7 Takeaways from #MHA2018

By June 11, 2018

Another MHA has come and gone and it was one of my favorites yet. Lots of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances in one place speaking about a topic that occupies a lot of my brainspace. The plenaries and Judith Weisenfeld’s Smith-Pettit Lecture were all excellent, and you’ll all want to read all of them in JMH or future books. Rather than recap the conference, I’ve jotted down some quick thoughts on what I’m taking away from the 2018 MHA Annual Meeting.

Gender: More women presented at MHA than in previous years. This is unequivocally a good thing. I heard some grumbling that including more women was “too much too fast.” This seems insensitive and shows much more about the speaker than about the program. There’s no way for every worthy paper to be accepted for any conference (ask any member of any program committee). Thinking that there were too many women suggests that there is a right number of women or that women are somehow a supplement to the program. The program committee did an excellent job organizing their programs around the conference’s theme and balancing the need for new and seasoned voices on a variety of topics. My hat goes off to them  

The remarks from the panel on women’s experiences at MHA should be read/watched again and again. Academic organizations across all disciplines would do well to create forums where its membership listens to people whose voices are not placed at the fore often enough. I hope that the comments, some of which were delivered more bluntly than many men are accustomed to hearing, including a suggestion that male allies need to “shut up and listen,” are not dismissed because of the frustration with which they were delivered. Asking those that receive unfair treatment to perform exactly the way you like is evidence of the unfair treatment they receive. Privilege is never having to consider other people’s frustrations or pain. If you were upset by the remarks, I hope that you can focus on what you/we can do to make MHA a better place for everyone rather than focusing on your discomfort. It’s on all of us to make MHA a better place.

I echo Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s call for childcare to be at each and every MHA conference.

Race: Appropriately, there were many excellent panels on race and Mormonism on the weekend of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Official Declaration 2. There were also exemplary panels on missionary work and colonialism, the Pacific Islands, Africa, Turkey, and other locations outside of the USA. The study of Mormonism and race, with either Mormonism as subject or object, is alive and well. Did I have a little bit of a freak out for how high the bar is to contribute meaningfully to Mormonism and race? Yes. But I was also thrilled to hear so many papers that show that Mormon history is engaging broader analytical categories and concerns than only Mormon history. That isn’t to say that scholarship that focuses on Mormonism is wrong or “less than” scholarship designed to speak to broader fields or disciplines. I am speaking only as someone interested in how Mormonism fits into broader trends of American racial, gendered, and religious history.

Workshop: The workshop that Kris and I run is always a highlight of MHA for me. We had an excellent state-of-the-field discussion (more on that in another post). I would ask readers to consider submitting next year. No matter your academic rank, there are folks that can read and engage your work that will help it become better. I use the workshop as a deadline for writing something in the year. I invited you to do the same and then to apply to participate in the June 2019 workshop in SLC! 

Mentorship: The mentorship event organized by our own Hannah Jung was valuable and something that I hope will continue in future years. It’s lovely to meet with someone with similar interests and pick their brain for how they might approach a problem, discuss the art of writing, and other concerns. MHA does an excellent job with graduate student development; the introduction of the Face to Face meeting re-affirms the organization’s commitment to its youngest scholars.

Location and Leadership: I was deeply skeptical of Boise as a conference locale. I now love Boise. Affordable food, a grocery store close by, and an ideal conference venue. I would support holding MHA there again. The conference seemed to be well attended (perhaps someone from MHA could confirm one way or the other).

I’m grateful for the many hours of service given by Rob and Arlene Racker to MHA. The organization is undoubtedly better than it was when Rob was hired to be MHA’s exectuve director. Rob has always had MHA at the forefront and helped me to think of the “history buff” constituency and to consider public history more carefully. Many thanks to Rob!

As an unabashed fan of Barbara Jones Brown, I am thrilled she has agreed to be MHA’s executive director. If you are willing and able to help her I would encourage you to send her an email and volunteer your services. 

Q&A Sessions: This is purely anecdotal, but other than at the Women at MHA lunch panel, audiences asked excellent questions. Being concise continues to be a problem at conferences, but there were questions at the end of each person’s vocalization. That’s good. Let’s build on that.

The Field: Mormon history is continuing to grow in important ways, both with Mormonism as subject and object. I look forward to 2019, where I hope historians will submit follow-up panels and papers on their work from this year. 

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports


  1. Thanks for the summary, Joseph. I really hope that the message that we all should sometimes stop talking and listen to others isn’t lost. It’s an important message.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 11, 2018 @ 8:57 am

  2. Thanks for these reflections. I had a great time. Here are my notes on the sessions I attended in case anyone finds them useful:


    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 11, 2018 @ 10:13 am

  3. Thanks, Gary and Kevin!

    Comment by J Stuart — June 11, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

  4. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. They were so nice to read.

    Comment by Rachel — June 12, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

  5. These are strong thoughts to digest, and I am so grateful to think about this kind of feedback. I think that the questions from the audience during the women in Mormon history plenary panel, however, are valuable to consider and reflect on because it provides a moment of tension, cognitive dissonance, and pushes us to move toward anticipating more what happens when academics and non-academics meet at MHA. They have a common passion for Mormon history and historical experiences. Yet, how do we speak to each other, listen to each other, and learn from each other- especially when gender, race, class, ethnicity, and other factors affect such dynamics of communication and learning? I am excited for the Women Also Know History and Women in Mormon Studies initiatives that can help make it more commonplace to recognize women scholars and their voices. I look forward to MHA 2019 in SLC.

    Comment by Farina — June 13, 2018 @ 12:01 am

  6. Really enjoyed MHA this year. It’s my 5th MHA conference and in many ways it was the best yet. Looking forward to SLC next year.

    Comment by wvs — June 17, 2018 @ 10:31 am

  7. Thanks, J, for a wonderful summation, especially the part about what some might call male fragility. To clarify a bit, while I do think male allies need to shut up and listen (BTW, I’m the person that said so), I meant that comment more for the men in the room who are NOT allies (regardless of how they might think of themselves). I meant it for those who use the priesthood voice to patronize, intimidate, and silence, for those who think their exercise of power over others (particularly women) is righteous, good, and necessary. I do realize I came off as pissy, but I meant to. Women have been asking politely and, as one colleague said to me after the luncheon, “we have not moved the conversation in 40 years.” I’m tired of being polite. I’m tired of being “tamed” by the vain hope that someone whose feelings are not hurt will listen better than someone whose fragility my pissiness might bring up. And, since tenure, I’ve just become less willing to self-censor and cater to the privileged. Ok. Back to lurking.

    Comment by Chris T — June 18, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

  8. Thanks for the further insight, Chris T!

    Comment by J Stuart — June 18, 2018 @ 9:13 pm

  9. This year’s MHA was the most enjoyable I remember attending. The overall atmosphere seemed more relaxed than usual. I agree that Boise turned out to be a great place to meet. Thanks to all the hard-working people who put in long hours to make this a memorable conference.

    Comment by Susan W H — June 20, 2018 @ 6:00 pm


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