Q&A with Brian Birch: “The Intellectual Life of Mormonism”

By August 29, 2016

When we highlighted the creation of a new course at the University of Utah sponsored by the Tanner Humanities Center, we reached out to the course professor and Marlin K. Jensen Scholar and Artist in Residence of the Tanner Center, Brian Birch, with a few questions. He has generously responded to them below.

Course Poster

  1. How did you come to teach “The Intellectual Life of Mormonism” at the University of Utah?

This course has been on my mind for the past couple of years and I have been interested in teaching again for the Tanner Center—I taught “The Philosophy of Mormon Thought” in 2014 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This year’s class will be taught under the auspices of the Tanner Center’s Marlin K. Jensen Scholar in Residence Program. This fellowship will allow me to work in the center this fall semester to advance Mormon Studies through teaching, student research, and consultation with the university. The “Intellectual Life” class joins a handful of other quality courses in Mormon Studies offered by the University of Utah over the past few years.

  1. Teaching this course in Utah–and especially at the University of Utah–will pose particular possibilities and challenges. What are you expecting might be some of the difficulties teaching in such a setting, and how do you plan to address those?

I believe the University of Utah is the ideal institution to teach this particular course. The university has played a substantial role in the development of Mormon intellectual culture and there is a rich history here from which students can draw. Doing Mormon Studies in Utah is an obvious benefit in terms of proximity to resources, scholars, and interested students and community members. There are obvious sensitivities involved in doing rigorous and critical scholarship in this predominately Mormon region. The guiding principle for me over the years has been to be as inclusive as possible in addressing challenging issues in Latter-day Saint history and thought. This class is a good case study given the provocative nature of the questions we’ll be addressing throughout the semester. Our students will be reading a variety of primary and secondary works from historians, philosophers, apologists, LDS Church leaders, feminist scholars, and others who inform the conversation.

  1. Your course’s “Key Themes” reflect concerns with philosophy, history, and “Mormon Studies.” How did the theoretical questions of philosophy and history shape your syllabus? How would you define Mormon Studies?

My approach to Mormon Studies is decidedly pluralistic. I have argued over the past few years for active engagement across disciplines and methodologies. I put it this way in a recent conference address: “I am hopeful that Mormon Studies will become a model interdisciplinary field. To be realized, this would involve much more than the mere presence of different disciplines. It would involve genuine interdisciplinarity such that scholars from a variety of outlooks actively engage one another to explore how their diverse experiences and methodologies bear on one other. It would also be aggressively inclusive and exercise good faith in all directions.” (“On Being Epistemically Vulnerable,” Scholars’ Colloquium in Honor of Richard L. Bushman, June 18, 2016).

  1. How did you select the course introductory readings?

This has been a challenging task. The syllabus contains many more readings than we will be able to address in class; but I am anxious for students to have access to the literature beyond the required readings we will take up each week. In keeping with the approach described above, I wanted students to be exposed to different voices on each of our topics. There are obvious “classic” readings that need to be included, but I also wanted to engage with the terrific work now being done in a variety of quarters. So in addition to Bushman, Shipps, McMurrin, England, Toscano, and Nibley, there are readings from Stephen Taysom on methodology, Mary Ferrell Bednarowski on comparative feminist literature, Patrick Mason on faith and doubt, and Thomas Simpson on anti-intellectualism. This is exciting stuff and there is no shortage of good reading in this area.

  1. One of the hallmark problems with Mormon history has been the paucity of including women’s voices within our general narratives. This is especially true with intellectual history, which has traditionally (and wrongly) been seen as a male’s sphere. How will you seek to include more women’s voices in your course?

The paucity of women’s voices in Mormon studies has been stifling and detrimental. I am hopeful that a corner has been turned given the remarkable level of recent activity in women’s studies in Mormonism. Toward this end, our students will be reading (or hearing) from Claudia Bushman, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Kathleen Flake, Margaret Toscano, Kristine Haglund, Julie Smith, Catherine Brekus, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Colleen McDannell, Kate Holbrook, and others. Their voices will clearly be one of the most important features of the class.

  1. Can you tell us more about the guest speakers for the course? Will the speakers’ schedule be available online?

The Tanner Center is very pleased to host a series of panel discussions throughout the semester in connection to the class. Each event is free and open to the public. See below for specific dates and topics:

Thursday, September 29th
“Mormonism’s Intellectual Legacy: Nibley, Bennion, McMurrin, & Arrington”

Panelists:
Mary Lythgoe Bradford
L. Jackson Newell
Boyd J. Petersen
Gregory A. Prince

Thursday, October 27th
“Writing Women’s History in Mormonism: Old Challenges, New Prospects”

Colleen McDannell
Linda King Newell
Kate Holbrook

Thursday, November 17th
Race and Gender: Contemporary Perspectives

Participants TBA

Thursday, December 8th
The LDS Church and the Academic Study of Mormonism: Institutional Dynamics

Participants TBA

These events will take place in the Tanner Humanities Center’s Jewel Box conference room (unless otherwise specified). Specific information is available on the center’s website at

http://thc.utah.edu/lectures-programs/mormon-studies-initiative/index.php

 

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Fantastic stuff. Thanks for the answers, Brian; I wish I could attend the course.

    Comment by Ben P — August 29, 2016 @ 7:09 am

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful responses, Brian!

    Comment by J Stuart — August 29, 2016 @ 10:20 pm

  3. Those panel discussions sound fantastic, as does the entire course. Is there any chance the panel discussions will be recorded and available online for interested observers from afar? Thanks!

    Comment by Rachel S — September 16, 2016 @ 8:28 am


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