ways. First, it provides scholarships. Second, it provides summer research stipends. Third, it sponsers conferences for graduate students in which they bring in senior scholars to respond to and critique student work. (For example, as a law student I presented a paper at an IHS event in which my respondent was Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago.) Fourth, it provides a way for libertarian academic wanna-bes to network with established scholars and get formal and informal advice.

An Institute for Mormon Studies along the same lines could be a very useful organization. The idea is not to create an academic program in Mormon studies or even foster Mormon studies as some sort of an independent field or discipline. Rather, the point would be to mentor and help scholars who will make the study of Mormonism part of their long term research agendas. You could do this in a number of ways. Following the IHS model, you could put together seminars for academically inclined undergrads in which you expose them to scholarship on Mormonism, hopefully inspiring some of them to get more seriously involved. More importantly, you could provide support for Mormons who are already in graduate school or who are junior academics, by putting on conferences in which they can discuss issues related to Mormonism with senior scholars, get career advice, and network with other thinkers interested in Mormonism.

One of the advantages of such an approach is that it doesn’t tie the study of Mormonism to a particular discipline or particular school. We don’t really want the best and the brightest Mormon academics to be to go and get degrees in “Mormon Studies.” Also, with all due respect, we don’t want them getting their graduate degrees at Utah State or the University of Wyoming. We want them at Harvard, Chicago, Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame, Princeton, etc. What we do want, however, is to get them thinking about how Mormonism relates to their scholarship and how one might use the tools of their discipline to study Mormonism more effectively.

To a certain extent Richard Bushman is already running what amounts to a one man Institute for Mormon Studies along these lines. He has procured independent funding for both summer research fellowships for young Mormon scholars who study with him and Terryl Givens at BYU over the summer. In a couple of weeks there will be a conference at Yale for Mormon graduate students in religious studies in which they will discuss the intersection of Mormonism and their studies. It would be nice to institutionalize these sorts of projects if for no other reason than there is ultimately a limit to even the energy (and alas the longevity) of Richard Bushman. Another institution that may evolve along these lines is the Maxwell Institute at BYU, although to be successful it has to aggressively involve scholars outside of BYU in fostering younger Mormon scholars. Networking and advice from scholars at BYU is valuable, to be sure, but ultimately BYU cannot and should not be the destination for bulk of LDS academics. (Something that the BYU profs I have spoken with realize.)

Just a thought.

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18 Responses to The Institute for Mormon Studies

  1. Jonathan Green on January 15, 2007 at 11:13 am

    And a very, very smart thought it is. What’s the IHS’s annual budget, or the size of its endowment, by the way?

  2. Russell Arben Fox on January 15, 2007 at 11:36 am

    I don’t have any real disagreement with anything you say, Nate; it’s a very intriguing way to frame the issue of how to develop more and better Mormon scholarship. However, it occurs to me that at least one of the reasons IHS has been able to network its members and leverage funding as successfully as it has is because it has aligned itself with a particular agenda. That it, while promoting all its varied and often excellent scholarly work, it has been able to “sell” all that work as important to donors and organizations that want to similarly promote specific policy and political ends. But what ends, what agenda, could an Institute of Mormon Studies offer?

  3. Kent Larsen on January 15, 2007 at 11:53 am

    This is a very intriguing idea.

    One of the fears I’ve had reading the various news articles and notes about the chairs at CGU and USU is that some academic disciplines would get short shrift because of the department or college the chair is associated with. Mormon Letters, for example, doesn’t seem likely to get too much attention at CGU because the chair is in religion.

    In a way all you are proposing is developing and formalizing what is already being done. The Mormon History Association, for example, draws scholars from many, many disciplines (although their academic production does intersect with history in some way) as well as many amateur and independent scholars. However, I’m not sure that the MHA is formally developing scholars. It would be nice if they were, or if their efforts were more obvious and successful.

    Please tell me that someone is taking the lead on this idea!

  4. Ronan on January 15, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Don’t forget the nascent European Mormon Studies Association. Conference in England in August.

  5. Ronan on January 15, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    I agree, btw, that an umbrella professional organisation for Mormon Studies would be an excellent idea. I know EMSA would affiliate with it and it would help us greatly.

    There’s also Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. I think I paid my dues for this but heard nothing back.

    http://www.mormonscholars.org/

  6. Nate Oman on January 15, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    I don’t know what IHS’s annual budget it, but it is fairly substantial. RAF raises the issue of funding, but to the extent that Bushman, CGU, and The Maxwell Institute can all get funding for what strike me as rather less well-defined projects leads me to believe that there are wealthy folks out there willing to put up some cash to foster Mormon scholarship.

