Ecology of Intellectual Culture: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part IV

July 7, 2012 | 16 comments
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Intellectual life is a social endeavor, involving both a community of participants and institutions that support their activities. In this post I discuss some of the key elements of the ecosystem that is needed for a flourishing intellectual culture. In my view, these key elements include scholars, conferences, publishers and publications, academic positions, and graduate programs. At the moment, while Mormon Studies has some version of each of these elements, they are all quite limited and in many cases rather rudimentary. Yet in standard ecological fashion, each of these elements symbiotically depends on the others, and I’ll discuss why. It is an interesting question, then, how to get from our current situation of a few scattered sparks to one of established intellectual vitality.

Perhaps the primary components of an intellectual culture are people who think, and thoughts. While thinkers are not necessarily associated with a school, I will call them scholars. While our thoughts may simply take place in our heads, to form part of the culture, they must be expressed and shared. At an informal level, they may be expressed and shared among friends, in informal discussion groups, on blogs, or, say, in Sunday School discussions. In a robust intellectual culture, however, thoughts must take a more robust form, as presentations and publications. Hence an intellectual culture needs conferences and similar fora for presentations, and it needs publishers who are interested in publishing Mormon Studies and capable of both recognizing good work and giving it a proper editorial support.

Conferences and publications are not only important for the dissemination of ideas; they are also vital for the development both of ideas and of scholars. Good ideas are to a great extent a communal effort. Any particular idea may come primarily from one person, but she will be responding to the thoughts of others, and to their feedback on her ideas, which helps her to clarify and deepen them, and to distinguish the parts worth keeping from mere errors and wanderings. This exchange of feedback among scholars is called peer review and is vital to intellectual improvement. Thus good ideas and scholars depend for their existence on other good ideas and scholars, and on interaction with them through conferences and publications.

Journals play an especially important role in the development of ideas, both by providing formal peer review prior to publication, and then by allowing work to be circulated in “bite-sized” articles, which often prompt a more involved form of peer review through responses in a similar format, allowing ideas to be refined and reinforced before they appear in the more ponderous form of a book.

Here and there, scholars may do excellent work on Mormonism, without extensive interaction with other scholars of Mormonism. To some extent scholars of Mormonism can draw upon a larger intellectual culture and apply the skills and training they have gained, as well as the peer review they receive there, to their work on Mormonism. Cases like these will always represent something of a lucky break, however, and even at that they will be limited in what they can achieve. Without feedback from scholars of similar ability and a comparably deep knowledge of Mormonism, important aspects of their work will lack the benefit of proper peer review, both to stimulate their best work and to judge how good the product is. I have been amazed at times to see how the most basic errors regarding Mormonism can make it through the editorial process at a press that lacks expertise on Mormonism. I have also been amazed to see how unreflective quite intelligent people can be on issues where they have not engaged with their intellectual equals.

Conferences and publications, in turn, of course require the participation of scholars to exist and to flourish. The number and quality of scholars limits the number and quality of conferences, and publishers rely on scholars to review publications as part of the editorial process.

To produce presentations and publications in any quantity, scholars further require support for their work. Volunteers and hobbyists can be important contributors, but when a community is composed entirely or primarily of volunteers and hobbyists, it is difficult for it to achieve a high standard of quality. A robust intellectual community needs people whose intellectual activity is part of their job, and the mainstays here are generally college and university professors. More specifically, a community needs professors whose job is Mormon Studies, or else their work in Mormon Studies will remain more or less of a side project, like those of the volunteers and hobbyists. Once upon a time, scholarship and science were largely advanced by independently wealthy gentlemen, but much of what has enabled the depth and thoroughness of contemporary scholarship is its institutionalization in universities and to some extent in associated research centers. At present, while there are a decent number of academics involved in Mormon Studies to some degree, there are very few for whom Mormon Studies is part of their job description.

So far, then, a robust Mormon intellectual culture needs scholars, conferences, publishers, and academic positions oriented toward Mormon Studies.

Normally, however, an academic position in a subject will only exist when there is such a subject, or more specifically, an established tradition of scholarly inquiry into that subject. Hence to a large degree the existence of positions in Mormon Studies presupposes the existence of a robust intellectual culture already. This is important because employers need to be able to evaluate employees, and the standard way to evaluate scholarship is through peer reviewed presentations and publications. Also, in order to justify creating a position, they need to be confident of finding appropriate scholars to fill it as the years go by. This requires that there be a sufficient number of scholars, and a flow of new entrants into the field from one decade to the next, with reasonably reliable quantity and quality.

These scholars do not drop out of the sky. To have a robust community of scholars requires a robust program of training, for which the standard is a graduate program. Here the chicken-and-egg logic becomes especially sticky. On the one hand, a robust community of scholars requires a program that produces such scholars. On the other hand, to have a graduate program in the first place, one must have scholars to teach in it. One must also have a body of literature on which to base the curriculum, and the primary ingredients here are peer-reviewed publications. Finally, for a graduate program in Mormon Studies to make sense, there must be a reasonable number of academic positions in Mormon Studies, so that its graduates will be able to find relevant employment.

