We’re happy to welcome friend of the Juvenile Instructor, Chris Blythe.
Christopher James Blythe is a Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. He is a graduate of the Religious Studies program at Utah State University and previously held a predoctoral teaching fellowship in the department.
Over the next few weeks, the three finalists for the Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture will have visited Utah State University and soon thereafter the hiring committee will make their decision. Their choice will have a far-reaching impact on the Religious Studies program there and, also, because of the legitimacy and funding that such a hire bestows, on the field of Mormon Studies at large. Currently, there are Mormon Studies chairs at Utah State University (est. 2006), Claremont Graduate University (est. 2008), and the University of Virginia (est. 2013). The University of Utah inaugurated their own Simmons Mormon Studies Professorship in 2016. Altogether, there are five tenure-track/tenured professors hired to study the Latter-day Saint tradition. Two years ago, the Religious Studies department at USU announced the donation of one million dollars from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to complement other donations, but also made it clear that funding for the position was still needed. Thus, one of the most positive implications of this search is that the first Mormon Studies chair in the nation is closer to being secured permanently.
The finalists, as announced by the program, are Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University; Sara M. Patterson, associate professor of theology at Hanover College; and John Turner, associate professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. My purpose in writing this essay is not to weigh in on who would make the best Arrington Chair but to consider what could go into the selection of a Mormon Studies Chair. I will occasionally comment on strengths and weaknesses but I do not believe there is any one clear choice. I was, in fact, ecstatic when I heard these three scholars were the finalists for the post. In some instances, I will discuss matters that I hope the search committee will address and what issues I hope we, in the scholarly community of Mormon Studies, consider weighty matters. In other cases, these will be subjects of less importance to me personally but have historically been important in similar hiring decisions.
At the outset, I should state that I feel a deep interest in the Arrington Chair. After learning of Philip Barlow’s initial hiring, I came to Utah State University in the fall of 2007 to pursue a second bachelor’s in Religious Studies. Barlow arrived in the spring and in another semester, I became one of the first graduate students to study under the Arrington Chair. After completing the coursework for my PhD at Florida State University, I received a predoctoral teaching fellowship at USU and returned to spend a year inhabiting Barlow’s office and teaching Mormon Studies and other Religion courses while he was on sabbatical. I am proud to have studied under the Arrington Chair and hope to continue to see excellent scholars hold that post.
The Religious Studies Program and History Department at Utah State University
The first question the search committee may consider relates to their particular departmental needs. We don’t have access to all of what those might entail but to get a better grasp on possibilities, let us consider the chair’s place at USU. In 2006, Utah State University launched the first Religious Studies major in the region. Like many other interdisciplinary programs, Religious Studies at USU has largely depended on cobbling its faculty together from other departments. The program was founded with the hopes that they could add to this number a faculty consisting of endowed chairs representing each of the world’s religious traditions. With the recession, these hopes never materialized beyond the founding of the Charles Redd Chair of Religious Studies and the Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture. A decade later, the program has been able to add three online instructors, one tenure-track position, and a post-doctoral teaching position. Historically the Arrington Chair has taught courses in American Religious History, Introduction to Religion, and other non-Latter-day Saint specific classes. Thus, a background in teaching foundational classes in Religious Studies will be essential.
The Arrington Chair is also seated in the History Department and has historically taught a popular annual graduate course, making it likely that the extent of a finalist’s experience teaching graduate courses will be taken into consideration. The Arrington Chair is also the only Mormon Studies chair that is not connected with a doctoral program. This means that a fundamental role of the chair is to assist particularly gifted students to prepare for doctoral programs elsewhere. On the other hand, many of those who graduate from the master’s program at USU take positions in the Church History Library, as well as other libraries, museums, and historic sites. A well-connected scholar could be beneficial in arranging internship opportunities and employment in the field, as well as assisting in the transition to doctoral study.
Approach to Teaching Mormon Studies
The study of Mormonism in the secular university and at Utah State, in particular, is an unusual experience that requires sensitivity to multiple populations. Because of the University’s geographical location, courses are largely filled with orthodox, questioning, non-practicing, and former Latter-day Saints. Included among this number are many students who served eighteen-month or two-year missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This number also includes students who have grown up in Latter-day Saint homes but did not take to the tradition’s views and in a few instances converts from around the world who have chosen the faith. Students often know a lot of facts about the tradition and are in no short supply of opinions. This student body possesses a certain kind of knowledge that is useful particularly if properly honed by the instructor and also possesses assumptions and historical mythologies that should be interrogated. Because these current and former Latter-day Saint students are the objects of study they understandably can be sensitive to probing. Students are also used to snide and dismissing comments about the area’s dominant faith. The condescending professor will find it particularly difficult to win minds. Thus, the candidates’ approach to the teaching of Mormonism should be given serious consideration. Beyond matters of faith, how a professor deals with the teaching of controversial social issues as they relate to conservative positions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems important. In my experience teaching at USU, these questions more so than matters of faith are prone to arouse tensions.