    I don’t think that we want something like a professional association. That is not really what IHS is. Rather, I want an institution — with a budget — that is not an umbrella group for scholars to hold conferences with, or publish a journal, etc. We don’t really need another journal in Mormon Studies. Rather, we need more scholars bringing Mormonism into their main disciplines. The idea of an IMS would be to focus on fostering scholars interested in Mormonism with funding, targetted conferences and workshops, and networking opprotunities. Hence, the IMS model is different than various Mormon professional groups, eg MHA, SMPT, Mormons and the Humanities, EMSA, etc.

  7. manaen on January 15, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Good idea. Would the franchise fees be flat-rate or %-of-sales?

  8. Ronan on January 15, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Ah, Nate, got it. I have to admit that I’m not familiar with IHS.

  9. Nate Oman on January 15, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Mind you, I think that groups like MHA, SMPT, EMSA, etc. are great and I think that they are an important part of pushing forward discussions of Mormonism.

  10. Ben H on January 15, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    From what I understand, George Handley (President of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities–MSH) has been in England running a study abroad program since some time in the summer, and perhaps that is why we haven’t heard a lot about MSH. I’m guessing he is back in the States now, and probably assessing the submissions for their conference this spring.

    Theoretically, it seems quite possible that MSH could take up roughly the role you’ve described, Nate. My sense is that networking, sharing advice, mentoring and such are high on their agenda. BYU could provide enough administrative support to allow stars like Richard Bushman to focus on what they do best. I don’t know just what Handley and the others have in mind, though, and of course a lot depends on finer philosophical points: what sort of scholarship do they want to encourage and support? what sort of formation process would they recommend? do the people in charge have a good enough sense of the rest of academia to give or institutionalize the giving of authentically good advice? how effectively do they collaborate with guys like Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens?

    I thiink Richard Bushman is steering a very smart course right now (and Terryl Givens is on board with key elements at least). I would love to see his ideas get more institutional support because I think it would allow him to accomplish more. Last summer, the Maxwell Institute (still ISPART?) did some of that for the summer seminar . . .

    If MSH is something else, Nate, where should the Institute you’re describing be headquartered?

  11. Robert C. on January 15, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    I think this is a very interesting idea. I think one challenge is that there aren’t as many disciplines that can take part in Mormon studies compared to IHS (which can bring in disciplines as diverse as film, communications, economics, philosophy, literature, etc.), so it would probably be harder to get the same kind of critical mass that seems to make IHS successful. I think this makes sense for disciplines such as history, law, religion and a few other humanities disciplines, but few others on my thinking….

  12. Nate Oman on January 15, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    Robert, you may be right. I certainly don’t think that an IMS could operate on the scale of IHS, but I don’t think it has to. I do think that the range may be broader than you would think. For example, I suspect that virtually no one thinking about these issues would naturally put law on the list, but I think that there is actually a lot one can do with law and Mormonism. Likewise, I suspect that economics and other hard (ie data rather than interpretation oriented) social sciences would be good additions to discussion about Mormonism.

    I would love to see the Maxwell Institute become something along these lines, but it would depend on the folks that were running it and there ability to reach out and support the sort of projects the Bushman and Givens have been involved in. BYU is a natural place for such an institute to live institutionally. In some sense, I think that FARMS was trying to do something like this with the Nibley fellowships, but I do think that BYU’s association with the Church creates political complications. One possibility would be SVU, but frankly it is probably simply too small, too isolated, and struggling too much with other issues to manage it. Maybe CGU could ultimately host such an institution. To start out you might not need much: a bank account, a smart part time director, and a smart advisory board willing to put in a fair amount of work.

  13. George Handley on January 16, 2007 at 1:25 am

    I am the president of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities, and I agree with your ideas here (by the way I am personal friends of the former president of IHS, Paul Edwards, and know something of how they operate). MSH would need a very generous donor indeed to operate that effectively, but it is a wonderful model to aspire to. Independent funding is the key. We are not independent since we have no money to speak of except for some seed money from BYU, so in order to accomplish our aims, we need some serious donors.

