Rachel Cope has a PhD in American History from Syracuse University and is a Professor of Church History and Doctrine in the BYU Religious Education Department. You can read more about her background in a previous post when she participated in the JI’s Women In The Academy Series.
This time last year, I was on the job market—and I found myself confronting a question I thought I had already answered: did I want to be a history professor (anywhere) or a church history professor at BYU? You see, I had decided that I wanted to teach religion at BYU during the summer following my freshman year, and I had been working toward that goal for a very long time. But, upon completing my PhD, hiring freezes and my passion for history led to some doubt about which direction I should move in. I did not want to set my scholarship aside—my passion for women’s religious history is a part of who I am—as some friends and mentors suggested I might have to do if I accepted a job in religious education. So I spent months jumping back and forth as I considered every aspect of both options.
During this time, I recalled an experience I had had with my favorite nun when staying in a convent in Albany, New York. While in a rather reflective mood, I wrote the following:
“Late one evening I heard a gentle tap on my bedroom door. ‘Come in,’ I called, as I closed the book I had been reading.
Sister Jeanne, a spry woman of ninety, entered the room. ‘Do you have time to chat?’ she asked. I assured her that I did. She then situated herself on the edge of my bed: ‘I told you about how I made the decision to become a nun, didn’t I? But I don’t think I ever told you about my experiences as a student at the University of Chicago?’ As soon as I nodded in agreement she began to share her stories. One account, in particular, became imprinted upon my mind.
As a doctoral student, Sister Jeanne found herself consumed by the following thought: “Sister, you did not enter religious life just to do this.” Her academic agenda, she realized, could not be separated from her spiritual goals. Because she had been transformed by this important idea, she dedicated her life to helping others make that same discovery.
Following our lengthy discussion, Sister Jeanne announced that she was ready to go to bed. She left my room; instead of falling asleep, I continued to ponder upon her words—words that captured my own desires. I, too, recognized the importance of connecting my faith in Christ to my academic vocation. And, I felt committed to teaching and producing scholarship in a religious context. Simply stated, I longed to follow Sister Jeanne’s example: I wanted to do for others what she was doing for me. Although a retired nun bent with age, she still took the time to nurture my intellectual and spiritual values because she saw a budding scholar who shared her same goals. I felt grateful for her earnest mentoring; her personal journey inspired me. How could I follow a similar path? My mind raced in multiple directions as I contemplated this crucial question.
As I reflected upon my future course, I found my thoughts shifting to past experiences. Consequently, a flood of memories washed over me: I recognized, perhaps more so than ever before, the unequivocal importance of my scholarly journey, which began at Brigham Young University, an institution that did not separate faith and learning, but rather cultivated them together. Indeed, my time there had enabled me to recognize the strong connections that welded intellectual and spiritual virtues, and prepared me for future opportunities as a student, teacher and scholar.
While immersed in deep thought about my years at BYU, I remembered one professor, in particular, who had had a profound influence on me. Although his story and experiences differed from Sister Jeanne’s, I noticed a common thread that linked the two. Both had informed me that they attended college with a specific purpose in mind, but, upon recognizing the importance of aligning faith and learning, they decided to change directions so they could inspire others to make those same connections. My professor had utilized the unique opportunities made available at a church school: in his classroom, he promoted spiritual and intellectual development and he taught his students that the two should not be disjointed. Writing assignments and class discussions cemented these concepts in our hearts and minds. His example inspired me to think and explore in new ways and influenced my own desire to teach in a Christ-centered environment. Clearly, Sister Jeanne’s story resonated with me because the desire to link faith and scholarship had already been planted within me. She was confirming and encouraging important concepts I had learned as an undergraduate.
During my sophomore year, I asked my professor if he needed a research assistant. At the time, my experience was limited, but he did not see what I lacked; rather, he saw my potential. He took the opportunity to mentor a student who felt drawn to scholarship grounded in a believing identity and mission. He prepared me academically for graduate school, but, he also engaged me in multiple conversations about faith and learning. Additionally, he shared articles and books with me that broached this topic. For the first time, I truly recognized that my academic life and my spiritual life did not have to be placed in separate spheres as so many suggested. My spirituality could influence my intellect, and my intellect could impact my spirituality. Faith expanded possibilities; it did not impose limitations.
