Scott Hales is a literary critic, Ph.D. student, writer and all-around Mormon culture raconteur. He was one of the brains (and brawn) behind the Mormon Lit Blitz, he blogs about Mormon literature and other stuff at The Low-Tech World, and also writes for Modern Mormon Men. He just finished teaching Mormon literature to non-LDS college students and graciously agreed to an interview about the experience.
For our readers who weren’t aware of this project, tell us briefly about how you came to be teaching a unit on Mormon literature and how it fits into the overall context of the class.
About a year ago I submitted a proposal to the English department for me to teach a 200-level Topics in Literature class called “American Religious Landscapes.” The basic idea behind the class was to look at fiction that explores the ways religion attaches itself to landscapes both concrete and abstract. I had just finished an independent study on Mormon fiction for credit toward my degree, so I was looking for an excuse to try out some of my ideas about Mormon literature on a captive audience.
At the time, a lot of my ideas focused on how Mormon fiction often suggests ways to reimagine the boundaries Mormons set around themselves. So, I found myself thinking a lot about Mormonism and its literature as a landscape or network of landscapes, which seemed appropriate considering how Mormons from the very beginning have tried to establish a strong physical presence with planned cities and temples. I also found myself looking at the way other religious groups do much the same thing. I figured that while Mormons are a peculiar people, they’re not that peculiar in their desire to stake their claim on the land.
As a PhD student, I’m normally consigned to teaching bottom-level composition courses, which aren’t really my thing. Every academic year, though, doctoral students are given the opportunity to propose a 200-level literature course and teach it as long as the proposal gets accepted. So, I submitted the proposal for “American Religious Landscapes,” indicating that the class would look at literature by or about Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, and other religious groups in America. I didn’t hear back from the department for several months, but I eventually got word that it had been accepted and scheduled for the Spring quarter 2012.
Throughout the whole process, I kept my blog updated on matters such as story selection. My readers always provided great feedback and support. They even influenced some of my decisions.
Before we dive into the class reactions, I want ask this: what were you hoping for? How were you going to define for yourself whether or not the Mormon fiction unit was a success?
From the beginning, I wanted to show that Mormon fiction could stand on equal footing with the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, Bobbie Ann Mason, John Updike, and other established American writers who are also on the course reading list. I was pretty sure going into the course that Mormon fiction could hold its own, but I also knew that my love for the stuff made me a little biased. So, in a sense, I wanted to prove to myself–and especially to any naysayers out there–that Mormon literature is not only on par with the best of contemporary American fiction, but also sophisticated enough for the college classroom.
Interestingly, several months ago, I was teaching the Book of Psalms to my Early Morning Seminary class, and I thought it would be a good idea to bring in Fire in the Pasture and read a few contemporary Mormon poems to my students. So, I read them a few poems by Susan Elizabeth Howe and others–good poems by good poets–but my students refused to take them seriously. In fact, after I finished reading, one student even made the comment that she didn’t think the poems were good enough to be published anywhere but in a book of Mormon poets–as if “Mormon” were somehow synonymous with “mediocre.”
Now, I understand that my seminary students–all of whom are very smart–are no experts in contemporary American poetry. I also understand that this happened at 5:30 in the morning, a time when the aesthetic judgments of most people are significantly impaired. Still, I think their response to Fire in the Pasture is fairly typical of that of many Latter-day Saints who refuse to believe that Mormon artistic output can be anything but mediocre. It’s a critical trap that even well-read Mormons fall into. I don’t want to generalize, of course, but I think we need more people walking the walk and less people talking the talk, so to speak. Too often, the well-read Mormons who are criticizing Mormon literature are often not very well-read in Mormon literature. One should read at least one (maybe two) Mormon novels, short stories, or poems published in the last five years before he or she says or writes anything about Mormon literature. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to ask.
So, getting back to the question, success was always about proving to myself that Mormon fiction could pass as legitimate literature. As a teacher, I wanted to see a seamless transition between Updike and Levi Peterson–and I think that’s what I got. When it came to discussing and analyzing Mormon stories, my students didn’t have to do any critical stretching. The stories were rich enough on their own.
