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?