A robust intellectual community, then, requires scholars, conferences, publishers and publications, academic positions, and graduate programs, and all of these depend on each other for their health, if not for their very existence.

So, how are we doing? On the one hand, there have been some very exciting developments in recent years, some excellent events and publications, a few new positions in Mormon Studies, and some very impressive scholars. In comparison to where Mormon Studies has been, things look very good.

In comparison with any established academic field, however, things are very sparse indeed. I’ll make a few somewhat glib and irresponsible observations on this, with an invitation to readers to enlighten me where I go astray. Right now, we have a few scholars, most of whom have become scholars of Mormonism through a somewhat circuitous path, and certainly not through a formal program in Mormon Studies. They have produced some fine publications, but have largely had to blaze their own trail in doing so, and it is hard to know how much in these publications is contestable, since there are so few scholars in a position to contest. We have a few conferences, some of which are fairly vibrant, but most of which are institutionally somewhat tenuous, and have either a fairly brief track record or a checkered one.

History is of course something of an exception. The Mormon History Association has a long-running conference and journal and a substantial body of regular participants, including a number of well-trained and accomplished scholars. However, while there were a number of academic positions in Mormon history at BYU until recently, the Smith Institute was dissolved a few years ago, and I am not sure how Mormon history is faring in the History Department. Perhaps someone can fill us in. Anyway, the center of gravity for Mormon History seems to have dramatically shifted north, to the Church Historical Department. Recent developments there are very positive, but the new direction there still seems a bit new, and the Church Historical Department is a different beast from a standard academic institution.

BYU’s School of Religious Education is big and well-established and has regular events such as the Sperry Symposium, but its primary mission is devotional, and so academic work in the usual sense is somewhat marginal and sporadic there, relying largely on the heroism of a few individuals, as in most other sectors of Mormon Studies. Further, there is a pronounced tendency for those Religious Ed faculty with a more scholarly bent to jump ship, like Reid Nielson and Spencer Fluhman have in recent years.

BYU in general is an excellent university with a large and strong faculty who in theory could do an enormous amount of great work in Mormon Studies, but as things stand now, for faculty to do scholarship on Mormon issues is generally not encouraged.

Claremont Graduate University has Mormon Studies offerings as part of its graduate program, but not enough for it to count as a degree program in Mormon Studies.

There are a number of other specific institutions it would be interesting to comment on. I’ll comment on some of them in future posts. Comments giving a snapshot of particular institutions, or expanding on/disagreeing with what I’ve said about particular institutions, are welcome.

For now, my point is that a robust Mormon intellectual culture requires quite a number and variety of mutually reinforcing components, and that right now most of these components exist only in a fragmentary, scattered, and/or rudimentary form. Hence to make significant headway in any one area will require progress in all the others as well. Where to start? A subject for future posts.

[Past posts in the Bootstrapping Mormon Studies series: Part I, "The Gospel as a Recipe for Zion;" Part II, "Unfolding the Expansive Message;" Part III, "Mormons and the American Project"]

16 Responses to Ecology of Intellectual Culture: Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part IV

  1. James Olsen on July 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Great post, Ben. You articulate well what’s needed and why we aren’t there. And let me give my strong endorsement of the virtue of community – for both the intellectual reasons you outline and likewise to satisfy our human needs. I would only add that one more important ingredient is simply time and mass – which we have very little of. I’m as anxious as any of us – and I really do think there’s a potentially fecund yearning right now for the legitimation and flourishing of Mormon Studies – but I think our anxiety runs well ahead of the critical mass that’s building much more slowly.

    I look forward to your future thoughts.

  2. Ben Huff on July 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    You’re right that part of the story is just the fact that there aren’t all that many of us Mormons, and so that makes it harder to populate the sort of intellectual ecosystem I am talking about here. Considering how many BYU grads go on to get PhDs of one kind or another, though (it’s one of the top in the nation), and the huge number of faculty at BYU, the great majority of whom are Mormon, there is clearly more to the story. The points I’ve made in this post are just basic points about the logic of these processes in any context. I do think there are some special circumstances in the case of Mormons and Mormon Studies that have made and continue to make it hard to get things going, as well as some major potential advantages if and when we do. I’ll talk about some of these in future posts.

  3. christine on July 7, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    this reminds me that I was curious about what all religions are represented at BYU, i.e. Islam I found out about because of Dr, Peterson but what others are there. BYU has a chair for Islamic Studies how come it does not have one for Mormon Studies. Makes very little sense to me but then after my recent reading on T&S I almost have to assume the BYU culture is anti-mormon-scholarship which would explain it. As the author had pointed out there are only very few mormons, a tiny fraction of whom are interested in and even fewer are competent to do research into the Mormon Belief System. Which means Mormon Scholars could fit in where comparative Religious analysis is practiced in some (probably not yet existing) high brow Institute of COmparative REligion.. would be cool no ?

  4. James Olsen on July 8, 2012 at 12:50 am

    I meant my comment to be less about numbers and more about time. Jewish Studies is thriving with no more Jews than there are Mormons. But they’ve got time and intellectual momentum on their side. As a community they’re a lot more comfortable with Jewish Studies than we are with Mormon Studies. Part of this is that there are a lot more years between Spinoza and today than there are between Fawn Brodie and today.