You’ve written several posts about the process of selecting works for the class to read (and even got help from some of us in the Mo-lit community). Both in that process as well as in how the course went were there any obvious gaps that came up? Moments where you thought, I really wish I had a story that dealt with that aspect of Mormonism or an essay that addressed a particular issue related to Mormonism? Where are we thin with Mormon narrative art?
There are gaps in Mormon fiction, of course, but I think its in good shape considering how young it is. Still, we don’t have a whole lot of stories from non-white or non-American perspectives. We also don’t have many stories–not in Dispensation, at least, which is the textbook we used–that deal with Mormon interactions with non-Mormons. What we have a lot of, I think, are stories about the tensions within Mormon communities–Mormon vs. Mormon stories. As a teacher of non-Mormon students, I wish we had a few that looked more at the tensions between Mormons and their neighbors–especially as they exist outside of Utah. If I were to teach this unit again, I might seek out more stories about Mormon/non-Mormon tensions and relations. Dispensation has a few stories that come close to exploring this tension–stories like Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” and Coke Newell’s “Trusting Lily”–but not any that I found really satisfying. What I’d like is something like Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead in short fiction form, twenty pages or less. I’d love to see how my students would respond to a work like that one, which I had a chance to see when I was in Utah for the AML conference. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine their responses to that kind of story would draw upon their own experience as observers of Mormonism, maybe bring out more their ideas on Mormonism’s relevance to the broader, pluralistic community.
What was the biggest surprise you experienced in teaching Mormon literature to non-LDS students?
Aside from the shock of walking into class on the first day of the unit and seeing everyone with copies of Dispensation on their desks, the first big surprise I had was seeing how seriously everyone took the unit. Part of me, after all, was really worried that they would be somewhat suspicious of Mormon fiction and even fail to see how it was relevant to the course and question why we were reading it. But that never seemed to be the case. On the whole, they treated Mormon fiction like any other kind of fiction–which is exactly what I wanted them to do.
I guess what surprised me was how many of them really took the time to learn enough about Mormonism to be able to articulate how the Mormon elements in the work contributed to the story as a whole. One of the most common questions that came up in class discussions was “How is this a Mormon story?” My students, in other words, often made the point that one could easily switch around a few details, substitute elements from other religions for the Mormon elements, and still have essentially the same story. And, to a certain extent, they were right: there’s nothing uniquely Mormon about the family conflict in a story like Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving.” I mean, family conflict is as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and pumpkin pie.
Still, whenever this question came up, I would always ask a question of my own: “What do these Mormon elements bring to the story?” Basically, I wanted to get my students to investigate the Mormon aspects of the story as something more than local color or window dressing. My biggest surprise, therefore, came during our discussion of “Thanksgiving.” We were talking about the relationship between the mother and bipolar son-in-law in the story, and I asked the class if the story had an antagonist or a “bad guy.” One student proposed that Kyle, the son-in-law, was the story’s antagonist, and when I asked the class if they agreed with her, another student raised her hand and pointed out that Alicia, the mother, was more of an antagonist for the way she turned her back on Kyle. “As I understand it,” she said, “when Kyle was sealed to Alicia’s daughter, he was basically sealed to Alicia too. That would mean Alicia was turning her back on her own son.” The comment floored me! Here was a student who was trying hard to see how the Mormon landscape functioned in and contributed to the story. I was very impressed.
If you were to teach a unit on the Mormon experience again, what changes might you make in terms of which works you select?
I had good experiences with each of the stories I taught, although I think I would have prepared students better for a story like Levi Peterson’s “Brothers,” which was the first story they read. Although I don’t think the story is densely Mormon, I did sense a little confusion around the meaning of temple sealings in Mormon culture, which is a major aspect of the story. Once I explained it to them, though, they seemed fine. In fact, that explanation made it much easier to teach other stories later on, like “Thanksgiving” and Lisa Torcasso Downing’s “Clothing Esther.” In fact, I think “Clothing Esther” would have been almost impossible to teach if we had not had the discussions that came out of stories like “Brothers” and even Todd Robert Petersen’s “Quietly.”
