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 â€œcountâ€ 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 â€œcreditâ€ 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 doesnâ€™t â€œcountâ€ professionally for LDS scholars. Why not? Is it that the subject matter is unworthy of â€œrealâ€ academic attention? Are the fora in which Mormon studies occurs insufficiently rigorous or prestigious to merit â€œrealâ€ 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 â€œrealâ€ 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 â€œcenterâ€ 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 â€œaboutâ€ Mormonism, but rather are â€œaboutâ€ 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 doesnâ€™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 â€œrealâ€ 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.