Interpretations: MSH at SVU

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.

15 comments for “Interpretations: MSH at SVU

  1. Kristine
    May 20, 2008 at 8:43 am

    Ben, thanks for the summary. I desperately wanted to go, but my kids had performances that fell into the “If You Miss This, Their Therapists Will Hear About It Someday” category.

    Are there plans to publish the proceedings? Or are participants planning to submit papers to Dialogue (please, please, please, please, please!) or BYU Studies or JMH, or will they find homes in other academic journals?

  2. DavidH
    May 20, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Kudos to the organizers and presenters. It was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating conferences I have ever attended.

  3. Ben
    May 20, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    I agree with Ben and DavidH: my wife and I had a wonderful time at the conference. As one of the students in attendance, I appreciated the great minds and engaging discussions that were present.

  4. May 20, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks for the write-up.

  5. Ben S
    May 20, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    As one of the few (only?) student in attendance at both, the Yale conference last year was quite different. At MSH, there was a lot more literary focus, with presenters and questioners casually tossing around “post-structuralism” and Gadamer vs. Ricoeur (or some such.) As a non-literary person, I felt somewhat out of place, but it was still quite enjoyable. Quite the passel of bloggers in attendance too.

  6. Ronan
    May 20, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Quite the time for Mormon scholarly para-groups. Cue plug for the European Mormon Studies Association in Finland in August!

  7. Ronan
    May 20, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Except it’s .com! (Idiot! The URL is, after all, registered in my name.)

    [We edited it for you.]

  8. JamesK
    May 20, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I’ve been lurking for a while and I suppose now is a good time to post.

    Ben, thank you so much for the report. I really, really wanted to attend this but could not due to scheduling conflicts. I know George fairly well from my time at BYU. He is a great guy. I am currently at Vanderbilt and there is a large contingency of Mormons in my department. (In the past six years there have been seven LDS students in a program of 30. Another was just accepted for this next year. I guess they love Mormons here.)

    Several of us had talked about doing a road-trip to SVU but it never got passed the talking stages. I will definitely attend the next conference. I would love to tap into the network of Mormons in the Humanities, especially those that are currently in grad school or that deal with Latin America. Anybody?

    (Oh, and Kristine…I\’ve met your father and I know your brother. You have a great family.)

  9. May 20, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    I had a year and a half of institute classes from Adam Miller (one of the presenters you mentioned) in Dallas and it was a teriffic experience. That would have been a fun conference to attend.

    Thanks for the report.

  10. Jonovitch
    May 20, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    I consider George Handley a close friend (even though I haven’t seen him in a couple years), and I can state that he is definitely *not* boring. He’s one of my favorite people and a genuinely nice guy. If you have the chance to meet him, listen to him, or read his book (not-subtle plug for “Stewardship and the Creation: LDS Perspectives on the Environment” — find it on Amazon or at Seagull) go for it.

    I didn’t know he’s the president of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities, but that doesn’t surprise me at all.


  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    May 20, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Re #10–Jonovitch: I just checked the BYU Bookstore–Handley’s book is ON SALE for only $9.99! (vs. the regular price of $29.99). It is billed as a symposium that was held at BYU.

  12. Jonovitch
    May 20, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    I hope it stays on sale until I’m out there next month. I thought it was a brilliant idea when I heard him talk about it a few years ago, and I’ve been waiting a long time to see the final product. Bishop Handley, if you’re reading this, I’ll see you in June, and I’d like a signed copy, please. :)


  13. May 20, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    I can’t even begin to express how impressed I was with SVU and its faculty and beautiful campus. Those of us who live in the desert sometimes forget why it took years to clear the trees and underbrush instead of a week-end. All of the presentations were excellent. I was especially impressed with the discussion of the visions of Julian of Norwich discussed by both Sheila Taylor and Jenny Rytting. Bruce Jorgensen’s presentation asking if there really is anything distinctive about a Mormon hermeneutic was also really outstanding.

    I was impressed by the struggle and challenges of bigotry and prejudice that many young Mormon scholars confront in the academy. As a constitutional lawyer, I sometimes forget that the silent prejudice by those who hold power of the paycheck and tenure track really control the academy and what is within bounds for discussion. Openly hostile and radical views are accepted as commonplace. The irony is that an atheistic professor has no qualms about attacking his students’ religious beliefs; but a theist must remain muzzled and honor the space of religious speech as second-class citizens. At least, that was a theme I often heard in the undertow of the discussion. Did I hear it correctly?

  14. May 21, 2008 at 1:22 am

    Ben, some of the papers looked very interesting. Will they be made available and were the sessions taped like the SMPT ones?

  15. smb
    May 21, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks for the summary, Ben. As someone with very limited prior exposure to either BYU or SVU, I was very impressed with the scholarly and religious output of the group who assembled there. The sessions were not taped. George suggested that someone ought to pursue a mode of publication for selected papers, but as I recall nothing has been done formally to that end.
    I enjoyed the paper on humor and laughter among the LDS.
    Ben S, you weren’t alone in not being a disciple of lit-crit/critical theory. Still, it was wonderful to see how people expressed their faith even through the language of critical theory.
    John Armstrong was a wonderful host.

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