I think the students liked “Quietly,” but I felt I did too much of the talking during our discussion of it. I had just returned from presenting a paper on “Quietly” at the AML conference, so I had a lot to say about the story. Looking back on the class, I wish I had let them take the discussion more to where they wanted to take it rather than where I wanted to take it. On the last day of the unit, I decided to offer my opinion less, which turned out to be a good thing. That was the day we discussed “Thanksgiving” and “Clothing Esther,” and the students brought a lot of good ideas to the table. They even ended up teaching me some things about the stories.
Of the six stories we used in class, my favorite was Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work,” which I would use again. Based on student responses, I’d also reuse “Thanksgiving”–which seemed to be their overall favorite–and Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves.” As I mentioned earlier, though, I might look around and try to incorporate more stories about Mormon interactions with non-Mormons–something that could get students thinking about Mormons as a community within a community. I’d like to use Todd Robert Petersen’s “Redeeming the Dead,” for example, or really anything from Long After Dark. Maybe that’s the book I’ll use for my next attempt at teaching Mormon fiction.
Finally what tips do you have for anyone who might be teaching a Mormon literature unit or workshop or course in the future? (Or someone who simply wanted to introduce Mormon literature to non-member friends or family members)
If you’re thinking about incorporating Mormon literature into your class, and have a good reason for doing so, do it. In many ways, I designed my current course around my desire to teach Mormon literature, and I was surprised by how easy that was to do. As my students kept pointing out during our Mormon unit, Mormon literature is not that different from other kinds of religious or minority literatures. Even a story like “Clothing Esther,” with its heavy Mormon elements, is not inaccessible for non-Mormon readers who take the time to learn enough of the language of Mormonism to get by. When it comes down to it, Mormons and non-Mormons are pretty much interested in the same kinds of ideas and themes. I think teaching Mormon works alongside non-Mormon works helps to bring that out.
Other tips: Teach good, well-crafted stories. Begin with stories that help teach the language of Mormonism to non-Mormon readers (Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work” is a good example) and move on, if you choose, to more densely Mormon stories. Find a way to make it relevant to the course and, if possible, to your students’ experiences. Let the students discover the stories on their own and allow their questions to guide your discussions. Don’t try to drown them with Mormonism. Give them what little they need to navigate the Mormon landscape and turn them loose. They’ll surprise you with what they find.
Also, ignore the haters. Mormon literature is a valid field of study for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It can hold its own in the classroom. Don’t let anyone lead you to think otherwise.
32 thoughts on “Scott Hales on teaching Mormon literature”
I’ve been teaching an essay by Marden J. Clark lately (albeit with the Mormon elements stripped out, since they’re beside the point), and I’ve had Mormon options for choice assignments, but I have not done anything so explicit as this (except a guest lecture at the Berkeley Institute) (and the time I had my AP kids workshop my Stephenie Meyer essay). I have to admit I’m a bit nervous about getting any more Mormon than I already am at a public high school.
“Still, I think their response to Fire in the Pasture is fairly typical of that of many Latter-day Saints who refuse to believe that Mormon artistic output can be anything but mediocre. It’s a critical trap that even well-read Mormons fall into.”
I know this has been talked about before, but I think one of the problems is that LDS literature is a small body of work and there’s many well-read LDS readers who have no idea that there’s Mormon writers besides what they see at Deseret and Seagull or the Sci-fi/fantasy/YA writers (Card, Meyers, Condie, Hale etc.)
I’m not sure if it’s a matter of LDS readers being close-minded like your seminary students or if LDS readers are like myself and several of my friends who simply hadn’t been exposed to Thayer, Peterson or even Udall etc. until recently.
Maybe it’s a combination of the two?
This is wonderful, Scott. I wish I had been in the class. If you teach this again, or can do it independently, I think it would be wonderful to put together a course like those available on iTunes U and the similar course archives out there.
