Mormon scholars dominate the Globe

February 19, 2008 | 48 comments
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At least, Melissa Proctor does. Today’s Boston Globe has a very nice article about her new Mormonism class at Harvard Divinity School, along with some good discussion about the trends in Mormon studies generally. Congratulations, Melissa!

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48 Responses to Mormon scholars dominate the Globe

  1. Dan on February 19, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Indeed congratulations. She gave wonderful gospel doctrine lessons at the Longfellow Park Ward. :)

  2. Kevin Barney on February 19, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    I was going to send her a congratulatory note when I read the Globe piece this morning, but then I realized I don’t have her e-mail. So a public high five to you, Melissa. Count me as a fan!

  3. Ray on February 19, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Congratulations, indeed. I wish these classes had been available years ago.

  4. Kaimi Wenger on February 19, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I should point out that not only did Melissa make the Globe; she also made the front page. Her (half) smiling face is actually on the front page of today’s paper.

    http://www.boston.com/news/globe/larger_view/

  5. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Blonde sells.

  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 19, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    That is a neat link, thanks! And congrats to Melissa.

  7. Kristine on February 20, 2008 at 12:53 am

    Adam, what a hideously tacky thing to say.

  8. Dallas on February 20, 2008 at 12:59 am

    Is Sister Proctor married?

  9. Kristine on February 20, 2008 at 1:02 am

    Dallas, what would that have to do with anything, and why would it be any of your business??

  10. Dallas on February 20, 2008 at 1:03 am

    I just thought she was really pretty.

  11. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 20, 2008 at 1:17 am

    Adam, I’m speechless. For shame.

    Dallas, anything to say about Dr. Proctor’s accomplishments, or was it just her looks that impressed you?

  12. Kristine on February 20, 2008 at 1:18 am

    Dallas, if you don’t know what’s wrong with saying that in this context, I probably can’t help you much, but here’s a hint: it was an article about Dr. Proctor’s course at Harvard, not a personal ad. In general, it’s considered somewhat demeaning to comment about someone’s appearance, rather than the substance of what they’ve said or done.

  13. Ray on February 20, 2008 at 1:30 am

    I read Dallas’ comments as a tongue-in-cheek response to your response to Adam’s first comment.

    Maybe I was thinking too hard.

  14. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 20, 2008 at 1:41 am

    Dallas, if Ray is right, you get a high five.

    Make my day.

  15. Dallas on February 20, 2008 at 1:51 am

    If Sister-Dr. Proctor reads this blog and is offended by my comments than I apologize profusely. I am very proud of her for her appointment and from the article I can tell she is a very accomplished an articulate woman. .
    However, if my picture was on the cover of a major newspaper, I’d be happy if someone mentioned I looked good, no matter what the article was about.

    So I apologize to Dr. Proctor, but not to you sisters. You need to lighten up.

  16. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 20, 2008 at 2:01 am

    Sigh. Thanks for your optimism, Ray.

  17. Ray on February 20, 2008 at 2:02 am

    I said I might have been thinking too hard. *grin*

  18. Dallas on February 20, 2008 at 2:26 am

    You’re probably all thinking too hard.

    My first comment was originally a joke.

    By the way Kathryn and Kristine, you’re both looking very nice this evening. You too Ray.

  19. Kaimi Wenger on February 20, 2008 at 2:52 am

    Sheesh. I go teach class for a few hours, and the thread does this.

    To state the obvious — yes, Melissa is lovely and photogenic. In fact, that photograph is really kinda mediocre, the whole “I’m sitting on my desk” pose is kinda weird and staged, and she still looks great. And in the right setting, I’m sure she’d be pleased to hear that people thought her picture was pretty; or to be complimented about her (great) cooking, or her (lovely) singing voice, or whatever else.

    But really, she’s not in the newspaper for winning a beauty contest, is she?

    She’s in the newspaper because she’s teaching an innovative and groundbreaking course at one of the top schools in the country. Out of the batch of innovative and groundbreaking courses at HDS, Melissa’s was sufficiently unique that it caught the eye of a newspaper editor. She’s not just teaching an already-made course, either — she’s creating a new course, and generating enough buzz that even the newspaper is asking about it.

