This past Friday and Saturday I attended a very enjoyable conference at Southern Virginia University, co-sponsored by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and the Mormon Scholars Foundation. Thirty-six presentations on literature, art, history, philosophy, political thought, the scriptures and more made for a stimulating intellectual menu and many lively discussions (PDF program here). It was also a great chance to see old friends (including T&S’s Nate, Rosalynde, and Jim, and some other bloggernacle regulars), and build new connections.
SVU did a great job of hosting the conference, with most of the sessions held in the charming old Main Hall, with its hard-wood floors, high ceilings, tall windows, and gracefully curving exterior walls. While the concurrent sessions forced tough choices of which presentations to see, they allowed a large number of presenters, which is valuable at a conference that includes so many different fields. As much time was allotted for discussion as for the presentations themselves, and the discussion time was put to good use. The strong attendance showed that the Mormon Scholars Foundation’s support for student travel was very welcome.
I was particularly impressed with Candice Wendt’s talk, using Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” to drive reflections on the meaning of nature, and John Armstrong’s talk on happiness as the “object and design of our existence”, drawing on insights from Plato, Aristotle, and Joseph Smith. Adam Miller’s reading of Ether 12 brought together the context of war and the brother of Jared’s experience at the veil to give a provocative interpretation of what it means to come to the Lord in weakness. Current MSH President George Handley’s suggestion that Christ always appears as a translated being (e.g. the Word made flesh) showed yet again that being at BYU does not automatically make you boring!
The Association of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities is new, and one of the main topics of the business meeting held over breakfast on Saturday was the direction and goals of the organization. Some were more excited about simply opening more opportunities for intellectual exchange on Mormon themes. Others emphasized the need for helping graduate students and young scholars with professional development. I gathered that for some attending this was their first experience having such an ambitious and open intellectual discussion of Mormon themes in a formal context. In some ways the fact that it was essentially a conversation among believing Mormons made the conversation feel more free. Questions of “for” and “against” at a basic level were set aside, and we were able to explore the possibilities of Mormon thought at a high level of sophistication. The same is true at the meetings of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, and was true at last year’s conference on Faith and Knowledge at Yale (with some differences), but for those working in literature and the arts, perhaps there is a demand that at the moment only MSH can meet on a regular basis.
For those of us who already have outlets for intellectual exchange on Mormon themes, the need for support of graduate students and young scholars for networking, mentoring, and possibly fellowships/scholarships may seem more urgent. I have been fortunate to land in a tenure-track position at a good school, and my graduate school (Notre Dame) was a pretty comfortable place for a Mormon. My sense is that the road to the tenure-track job is more difficult for many LDS students, especially those with family responsibilities. The Faith and Knowledge conference last year was designed for graduate students, and hardly anyone else was allowed to attend. This made for an especially free atmosphere of discussion, but also a sense of isolation from people and institutions that have been doing Mormon Studies of one sort or another for some time. This past weekend, something like half of the participants were students, with the remainder including both younger and more established scholars, and scholars from a wide range of institutions, including BYU. This is a very nice mix for helping students find intellectual fellowship, which is as important as anything for success in an intellectual career. In the long run, though, success for most of these students will be based on intellectual work and relationships that have nothing to do with Mormonism.
I will be watching with interest as MSH works to settle a firmer interpretation of its mission.