Brother, can you spare a symposium?

July 30, 2010 | 26 comments
By

kirchenruine

Mormon Studies could be headed for a rough patch, because the career paths that make professional study of Mormon topics at least occasionally possible are disappearing.

While the field has had some exciting developments, its recent progress has largely consisted of increasing institutionalization: new programs, newly endowed chairs, new academic conferences, and new graduate students with an interest in Mormon topics. But all of these are exposed to the fallout from economic downturn on university budgets and donor portfolios, and they are particularly threatened by the collapse of academic hiring in relevant fields.

If you haven’t been paying close attention to the academic job market, you might think that the current moment is nothing new; the job prospects in a lot of fields have been bad for 40 years. But this is the New Bad, with a slow year in many fields in 2008 followed by the cataclysm of 2009, soon to be followed, if the state budgets on which university hiring depends are any guide, by the catastrophe of 2010.

The old rules, for those whose only path to happiness lay in a field like English, were to attend a highly-ranked program, professionalize, publish, and prepare to move anywhere in the world in search of a job. There was no guarantee, but a dedicated student who followed the rules stood a reasonable chance of having the risk pay off.

Those rules are no longer operative. In many fields, the appalling truth is that graduate school has become something like trying to make it big in Hollywood, to be attempted only by those with trust funds or without family responsibilities. No one is counting on a quick turnaround. No one believes that the Not Nearly so Bad Old Days are ever coming back.

Mormon Studies is particularly affected in a few ways. The fields facing the worst of the downturn include those that are central to Mormon Studies, including history and religious studies. As fields contract and hiring becomes more competitive, the circle of viable topics for younger scholars is reduced. Innovative, offbeat, and inter-disciplinary topics (in other words, anything at all in Mormon Studies) become riskier. Fewer of those now in grad school (say, for example, your favorite JI bloggers) will find academic jobs. The jobs they do find will be less stable, and involve less support for research. Fewer of today’s undergrads with an interest in Mormon Studies will be inclined to risk grad school. With applications becoming more competitive as fewer students are admitted to many graduate programs, fewer of those so inclined will have the opportunity.

Even if you think these changes in American higher education are necessary or even salutary, they are changes that will exact a high cost on Mormon Studies. If I were organizing a conference to discuss the most serious institutional issues faced by LDS students in religious studies and associated fields, the existential threat posed by the disappearance of academia as a career would be high on the list.

26 Responses to Brother, can you spare a symposium?

  1. Ben Park on July 30, 2010 at 3:29 am

    Thanks for this, Jonathan. As one who is currently trying to navigate these troubled waters, I know well the problems you describe. Of course, as you mention, it should be emphasized that this is a problem across all academia, touching all disciplines, and not just Mormon studies.

    As fields contract and hiring becomes more competitive, the circle of viable topics for younger scholars is reduced. Innovative, offbeat, and inter-disciplinary topics (in other words, anything at all in Mormon Studies) become riskier.

    In a way yes, but I’ve also been told that this may not always be the case. I recently visited with some professors from top universities in preparation for PhD applications. In our discussions, I mentioned how I had done some work on Mormonism, but I had since moved on to other, broader, topics. Several–and I mean 3-4 ivy league professors–said that this was a shame, because they felt that Mormon studies is so “hot” right now that an upcoming scholar with experience in it would have a leg up on other job applicants in both history and religious studies. Of course, this is definitely something that would differ from program to program, and I don’t know how many schools share that view.

    The big question most programs will ask is if these Mormon studies scholars are addressing wider issues and are fluent in broader academic topics–no one would be interested in the intrinsic nature that permeated “New Mormon History.” This has led to wonderful developments in Mormon studies, and has made much better scholars as a result.

    Regardless, the problems that you outline above were sufficient for me to conclude that focusing on Mormon studies was not really an option for my PhD work.

  2. Naismith on July 30, 2010 at 7:48 am

    While the point may be valid about the areas that impact Mormon Studies, it is not true across all disciplines of academe. One department at my university has had a vacancy in healthcare finance for years. Biostatisticians, economists, PhDs in nursing and physical therapy have numerous job offers and are even hired ABD.

