Randy Bott and the Need For Peer Review

The embarrassing appearance of BYU Professor Randy Bott’s unsavory speculations about race in a Washington Post article a few weeks ago will undoubtedly have led some BYU administrators and perhaps even some members of the Board of Trustees to spend a few moments thinking carefully about the way BYU teaches church doctrine.

It is disturbing to find that one of the most popular teachers at BYU has been continuing to teach ugly ideas that were denounced from the highest levels of the church decades ago. Thousands of students have listened to his lectures. This is an institutional failure, not merely a failure in one man’s judgment. There must be some way to keep this sort of thing from happening.

BYU functions effectively as an arm of the LDS church. What BYU professors teach in their classrooms is seen, reasonably enough, as carrying a degree of church authority, both within the university and beyond it. It is vital that this authority be used in ways that lead students (and other church members) to truth rather than error.

It seems to me the Bott case is strong evidence that BYU’s approach to religious education needs revamping. Obviously Bott is just one professor out of over 70 full-time Religious Education faculty. However, his case is so far out of line, and evidently has been so far out of line for so many years, that it raises serious questions about the quality control mechanisms in place.

The two primary quality-control mechanisms in higher education generally are training and peer review. Faculty are normally required to hold a terminal degree in the area they will be teaching. This assures that they start off with essential skills and knowledge. However, this is only the beginning. Faculty are expected to continue to learn and develop over the course of their careers, and they need ongoing quality control, which occurs primarily through peer review.

Now, when I say “peer review,” this may sound strange because it is uncommon at most universities for faculty to sit in on each other’s classes. While there really should be more direct peer review of teaching, too (and not just at BYU), what I am primarily referring to is peer review of faculty scholarship and other professional activity that leads faculty to engage with their peers.

Peer review works because many heads are better than one. Individuals are free to develop creative, even speculative ideas, but their ideas are given little weight unless and until they have been submitted to the peer review process. Scholars present their ideas at conferences, where they hear responses and are expected to answer questions. Work is published only after receiving positive reviews from some of the more reputable participants. Even then, other published responses serve to highlight strengths and weaknesses. Published work is open to refutation by anyone who knows better. This process weeds out the lowest quality work right away, and works with what is of medium quality to refine it. There are sure to be many small missteps along the way, but the peer review process allows obvious errors to be corrected relatively quickly. Critical interaction with peers in this manner also teaches habits of modesty, humility, and care. Scholars learn to distinguish what is tentative or tenuous in their thinking from what is secure.

On matters of doctrinal orthodoxy in a revelatory church, one might be tempted to look at more top-down approaches to quality control. However, these can never take the place of peer-to-peer approaches in an academic context. There is too much going on in a university for top-down regulation to do more than set up a broad space in which faculty and students operate. Learning and inquiry will inevitably raise all manner of questions on which there is no definite answer coming from above. Just as importantly, even on those questions where there is a clear norm from above, only a peer-to-peer process has the bandwidth to keep an academic operation on track.

The peer review process is ideally suited both to an academic environment, where academic freedom is so important for learning and growth, and to a gospel environment, where all are expected to pursue the truth by study, by faith, and by the Holy Spirit, and all are called to do much good “of their own free will” (D&C 58: 27). There is far too much to be done in the process of learning, as in the building of God’s kingdom generally, for us to wait around to be commanded in all things. Rather, the key to success is to set up a culture of good judgment and mutual support and correction. The power of this de-centralized approach is visible in any healthy ward and is arguably one of the chief strengths of the Restored Church, grounded in its doctrines and its inspired organizational principles.

The peer review process serves as quality control for teaching as well as scholarship for a few reasons. First, it works because the products of scholarship serve as the primary sources for teaching. While individual professors offer commentary of various kinds as they teach, the main substance of their courses should derive from texts that have gone through the testing and refinement of peer review.

Second, teaching requires faculty to exercise creativity and personal initiative in both their methods of teaching and in the ideas they present to students. To present material in a way that addresses the needs and questions of students routinely requires faculty to use independent judgment, going beyond what is already established in a textbook. To do this well requires the same skills needed in scholarship. Hence a program that hopes for quality teaching must plan for these skills to be built and maintained through professors’ ongoing involvement in scholarship.