I especially love your comparison of your seminary student’s reactions to Mormon poetry to the reaction of your non-Mormon University students. That says a lot.
Since I’ve just been called as a Seminary teacher for next year (teaching New Testament), I’d love to add Mormon poetry, stories, etc. to my lessons — like I’ve been trying to do on Times and Seasons with the Sunday School Book of Mormon lessons this year ( see Literary BMGD).
Th., I understand your hesitation. I’d be very cautious about bringing religion into a public high school in any form also.
Joy, I think another aspect of this is that Mormonism doesn’t have any way to teach members what literature is available. Most American teenagers recognize the classic works of American literature because they learn about it in high school. LDS readers don’t have anything like that. The main way they discover what is available in LDS literature is through seeing what is for sale at Deseret Book.
Yeah, most people’s favorite books, I’ve noticed, are books they were forced to read in high school. Because they know it’s okay to like them? Because they’re the only books they’ve ever read?
Responding to Theric: it’s not my experience that people’s favorite books are those they were forced to read in high school. In fact, those pretty consistently are the least favorite books of people I know. But then, I tend to know people who read sf&f, who (a) do in fact read books not assigned to them, and (b) typically have tastes that are rather at variance from the standard fare in high school lit classes.
A lot of it simply comes down to tastes, which is typically a product of predilections, prior experience, and training. For example, I suspect that the reaction of Scott’s seminary students may be due less to snobbishness and more to a lack of training in appreciation of modern poetry. Even now, I personally find it difficult to appreciate a poem on first exposure. All the more so for poems that don’t conform to students’ ideas of poetry, which are likely to be highly formal and traditional. To know for sure, you’d have to have them read comparable modern poetry from non-Mormon sources, and see if they liked it any better. Or run blind tests where they didn’t know (or were told falsely) which poetry was from Mormon poets and which was not, and see which they rated higher.
I think Jonathan is right pointing out that my students’ reactions were probably a from a lack of training and exposure to contemporary poetry. What interested me about the experience, though, was no so much their dislike for the stuff, but more their assumption that it was not “good” because it was “Mormon.” Maybe if they had been more familiar with contemporary poetry, they wouldn’t have jumped to that conclusion–but I find it very interesting that that is the conclusion they first jumped to.
I think Joy is also right in pointing out that a lot of people don’t know about quality Mormon literature, so their judgments are only based on what they know, which is usually the Deseret Book catalog or Twilight. I think tied to that idea is the fact that a lot of people don’t even think to look–and, as Kent points out, we aren’t given a whole lot of opportunities to talk about Mormon literature in the Church. This hasn’t always been the case, but it is right now. Th’s use of the Marden Clark essay is interesting because it comes from the Ensign, which used to run the occasional article on Mormon literature and arts. That doesn’t really happen so much these days, but I sometimes wonder if that’s because people have stopped trying to submit articles like the one Th. cites.
Of course, as Th.’s experiences show, there are certain venues where Mormon literature can be presented to Mormons, like in an institute class for LDS college students. I imagine the Berkeley Institute is probably more open to Mormon literature than others, but I think the example shows that we can be creative in the ways we try to present Mormon literature to the Saints. I keep trying to get my ward’s Relief Society book club to read Bound on Earth, but their biggest complaint is that it’s not in our local library and no one wants to shell out the money to buy it. So, it again becomes a matter of easy access, which touches on Joy’s comment.
Perhaps the most obvious way to expose Mormons to Mormon literature is to teach it in general education literature classes at church schools like BYU. From my understanding, though, Mormon literature is not taken very seriously at BYU.
In addition to Mormon literature taught in GE-level classes, what else would you like to see?
I’d like to see it as a required class for all English majors…but that’s probably asking too much. I know it is sometimes taught at the 300 level at most Church schools and UVU, which is hardly something to complain about.