  3. Julie M. Smith on July 30, 2010 at 8:45 am

    These trends don’t worry me nearly as much as they do you, for two reasons:

    (1) If Mormon Studies consists solely of people like Kevin Barney and Kristine HH, we’ll be fine.

    (2) I’m really excited about some of the things happening in and through BYU (publications such as _Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament_ and scholars such as Eric Hunstman).

  4. SmallAxe on July 30, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Anyone with aspirations of getting a tenure track job in a religious studies department doing work on Mormonism must see themselves in a larger field of, for instance, American religion. If someone does Mormonism to the exclusion of these larger conversations then there’s little hope of getting a tenure track job.

    That said, the situation, as you state, is bad. It probably takes 5 PhD students to yield 1 tenured prof (Perhaps some of the larger programs have a better ratio). I’m not sure, though, that the situation is as bleak as you seem to think it is. While last year there were roughly 4 tenure track jobs for those doing work in American religion (http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Religious_Studies_2009-2010), there were 9 in 2008 including positions at Stanford, Michigan, Yale, and Harvard (http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Religious_Studies_2008-2009). In 2007 (pre-economic meltdown) there were 7 tenure track positions, with UT-Austin probably being the most sought after. In 2006 I only counted 2 (the wiki only goes to 2008, so these last two figures come from looking at the AAR job postings for September and October of those years).

  5. SmallAxe on July 30, 2010 at 8:53 am

    @ Julie.

    I deeply respect both Kevin, Kristine, and some of the new work coming out of BYU; however, I don’t think we should underestimate the value of having scholars in tenure track jobs at places other than BYU.

  6. Jonathan Green on July 30, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Ben Park, thanks for your comment. Something to keep in mind for the future is that your professors may not be completely aware of the current state of hiring in your discipline, and that hot topics are not always the ones search committees are looking for. Trust, but verify.

    Naismith, sorry, but you’re out of touch. What you say was true until recently, but even economists are feeling the consequences:
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/01/04/nojobs

    Which is not to say that economists are in the same boat as, say, Comparative Literature. Rather, everyone’s taken a step or two down the chain. Business-school hiring has become more like economics, economics hiring has become more like history or literature, history and literature have become more like theater.

    Religious studies, to my understanding, has always been insanely difficult, however. So does that mean that it continues on its way as before, with variations simply a matter of statistical noise, or does hiring dry up altogether? SmallAxe follows that field closely, so he should have a better sense of what’s going on. (Then again, the progression from 9 to 4 doesn’t inspire confidence in the robustness of hiring in the field.)

  7. Stephanie on July 30, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    This is disappointing.

  8. Morgan D. on July 30, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I totally agree the job market is tough and a tenured faculty position is ideal for research and health in the field, but the lack of those things do not bury it either. Even with my relatively sparse benefits package on the “adjunct circuit” I make time and money available for research and conference travel. I just have to be strategic with my topic selection and conference travel.

    So I agree that tenured faculty positions and their included benefits are increasingly rare or endangered. But for people who have a passion for research and “the life of the mind” its simply one more problem that can be overcome in pursuit of what you enjoy doing.

  9. Bob on July 30, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Keep your network open. Let people know you are open to something else. My son dropped out of his English PHD Fellowship at USC, when a an old professor of his got him a position an administer of the writing center at a local College. At age 28, he has 20 people under him, and has never been happier.

  10. Mike M. on July 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Jonathan, I agree with much of your post’s sentiment, especially the desire for more full-time academics who do Mormon Studies. But I would suggest an slight variation to your arugment.

    I think it more accurate to say that the current economic downturn might mean that the growth of Mormon Studies will not proceed as fast as we’ve come to expect given all the new academic programs, chairs, etc, but that also our expectations may be a little misplaced.

    Today’s Mormon Studies rose without chair and programs, and it will continue to grow and thrive even if the growth of persons doing Mormon Studies in full-time academic positions slows down. I think programs and chairs are probably as much if not more a sign of how far Mormon Studies has come than an indication the short-to-medium run trajectory of Mormon Studies.