We are fortunate to have a glimpse of Mason, Patterson, and Turner’s views on teaching about the Latter-day Saint tradition in the classroom. In the 2015 issue of the Mormon Studies Review, each reflected on their pedagogy in short essays. It is worth the read.
One of the most useful ways to determine a candidate’s national presence, as well as their actual scholarly impact, is their level of output. Each of these finalists have published serious scholarship that I consider significant. Turner has presumably gained the widest audience, particularly with the legendary sales of his Brigham Young biography. Mason stands apart in his commitment to Mormon Studies, having written on the widest breadth of subjects. Meanwhile, Patterson’s work is most recognizable as religious studies, employing both ethnographic and historical approaches. While she has yet to publish a monograph on Mormonism, she has a forthcoming study of Latter-day Saint construction of memory in historic sites. Regardless of who in 2019 will move to Logan, each of these scholars have and will substantially contribute to Mormon Studies in the coming years.
The Religious Affiliation Question
In informal conversations about the Arrington Chair, I have found that the question of religious affiliation is the first on many minds. Perhaps the most potentially uncomfortable dimensions in the selection of an endowed chair is the question surrounding its relationship with the community it is designed to study. This has been a matter of significant debate concerning Jewish Studies positions. In the 1990s, the appointment of Thomas E. Bird, a non-Jewish scholar of the Yiddish language, as director of the Jewish Studies department at Queens College led to controversy and eventually Bird’s resignation. Bird cited the “religious bigotry” of some of his peers. While there was a constellation of criticisms against Bird, another Jewish Studies scholar in the program explained that the position “is more than just a teacher. He’s someone who stands for the group.” Comparing the program with other interdisciplinary fields, he explained, “That is why at Queens College the head of the black and African studies program is from Ethiopia, the head of Irish studies is of Irish descent, and the head of Italian studies, Italian American.” Another member of the department added, that a non-Jew “cannot be culturally and emotionally in tune with the students and with the members of the Jewish community.” While this is a significant case where prejudice against an out-group scholar led to his being replaced by an insider scholar, the moment is more significant for the backlash against those who sought to define Jewish Studies as Jewish-only. More recently, there has been considerable resistance to the influence of representatives from the Jewish community (i.e. donors) in the selection of candidates. In 2015, faculty members at Case Western formally opposed the inclusion of two Jewish community representatives on the search committee for a Jewish Studies chair. In any case, this is all to say that there is an ongoing conversation about the nature of a chair’s place in the academy that is tied into questions of identity, funding, and community outreach. It will presumably be on the search committee’s mind.
Of the 5 scholars hired in tenure-track Mormon Studies positions, all have been committed Latter-day Saints. The fact that the vast majority of Mormon Studies scholars come from an LDS background should come as no surprise. This is true also of other traditions within the field of religious studies. In fact, if USU hires someone who is not LDS for the Arrington Chair, it would not only be the first non-LDS to be hired in a tenure-track Mormon Studies Chair position, it would also be the first time that USU Religious Studies has hired a tenure-track professor who is not a member of the faith they study. That being said, I am convinced that the additional benefits that one might suspect would come from hiring a Latter-day Saint to the position would come with the selection of someone who is fully integrated into the Latter-day Saint scholarly community, which leads to the next topic.
Mormon Studies as a Discipline
One of the issues that deserves serious consideration but which could seem less significant to a search committee is the level of candidates’ involvement in Mormon Studies as a discipline. For the past half-century Mormon Studies has built an infrastructure of its own. Perhaps one of the tell-tale signs of one’s fitness for the position is whether they have published in Mormon Studies journals, such as Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Journal of Mormon History, and Mormon Studies Review. Have they held officer positions in Mormon Studies academic associations such as the Mormon History Association, Mormon Scholars in the Humanities, or the Mormon Studies unit at the American Academy of Religion? Have they presented or held memberships in such communities? Activity in the organizations and journals of the discipline has significant implications for determining a scholar’s commitment to Mormon Studies itself, their ability to liaison with the broader Mormon Studies (and even Latter-day Saint) community, and their knowledge as a generalist in Mormon Studies – all essential characteristics of a successful chair.