Mormon literary criticism’s chicken and egg problem

After Scott Hales post here at AMV responding to Michael Austin’s survey of the current state of Mormon literary criticism at the Mormon Studies Review, the two scholars engaged in a back and forth Q&A at the Maxwell Institute’s blog, which mainly functioned as a way for Austin to respond to Hales’ critique of the focus of Austin’s survey. What his responses show is that his primary concern, and why he is focused on peer-reviewed publications, is that for him traditional scholarship is the best measure of Mormonism’s influence on the broader field as well as a signpost of Mormon cultural impact on/penetration in the broader culture and that too much of the current Mormon cultural production (literature and literary criticism) is inwardly focused.

Hales pushes back a little on that emphasis, specifically pointing out the lack of institutional support (especially from BYU) for Mormon literary criticism.

Austin responds with: “This is sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. I have long felt (and I said this in my 1995 article too) that institutional support will follow more peer-reviewed publications”.

I think he is absolutely correct in the case of Mormon literary criticism.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The gains made in the study of non-canonical literatures — Hispanic, Jewish, Greek, LGBT, women’s writing, etc. — at academic institutions came out of direct activism and focus on the community and specific academic resources investment (often hard fought to get) in those fields. Works became canonical and publishing opportunities opened up specifically as a result of that inward focus.

To give an example, and one that he’s probably uncomfortable with, but the pivot that Gideon Burton made towards Mormon literature studies that was unsupported (actively discouraged) by BYU and led to him having to pivot back away from is similar to pivots that were sometimes (but, admittedly, not always) supported in the 1970s/80s, as English professors whose Ph.D. may have been in Renaissance literature or early Modernism began to develop an interest in minority literatures. I don’t have a full accounting of that at my finger tips. And I know that it led to tensions and wars among faculty and between faculty and administration, etc. But it also led to a certain measure of institutional support and then when that proved successful to specific hiring for positions as well as fundraising to support the lecture series, publications, endowed chairs, joint appointments, conference travel, curriculum development, etc. that generate the kind of activity that leads to peer-reviewed essays and book deals with top university presses, etc.

Right now much of the work being done in Mormon literature studies is amateur. It’s very difficult to generate non-amateur scholarly work without some form of support.

I understand that BYU et. al. are loathe to support what is viewed as a fledgling field without much currency in the academic market. But I think if they took a hard look at how cultural studies fields have been legitimized over the past four decades, they’d find that just sitting around waiting for the national figures to appear before they through some weight behind them (and BYU sure is happy to do so when that happens) is a sure way to always be the bridesmaid and never the bride.

Now, I recognize that times have changed in academic and that some of the gains that minority literatures/cultural studies made have since been clawed back, but in that messy process, some gains were permanently made and the larger conversation was changed and most importantly a larger body of work was created as a result.

8 thoughts on “Mormon literary criticism’s chicken and egg problem”

  1. I think we can add the realities of the job market to the conversation as well.

    One thing I’m discovering at this stage in my life is that being an unaffiliated scholar–essentially a brain for hire–leaves little time to do much serious critical work. I spend most of my time prepping for and teaching English composition classes, and what little time I have outside of that I spend writing up extensive job applications or tending to other responsibilities. Publishing in a scholarly journal is a great honor, but it isn’t an honor that pays well–aside from the line in the CV. That’s something, of course, but it doesn’t in itself put food on the table. So its hard in the short term to justify the time away from more financially-rewarding pursuits.

    Michael is right, of course, that the best way to grow Mormon literary studies is to produce a body of work that the academy can’t ignore. But, as Wm suggests, that might only happen at a snail’s pace if support is not forthcoming.

    I should note that a generous grant from the BYU religious studies program partially funded the last year of my dissertation writing, so I don’t think its fair to throw all the blame on BYU. I know BYU doesn’t have a rich offering of Mormon lit studies–but that could be partially motivated by the student body and discomfort with, say, realistic or artistic depictions of Mormonism. I also know that Mormon lit has strong advocates in the departments of all three BYU campuses, so it could be that things will change as we distance ourselves from the Mormon culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. (Saying nothing about current culture wars…)

    At any rate, I’m going to continue seeking institutional support wherever I can get it. And I’m going to keep publishing my work as much and as often as I can, regardless of whether I’ve landed a tenure-track job. I have an article coming out soon in a non-Mormon journal and another article that I plan on revising as soon as I finish up a small creative project.

  2. “The gains made in the study of non-canonical literatures — Hispanic, Jewish, Greek, LGBT, women’s writing, etc. — at academic institutions came out of direct activism and focus on the community and specific academic resources investment (often hard fought to get) in those fields. Works became canonical and publishing opportunities opened up specifically as a result of that inward focus.”

    –Hear, hear, Wm. As my personal act of direct activism, I’m forwarding a link to this post with context to Stephen Bradford, the Vice Chair of the Howard W. Hunter Foundation at Claremont University. Mormon Studies should include MoLit.

  3. Scott,

    You make another great point here. The realities of the job market are basically what forced me out of the Mormon Studies world for fifteen years. It is where I wanted to focus when I came out of graduate school, but it just wasn’t possible. When I finally landed my first tenure-track job, I had to teach four courses a semester–most of it in composition and general studies world literature. And I had to focus what little publication time I had on my official field of study, which was Eighteenth Century British Literature. And then there was the fact that I was in West Virginia and Mormonism was weird.

