Occasionally it becomes prudent for scholars within a field to assess the state of that field and to define its pasts and futures. The Mormon History Association annual meeting provided such an opportunity for Mormon Studies. The panel, “Permanent Settlement or Pending Migration? Exploring the Frontier of Mormon Studies,” featured presentations from Gerrit van Dyk, Trevan C. Hatch, and J.B. Haws.
Each presentation assessed the field in a different way. Van Dyk and Hatch both conducted interviews with prominent professors and asked about definitions, methodology, publishing venues, and the nature and audience of scholarship. Both emphasized the issues of insularity, the roles of “academic”/apologetic/popular scholarship, and ties to institutions and journals of publication. One insight that van Dyk noted was that Mormon Studies has grown in graduate programs before undergraduate programs—in contrast to Catholic Studies and Jewish Studies programs. Hatch offered Jewish Studies as both an example and cautionary tale for Mormon Studies in its strict academic scholarship. Haws’ presentation highlighted the change in institutional attention and broader acceptance of Mormon Studies since the early 1990s. The panel, as a whole, was a pretty fair introduction to Mormon Studies as a field.
The respondents offered some course correction. JI’s own Andrea RM talked about her experience as a scholar of Mormon Women’s Studies and the intersectional difficulties of trying to reach both an outside scholarly community (Women’s Historians), inside scholarly community (Mormon Studies scholars), institutional leadership, and popular audience. Her raw response gave some flesh to the bones that van Dyk, Hatch, and Haws strove to capture through her emphasis on the experience of being a scholar within Mormon Studies. Patrick Mason also offered a few insights. As a chair of Mormon Studies, Mason posited that the field’s scholarship has more venues for publication now than ever before. Presses and journals seem to be interested in Mormon topics to the point that Mormon-specific journals have had difficulty finding enough quality essays. Additionally, Mormon Studies is, in fact, respected within other fields of study—albeit maybe not well enough known to make scholars within other fields know the ins and outs of Mormon Studies. Questions to the panel highlighted the role of the institutional church, which became noticeable within the field due to its involvement in research projects, resource allocation, and its production of jobs.
These were just the conversations that I could remember as an attendee at the panel. If you were there, and if I totally missed something, let me know.
As much as the panel assessed the respectability and accessibility of Mormon Studies, it did little to address the field’s content. Maybe this is my own peeve, but I wish the panel would have addressed some avenues for new scholarship or productive opportunities for interdisciplinary crossover.
The panel, however, was not the only recent effort to assess the field of Mormon Studies. Heather Stone, a PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Utah, has put together a Mormon Studies bibliography here in coordination with the Maxwell Institute and with BYU. Hers is the first comprehensive work to try and capture definitional pieces within and about the field, and the bibliography is rather inclusive. The bibliography is live in that you can suggest pieces that should be included. I highly suggest checking it out—it’s a remarkable and unparalleled resource and should prove to be central for the future of Mormon Studies. Also check out her description of the bibliography on the Maxwell Institute’s page.
While the above panel highlighted Mormon Studies as it functions as an academic field, the bibliography might better define the content, topics of study, and methodology of Mormon Studies a little more. We’re happy to have both avenues of discussion—hopefully they can both contribute to the next moment of Mormon Studies self-assessment!