    And in her spare time, she’s writing really interesting stuff about gender (sooo ironic, given the direction this thread has gone); and landing prestigious fellowships at Ivies all up the East Coast; and teaching ethics and gender at Harvard; and putting together Mormon-studies conferences full of superstars, with interesting presentations that develop into widely-discussed New York Times articles.

    Quite simply, Melissa is doing amazing work, and has been doing so for years now. She’s a real pioneer and someone I respect and admire a lot, and I’m very proud to call her a member of my community.

    Let’s keep the focus here on her academic and scholarly accomplishments, which are really enough to keep all the commenters in the nacle busy for weeks. Any further discussions of Melissa’s pulchritude will be deleted, and/or turned over to Kristine and Ray for merciless mocking.

    (And yes, to anticipate a truth-defense, Adam may well be right on a purely descriptive level. Someone at the Globe may have thought, “let’s put the pretty face on the cover”; it’s sort of par for the course in a lot of media. There’s no reason for us to implicitly endorse that logic, though, and bringing it up tends devalue Melissa as a scholar and draw attention from her real accomplishments. That’s troubling for anyone, and it seems particularly uncouth when done to a former colleague from this forum.)

  20. Barry on February 20, 2008 at 8:41 am

    I believe it is altogether fitting and laudable that Harvard should offer a course in Mormon studies. They have seen first hand the quality and character of men like Kim Clark, and they are probably still scratching their heads wondering how they ever lost him to a school in (gasp) IDAHO, only to be joined later by a couple of his colleagues in the pilgrimage. The administrators and board members should be the first to enroll in the class so they can wrap their academic heads around this remarkable, and seemingly illogical career move.

  21. Nate Oman on February 20, 2008 at 10:03 am

    I wonder if the news from the Globe is actually as good as folks make it out to be. Notice that all of the positive comments were from either Melissa, her student, or the journalist. The dean of the Div school seemed much less enthusiastic about Mormon studies. I certainly didn’t get any sense from his comments that he sees Mormonism as an important topic worthy of long term engagement. Anyone else have such a pessimistic reading of his comments? I would love to be persuaded that I am wrong on this.

  22. Nate Oman on February 20, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Just to be clear, I am not pooh-pooh-ing Melissa’s accomplishment here. I think that she is doing great stuff. I am just wondering how deep the current interest in Mormonism really runs.

  23. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 20, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Dallas, instead of a high-five you get a pinch on the butt.

  24. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2008 at 11:03 am

    And yes, to anticipate a truth-defense, Adam may well be right on a purely descriptive level.

    Heh.

  25. Dale on February 20, 2008 at 11:21 am

    [edit: personal information redacted]

    Melissa also put together a great conference last Nov on \”Mormons and American Politics\” which I found fascinating. You can view the streaming videos of the conference at

    http://www.princeton.edu/~csrelig/mormonism&politics

  26. Rosalynde on February 20, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Melissa, many congratulations on your fine work and many accomplishments; it must feel great to be recognized, and you deserve it.

  27. Nate Oman on February 20, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Barry: My impression is that an icy disdain for commerce is quite strong in the FAS at Harvard and if anything I suspect that it is even deeper at the div school. I suspect that this colors all percpetions of what happens across the river at the business school.

  28. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Congratulations to MP and the little band of scholars of Mormonism.

  29. Melissa on February 20, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Hello folks,

    Thanks to Kaimi for posting this article and for his generous recognition of my work.

    He and Kristine rightly note that this is not the best setting or context for (even kind and complimentary) remarks about my appearance, but I was not offended. I’ll refrain from making the feminst argument again here which Kristine has already ably made.

    As for the substance of the article, Nate asks the right question about what the dean’s comments mean for the future of Mormon Studies at HDS. Indeed, as fine a job as Michael Paulson did with the article, he truncated my own answer to that very question. When he asked me about what I thought about the future of Mormon Studies I said, “Some people believe we have entered a golden age of sorts in Mormon Studies, but I am far less sanguine about that. There are reasons that courses are being offered this semester at Claremont and Utah State that are particular to those institutions and my class at Harvard is a one time offering as far as I know.” I did acknowledge that I turned students away from my course at the Divinity School, that there is a new program group in Mormon Studies at the American Academy of Religion, that Princeton sponsored a major conference on Mormonism last fall and that it is likely that there wil be more interest in studying Mormonism as the church continues to grow and an increasing number of LDS students attend non-church owned colleges and universities thereby making Mormon presence felt more broadly in the academic world.

