Juvenile Instructor

Mormon Studies at BYU: Tactical Retreat? by Jared
November 2, 2007, 1:32 am
Filed under: Jared, Mormon studies

Recently, after a tight vote by the faculty of the BYU History Department, it was decided to furlough the graduate program in history.  Apparently, the struggle for the survival of the program has raged for years.  One of the reasons voiced for the suspension of the program is that the resources devoted to the graduate program can be better utilized on undergraduate education.

As one who is in the process of applying to graduate school, I was first not only surprised, but saddened.  I thought about the important influence that solid grad students, friends, had had (and continue to have) on my education and what I would have done without that influence.  I also wondered about what this would do for Mormon studies.  Understandably, with a preponderance of well respected scholars in Western American, American, and Mormon History, many of the thesis topics have focused on Mormon-related themes.  BYU grad students under this capable tutelage have participate in national conferences such as the Western History Association and gained admittance to prestigious doctoral programs at universities such as Notre Dame.  Because of it’s stellar faculty and having the third best (and probably most under-appreciated) university library in the nation, even with Mormon Studies programs being set up at great schools such as Claremont, USU, The University of Wyoming, and even UVSC, I can’t think of a more fitting place to do Mormon studies than BYU. I find it surprising that after discontinuing the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Latter-day Saint History, the next step has been to furlough the grad program in history.  One non-student friend declared, “Mormon Studies is dead at BYU.” 

Has BYU’s decision crippled Mormon studies?  Or could this be a boon by forcing interested students out to a wider variety of schools and perspectives?  Or, thirdly, will this loss have no effect on Mormon studies?


28 Comments so far
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Jared: I think we need to note the difference between discontinuing a program and furloughing it. The enemies of graduate education at BYU thought they were discontinuing the degree, but they can’t do that without a thorough review. BYU administrators therefore stopped them from formal discontinuance, but these enemies were allowed to furlough it, which essentially places it on hold. There is a possibility, albeit small at this point, that the program will be brought back to life. But this will probably have to wait until the powers that be in the history department and the school of home, family, and social science, who comprise some of these enemies, leave their positions in the next three years or so.

Comment by David Grua

I’d like to think that in the next few years, after these other Mormon studies programs get off the ground and begin to define themselves, that BYU would have to follow suit and bring back the MA program. But it remains to be seen if these new programs will be successful.

In the meantime, I think your second option is the best one for now–that this will force students into other (better) programs that will enable them to think about Mormon studies from within wider paradigms.

Comment by David Grua

That strikes at my heart. Two of my favorite areas, the Library school and the History grad programs have closed.

I remember from my short sojourn at BYU that the humanities seem to exist under a cloud.

Comment by angrymormonliberal

David, thank you for describing the difference between discontinuance and furlough. I have cleared this up in my post. There is some hope yet, and as you mention, hopefully these other programs will begin to develop and BYU will see what they are missing out on.

Unfortunately, I understand that the faculty that have supported the program are the ones affiliated with Western/Mormon studies. So, the people in the know, largely, have always been on board. The people that don’t care/don’t know, might not be brought around by the development of these programs. So, as you mention, maybe the best chance is if some of these take positions elsewhere.

Comment by Jared

While personally I see this is a tragedy in terms of undergraduate interaction with grad students, faculty mentoring grad students, and BYU taking “market share” in the emerging field of Mormon Studies; I would also have to agree with what’s been said above in terms of the opportunity for grad students to go to places other than BYU for graduate work (especially those who graduated from BYU). That fact is that Mormon Studies cannot/should not be a sub-discipline of history, and BYU is not the place to study religion as an academic discipline.

Comment by smallaxe

Not only does this mean (for the time being) that grad students interested in Mormon History will study at other institutions, but they will be central in helping get these programs off the ground (if indeed they choose to attend a university where that’s possible). On the other hand, I think perhaps those in the MA program at BYU right now have a rare opportunity. Via the important work they will do, BYU will hopefully recognize the value of the program.

Comment by Jordan

Smallax, I’ve thought a bit about the issue you bring up about BYU not being the place to study religion academically. In speaking with a Church academic official, the point was raised that though academic achievement is always desired, one of the crowning objectives of Church funded schools is to build faith. As mentioned in a past thread, things like academic Biblical criticism can make well intentioned administrators uncomfortable.

However, as one who not only is a believer in the faith claims of the Church, but one who finds value, even edification in the academic study of scripture/religion, I know that a synthesis is possible. Additionally, having passed through the introductory stages of the revamped Ancient Near Eastern Studies major, I know that there are faithful facutly who engage in serious Biblical criticism and who help guide interested students through it.

I have even heard musings on how a chair in Religious Studies might be formed at BYU. I think that there is hope. For me that hope stems from the conviction that academic study of religion is not fundamentally opposed to faith, and that others can be brought to see that.

Comment by Jared

I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, because I don’t know how the M.A. functions in a field like history. Maybe there is wisdom in focusing resources on something BYU does well, and sending capable students to better programs for grad school. That would also require providing competent guidance to undergrads thinking of grad school.

