This is the second in a series of posts on selecting a finishing exams and finding a doctoral dissertation topic. All of our five participants have participated in Mormon Studies in the past, but not all of them chose to pursue a Mormon Studies topic for their dissertation. If you’d like to contribute a post that addresses this topic in future, please send me an email at joseph [dot] stuart [at] utah [dot] e dee ewe.
We are grateful for this post from Alexandria Griffin, a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Arizona State University.
I did my undergrad at the University of Utah in Anthropology. I just kind of wound up there; I had originally started out in linguistics and become disinterested when I realized it didn’t just mean I could take as many language classes as I wanted. The Anthropology department would take most of my credit hours as “allied classes” so off I went, still taking as many language classes as I wanted. This included Arabic, which I ended up doing a study abroad for in the summer of 2010 in Alexandria, Egypt. While I was there I became very interested in the study of Islam and religion more broadly, and on my return took Islamic studies classes and began thinking about pursuing an MA in Islamic Studies.
Simultaneously, though, I began reengaging with my Mormon upbringing and checking out all of the university’s Mormon studies books and devouring them. I started wondering if there was a place I could get a degree studying Mormonism. I was surprised when I did some googling to see that there was a program that met that description in my mother’s hometown of Claremont, California.
I entered Claremont thinking I would study Mormon feminist theology, but gradually ended up weaving in my former interests in Islamic studies and writing a comparative study of women’s experiences of garments with anthropological literature on women’s experiences of hijab. I really enjoyed this project and am glad that I pursued it. However, as I looked at pursuing a PhD, I felt that staying in Mormon studies was no longer a good choice for me. As a woman married to another woman, many job avenues open to others in Mormon studies (like working for CES or at the Church History Library) are closed to me, and staying in Mormon studies seemed like making an already terrible job market worse for myself. Additionally, I felt that my attempts to discuss queer Mormon issues (in particular, looking at how organizations like Affirmation used history to bolster their arguments) were inevitably ignored in favor of analyzing my own identity as a lesbian somewhat-former-Mormon, which I found tiring.
I applied to multiple schools with North American religion programs, focusing on nineteenth century women’s religious leadership. I ended up going to Arizona State University, where my interests shifted specifically to Shakers and celibacy in American religions more broadly. Upon taking a class on African American religious history, I became interested in Rebecca Cox Jackson and started thinking about race and celibacy, including Catholic nuns and priests in my broader project. While researching the Catholic aspect of my project, I became more invested in that aspect of it and became more oriented toward a sprawling study of black Catholics in the nineteenth century, comprising orders like the Josephite Fathers and the Oblate Sisters of Providence as well as figures like Augustus Tolton and the Healy siblings.
Wisely, my advisor told me I needed to pick one of this assortment of figures and organizations and focus on one of them for my dissertation. I found myself talking about Patrick Francis Healy, SJ, who was born in 1834 to an enslaved woman and an Irish planter in Georgia and who went north to attend school as a child, proceeding to live as a free Irish-American and becoming president of Georgetown University. In the 1950s, the Healy family were rediscovered and reclaimed as African American Catholic icons and pioneers. My dissertation examines how racial and religious identity functioned in Healy’s life, as well as how he has been constructed in these dimensions in the decades since his death.