‘And all of this explains my current research interests,’ I declared to an empty room. Indeed, my compulsion to study women’s religious experiences extended well beyond the academic. I had been uncovering a spiritual as well as a historical trek. I was, in fact, arguing that religion was a constant experience that transcended boundaries. Spiritual life was not something to be compartmentalized; it was woven throughout the daily and the ordinary as well as the Sabbath and the sacred. Tracing the lives of religious women revealed much about my own life and reiterated the importance of connecting my faith to everything else. Over the years, the links between faith and scholarship had remained at the forefront of my mind. Sister Jeanne was right. Pursuing academia entailed more than, as she put it, “just this.” It was an important part of personal spiritual discovery, an opportunity to develop virtues and a chance to cultivate and solidify faith in the Savior. Intellectual endeavors were not a separate path but an important part of my religious odyssey.
I looked around me at a small and rather bare room—the only decoration being a crucifix. It seemed rather appropriate. I had come to Albany to uncover the spiritual journey’s of nineteenth-century women as recorded in their journals—the centerpiece of my dissertation—and I was doing that. But the journey I was discovering was my own. Sister Jeanne’s mission had not ended—nor would it ever. It would continue through people like me who are committed to engaging in teaching and scholarship in a context of faith.”
As I remembered and recorded this experience, I finally recognized that the answers to my career-oriented questions had been there all along—the goal I had made at nineteen was still my goal. I didn’t want to just write about religious women, I also wanted to do the same types of things those religious women had done. Therefore, I no longer had to debate with myself; my decision had already been made.
I am real enough to recognize that all choices require sacrifice, and for some, the sacrifices required by religious education may not fit a particular professional plan. I also realize my decision to become a faculty member in BYU’s religion department means I have given certain things up; however, I know I have attained a combination of opportunities that matter most to me, and so any lingering sadness about “what might have been” (the kind that comes to those who feel passionate about so many things) seems to have dimmed with time. True, I may not do everything I could have accomplished had I been in a history department (the reverse would have applied had I not taken a job in religious education), but the only way I will stop being an intellectual is if I choose to stop being an intellectual. I believe—truly believe—I will gain as much as I am willing to put into my job.
Speaking more specifically, yes, the teaching load in religious education is heavy. That being said, in talking to one of my colleagues in the English department, I discovered she has to teach three brand new preps this semester (9 credits); my department chair gave me one prep (and I only have 8 credits) so I can have more research and writing time. And, quite frankly, I find the teaching exhilarating. Designing my own Church History class—one that talks about women as well as men—was delightful. Seeing students become engaged both intellectually and spiritually with course readings, listening as students made important connections in class discussion (hooray!), observing their enthusiasm about working in special collections, mentoring some of them and becoming involved in some of their larger academic work has been more than I could have hoped for. I love it!
Research, too, has been going well. Time is tight (which comes with academia), but I have managed to complete several half-baked projects, and am in the process of beginning a new article and making my way towards a book. I am involved in academic conferences (my conference funding is far better than that allotted to my professors at Syracuse University—in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs) and I have summer research trips scheduled to continue my work on Protestant women (which means I have been excused from teaching my Spring term classes this year). I have two wonderful research assistants who do fantastic work, and have discovered that the department is beyond supportive and accommodating. The resources that are made available to our faculty are fantastic.
So, while it is true that religious education is not for everyone, it is not true that it is a miserable place to be. It is not true that you have to set everything aside and fit into one particular mold, or that you abandon scholarship as you pass through the doors of the Joseph Smith Building. Yes, there are frustrations at times (as there are in all jobs), but the opportunities here can be great, and I am optimistic enough to believe they will continue to get better.
Why do I say that? When I was a little girl, my grandpa used to tell me stories about his days at BY High (I think he loved BYU as an institution more than anyone I have ever met). He informed me of the way things were, and then he would delight in telling me about the way things have improved, while implying they would continue to get even better. He believed every generation could and should and would advance beyond the last.
Grandpa passed away the day after I submitted my dissertation to my committee—so I didn’t get to call him upon learning I was going to be a BYU Professor (he would have been ecstatic). But my favorite painting of him hangs on my office wall, his finger raised in the air as if he is saying, “Remember, Rachel, you have the responsibility to make things better than they were.”
I am determined to remember and apply the lessons my grandpa taught me and the lessons Sister Jeanne taught me. And, like them, I believe the future is bright. May we all learn from their wise counsel as we work together (wherever we land) to improve scholarship and teaching in Mormon history.