Mormonism and the Memo to the Dean

March 16, 2007 | 13 comments
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Earlier this week I engaged in what I am told is an annual academic ritual, and wrote a memo to the Dean explaining what I have done this year in terms of teaching, scholarship, and service. Since I have been engaged in a number of projects related to Mormon studies, the question arises should I include these in the memo? Does Mormonism “count” academically speaking?

A number of years ago I heard one senior Mormon scholar say that during his academic career he never expected to get any “credit” for his Mormon-related work. On one level, his attitude represents a really admirable commitment to Mormon intellectual discussions, a willingness to lavish scholarly attention on a subject even when he will not receive any professional scholarly benefits. On another level, however, there is something a little disturbing about this expectation that Mormonism doesn’t “count” professionally for LDS scholars. Why not? Is it that the subject matter is unworthy of “real” academic attention? Are the fora in which Mormon studies occurs insufficiently rigorous or prestigious to merit “real” attention? When swimming in the small (and frequently shallow) pond of Mormon thought do we feel authorized to produce mediocre work?

There is part of me that really hates the self-ghettoization of Mormon thought. If scholarship on Mormonism cannot be put in your annual memo to the dean without fear of embarrassment, then one ought to either do it better or do something else. On the other hand, while I do think that scholars interested in Mormonism ought to integrate it into their “real” research agenda rather than treating it as an intellectual hobby for nights and weekends, I realize that there are limits. There can be huge pressure on scholars to be working at the “center” of their disciplines, to push forward the broader academic conversation, etc., and too much Mormonism may simply be too much work on a niche topic. Of course, even here I suspect that there are often ways of reframing Mormon topics so that they are not “about” Mormonism, but rather are “about” some topic at the center of the discipline. Hopefully this turns the marginal into the merely odd, quirky, and interesting.

And then there are some topics that are probably simply too inside baseball to interest broader swaths of academia. This doesn’t mean that these are unimportant topics. It simply means it is probably impossible to fully integrate them into a mainline research agenda. Not everything can count.

Still, I suspect that many Mormon scholars are victims of their own parochial anti-parochialism, and too often are willing to engage in the study of Mormonism on the assumption that it really is irrelevant to “real” academic discussions. In part I suspect that this is simply tribal self-loathing, and in part I suspect that it is simply a failure of confidence. Regardless, I think it is probably time for more Mormon scholars to come out of the intellectual closet about their interest in Mormonism. Engaging in the study of Mormonism in the sunshine of a mainstream research agenda is likely to produce better quality scholarship, as well as do much to mitigate the internecine politics to which a Mormon studies centered on Sunstone symposia, CES, or FARMS is prone.

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13 Responses to Mormonism and the Memo to the Dean

  1. Gavin Guillaume on March 16, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Substitute the word “Mormon” with “Catholic”. Would an academic still include those studies?

    Could Mormon “scholars” (I quote it only because you raise the question if it’s truly a scholarly field or a nights-and-weekends field) be arguing that it is a scholarly field when they wouldn’t afford the same status to Catholic studies?

    Certainly there are now Islamic Studies and Feminist Studies programs at universities (the latter might be considered a religion, at certain institutions). There is now at least one formal Mormon Studies academic program.

    Don’t consider Mormon Studies in isolation — does it hold up against similar pursuits?

  2. Dean Busybody on March 16, 2007 at 10:50 am

    Oman, we googled you before we hired you and we know what you\’re up to, Mr. Godfather of the Bloggernacle. Don\’t think that leaving all your blogging off the memo is hiding it from us.

  3. Sterling on March 16, 2007 at 11:34 am

    Your post is a little vague. Have you already written the memo but just not sent it? Are you asking us whether you should revise the memo before the Dean receives it?

    Another way of analyzing this issue is to ask whether blogging belongs on our CVs and can count toward tenure. Here is an argument that it should count:

    http://newmedia.umaine.edu/interarchive/new_criteria_for_new_media@m.html

    In my own field, the history faculty at George Mason University are developing a method for counting blogging and other online activities in the tenure review process. Here is the blog for one of these history professors:

    http://www.dancohen.org/

    If people are serious about finding out whether Mormon Studies is making an impact in academic scholarship, they should do citation analysis. This sort of analysis used to be really time-consuming. Now that citation statistics have been digitized by Web of Science, it is much easier and quicker to do this kind of analysis. Keyword searches in this database could tell us several things. How often do articles in Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies, etc., get cited in other (presumably non-Mormon) journals? Which of the non-Mormon academic journals have published the most articles on Mormon topics?

  4. Kevin Barney on March 16, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    If you are still writing the memo, I would encourage you to include your Mormon studies in it. As I think #1 is getting at, we would include Catholic or Jewish or Islamic studies, would we not? So why not Mormon studies?

  5. manaen on March 16, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Maybe this is why you received a couple comments after your Miller-Eccles presentation that you should be writing 40-page papers instead of blogging!

  6. Jim F. on March 16, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Doesn’t it depend on what kind of scholarship you are doing?

    Work published in non-LDS academic journals is relatively easy to decide, though not necessarily easy to find an audience for. Something that appears in a peer-reviewed journal should count. In contrast, work that is aimed primarily at a Mormon audience doesn’t have, at least at this point, enough of a peer-review structure to be evaluated easily. That makes it more difficult to decide whether it should count.