Mostly I’d like to see more enthusiasm about it from Mormons who are in a place to make a difference. How to make that happen is, of course, matter for a never ending debate…
There was that year that Ed Geary’s Goodbye to Poplarhaven was one of the texts for freshman English, along with other coming-of-age novels like The Deerslayer and The Chosen. And the students liked it. Of course, it’s not really a novel per se, but definitely quality Mormon literature. (Scott, if you haven’t read it, that one should go on your reading list, as something similar to — but in my opinion better than — Doug Thayer’s Hooligan.)
For myself, I’d like to see the BYU administration and English Department (and other literature departments) providing more institutional support for the Mormon literature database and for activity in organizations such as the AML. A good start would be for the Mormon literature course to be taught more than once every two years. And getting a substitute for Richard Cracroft to write the Book Nook section in the BYU Magazine. Heck, willingness to let them hold Life, the Universe, and Everything on campus.
Speaking of, all us alumni need to complain again because the most recent issue of BYUM didn’t have books.
It may be because I teach high-school Engliah and so people need to tell me what respectable books they love, but I genuinely know people who really haven’t read books since high school—or at least not in a way that lets them recognize the books as having literary merit. If you don’t keep your analytical skills sharp, you may not realize that what you’re reading today can hold it’s own with Animal Farm or Mockingbird.
This reaction is really beyond my point. I’m merely saying that because of high school English we all have a basic understanding of American literature, not that Mormon lit needs to be taught there. We simply don’t have many ways for passing on that there IS good Mormon literature.
And, Th (11), I think we reported here some time ago that Cracroft would stop writing the Book Nook column — I don’t think there has been books in BYUM since. And, I agree, we do need to complain about it.
As of last September, they were planning to continue the column:
Also, I believe that their lead time is at least six months, so this only means that six months ago they didn’t yet have a replacement. However, I imagine that some alumni nudging in the right corner couldn’t hurt.
I hadn’t thought about the lead time. That is a very good point.
This was a fascinating read.
And thanks for the shout out about _A Roof Overhead_, Scott! It’s been interesting to note the wildly different reactions to that play, in large part because it did deal with the conflict between Mormons and the outside world. There were people who had a beautiful, cathartic experience with it, but there were others, Mormons and non-Mormons, who struggled with it. I found the ones who struggled usually had taken a “side” and were upset with how that side had been portrayed and how they played into the conflict. I had one reviewer call it “Mormon apologetics,” while one of the actresses parents wondered why I hated Mormons so much. Addressing that conflict was as much of a revelation about the audience members as it was about the work itself.
I saw the play with my brother-in-law, a transitioning returned missionary, and I was unsure how he was going to respond to the play. When it was over, we spent the whole drive back to his apartment talking about it and how it presented the conflicts and various voices that constitute them. We had a great time.
I think one of the important things the play does is get conversations and dialogues going. I like to think of it as an example of a play driven by ideas rather than by characters (although I found the characters to be interesting in their own right). For some people this can be a turn-off because it places ideas at center stage rather than humans, but I think it’s an important kind of art that Mormon literature needs more of. Again, it’s the kind of art that gets important conversations going.
I used to like to use the term “didactic” when describing art of ideas, but that word scares people off. I think I would label it…wait for it…”post-Utopian” in the way it refuses to create an idyllic utopian space for the characters. (In my book, utopian spaces are always a cop-out.)True, your characters find a safe space at the end of the play, but I took it as kind of tenuous and shaky. I liked that aspect of the play.
Katya: Thanks for that link about them wanting a replacement for Cracroft. Last I had heard, they weren’t planning to continue the column — I no longer remember what my source was for that. Cracroft’s shoes will be difficult to fill: it would need to be someone with a good tolerance for both the popular and the literary in Mormon fiction, tuned with a fine sensitivity to what active Mormons are willing to consider.
Theric: I agree that part of the problem is that a lot of adults in the U.S. simply don’t read after high school, as numerous studies affirm. But that’s only part. Another part is that many of us who do read also hated much of what we were exposed to in high school. Except for a leavening of Shakespeare, it’s my perception that high school literature curricula are heavily weighted toward American realism and its antecedents and descendants. Viewed from a broad historical perspective, that’s a remarkably narrow literary vein.