  5. christine on July 8, 2012 at 10:48 am

    just look at what a Rabbi has to do to become a rabbi.
    http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/rcurriculum.html

    you think after 6 years of that one is a scholar ? I do.

  6. the narrator on July 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Utah Vallley University has been offering more courses in Mormon studies than any other institution for over a decade Theya have also hosted far more academic-focused Mormon studies conferences than any other institution. It is a shame that UVU is repeatedly ignored or forgotten in these discussions, posts, and articles.

    http://www.uvu.edu/religiousstudies/mormonstudies/

  7. christine on July 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Do I hear an offer by UVU to be the new home of FARMS and what would speak against that .

  8. Bob on July 8, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    @James Olsen,
    Fawn Brodie IS big tent Mormon study.

  9. the narrator on July 8, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    I am quite confident that UVU has no interest whatsoever of housing FARMS. It’s a state school and its Mormon studies program is strictly academic. While those with FARMS may certainly be invited to participate in Mormon Studies functions (as many have in the past), they would not be a good fit at all with the mission of the Mormon Studies (and larger Religious Studies) programs at UVU.

  10. christine on July 8, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Fawn Brodie to me is yah a queen but if no man knows the history god will have his will….if UVU will not take on greater responsibilities they should not post about how they were shunned

  11. Ben H on July 9, 2012 at 2:21 am

    narrator, you are quite right that UVU has been doing a lot for many years. As I said in the post, there are a lot of other institutions worth saying more about. Part of why UVU is on my radar is that UVU has been a great supporter of SMPT, which is my main venue for my own work in Mormon Studies. Brian Birch has been a major driver of Mormon Studies at UVU. It will be interesting to see how Mormon Studies goes there in the next few years, now that Brian is more heavily involved with broader administrative responsibilities and less with the Religious Studies Center. There are others there to pick up where he leaves off, but I don’t have the impression that they have a very deep bench of faculty with the capabilities or interests to do a lot more Mormon Studies.

    In some ways UVU may be ideally placed to do Mormon Studies in a big way, because the population of Utah Valley is so heavily Mormon, and it is not unusual for students from elsewhere who want to be in a largely Mormon environment to come to UVU, even from quite far away. There is a natural demand from the student demographics that does not exist outside of Utah, yet without the kind of pressure to toe a specific line on Mormonism that one might find at BYU (to a large extent from the students). There is a certain amount of synergy with being so close to BYU as well, though perhaps more potential than has been realized as yet. On the other hand, I have the impression that there is also a lot of political pressure on UVU both from folks who are pro-Mormon and perhaps somewhat conservative and from folks who are very wary of letting Mormonism become too much of an influence or overt presence, in part because It is a state school. I know the newish president Matt Holland is very aware of the need to maintain the neutrality appropriate to a state school, and he personally may need to even overcompensate a bit because he comes from such a prominent Mormon family. That may mean that in some ways UVU is forced to resist the natural demographic pressure, which from a perspective focused on Mormon Studies means foregoing that natural advantage to a significant extent.

  12. the narrator on July 9, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Ben,

    There certainly are pressures from both sides of the field who are weary of Mormon Studies at UVU, however this also supplies a natural check and balance which I think is somewhat essential to Mormon Studies (and which I found was sometimes missing at CGU). Furthermore, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “I don’t have the impression that they have a very deep bench of faculty with the capabilities or interests to do a lot more Mormon Studies.” To the contrary, I am unsure of any institution outside of BYU with more faculty than BYU both capable and actually doing Mormon Studies.

    christine, “if UVU will not take on greater responsibilities they should not post about how they were shunned.” There is not a single institution of higher learning that will house FARMS, so by your own standard all schools should be shunned. While I am an advocate of a big-tent Mormon Studies approach that involves and includes apologetics as part of its broader discussion, an official advocacy and of FARMS (and especially the type of apologetics that they do) is largely antithetical to the objectives of any institution doing Mormon/Religious Studies outside of LDS schools.

  13. christine on July 9, 2012 at 9:48 am

    narrator i was being unnecessarily provocative and apologize. .Just pointed out you said how UVU was always ignored in this forum. = shunned all things being equal. for the most part FARMS were outside any school.until they were brought under a BYU associated umbrella circa 10 years ago

  14. Peter LLC on July 9, 2012 at 10:18 am

    for the most part FARMS were outside any school until they were brought under a BYU associated umbrella circa 10 years ago

    In a legal sense, perhaps, but the informal association with the BYU extends back nearly to the organization’s founding.

  15. christine on July 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    at Peter I do not know from personal reading but others have said that something good went away. i.e. deflated tire, when they made the change to bring it in with byu

  16. Ben H on July 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    narrator, I will freely confess my ignorance about Mormon Studies at UVU generally. I basically know a handful of faculty, mainly in philosophy. I see just four courses listed on the UVU Mormon Studies page though. Would you be willing to mention a few examples of the deeper bench you have in mind, and give us some idea of what they are doing?