    For example, I’m doing some pieces on LDS theology for BYU Studies and FARMS Review. I don’t think either is a puff piece; I hope that they make a contribution to the scholarly discussion of LDS theology. However, though I believe both of those journals are peer-reviewed–at least the former is; I think FARMS Review also is–it isn’t easy to decide whether there is a large enough pool of those who know theology professionally to review those pieces and pass judgment on them. In many cases one could argue that the answer is “yes,” but I’m sympathetic to those who decide that it is “no.” (Here’s hoping that next year my chair thinks that the answer is “yes.”)

    The problem is that you don’t want to put things on your CV that make it look like you are padding it. So the “better safe than sorry” principle could lead a person to decide not to include those kinds of things.

    Until there are more scholars in Mormon Studies, I don’t think the problem is going to get easier.

  7. Melissa on March 16, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Nate,

    This is the reason why being a Religion scholar is actually the best job in the world (and not being a Law professor as you claim). My work on Mormonism is my legitimate work. Studying, teaching, and publishing about religion is what I’m trained and paid to do. ;)

  8. Nate Oman on March 16, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    Melissa: Nah, your wrong about that one. I get to study religion (in my primitive lawyerly way), but I also get to muck around with the history of the Thirteenth Amendment and the philosophical basis for the doctrine of consideration. Until religious studies produces something as heart-poundingly exciting as the rule against perpetuties, I’ll stick with my job.

    As for the memo, I am not including anything in it that is published in a Mormon fora (especially since I haven’t published anything in a Mormon fora). Rather, I have current research projects on certain aspects of Mormon legal history that I am hoping to publish in mainline law reviews. I discuss these (along with more traditional legal projects) in the “current research” section of the memo. My question is does there come a point at which things look too Mormon. Since I am doing work in fields unrelated to Mormonism, and all of my Mormon stuff is related to law, I suspect that I am just fine. (Ask me again in five years when I go up for tenure review.) The question is under what circumstances and in what fields can you get away with making the study of Mormonism part of your “real” research agenda, and how many Mormon scholars with an interest in studying Mormonism regard it as something quite seperate from their “real” scholarship? The latter attitude is widespread enough LDS academics that I have talk to that it seems like it is worth thinking about.

  9. Ben Huff on March 16, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Nate, it sounds like given what you’ve said this should not be very hard for you. I think if you publish an article dealing with Mormonism in a mainline forum which would obviously go on your CV if it weren’t dealing with Mormonism, well, whoever runs that forum has decided that this piece counts as real scholarship. So its being on Mormonism doesn’t matter. The forum decides this case. Similarly for work that is not yet accepted, but is intended for such fora and which you reasonably believe has a decent chance of being accepted.

    I faced a similar question in January; at my institution we do this at the end of each calendar year. My situation was different from yours. I had done both clearly mainline stuff and stuff to do with Mormonism, including an item forthcoming in a recently established forum specifically dealing with Mormonism (Element). I reported all the stuff on Mormonism. But that said, I felt it was important that it be clear to the Dean that my work on Mormonism is not my main work. It isn’t, and I don’t think it should be for now. My dissertation was on virtue ethics (with no mention of anything distinctively Mormon), and I think my main work should continue to be on ethical theory for a while, because, well, virtue ethics and issues that it leads to are my main interest, but also because I have a lot of material already developed there that I need to translate into publications, and because I was hired as an ethics guy. If I were to suddenly ditch mainline ethical theory, or start only picking topics in ethical theory that have some connection to Mormonism, I think my institution might feel like I wasn’t doing what they hired me to do.

    The upside of this reasoning, though, for my real interests in Mormon Studies, is that I did list a bunch of stuff I’ve done on Mormonism, including stuff in specifically Mormon fora (SMPT, FARMS Review) on my CV when I applied here, and so I see no reason to change that now. I think the quality standards of SMPT’s fora (the Mormon fora I know best) are very strong. I would say they are higher than some “mainline” fora I have checked out, though not as high as the most selective mainline fora. If a colleague in another department wasn’t sure how much weight to give work in these fora, though, I wouldn’t find that strange, since they are new, and as Jim says, the peer networks on which they rely for review are not as well established as in the case of mainline fora.

  10. Adam Greenwood on March 16, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    I thought you were a lawyer, Nate. If “work on weird Mormon communitarian experiments” sounds too weird, recast it as “Ideology vs. necessity: a case study of the emergence of new property norms in a highly pre-normed environment” or something like that.

  11. Nate Oman on March 16, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    Adam: I am less concerned about my own situation, about which I actually feel very happy, than about the more general issue of how much Mormons choose to integrate an interest in Mormonism into their mainline research agenda.

  12. Ben Huff on March 16, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    One nice thing about how the pattern has worked for me is that I am doing work in both Mormon-oriented and non-Mormon-oriented fora, both newer and established venues, and I think this helps to show that my work is solid, wherever I may be publishing it. It also enriches both kinds of discussions to have people who participate in both.

  13. DKL on March 17, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    Dude, your boss knows that your Mormon?