    Only the very first part of this extended answer made it into the final copy despite my request not to overstate the case. This is not a criticism of Paulson as space contraints always limit what a journalist can include in an article, but is certainly a caution to Latter-day Saints against jumping the gun with excessive ethusiasm.

  30. Melissa on February 20, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks to the rest of you too!

    Since I was a fan of Kevin Barney’s long before he’d ever heard of me, I’m delighted to receive his public high five)

  31. Mark B. on February 20, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Just to even things out here, I had my mug on the front page of The Brooklyn Paper just two weeks ago (they wanted a comment from a reactionary Republican, and I was the best they could do), and even my wife said I looked pretty good. It reminds me, however, of my father’s repeated reminder that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

    But, seriously, kudos to Melissa for the great work she’s doing.

    And, as hideously tacky as Adam’s comment may seem, he may simply be criticizing the sexism and appearancism and blondism of the Globe editors, trying to increase the newstand sales of their sorry rag by using Melissa’s picture. If that’s the case, we should all join him in criticizing the Globe.

  32. David M. Morris on February 20, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    I presume Melissa does not resemble Castro who dominates the front page now! Congratulations.

  33. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 20, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    The significance of the Boston Globe putting this story on the front page is that the editors think that their readers are interested in this topic, which constitutes a growing academic “legitimacy” for Mormonism and studies of the Church and its history, and extends it into “legitimacy” in the eyes of the public. Certainly the Globe has run plenty of its own stories about Mitt Romney during his years as governor and during the campaign, including details about his service as a missionary and the conversion of his wife. I have a hard time imagining that the Los Angeles Times would do the same thing, even though there are many more Mormons in its distribution area, which includes the Claremont Graduate School. I sent a note of praise to the reporter, mentioning some of the other academics around the country known for work in Mormon studies, and got a nice thank you.

    The “respectable” rationale for Evangelicals opposing Romney’s election was that, regardless of his qualifications, it would make Mormonism “legitimate” in the eyes of the public, and therefore let it break out of the cage of opprobrium and disrepute where they have tried to keep it for many decades. Even though they achieved their goal, the tiger of Mormonism seems to have escaped its cage anyway, and is out roaming the zoo, where ordinary people will learn that it is a good tiger (though not a tame one) after all.

    The comment in the story that there were not current studies of Shinto and Tao at the HDS may be true, but having lived in Japan for five years as an adult, the significance of Shinto is, it seems to me, far less in the lives of even the modern Japanese than Mormonism and its ongoing growth internationally.

    As for admiration of Professor Proctor’s appearance and her marital status, I recall that C.S. Lewis’ wife Joy sought him out because of admiration for his works. If there is an unattached and righteous LDS Male of intelligence who admires Professor Proctor’s accomplishments and intellect, is there anything inherently wrong in his opening a correspondence between them? How is that less worthy an introduction than the ways most of us initially met our eternal companions?

  34. Melissa on February 20, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    “If there is an unattached and righteous LDS Male of intelligence who admires Professor Proctor’s accomplishments and intellect, is there anything inherently wrong in his opening a correspondence between them?”

    No!

    ~Professor Proctor

  35. Ray on February 20, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    If it isn’t inappropriate, I will mention that “Raymond Takashi Swenson” is as international a name as I think I have encountered in my life. I also will second his assertion concerning the relevance of Shinto to most modern Japanese adults – at least those younger than 60.

  36. CS Eric on February 20, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I’ve gotta admit that I was impressed with Melissa’s picture myself. Not so much that she is easy on the eyes, but that she is so young. Pretty impressive resume already for someone who still has most of her life in front of her. Congratulations, Melissa!

  37. yet another admirer on February 21, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Where will the Professor be next year?