  11. Kristine on July 30, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Julie–you are very kind (thank you!), but I’m absolutely certain that we need people more qualified and better-trained than me. (Just generally smarter would be good, too!) Just as it was professionally trained historians who made the important contributions to the New Mormon History, we’ll need folks trained in new methodologies and theoretical perspectives, and with the time to pursue religious studies as more than an avocation, if Mormon Studies is ever going to escape the parochial bounds that have made Mormons mostly interesting to themselves for the last several decades.

  12. Wm Morris on July 30, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Let’s see. If I had successfully applied to Berkeley’s Comp Lit program, and I had taken the 11 years that I was told it would take to complete it (because my Romanian and German weren’t solid — apparently some people with rockin’ language skills can do it in 9). That would have put me on the job market last year.

    Yikes.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 30, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Is the practical answer to get some serious endowments for positions in Mormon Studies? Maybe the Huntsmans and the Larry Miller family and other Saints with resources could be persuaded of the worth of creating additional endowed chairs and other durable institutions. How about some money from Deseret Book? They could pledge to donate a portion of their income from books in the field of Mormon history.

  14. Jonathan Green on July 30, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Morgan D., you are a person after my own heart. Like you, I’ve spent all my time teaching in non-TT positions with little if any research support, and benefits that have ranged from very good to non-existent. Soon I realized that I wasn’t waiting for my career to start–this was my career, and I had twelve months left to make the most of the opportunity. And then twelve more months, and then twelve more, and so on up until today. You’re absolutely right about being strategic, but it really is possible to get grants, publish, and attend conferences. I have grave doubts about the viability of a field that operates entirely like this, but that’s a problem faced my many more fields than just Mormon Studies.

    WM, I think you dodged a bullet. Hiring in Comp Lit has been more depressed than in similar fields for some time, and I suspect that things have only gotten grimmer lately.

  15. Ben H on July 30, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    RTS, I think you have a point. Part of what is happening, I am persuaded, is a general downturn that is squeezing everyone, and higher education is especially squeezed because it looks like a luxury. However, I think part of the problem is that people are less convinced of the value of a non-technical education these days. If Mormons believe education matters, they need to step up and support it even if the rest of the culture doesn’t.

    I’m not sure that what they most need to support, though, is endowed chairs in Mormon Studies, but more the “other durable instutions.” First, fellowships for graduate students if they want anyone to even get PhDs. Second, support at BYU for Mormon Studies. As long as large chunks of BYU don’t regard Mormon Studies work as real scholarship, it will be hard for anyone to invest much effort in it.

  16. Kaimi on July 30, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Mormon studies at BYU would be nice; also nice would be some openness to religious studies in general.

  17. Colee on July 30, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    I don’t know where to place this comment, but I feel sick about the link Julie placed slandering Glenn Beck. Especially when the link itself implied he was dishonest and didn’t deserve a temple recommend. I can understand if she does not agree with his point of view, but to take it so far as to call him dishonest is unfair. There is a concerted effort to discredit Glenn Beck by the left because he is a threat to him. Glenn Beck has extensively written and talked about the slander of Rep. Weiner on his website. You can look it up and read it if you are interested. The only point I want to directly address is Beck’s motivation in promoting Goldline. Of course, Beck is a businessman and will promote businesses as part of his business model. The link implied that he was dishonestly fear-mongering in order to get people to buy gold. I simply wanted to say that Beck is buying gold for himself because he personally believes that our economy is dire straits. This is a point of view I subscribe to myself. I can’t write an essay right now, I can only say that our economic situation is precarious, particularly because of the high debt ratio to GDP that our government, businesses, and households are carrying. The only parallel to our debt situation is right before the Great Depression. I believe we at the beginning of a depression that will devastate this country and Beck believes will end up in the destruction of our currency due to hyperinflation. Hence his position about gold. I respect that some people will not agree with him, but I believe he is an honest man.

  18. Nate Oman on July 30, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    FWIW, I think that the decline in money available for Mormon studies chairs and the like is not a huge threat to the field. The CGU chair gave the field some cachet, but frankly I have never been convinced that it was a great use of resources. Putting that money into expanding something like the Bushman-Givens summer seminar program and other projects designed to provide grad students and junior scholars with really, really good career advice and feedback strikes me as a better use of resources. I think that the disappearance of history and religious studies as viable career opportunities is a bigger threat. I am not — blessedly! — in the humanities, so I don’t know how grim it really is. Law has taken a hit but we’re still kicking. In part this is because professional education is counter-cyclical, so we can rake in the tuition money in a recession in a pinch you can actually run a law school on its tuition revenue. We’re one of the few parts of a university that can on occasion, turn a profit.