While teaching students, who are less knowledgeable and want to please the professor, it is easy for appropriate creativity and independence over time to drift into overconfidence and complacency, even into irresponsible speculation or self-indulgence. Peer review teaches modesty, forces professors to keep doing their homework, and keeps them informed about the best material available, as well as maintaining their skills and judgment. This is why it is standard at reputable institutions to require professors to be active in scholarship on the subjects they teach, including the peer review process.

Unfortunately, neither of these mechanisms are at work in BYU Religious Education in the way they are in other departments at BYU, or in most any department at other universities of comparable stature.

First I’ll comment on the situation with regard to training. There is no such thing as a graduate degree in Mormon Theology or Mormon Scripture, so BYU Religion faculty tend to hold PhDs in other areas that may have little relevance to the content of the courses they teach. In my brief sampling, quite a few actually held PhDs from other departments at BYU, such as Education or Family Science.

In the near term, there are limits to what BYU can do about the lack of standard training, since it probably would not be practical to send many current faculty back to school. In the medium- to long-term, BYU should be working hard to hire faculty with training that is as relevant as can be. Biblical studies, religious history, and theology, even if it is not Mormon theology, should be high on their list of preferred academic backgrounds. In the study of the Bible in particular, it is not clear that a sound program custom designed to prepare BYU faculty would be very different from many existing programs in Biblical Studies at other universities, and many of the skills taught in these programs should transfer well to the study of distinctively Mormon scripture, whether ancient or modern. There are certainly some ways in which Mormons will interpret the Bible differently from non-Mormons, but a diversity of interpretations, reflecting both individual and denominational differences, is normal in an academic program.

In the long run, BYU should be thinking about ways to fill in the gaps in available training with regard to their needs. Considering that it has a law school and many other graduate programs, it is rather strange that BYU does not have at least a master’s program in distinctively LDS scripture and theology. Of course, to offer a worthwhile graduate program would require high quality faculty and robust quality control processes for those faculty, so there are other issues to address first.

Precisely because the foundation of initial training is often missing, however, BYU should be exercising the method of peer review that much more vigorously, and that means requiring faculty to be active in scholarship. Administrators who are far from both scholarship and teaching may see scholarship as a distraction from teaching, but in my view the benefits of scholarship for teaching are greater than the benefits for scholarship!

Think of it this way: in any serious college class, students are required to write papers or lab reports, or to engage in sustained projects (artistic performance, etc.) that are self-directed to a significant extent. In many subjects, especially in the humanities and social sciences, writing is essential to the learning process. Without sustained, independent work on selected aspects of the course material, students’ understanding will remain shallow, and their minds will remain passive. All of this is common-sensical enough. Hence though we may not think of it, it should be no surprise that the same is true for teachers. Scholarship is homework for professors.

In principle, of course, professors have already done some homework on the subject, during their graduate programs, particularly in writing a dissertation. However, having had an active relationship with the material long ago is very different from having an active engagement with it in the present, and if faculty do not grow beyond the levels they achieve as graduate students, they will fall far below their potential. Course design can also become a creative process in itself. However, unless one receives lively, in-depth feedback from peers on one’s course designs, in a manner that engages their content, it will not serve the same purpose. In the great majority of cases, professors need to remain active in scholarship and present it to their peers for discussion in order to sustain and update their expertise.

Schools where professors are not expected to be actively engaged in peer-reviewed scholarship on a regular basis can be viable when there exists a robust scholarly discussion elsewhere, supported by participants at other institutions, which provides sound course material. A physics teacher at a community college need not conduct cutting-edge research herself to have reliable textbooks, and one can hope that her graduate training in a more research-oriented university has taught her to recognize what is reliable in her field, and what is not. Teaching undergraduates in areas of settled science, it is not difficult for her to retain mastery of her course material.

