“Ripe Fields, Plentiful Laborers, Few Jobs”: David Howlett in JMH50

By March 23, 2015


Today’s contribution to JI’s Roundtable on the Journal of Mormon History’s 50th anniversary issue comes from longtime friend of (and occasional guest contributor to) JI, David Howlett. David is currently visiting assistant professor at Skidmore College and author of The Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space (University of Illinois Press, 2014). Here he previews his own article published in JMH50, entitled “Ripe Fields, Plentiful Laborers, Few Jobs: The Prospects and Challenges for Early-Career Mormon Studies Scholars.” 


Early career scholars (new PhDs and graduate students) across the country are studying Mormonism in greater numbers than ever before. At venerable institutions like the University of Virginia and Claremont Graduate University, MA and PhD students may even study with experts whose job descriptions include the field of Mormon studies. However, these same early career scholars and their post-PhD comrades face a strange paradox: never before have there been so many opportunities to do original research on Mormonism for so many people who compete for so few paying jobs.

My article in the most recent Journal of Mormon History focused on three ?fields? in which an early-career Mormon studies scholar finds herself positioned: the field of publishing, the field of employment, and the new fields of study in Mormon history itself. For this brief abstraction of my relatively short article, I will only address two of these social fields: publishing and employment.

More than two dozen academic presses have released Mormon studies books in the last five years. Think about that for a moment. There was a time when only one or two presses were publishing such titles. In addition, at least seven journals devote themselves exclusively to Mormon studies in its historical, sociological, and literary dimensions. Major journals in the fields of history, religious studies, sociology, gender studies, and literary studies regularly publish Mormon studies articles. In fact, some of these journals are almost overwhelmed by the number of Mormon-themed articles they receive, causing them to be very selective in what they publish so as to balance their coverage of other topics.

Early-career scholars who may be thrilled with the opportunities they have to publish their work also face a much more sobering reality: there are devastatingly few full-time academic jobs for which they may apply and a glut of highly-qualified PhDs who are searching for work. In our post-recession academic job market, only six or seven full-time jobs in religion in America (the most common field for Mormon studies scholars) are advertised each year on the American Academy of Religion?s job board, and even fewer are advertised on the American Historical Association?s job board. In comparison, there are many times more PhDs who study religion in America who graduate every year. Hiring committees can therefore be extraordinarily selective. Having a published book (or two) on a resume may not even land a new scholar a screening interview with a state university with a direction in its name.

Why the discrepancy between publishing and employment? This bears much, much more thought, but my modest suggestion is that publishers and employers answer to different market concerns and change at different rates. Since 2008, academic publishing houses adapted quickly to take advantage of the ?Mormon moment? with the prospect of making a very modest profit from Mormon studies books. Publishers have also taken advantage of niche consumers, like Mormon readers who are famous for reading books about themselves.

In contrast, academic departments at colleges and universities adapt much more slowly and think decades out in their planning. They have the unenviable task of making their cases for hires to deans and presidents in an era that is trending towards a post-humanities focus, too. Having a Mormon studies expert is not usually a curricular concern at most universities outside of the intermountain West. Of course, there are much larger structural problems in higher education that feed the employment crisis in humanities jobs that directly impact early-career Mormon studies scholars: decreasing levels of government funding for state schools, the outsourcing of tenure-track positions through online education and the specter of MOOCs, the crisis of student debt and the concomitant effects that has on who has access to higher education, and the rise of certain fields of study and the decline of other fields. So much more could be said about the discrepancy between publishing and employment, but I will leave this to others in the comments section or a future post.

Mormon studies has always had a cadre of scholars outside of the professoriate who produce quality academic work. However, never before have there been so many Mormon studies scholars with PhDs in American history or religious studies who do not have academic jobs. It will be with these scholars, as much as those who now work in the academy, to which the future of Mormon studies now lies.

Article filed under Biography Book and Journal Reviews Current Events Methodology, Academic Issues Mormon Studies Courses Pedagogy State of the Discipline


  1. I fear I may have made a tragic mistake about future employment…

    Comment by Ben P — March 23, 2015 @ 9:16 am

  2. David, Have you had a chance to sound out recently tenured professors who publish in Mormon studies? Do they agree with your observations? I agree with Ben that it does sound somewhat bleak … especially the apparent disconnect between academic publishing and academic appointments.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 23, 2015 @ 9:30 am

  3. Thanks for this, David, and for your article.

    Gary, I offer this only as anecdotal evidence, but here’s Spencer Fluhman’s (tenured in BYU’s history department just last year) take on Howlett’s piece in 144 characters:


    Comment by Christopher — March 23, 2015 @ 9:37 am

  4. Just to add: as David implies, this is far from a Mormon studies problem. It is a humanities problem. And especially a history and religious studies problems. Throughout the nation, universities (including the university at which I currently teach) are witnessing their history and religious studies departments shrink substantially. Here at Mizzou, full-time professorships in history have shrunk from 34 to 22 in the past fifteen years. Scary stuff.

    Who woulda thunk that Provosts would be the deciding position for the future of Mormon studies?

    Comment by Ben P — March 23, 2015 @ 9:59 am

  5. Thanks, Christopher and Ben. I’m sure Ben’s right. So what are the viable options? Would you counsel young students to pursue an academic career in the humanities?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 23, 2015 @ 11:21 am

  6. I’d encourage a young student to do a PhD program only if all of the following elements apply:

    1. The student has full funding, or has access to funds that will keep them out of debt.

    2. The student keeps an active awareness of alternative career options, and appropriates their work accordingly.

    3. The student is committed to a job in the humanities in the face of all these absolutely dismal statistics concerning job placement.

    Comment by Ben P — March 23, 2015 @ 11:59 am

  7. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 23, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

  8. Good thoughtful piece, David. While I found a job, I think that if I could go back, I would have made sure to have high school teaching credentials by the time I completed my Masters and worked through my PhD. I am left with plenty of debt and for the past several years I have had a knot in my stomach about the prospects. Having a job through the PhD makes a lot of sense to me. FSU has done a pretty great job getting students hired in the past few years but that includes (recently) being hired in private high schools.

    Comment by Chris B. — March 23, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

  9. […] Chris B.: "Ripe Fields, Plentiful Laborers, […]

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  10. […] M. on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?s Personal Essay David Howlett on his own article on jobs and publishing in Mormon Studies J. Stuart on William Russell?s […]

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