    I should only clarify that MSH intends to include but is not limited to scholarship on Mormonism. Rather it hopes to be a broad network of scholars in a variety of humanistic fields that will allow collaboration, conversation, mentoring, as well as some reflection on what it means to be a Mormon doing scholarship in these fields. We are indeed underway in planning our inaugural conference to try and get the conversation going and we welcome submissions until the end of this month. The website was listed above, which includes our call for papers (my apologies to Ronan for our silence–we have indeed been on pause for some time, but are planning for the conference and hope that it will solidify our prospects for becoming a more functioning organization). It is hard enough, I imagine, for those who wish to specialize in Mormon Studies to make a case for its validity as a field of study, but it appears hard too for scholars in all humanities fields to make a case for the importance of participating in such a conference. Terryl Givens, by the way, is our vice-president and will be participating and Richard Bushman will be our keynote speaker.

    Let me know if anyone has any questions about our organization. We are very eager to have help in running things–especially someone interested in putting out a regular newsletter and helping with the website. And generous donors who happen to care deeply about humanistic scholarship by Mormons are especially welcome!

  14. Gideon Burton on January 16, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    As Mormon Studies Editor for BYU Studies I\’m delighted to hear these conversations, and I look forward to what George Handley and the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities organization will do. I think Nate Oman\’s ideas about an institiute modeled after the Institute for Humane Studies is a worthy proposal to take seriously, and what Richard Bushman has done with his summer seminars is certainly a viable beginning for greater things. Note that this Columbia professor took his seminar to Utah where a critical mass of primary texts can be found. I\’m not saying things should be focused in Utah or at BYU. Indeed, the various initiatives at Claremont, Utah State, and now Wyoming are noteworthy because Mormonism as an academic subject is now getting on the map, and there is a serious need for Mormon Studies to take place outside of BYU, the Church, or Utah for that matter. However, I have also seen how the lack of access to primary texts (or for that matter, to basic scholarly works) has inhibited serious work on Mormon topics at various American and European institutions. There is something to be said for establishing Mormon Studies programs at (or at least in close coordination with) those scholarly repositories that make possible serious studies of the Latter-day Saints.

    My model for Mormon Studies is Jacob 5 in the Book of Mormon. There must constantly be grafting of wild olive branches into the native roots, and there must be a tempering of the wild by the groundedness of those roots–with a lot of patient nurturing along the way. The trick is to find the timely and apt mediation of these centripetal and centrifugal virtues. A properly constructed institute could accommodate these opposing and interdependent influences in the development of Mormon Studies.

  15. RoastedTomatoes on January 16, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    George, who isn’t a friend of Paul Edwards? A popular, well-connected man indeed.

    Nate, when you say, “I do think that BYU’s association with the Church creates political complications,” I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Too much of a connection with BYU would more or less shut the doors of your proposed institution to the Jan Shipps or Douglas Davies of the future — probably not a desirable outcome. The related issue is that the church may not be interested in having an institutional, sponsoring role in pathbreaking Mormon-themed research; the church may well wish to be seen as not taking sides until the dust has settled a little bit, no?

    On the other hand, there’s the huge obstacle that doing something like this without direct church participation might threaten away potential donors and participants due to “alternate voices” concerns. Is this a dilemma with a solution?

  16. Richard O. on January 16, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Robert (11) some other disciplines might include politacal science, sociology, anthropology, art history, architectural history,business administration, film (BYU Studies has a big upcoming issue devoted to LDS film history), economic development, public health, etc.

    Why would “seminars” have to be limited to just one discipline at a time? A few years I participated in a three day Liberty Fund seminar held at William and Mary. The topic was the political plays of Aristophanes. We all got the plays two or three months ahead of time. No two of the participants were from the same dicipline. The subject was intellectually rich. Each participant freely spoke about the play from within the vision of their own discipline. But eventually the compelling ideas of the ancient Greek dramatist began to exert a powerful pull and we all began to see that these particular classical plays could help us better analyse our own disciplines. By the way, Liberty Fund paid all our travel, lodging, and meals. Richard O.

  17. Lodare on January 24, 2007 at 4:59 am

    The problem with this idea is that many people who get into Mormon history conclude that the church is false. I read Bushman\’s biography of Joseph Smith and realized he was not the magnificent, perfect prophet that we were all taught he was.

    The moment such facts start being churned out by IMS scholars, its funding would be dried up immediately by closed-minded people who just want a propaganda organization.

  18. Nate Oman on January 24, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Lodare: I think that you are wrong . Richard Bushman’s success in finding outside funding for his summer fellows program, which is not in the business of turning out Mromon propaganda, suggests that there is funding available for fostering serious academic discussions of Mormonism. You have to be politically savvy about things, but this is hardly the same thing as abdicating real scholarlly discussion in favor of propaganda.

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