Seeing Religion (or Mormonism) Whenever I Teach

By September 24, 2015

This semester I am teaching both halves of American history at a small liberal arts college.  As a historian of American Religion, I tend to look for religion in whatever I am teaching at the moment. But then there is the nagging question of “because it is my specialty, do I always look for it?” and “Is it relevant?” Well, of course, it is. The same thing could be said for gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc. Religion (or if we want to call it a belief-system, meaning-making, what have you) is everywhere.

This week, religion has been at the center of my lectures (on the first Great Awakening) and as leading factor in a discussion about the American presence in the Philippines.

Some of my favorite teaching moments have included religion. For example, Discussing how Catholicism was once conjured up fears about deviant sexuality always leads to a lively class discussion in Michigan where Catholicism is a highly visible and dominant religion.These discussions almost always pushes my students to understand how ideas of who is a religious  insider/outsider in American history can take wide unexpected shifts.

So what does this have to do with Mormonism? Well, as I am in between two worlds, three days of teaching the survey course and two days of dissertation revising (and not enough weekend!), I feel like I have to constantly check myself when I teach. Until recently, my “go to” historical timeline in my head is more in tune with when the railroad arrived in Utah, Utah gaining statehood, the Reed Smoot hearings–you get the idea.

But what happens when I hear and see Mormonism wherever I go? I am serious. In the period of two days…

—I open Jimmy Carter’s autobiography and there on the FIRST PAGE, in the first line of the second paragraph: “During my first year as president, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to the White House and presented me with a genealogical study of my Carter family.”

—I am listening to backstory podcast on my hour drive to teach and there is a story about Beaver Island and James Strang.

—And well I live in the same neighborhood that former Governor George Romney lived in when he was governor, and I run, drive, and walk by it all the time. (OK, that last one doesn’t really count as it is two blocks away.)

So, I am wondering, fellow Americanists, who specialize or have a personal connection to Mormon history, does this happen to you too? For now, I am not going to overthink and run with it. Because mentioning the Saints’ trek to Utah does belong in a lecture about Westward expansion, dispossession of native land, and ideas of Manifest Destiny. Mormon women (and women in the whole American West) should be in every discussion about the struggle for suffrage. In discussions about perceptions of Islam in America,  the whole analogy of Joseph Smith as an American Muhammad would be quite the ice breaker!

I know I am preaching to the choir when I write that teaching any survey course includes picking, choosing, and, ultimately, not covering every topic. How do those of you who teach grapple with including or excluding your specialty?

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Pedagogy


Comments

  1. My courses have either always centered around Mormonism or religion in general, so it’s a little different in that regard. I do know I chose to exclude Mormonism from formal discussion when I taught American religious diversity in Utah last year–although it naturally popped up in the discussions every week. I did that mostly because although Mormonism-in-Utah was easy for all the students to relate to (whether they were part of the dominant group or not), I wanted them to think beyond Utah and their own environments.

    I have, however, slightly toned down my tendency to mention Mormonism in every conversation outside of work. I’m sure my family is grateful for that.

    Comment by Saskia — September 24, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

  2. I can totally relate to your last point.

    I also think you get an important disciplinary difference between religious studies and history. I am assuming you were teaching religious studies? In my case the closest I may be called to focus more on Mormonism in the classroom is a history of the American West.

    Very interesting about teaching inside of Utah versus outside. I should have stressed my-non-Utah presence more.In discussions with my friends who grew up out in intermountain states, it’s always been interesting to hear about religion was taught.

    Also in terms of regionalism, I think I probably tend to bring up more Catholic and Protestant examples because I (assume) I am mostly teaching to those students. However, I also like to point to other local examples such as Dearbon or the Nation of Islam’s role in Detroit to stretch minds–or at least I hope I do.

    Comment by Natalie R — September 24, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

  3. Nice post, Natalie. I TA for an American history survey in the state of Utah, and Mormonism has reared its head for the market revolution and second great awakening… but also showed up when talking about attitudes toward the constitution, which I thought was a clever comparison for students from Utah. Other than that, it’s been referenced a few times as a modern comparative context, but has stayed within its traditional spots. We just got to the second great awakening, today, so I’ll definitely keep an eye out for any clever, more modern places to find Mormonism in the survey.

    Comment by Jeff T — September 25, 2015 @ 2:06 pm


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