When Ben announced his intention for a new series about teaching Mormonism, it dovetailed nicely with something I’ve been thinking about. Back in 2012, I taught a class on Mormonism at my university in Germany. This past semester, I attended one at the University of Utah. Besides the obvious difference of being a student vs being a teacher, something else came up time and time again: how although the locations couldn’t be more different, both courses exhibited a certain kind of sensitivity that was oddly similar.
What I mean is, in Germany, I made sure to choose my words carefully, and pay extra attention to which way the class discussions were going. Mostly because we were discussing a foreign faith that had cultic associations for many of my students. Or, at the very least, was strange and therefore free game. What I mean by that is that I doubt whether my students would have talked about Islam the way they talked about Mormonism–yes, Islam might be a little unfamiliar, but they saw fellow students wearing headscarves at the university every day, or walked through the more Muslim neighborhoods on their way to the train, or encountered Islam in some other way. Not all of their opinions were going to be founded in fact or even nice (obviously Europe is no stranger to ethnic or religious tensions), but my point is that Islam, though a little unfamiliar, was part of these students’ worlds in a way that Mormonism definitely was not.
Mormonism was this religion about secrecy, and missionary boys in too-big suits that tried to convert you, and polygamy, and something American that couldn’t be defined but wasn’t good, per se. They didn’t know any Mormons, they were relieved to find out I wasn’t Mormon, and they were comfortable calling the existence of the Book of Mormon blasphemy and the LDS origin story a little idiotic in their response papers. (That’s when we had another talk about how to properly discuss religion in an academic context, and how that wasn’t it.) To be fair, I have heard students in our introductory seminars say very similar things about other religions–many of our students have little exposure to religion and don’t know quite what to do with it when it comes up in class. But there was something about the novelty of Mormon beliefs that made it easier for them to comment without thinking.
Over the course of the semester, I think Mormonism was demystified a little for them. We read a variety of texts, grappled with the Book of Mormon for a bit, and visited a sacrament meeting, which I think helped immensely. In the end, Mormonism was probably still a little strange, and in their eyes definitely still American, but I think the cultic association had worn off a bit. I sincerely hope so, at least.
Anyway, fast forward to almost two years later and the class I took here at the U. I was very surprised to hear the same kind of lecture I had to give my students about bracketing truth claims in a scholarly manner and showing respect to a religion and its believers even when we felt differently. In retrospect, it makes sense to me: in a class filled with a mixture of Mormon and non-Mormon students, tensions are bound to arise. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about living in Utah, it’s that it can be hard at times to live in someone else’s promised land. Discussions become heated very quickly and it can be hard to find that middle ground. Thinking about that made me curious about other people’s experiences. For those of you that have taught Mormonism as well as other faiths, is there a difference in your tone and approach? How do students react when they find out you’re (not) LDS? And, bonus question: what do you say when your students say something particularly insensitive and don’t even realize it?