  38. CJ on February 21, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Wow, Professor Proctor. Now that’s the type of tenacity that (some) LDS men can appreciate–whether it be in academia or on a blog comment thread.

  39. Ben H on February 21, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Professor Proctor’s charming and expressive personality is also doing Mormons good in circles which are otherwise as wary of any religion that is truly alive as the Dean’s comments show. The unexpected combination of pretty, youthful, and wicked smart may be helping to brush aside some of the usual suspicion of Mormonism. Congrats on the recognition, Melissa! Keep up the good work!

    Melissa was kind enough to share with me a draft of her syllabus a few weeks ago, and it was really exciting to see assembled such a strong set of materials to base a course on. Part of why there haven’t been many classes on Mormonism may be that there haven’t been many good texts to use in such a class until recently, and even now it takes a bit of work to identify and procure what there is (out of print books, etc.). Maybe having been through this once, Melissa will help to fill in some of the gaps.

    Luckily blonde sells, and the Globe can see the appeal of what Melissa is doing even if a lot of academics don’t. The religious divisions that have so deeply shaped the past few U.S. presidential elections did not involve Taoism or Shinto, or mainline Protestantism.

  40. Randy B. on February 21, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    So, if you can share, what texts will the course be based on? The course title sounds an awful lot like the title to Givens’ book. Is that a mere coincidence?

  41. Kevin Barney on February 21, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Ben H., I loved your “wicked smart,” both for being accurate and appropriately Bostonian. (Whereas I living in Chicago tend to be just plain “wicked.” )

  42. Jonovitch on February 21, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Wow, I had some great laughs reading through the comments. I saw this thread when it first posted, read the article, thought it was great (and yes, being that I’m a dunderhead brainless male, I thought the picture was nice, too — so sue me) and figured this would end up being a “way-to-go!” comments section so I left it. Hilarious. Thanks for the entertainment everyone!

    As for the decision to run the article *and the photo* on the front page, I have to disagree somewhat with Raymond (33) who wrote that the editors made the decision based on readers being interested in the topic. Every editor worth his salt knows that the front page needs good art. My estimation is that two things sold that front-page decision: the word “Mormon” and a good shot of an attractive person. That combination, regardless of content or the person, is journalistic gold for any paper. So Adam’s “blonde sells” comment, while perhaps overly short, was probably accurate in this case.

    For the record, I didn’t just notice the pretty face in the photograph (including my surprise at how young she is), but also the angle of the shot (Holy professor’s office, Batman!), the slightly out-of-focus Doubleday Book of Mormon *conveniently* placed at the end of the bookshelf (again with “Mormon” just in view), and what appears to be a very smart outfit (nice threads!). I was also wondering where her left arm and legs ended up — couldn’t tell if she was sitting, kneeling, leaning. An interesting photograph for a few reasons, and not a bad decision to run it on the front page.

    I do blame the writer/editors for spinning the article into something, based on Prof. Proctor’s comments here, that it’s not. Colleges aren’t exactly “scrambling” to study Mormons. I believe, if I’m not mistaken, this is the third (count ‘em: 1-2-3) non-Church owned school (SVU doesn’t count either — nice try) that has even mentioned a Mormon course offering. The whole thing, from the headline, to the chopping of relevant and important quotations, to the well-placed photo, is a bit too sensational to be taken too seriously from a journalistic standpoint. Too bad. The topic and the person deserve better.

    Lastly, when I viewed the Web page, the “Inside Boston.com” column on the right displayed an obnoxious ad/photo of something about the Ice Girls, with a trio of “hotties” posing for the camera. I thought the placement on this of all pages was ironic and tragic. Re-visiting the link today, that photo/article link is thankfully gone, replaced by Manny Ramirez in shades, which is also a disturbing image for me, but for completely different reasons. :)

    Jon

  43. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 21, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    RE: Comment #35–My Dad is the grandson of a Swedish convert from Malmo (I was told by a Swede that the people there, across the strait from Copenhagen, are really Danes) who immigrated to Utah in 1896. His mother was Swedish-Italian and adopted by a Danish family in Utah. He enlisted in the Army Air Force and was the drum major of the Air Force marching band for Fifth Air Force in Nagoya, Japan, during the Occupation. (I was later assigned to the Fifth Air Force JAG office.)