    It wasn’t until I had tenure that I could get away with editing _Pecurliar Portrayals_. And it wasn’t until I produced two books to satisfy my primary field that I felt comfortable coming back into Mormon Studies and Mormon Literature. It is simply a huge luxury of my current position that I can spent time writing about whatever I want to spend time writing about.

    So I think you are right that, without more institutional support, the movement will be slow. But I think that it will pick up pace very quickly once a few good books are published. This is what happened with Mormon history and even, more recently, with “Book of Mormon as Literature Studies.” It really only took two Oxford University Press books–Givens’ _By the Hand of Mormon_ and Hardy’s _Understanding the Book of Mormon_–to turn that into a field that is now attracting very prominent young scholars, both Mormon and non-Mormon.

    So I figure that we need two books to. How about if you write one and I write the other. Deal ?

  4. the best way to grow Mormon literary studies is to produce a body of work that the academy can’t ignore.

    Not just to continue to produce and publish such work in many different venues, but also 1) to “legitimize” and provide access to the best work that’s already been done in the community and 2) to create and sustain academically rigorous environments that can foster new Mormon lit scholars and scholarship.

    1) The first could in part be done via an anthology of Mormon literary studies scholarship–we sorely need a follow-up volume to Tending the Garden (you’ve mentioned doing this before, Scott; I’d love to help put one together, too)–as well as an online resource that updates and builds upon the Mormon Literature Website’s criticism page by gathering and showcasing (bibliography-style) Mormon lit scholarship, past and present. A recurring series of bibliographic essays that comment on the state of the field might also be useful. The most prominent attempt at this before Austin’s seems to have been England’s “Dawning of a Brighter Day.” (Or am I missing something in the interim?)

    In terms of direct activism for these resources: they could be marketed toward the growing number of Mormon Studies programs, even to any programs/departments that focus on religion and literature

    2) The second could be done via things we’ve discussed elsewhere: a revitalized AML; a Mormon lit course, one module of which could focus on Mormon lit/crit and theory; and a Mormon Literature Seminar (which reminds me: I need to respond to your email, Scott). We could also potentially pursue alternative modes of support to sustain such endeavors: crowdfunding and other fundraising efforts that could pay for different projects and awards.

    Just throwing out ideas beyond publication in scholarly journals (most of which still publish at a snail’s pace) that could help the community acknowledge where it stands and begin focusing attention “outward,” as Austin suggests should be done. This could allow Mormonlit scholars (or potential scholars) to build on what’s been done instead of rehashing the same conversations we’ve been having for 30+ years.

    I know BYU doesn’t have a rich offering of Mormon lit studies

    I’ve heard from multiple sources that BYU actively discourages its professors from studying Mormon cultural products. Whatever that active discouraging has been motivated by, it’s evident in the fact Mormon Studies are being developed by places other than BYU. And even though, as you mention, Mormon lit has strong advocates on all three BYU campuses, two of those aren’t research universities and focus only on undergraduate education.

  5. BYU also sponsors the Institute that generated the scholarly work by Scott and Michael that led to this latest conversation so I agree that there’s not a complete paucity of support. But when I compare it to the support of similar-sized institutions for whichever minority literatures their institution and community have decided to serve, it’s rather weak.

    I also should note that institutional support for anything related to literature these days is complicated and, in many areas, weakening so I don’t think that even if BYU were to suddenly say,”we’re going to do for Mormon cultural studies what [institution A] did for Modern Greek Studies [or whatever other more culture-oriented studies program you want to insert]” and try to follow the same model that has been a boon to these other minority/hyphenated literatures, it still might not work.

    That leads me to Tyler’s comment and changing definitions of scholarly work and legitimacy and technology, but that’s a different post. What I wanted to point out is that other literatures have been down this path and institutions were willing to accept chickens who weren’t perfect with the hope that resulting eggs would be worthwhile.

  6. Michael:

    Your career path has been completely rational in the face of the realities of the academy. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you’re swinging back into Mormon Studies.

  7. Thanks, Luisa. The tricky thing is that this kind of work is more properly located in a literature or cultural studies context rather than a religious studies one, although, of course, there can be cross-pollinating projects.

  8. I, too, am pleased that Michael is finding the freedom to swing back to Mormon studies and the Scott is planning to keep doing what he can, whatever his future holds.

    At the risk of beating a dead horse, with respect to Mormon history and Book of Mormon scholarship, I think it’s worth pointing out that although widespread acceptance didn’t happen until publication from non-Mormon venues, in both cases that event was preceded by substantial institutional support from BYU and/or other Church-sponsored institutions. There was assistance in helping prepare the ground for such nationally accepted work, in a way that there isn’t for Mormon literature.

    The other vexing point — one mentioned by William — is that support from Religious Studies departments and the Maxwell Institute is really no substitute for support from within the College of Humanities and the English department, which is what has not been forthcoming. I don’t know if that’s due to the internal politics of those departments/colleges, the opinions of the administrators who have been set over them, or directives from higher up — or some combination of these — but without that, you don’t have the critical support for courses, determination of what publication counts for tenure, willingness to sponsor events, etc.

    None of which those of us on this blog are in any position to change. So certainly we need to pursue the avenues Michael, Scott, Luisa, Tyler, William, et al. lay out, as we are able.

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