Even within that tradition, there are strange prejudices, like the fact that one encounters Stephen Crane, John Steinbeck, and Shirley Jackson far more often than, say, Willa Cather, who I would argue is at least their equal as a stylist and far more broadly enjoyable for people who don’t equate good literature with something that makes you hate people in general — which honestly is how my two older children have come to view what they’ve been fed in their high school English classes, and looking at what they’ve been required to read, I can’t really argue. People with that experience won’t feel any need or desire to think about literature they enjoy in the same category as what they analyzed in high school English.
Re: “A Roof Overhead”…add to that list of reactions those who are firmly one on side and felt like the other side got shafted. I mean, I’m definitely on the Mormon side, but I felt like that poor secular atheist deserved to be left alone in her basement apartment at peace. (But then again, I think it’s more funny than traumatizing to have a gifted Book of Mormon responded to with a copy of “The God Delusion.”)
I suppose you could phrase my reaction as a problem with the depiction of Mormons: I felt embarrassed that they were so defensive (and even aggressive) about minor slights. And *SPOILER ALERT* I was puzzled when they immediately blamed their daughter’s death directly on their tenant’s editorial in the Freethinker Weekly. I mean: who could have known that drunken teenage militant atheist hooligans would be touched so deeply by an amateur article in a minor leftist local?
Which brings me back to Scott’s interview. I think I would struggle to incorporate many of the specific stories you mention into curriculum for non-Mormons because I’d worry too much about what the impression would be on an audience that doesn’t have larger LDS context.
I mean, thanks to the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, many of my little sister’s classmates now firmly believe that all Mormons ride motorcycles, because that’s what the guy did in the ad that played in Columbus. When I was at the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium the second year it was held in Salt Lake, one respondent to a paper on Angels in America asked (in a rather charged tone) what it says about our supposed family values that the main character’s father never gave him a blessing.
So I’d worry that having students read “Brothers” would mean that at least one leaves with the idea that Mormon women are only sexually aroused indirectly through the prospect of supporting their husbands’ member missionary work. And I’d have trouble risking their view of my faith on a story like “Quietly” that has an elder resenting his branch president in Rwanda fourteen years before the church organized its first branch in that country. And I’d be nervous about “A Roof Overhead” lest they think that you can’t voice an opinion around a Mormon without deeply offending him/her.
I would be willing to try out Wm’s “Gentle Persuasions” because I think it encourages people to think into a Mormon world and actively makes it difficult to stereotype. And I’d be willing to try out Eric Samuelson’s “Miracle” because it actively invites readers to think about the main character’s dilemma rather than forming judgements about her community.
With audiences (Mormon and non-Mormon) predisposed to stereotype our Mormon Lit or Mormons in general, I think there are challenges to finding what to share that go beyond the general availability of Mormon Lit.
Thanks, James. That’s a lovely compliment, and it does capture what I try to do when I write Mormon fiction. I know we’re not supposed to be quite so intentional about such things, but I sort of can’t help it because my mind spends so much time in this particular place that, it’s going to come out in my fiction.
I’ll be curious to see what you and others think of “Conference”, which will appear in the next issue of Irreantum (subscribe or renew today). I think it’s trying to do something similar in slightly longer form.
Interestingly, no one brought up the sex in “Brothers.” From their questions, they were more interested in the relationship between the two brothers and the concept of sealing.
I hesitate to base reading selections only on which stories show Mormons in the best light. That smacks a little of evangelism to me. In fact, I was surprised by how non-judgmental the students were about the characters in the story, aside from their partial dislike of the mother in “Thanksgiving.” I think, perhaps, we worry too much about showing the perils of Mormons as human. I don’t think any of my students walked away thinking Mormons are terrible people. I think they walked away with a better understanding of a people often represented with a glossy layer over them. I also think they were generally sympathetic with the flaws of the Mormon characters.