    My Mom is from Nagoya, Japan. Her great-grandfather was a samurai who converted to the Russian Orthodox Church during the Meiji Restoration when Japan opened to the West. He had no sons, so he adopted his grandson, my Mom’s Dad, who was raised Russian Orthodox. During WW I, Japan was an ally of the US and Britain, and during the Russian Revolution both US and Japan troops were sent to Siberia for a while in support of the anti-communist forces. My grandfather was a soldier in Siberia and attended church with local families, and when Christmas rolled around, he was invited to dinner by one of them. By Christmas, 1947, my Mom was working at Komaki Air Base in Nagoya, and attending an MIA meeting held twice a week by LDS servicemen. Her father asked her to invite one of the Airmen to their home for Christmas, and my Dad was the only one who didn’t have a date. So that is how they met.

    After a while they married, and then the Church called him as a missionary and he began his mission a few months before I was born. Dad opened a branch in Fukuoka, and toward the end of his mission was branch president in Nagoya, where my Mom was counselor in the first Relief Society in Japan. He lived at home, and his companion and the other two elders would pick him up each morning. By the time my Dad’s mission was complete in 1952, the immigration laws had been changed (since 1923, Japanese had been barred from immigrating) and allowed Mom and me to go to the US, and I grew up in Salt Lake. All my brothers and sisters have Japanese middle names, and my nine grandkids do, also. William Takashi Burton was just baptized in Richland, Washington.

    Takashi means “prosperity”. “Raymond” Price was the name of one of my Dad’s companions (his brother Ted later worked at the Tokyo Embassy and was a mission president), and my Mom could pronounce it. I am just grateful they did not name me after their beloved mission president, Vinal Mauss (the father of Professor Armand Mauss).

    When I told this story to Bruce McConkie, who was overseeing the missions in Japan when I was there in 1969-71, he said “Elder, I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

  44. Ray on February 21, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    Thanks. That is fascinating. I wondered if the kanji for Takashi was as I assumed.

  45. Ben H on February 21, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Professor Proctor (#29) and Jon (#42) are right to urge caution about how eager the academic world is to really start studying and teaching about Mormonism. However, the news here is not just that there is a course on Mormonism at HDS. There was lots of demand for the course, and the course made front-page news, and the Globe says colleges are scrambling. Okay, maybe colleges are actually doing their best to ignore the problem, but the fact is that they *should* be scrambling, and other people, like the Globe, and the students, are figuring it out, even if academics are the last to admit it.

  46. Jonovitch on February 21, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    BenH (45), judging the demand for this course can be difficult, and claiming there is “lots” of it could be even harder. All we know from the article is that more than 15 people wanted to take the course, including a handful of Mormons. We don’t know how many more. If it was 22 people who wanted to take the course, then that’s roughly a 33 percent rejection rate. But a 33 percent rejection rate in a class of hundreds of students would be much more significant.

    I don’t want to downplay the importance of the subject or of the professor; I simply want to avoid overhyping an article about a one-semester course comprised of 15 students making the local (if major) paper. It’s fascinating, yes — I agree! But it’s not a major movement, yet, and to say that colleges are “scrambling” means someone leaned on the hyperdrive button.

    Jon

  47. Kristine on February 21, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Jon, I think there’s more there than the interest in a single course offering–Melissa’s thesis has garnered a good deal of interest, there are several Mormon grad students at HDS doing interesting things, at least one HDS professor (besides Melissa) has more than a passing interest in Mormon studies. Ultimately, it’s probably impossible to know for sure. Still, it would be good for Mormons not to go around like puppies with our tongues hanging out and our tails wagging just because a few academics are looking at us with something more complicated than disdain for a moment.

  48. Dallas Robbins on March 1, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Um, I don’t know who this Dallas person is above who made those comments, but I was told at a party last night that some people may have thought it was me. I’m not that vain to think no one out there has the same name as I do, but I’m just vain enough to think that others might think so. So, just an FYI, the Dallas from the blog This Mormon Life is not the Dallas who made the comments above..

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