These conditions do not apply to BYU’s School of Religious Education, however. There is not a robust scholarly discourse on Mormon subjects anywhere, let alone one going on independent of BYU. There is not an established academic literature on which to base Religious Education courses. There are some valuable works and forums around and a few quite interesting scholars at work on this or that issue, but nothing resembling the firm basis of scholarship presupposed in other academic disciplines. Religious Education stands to benefit significantly from a broader field of non-Mormon scholarship on some aspects of its work, but on any distinctively Mormon questions, other than some aspects of history, the scholarship is scattered and immature. As high as the quality of some work may be, little of it has been tested in the manner that is routine in established disciplines. And as long as BYU continues to be the main place where Mormonism is taught in an academic setting, but does not support and expect its faculty to engage in a robust scholarly discourse on Mormon topics, the body of scholarship on Mormon questions will remain somewhat patchy and immature, despite the admirable work of some scholars.

If the quality of religious education at BYU is to be established and maintained at a high level, then, it is vital for the School of Religious Education to increase the involvement of its faculty in peer-reviewed scholarship.

64 comments for “Randy Bott and the Need For Peer Review

  1. Julie M. Smith
    April 3, 2012 at 8:58 am

    This is an excellent post. Thank you.

    Maybe we could require them to blog–that would subject their ideas to a bar of scrutiny that, in my experience, is much tougher than mere peer review. ;)

  2. Mark Brown
    April 3, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Julie, I know! I’ve had that same thought.

    Often guest bloggers are taken aback by the immediate, unfiltered feedback that blogging provides. These are often professor types who spends their days being fawned over by undergrads hungry for grades. When you step into the blogosphere, it’s like stepping into the batter’s box; you’re going to see some fastballs high and inside, and you have to learn to deal with them.

  3. MarenM
    April 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Agreed- on all above points. Excellent post, I would love to see the higher ed academic system revamped (in many ways, actually…), and you need a thick skin and sharp mind to blog, especially here. :) Nicely done.

  4. Emerson
    April 3, 2012 at 10:01 am

    This is a well-written and astute post that identifies some important issues. Thanks. If it’s ok, I’d like to share a few reflections on what has taken place within the department over the last few years to further flesh out your incisive outside observer reflections. I am going to plagiarize what I wrote on another blog’s post of the same topic a few weeks ago because 1) it speaks to the same issues, and 2) I’m lazy. (I also edited and expanded a few points.) I apologize for the length.

    Several points that I gleaned from speaking with Rel Ed administrators last year, as well as close association with a lot of faculty members:

    First, the training. The department has tried, at least for the last decade, to balance hiring between CES-trained teachers (who, importantly, held degrees in other fields, as you astutely identify in this post) and academics trained in religious studies-related disciplines. They consciously tried to keep a strict balance here, with surprisingly positive results as they brought in a number of great professors (along with, of course, the standard CES types). There were, of course, lots of problems.. (I’m now speaking mostly of the Church History Department, as that is what I am most familiar with.) Since a majority of the faculty prior to this attempted integration was strongly CES-oriented (including those in administrative positions), life was tough for most of the academically-oriented teachers. As a result, a lot of them left the department for either other departments, other schools, or to go work up in Salt Lake for the increasingly impressive history department at the Church History Library. This means that the growing number of academically trained faculty is now, once again, a small minority.

    But recent developments show that there is hope. Despite being a minority, the progressive disposition has a seemingly bright future, for two reasons. First, the CES as an institution, due to new rules and protocols for their teachers, will not be providing the same amount of candidates for BYU, and thus their pipeline into the BYU Religion Department will probably decrease; the department chair was very open about this, and strongly believes they will not be hiring as many CES people in the future. Second, due to pressure from university administration, the department knows it has to be more academic in outlook from here on out, and they have already implemented steps to do so. So, now both the department and the school is strongly pushing to have the issues addressed in this post finally ironed out. (I imagine (or at least, I hope) the Bott controversy will only further this impulse.)