Comment by Jonathan Green

Jonathan, the problem is that BYU doesn’t train undergraduates to be capable graduate students. It appears that the majority (or at least, a large minority) of undergraduate history majors at BYU are pre-law–an understanding a lot of faculty members seem to understand. Consequently, many history professors don’t attempt to train their undergraduates to be historians. Personally speaking, I had to put forth the effort to let my professors know of my intentions to go on to the MA and PhD level in history in order to receive guidance and help from them.

To be fair, those professors (each one that I can think of) were very helpful and encouraging in guiding me and mentoring me on the way to grad school.

Comment by Christopher

Chis, this has been my experience as well. I have often felt like I am just going through the motions of a class in the department rather than getting training for grad school. However, when I have gone out of my way to interact with professors, or take directed research/reading courses, those have been rewarding experiences. Were it not for interested grad students who are just now treading in the tracks that I’m about to tread, I would be much worse off than I am. It’s not as easy to get together with a handful of professors and chat openly over lunch as equals as it is to do that with persons your own age (or younger in some cases!) who are going through (or just went through) the same types of experiences you are.

So, when it is said that this is for the betterment of the undergraduate population, I have to wonder what the department expects undergraduates in history to do with themselves. On that vein, I don’t remember having been asked ever what would be best for me as an undergraduate. It would seem that if the interests are truly seated in the undergraduate population, that some inquiry would be made to that effect, but I might not expect it if motives are not as transparent.

Comment by Jared

I likewise found little desire among history profs to mentor when I was in the undergraduate program. My mentor was not in history at all, but in the Law School.

Comment by David Grua

The idea though is that with the money (and time) that is going toward the grad program, the faculty can afford to make their undergraduate classes smaller. Perhaps in that situation, profs would have more inclination to help more students.

Comment by David Grua

I imagine faculty also have to work harder to prepare graduate lectures, and they spend more time interacting with graduate students and supervising their research and thesis projects. So maybe they are just being rational agents and voting to shirk? There are few professions in which it is easier to retire on the job (after getting tenure) than academics. This really won’t do much for the reputation of the department, will it?

Comment by Dave

I only now read through the bios and realize that most of you are involved in the Hist Dept, and many at the graduate level. What has your experience been in the History Department as far as doing work in “Mormon Studies”? I got the feeling that some in the department were/are not happy with people pursuing Mormon topics. That they were more concerned with training “historians”, rather than doing the type of work that the religion department is doing (which of course raises the question as to what Mormon Studies is).

I have even heard musings on how a chair in Religious Studies might be formed at BYU.

I have glimpses of optimism as well. Have you read the recent job posting?

Comment by smallaxe

Smallaxe: There are those in the department that don’t like it when grad students do Mormon topics or even when profs do Mormon topics. But there is a large enough group of profs that support what we’re doing—and applaud that we’re seeking to integrate Mormonism into wider frameworks—that we do alright.

Comment by David Grua

I think David hit the nail on the head. There is a fear among many history faculty members when they hear “Mormon Studies” they think of the Religious Ed department. My experience has been that when I’ve explained to these professors my intentions of incorporating my studies in Mormon history into larger issues within American religious history, their attitude has changed and they’ve been encouraging.

Comment by Christopher

Along those lines, I’ve found that when Mormon Studies is brought up, it conjures up images of an insular, amateurish history.

On one occasion I spoke to a professor about a paper I was working on that had Mormon elements. I asked about any resources, books, etc on material culture. He immediately answered that he couldn’t think of anything just then that dealt with Mormon material culture, but that there were other academic works on material culture. I was surprised since I hadn’t asked for studies of Mormon material culture, but just material culture with the intent of tying the paper to a larger narrative. This wasn’t the last time either. So, I’ve found that I have to go to extra lengths to explain what it is I’m doing and what it is I hope to accomplish.

Similarly, when discussing my interest in Mormon History, though I have in my mind an academic study that places Mormonism in a larger context, what comes back is “There aren’t many jobs for Mormon historians”. So, I’ve had to revamp my words to match my thoughts. I’m interested in American Religious History, or Western American Religious History.

So, it seems that there’s still a bit of a mind block when “Mormon Studies” is mentioned. Perhaps once “Mormon Studies” has been established as an academic discipline by these budding programs, this perception will be overcome.

Comment by Jared

Thanks for the response. I have no doubt that BYU has excellent historians, and that they can train others to be good historians. On another related note, do you see Mormon Studies (in terms of what it should be) as anything more than good history? In other words, should it incorporate anything from other disciplines? If so, what from which ones?

Comment by smallaxe

Smallaxe: I see Mormon studies as encompassing more than just history, but also religious studies, sociology, anthropology, literary criticism, among other disciplines. I personally incorporate religious studies, sociology, and literary criticism in my work. I think that interdisciplinary work is key.