  19. Naismith on July 30, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    “Naismith, sorry, but you’re out of touch. What you say was true until recently, but even economists are feeling the consequences…”

    All due respect, but what the article said did not contradict what I said. Economists are in such demand that even when they experience “a sharp downturn” they are still in much demand. But I also note that the folks I deal with are the quantitative types mentioned in the article as being most in demand, not international economists, etc.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the impact of the older folks who aren’t retiring. My boss is 71, and has no intentions of retiring. Makes it hard for the next generation to find room. At least 10% of my department’s faculty are over 65. Some elite universities mandate retirement at a certain age, and then they go to the second-tier schools that should have been a great starting point for young faculty.

    Also, the overproduction of PhDs in fields that need a ready source of slave labor (teaching beginning chem, required history, etc.) is certainly part of the problem. That overproduction is immoral.

  20. Bob on July 31, 2010 at 8:12 am

    #19: “That overproduction is immoral”.
    Immoral by the schools, or by those working towards the PhD?

  21. Naismith on July 31, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Immoral by the schools. They are producing PhDs because it is cheaper to pay for a teaching assistant than to hire someone with a master’s degree and training in teaching. This is good for the department, because it saves money. It is often bad for the undergraduate students, because they have a “professor” with little experience and perhaps zero training in teaching (although some departments are better than others), and may not speak good English enough to be understood.

    And then it leaves a surplus of PhDs out there….

  22. Ah-Q on July 31, 2010 at 10:34 am

    @ Nate (18):

    Law school applications may be up (which is good for universities), but I wouldn’t advise a recent college grad to attend law school unless he or she (1) really, really wants to be a lawyer; (2) gets accepted to a high-ranked law school; and (3) receives a scholarship. The hiring market may be less grim for law school grads than it is for PhDs, but law school has become much more of a gamble than it used to be. Even a JD from a top 10 school doesn’t guarantee a job. Given that tuition is now approaching $50,000 per year at many law schools, that gamble just doesn’t seem worth it anymore.

  23. Bob on July 31, 2010 at 11:51 am

    #21:Naismith, my son during his Fellowship at USC, got a full ride scholarship + $20,000. He had to teach two classes. One class was to tutor football players (usually 5, such as Carson Palmer). Not a good way for USC to save money.

  24. Ben Park on July 31, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Bob (#23): I think Naismith was thinking more along the lines of smaller and less prestigious schools than USC. Think “Southeastern [name a random small state] State University,” where they offer no funding, no stipend, and minimal fellowship. There area lot of those programs, and in most programs they produce freshly-minted PhDs with lots of debt, a third (or lower) tier degree, and small chances for landing a sustainable teaching job.

  25. SmallAxe on July 31, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    The CGU chair gave the field some cachet, but frankly I have never been convinced that it was a great use of resources. Putting that money into expanding something like the Bushman-Givens summer seminar program and other projects designed to provide grad students and junior scholars with really, really good career advice and feedback strikes me as a better use of resources.

    I’m of the opinion that a chair at a university with a good graduate program is actually a better use of funds then expanding the summer seminar (or some similar training). Not that the latter isn’t well deserving of more money, but a chair at a school with a good graduate program establishes a longevity in the field/discipline. These professors provide places where students can go to receive good training and (hopefully) good career advice. Over a career of 30 years one chair could produce several good students with jobs at good institutions.

  26. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 31, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    PhDs in nursing and physical therapy have numerous job offers and are even hired ABD. My wife, who is a CRNA (Masters degree) turned down a faculty position that she did not apply for, but they attempted to hire her for anyway.

    Law school applications may be up (which is good for universities), but I wouldn’t advise a recent college grad to attend law school unless he or she (1) really, really wants to be a lawyer; (2) gets accepted to a high-ranked law school; and (3) receives a scholarship

    Note the discussions by some academics in law about whether or not law schools are fundamentally fraudulent (at least in the bottom 50% of the schools) in their approach to students.

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