    The biggest way they will do this is through hiring new staff as a lot of the faculty retires in the next decade. This is where the Ancient Scripture Department has already done a lot of good work that the Church History Department is trying to copy: the AS Department has been very forthright in recruiting top LDS scholars in related fields to come to BYU and change the department’s environment, and they have, in large part, succeeded. (A glance at their recent hires shows a number of brilliant scholars from religious and biblical studies programs at respectable schools.) Church History has taken similar steps in recent years, both by bringing in extremely bright graduate students to teach adjunct during the summers, and by holding functions at events like the Mormon History Association’s annual conference to recruit even more young scholars. It is yet to be see, though, if this will equal a promising crop of young faculty that will not only sign on with the department but remain through the thick and thin.

    I was going to say a bit on peer review specifically, but I’m out of time and this comment is already too long.

  5. Craig M.
    April 3, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Just wanted to point out that there are a few courses in the Religious Ed department where it probably makes more sense to have family science and education professors (or someone else other than ancient scripture, theology, or history) – missionary prep, the living prophets, LDS marriage and family, seminary teaching classes. Of course you could argue that these courses have other problems and the number of faculty with this training outnumbers the need for these courses, but it seems like everyone forgets this in these discussions.

  6. Jonathan Green
    April 3, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Ben, I like how you are looking at this as a failure of professional standards, which is thus amenable to correction through established professional mechanisms, but there are a couple areas where your analysis seems off.

    First, you’re ignoring the divide within the department between Ancient Scripture, where the scholarly disciplines are much more robust, and Church History and Doctrine. Each faces different challenges with respect to training and scholarship.

    Also, I don’t think you’re quite doing justice to the field of Mormon Studies, where the academic literature is quite extensive. Saying that “there is not a robust scholarly discourse on Mormon subjects anywhere” sounds very odd to me. It’s not unusual for new or emerging fields to be taught at the university level, so perhaps looking at how similar issues are treated in something like, say, Sustainability Studies might be helpful.

    I fully agree that scholarly engagement makes one a better teacher, but the reality is that nearly all faculty at nearly all universities often have to teach classes outside their areas of research. Relying on access to the scholarly contributions of others is not a crutch for faculty at lesser institutions, but a fact of life for every professor everywhere.

    So the issue, I think, is a slightly different matter of scholarly communication: How is the current state of the discipline communicated to those who teach it? An active scholarly agenda does make one better prepared to teach in one’s field, and also makes one more hesitant to pontificate when one isn’t, as you note, but it won’t solve the problem of communicating the current state of disciplinary knowledge to everyone who teaches it.

  7. MDKing
    April 3, 2012 at 10:48 am

    I believe this is the blog post (or at least the series) Emerson is referring to: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2012/03/the-trouble-with-byu’s-religious-education-part-i/

    Touches on many of the same issues Ben H. raises.

  8. palerobber
    April 3, 2012 at 10:56 am

    …continuing to teach ugly ideas that were denounced from the highest levels of the church decades ago.

    sorry, but that’s simply not true.

    prior to this Bott incident, the church had never officially denounced any of the ugly doctrines rationalizing the priesthood ban which had been preached from the highest levels of the church by Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie. notably, nothing in Official Declaration 2, nor in McConkie’s famous retraction, contradicts in any way what Bott was teaching his classes and talking about to the press. post-1978 editions of “Mormon Doctrine”, right up until the church took it out of print in 2010, continued to expound some of these racist doctrines.

    and even now, the church has not backed off from its position that the pre-1978 priesthood ban was just God’s will. it’s very odd that even as they now (finally) condemn Smith/McConkie’s racist rationalizations for the policy, they don’t condemn the racist policy itself!

    here’s hoping the Bott smackdown was just the first step.

  9. April 3, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I might wish that BYU religion profs were less correlated, not more.

  10. palerobber
    April 3, 2012 at 11:13 am

    adding to what i said above…

    your entire post is based on the false premise that Bott was just a “bad apple” that could have been sorted out with better institutional controls.

    the reason the problem wasn’t caught and corrected is because it wasn’t considered a problem by church HQ (until Bott’s statements in WaPo starting blowing up, that is). or if church HQ did consider it a problem, they failed to pass the memo along to the rest of us.