I’m worried about my tone here, so let me preface by saying I’m trying to engage you, James, not attack you.
I’m surprised by what you say, James. I don’t think of you as worrying about placing a diversity of Mormon perspectives in front of a broad audience, but maybe I don’t really understand your goals with your own writing. Do you plan on writing primarily for a Mormon audience. I mean—in the last Irreantum you made a solid case for Mormons writing for Mormons, but exclusively? I don’t imagine that of you.
Using the criteria you’ve listed, would you be comfortable with Scott teaching your “Prodigal Son”?
Let’s assume (and my assumption may be wrong here so feel free to correct) that all of us are talking about teaching Mormon literature that is within a specific set. That is, stories and novels published in/by Irreantum, Dialogue, Sunstone, Zarahemla Books, Peculiar Pages, Parables and Signature.
And perhaps even more narrow: stories within that set that roughly fall under the category of Mormon realism (e.g. no spec fic).
The question is not diversity or not, or “best light” or not — the set of stories we’re talking about is incredibly diverse and none of them are didactic — but rather what facets of the Mormon experience one exposes to non-LDS students. It’s a question about canon and syllabus making, which, to be sure, is a highly charged and contentious problem for all types of fiction, and especially for ethnic literatures. And such discussions are often charged because there are so few opportunities and so many options.
I’d hesitate to draw any sweeping conclusions from Scott’s experience because it’s so rare and unique. A different set of students; a different institution; a different instructor may have led to a very different experience.
I think James is right in that because so many Americans have so few touchpoints with Mormonism and so many of those are filtered through and by those who are not LDS, there is the potential for students to take these minor additional datapoints and generalize from them (which is what the Church wants them to do with the I am a Mormon campaign, of course).
I’m less worried about that, though, than I am simply pleased that Scott was able to teach a 200 level lit course that featured a unit on Mormonism. If I could, I’d create a multiverse where Scott teaches the same unit with the same students but with different stories in twenty or thirty different configurations and then we cross-tab the results.
What a great discussion. And since I’ve been out of the loop (writing more than reading or discussing)I am aghast at the quality of analysis present in these comments compared to thirty years ago! HOOPLA! Astounding progress! I LOVED ROOF OVERHEAD! The kind of “Mormon” lit I always believed should be written. (And that the Little Brown Theatre was lucky enough to host it!) (ON GOLDEN POND, going now, is also fabulous–although not Mormon). We ARE making strides. I SO MUCH appreciate Bruce Jorgensen’s amazing insight and expertise all these years. (Read my HOUSE ON THE SOUND which I had to force publish.) MORMONS (and drooling public) don’t like literature yet, period. I can prove it. Probably of any kind. I’m reading Heidegger’s Glasses, so infinitely better than Twilight. Give me MEAT. Where is it? I think ROOF OVERHEAD came close to bridging the gap. 20 years ahead? 30 years ahead? 60 years ahead? Yea! Thanks, Scott, for the revelation. We will eventually win!
20 or 30 different people like Scott Hales, each teaching a unit like this in their own different classes with their own different students at their own different institutions in our own universe, would be better still (though it would throw off the research validity…).
Which raises the very serious problem of just who is out there promoting Mormon literature and its critical study at American universities. If anything, I think there are actually fewer academics out there doing this kind of thing now than there were 10-20 years ago. Mormon literature has exploded, but Mormon literary scholarship has largely been left to those of us who are essentially well-trained amateurs, without positions from which we could propose and teach courses such as Scott’s.
Wm (23) wrote:
So he should produce an online course? Isn’t that the current method for spreading one professor over a larger group of students?
Jonathan (25) wrote:
Perhaps we should take a survey and see who many are teaching Mormon literature somehow?
I tend to agree. Somehow, the offerings I found when I put together a Mormon Literary Studies bibliography aren’t as encouraging as I’d like. Examining the list in detail agrees with your assessment, I think.
1) I did not mean to say that Scott or anyone else shouldn’t teach those stories. I meant that I would be nervous teaching those stories, because I’d be afraid about my ability to give sufficient and appropriate context.