Comment by David Grua

I remember when I was applying for History graduate programs back in 2004 that the professors at BYU told me that I would be better off in USU’s MA program than at BYU. Maybe they have been thinking about this change for quite a while. Truthfully, I don’t think members of the academy take Mormon scholarship coming out of BYU very seriously. It carries the stigma of religious bias that even Bushman has had to face. I might be biased, but if good Mormon history students succeed at other prominent history programs throughout the United States it will make a much more important contribution to the historical world. By the way, a MA in history is almost useless in the historical profession, but it can be quite attractive for a variety of other professions.

Comment by Joel

Joel: Did you end up going to USU?

Comment by David Grua

Joel, I think everyone here understands that the purpose of a MA in history (from whatever University) is to use as a springboard to a PhD program. I agree that USU’s program has a better reputation than BYU’s, which is unfortunate since BYU probably has a superior faculty.

To me it seems that discontinuing the graduate program in history will only contribute to the stigma of religious bias BYU carries around. The way to change that perception would be to put the necessary resources into it and produce quality scholarship (or in this case, quality students ready to go on to quality PhD programs).

Comment by Christopher

Sorry to keep the questions coming, but I’m delighted to find such a great group of young scholars coming from BYU’s history department.

I see Mormon studies as encompassing more than just history, but also religious studies, sociology, anthropology, literary criticism, among other disciplines. I personally incorporate religious studies, sociology, and literary criticism in my work. I think that interdisciplinary work is key.

Has the faculty been supported of interdisciplinary work? I believe there was a scholar in the past who graduated from Wisconsin’s Buddhist Studies program, and taught in the history department, and it didn’t seem like a good fit. This leads me to believe that they have a rather strict notion of “history” and “historical training”.

Comment by SmallAxe

SmallAxe, it really depends on the professor. Like any history department, there is a diverse mix of strict, more traditional historians and those open to incorporating interdisciplinary approaches in tackling historical issues. My current research relies heavily on religious studies and incorporates cultural anthropology with more traditional historical methods. My thesis committee has been very encouraging of this interdisciplinary approach.

Comment by Christopher

Oops. “supportive” that is.

Comment by SmallAxe

SmallAxe: I took a class from Ken White as an undergraduate, History of Buddhism. He was one of my favorite professors, but I know he struggled in the department. From the little he shared with me, it was a problem with being able to publish enough to satisfy the tenure nazis, since there are only like four academic journals that he could publish with and only small presses. He did end up publishing a translation, but I guess that that wasn’t enough. He’s not alone though. The department has a hard holding on to its Asianists.

With Chris, I’ve been encouraged to do interdisciplinary work. My committee has been very supportive of my approach. My introductory thesis course was taught by one of the more traditional historians that Chris mentions, and he did make a few comments about how screwed up psychohistory is (apparently a veiled hint about all interdisciplinary work), but when I asked him straight up after the class if he disapproved of my work, he reassured me that he thought that interdisciplinary stuff “had come a long way” and that he supported my endeavors.

Comment by David Grua

Reading this post and the comments, I have to wonder about graduate studies at BYU at all. It has long been my impression that BYU didn’t do much in graduate studies, outside of professional programs like Law, Accounting and Engineering. Are there any significant graduate programs at BYU that are not professional schools?

To me, this is one of those (admittedly unstated) definitions of BYU’s mission. Its essentially an undergraduate institution. The proof of this lies in the loads that professors take. In almost every class (including the most basic), professors are teaching, not graduate students, like you find at institutions with substantial graduate programs.

I’m no expert in how university educations work, but with this kind of structure and assumptions about faculty workload, how can BYU be anything but an undergraduate institution.

As for what this means for Mormon Studies, I’m not nearly as pessimistic as many of those here. As David Grua observed, Mormon Studies is essentially interdisciplinary, and the lack of a history graduate program won’t slow things up that much. From what I’ve seen, BYU’s history faculty aren’t a large source of Mormon History research in any case — academic Mormon History comes more from BYU’s Religious Studies than from the history department.

As for the library, as much as I admire the library and am impressed with the facilities, the third in the country claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It turns out that it is from the Princeton Review, and is based on student’s views of the facilities where they attend. I don’t think many students have an opportunity to make comparisons, let alone have the knowledge of what’s available in facilities and technically to judge.

From the library professionals I’ve talked to, the sense I have is that BYU’s budget puts it squarely in the middle of the 2nd tier of libraries, in terms of purchases for their collection. And while facilities are important, I don’t think they are as important as whether or not the library is likely to have the materials you need.

And without a graduate-school focus, I have a hard time seeing how BYU would ever see the need to spend the $$$ needed to build a 1st tier collection.

Comment by Kent Larsen

The graduate programs in the sciences are quite good, but you’re right about BYU’s overall undergraduate focus.

I suspect one of the contributing factors to furloughing the grad program is that it seemed like applicants were less interested in “proper” history and more interested in Mormon Studies, which rubbed some of the faculty the wrong way.

Any thoughts?

Comment by Jen

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