2) I am definitely not for only teaching stories that present Mormons positively, and want to share works where Mormons struggle (and sometimes outright fail). My problem with teaching a story like “Brothers” is that it plays to stereotypes in a way that could read as satirical or as exoticizing depending on audience context.
A brief analogy. Let’s say that I was teaching in Egypt. I’d be nervous to teach “The Merchant of Venice,” even though there’s great stuff in there, because the stereotype of a merciless, money-hungry, schemingly violent Jew is maybe a little too resonant with continuing cultural attitudes there for my comfort. The stereotypes in that work don’t rob it of its artistic merit, but I think they should be a red flag when working with audiences who don’t already have a balanced, rounded impression of who Jews are and what Judaism is about.
I’m not saying “Brothers” is “The Merchant of Venice,” but I’d be nervous that readers would take some of the jabs at the religious (the bit about the wife “letting him have sex” with her because she’s excited about missionary work, the contrast between his bleak, everyone-else-is-damned view of the world and his brother’s greater mercy, etc.) at face value as representative of standard Mormon attitudes–because those notions of sexual rigidity and self-righteous condescension play to potentially pre-existing audience stereotypes.
Perhaps another way to say this is that I want pieces that have Mormons grappling with human tensions and weaknesses, meaning that I want them to be accessible as humans, not as stereotypes. In “Brothers,” I don’t think Peterson quite decided whether to write a person or a stereotype: the two religious Mormons in there are somewhere between the two. “Quietly” frustrates me because it strikes me as trying to engage with contemporary African LDS experience without actually developing any characters at all or checking in to the real experiences of Latter-day Saints in Africa. If something presents itself as realistic fiction, I guess I do want it to have taken some pains to be realistic.
What I feel like I owe you at this point is a list of works that I think do a good job of making struggling Mormons accessible without stereotyping Mormons (or inadvertently encouraging outside readers with few other reference points to do so). But that’s a bigger project that fits in to a blog comment! So I’ll have to owe you for now, and get back to you when I’ve got a list like that posted somewhere. Hopefully within the next month or two?
If you’d like to post or cross-post it here, James, we can do that.
I’d be interested in seeing the list, too.
It’s funny, but the objections you bring up about “Brothers” never crossed my mind. I selected the story because I wanted to familiarize my students with Peterson’s work since he is, like it or not, one the most influential Mormon writers of the last thirty years. I’m not sure you can label much of what Levi Peterson writes as realistic, unless it’s realistic in the same sense that Flannery O’Connor’s work is realistic. I also like the story, and I’m not sure I agree with the notion of the characters being stereotypical. Are the brothers stereotypical because they represent polarities?
Of course, I get your point about context. Much of Peterson’s writing is satirical and it’s very possible that most of my students missed the satirical aspect of brothers. At the same time, I don’t think the story gave them any false impressions about Mormonism. And, really, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to get into the details. Like I said, we mostly focused on the brothers and how they exemplify the tension between radical free agency and obedience to authority that Terryl Givens points out in People of Paradox.
Pairing it with People of Paradox is probably a great way to give context and frame it as satire rather than realistic description of actual people representative of an actual class of people.
This is exactly why I wanted to make clear that my comment was about what I thought I could pull off, not about what Scott can pull off. 🙂
That makes sense, James, and gets to my intended followup question, viz. would your opinion on teaching these stories vary teacher by teacher.
The answer would seem to be yes.
And I agree with that. It’s why I was leery of Scott teaching “Clothing Esther”—I don’t think *I* could teach it satisfactorily to a nonMormon class.
I’m glad I saved “Clothing Esther” for the very end because it requires more familiarity with Mormonism than other stories. I expected students to get caught up on all the unfamiliar aspects of that story–like temple clothing, temple ceremonies, and garments–but no one seemed too concerned about or hung up on those aspects. They tended to gravitate toward what was familiar to them in the story, like death and human relationships. In the end, I was satisfied with our discussion of the story.