  11. Rob Perkins
    April 3, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Examine the 300-level Independent Study class devoted to the first half of the D&C for yourself, and see if you don’t think the entire department needs a cleaning out.

    When I was at BYU, a (relatively) foul-mouthed professor named Glayd Mather taught the EET weed-out course. He was more strident and effective teaching religion (he taught ethics in his lectures) in a technology course than any of my CES-trained religion teachers in religion courses. C-minus in that class and I can still analyze a multistage solid state circuit almost in my sleep thanks to him.

    Perhaps a condition of continuing status in any department ought to be agreeing to take a section of Rel 121?

  12. palerobber
    April 3, 2012 at 11:23 am

    sorry, i take it back.

    despite my problems with how you led in, your overall point is still valid and important.

  13. chris
    April 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    The church said it condemns racism.
    The church said he does not speak for the church and his writings were not binding or official church doctrine.

    Some of the most concerning words I ever hear on the road of good intentions are, “There must be some way to keep this sort of thing from happening”

    We seem to forget that as a part of life we learn through making mistakes, and owning up to and repenting of them. I do not believe we will ever become a more wise, knowledgeable, or charitable people if only we could just get our policies, procedures and bureaucracies proper.

    As always, the answer when thinking about how to learn wisdom is to teach correct principles, let the people govern (and correct) themselves.

    Obviously, I’m not arguing for a rule-less society, but the kind of world where we raise up rhetorical fences and boundaries in order to “prevent mistakes” is a world where we don’t learn and where agency is stifled.

    Any student who learns all they know on race, or any other issue is not properly using their agency. We will always have teachers teaching incorrectly.

    More important than creating any kind of system where we have rules or procedures or detailed lesson plans which do not allow for deviation is to head in the alternate direction. Which is building a community where individuals rely on their personal relationship with Christ to discern truth from error, and to recognize the truth/error in others, as well as the truth/error in ourselves. That relationship comes as we qualify for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, receive revelation and act on it.

    So rather than focus on rules, or procedures which are entirely beside the point when it comes to teaching, it’s more important in my mindset to focus on how we can help our students -act- so they can qualify for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and then help them to understand and act on their own personal revelation and be aware of the authority that revelation carries. — ie. if the Holy Ghost reveals it to you, unless you’re called with priesthood authority and stewardship (Prophet, etc.) you don’t have the authority to go around attempting to bind that revelation on others.

    In my view, a classroom where instructors are free to make mistakes, but students are empowered to discern those mistakes is much more preferable to a class room where rules are put in place to “keep this sort of thing from happening”.

  14. chris
    April 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Any student who learns all they know on race, or any other issue (from a single instructor in a classroom) is not properly using their agency.

  15. Meldrum the Less
    April 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    My father, in his mid 80s, is a contemporary of many church leaders and was distantly acquainted with a few who are currently serving at the top levels. My father is actually worse than Professor Bott on this topic and this in the face of strong and loud opposition from all younger family members. We should be glad the Washington Compost never gets him on the line speaking for the church or anyone else.

    I think the sad truth is that the reason Professor Bott has survived so long is that his attitudes and ideas are pretty typical of most LDS people, including those in leadership positions from that time. He is probably sitting somewhere right now wondering what all the fuss is about.

    Elder Bruce McKonkie famous said “forget everything.” That was the second time he fouled up, the first being his blatant racism before 1978. You don’t just forget about it and then expect not to be continually embarassed by the likes of Professor Bott. Rather instead of forgettings, we should have launched a massive re-education program from the top to the bottom. It might not be a bad idea even now, better late than never.

  16. Grant Hardy
    April 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Ben raises a lot of important issues, but from my (admittedly limited) vantage point it seems like there are some additional challenges.

    The first is that even with the gradual influx of more academically trained professors, Religious Education still exists primarily to teach basic scripture literacy to vast numbers of BYU students (i.e. introductory classes in BofM, OT, NT, and D&C). This may be an integral component of a BYU education, but it also limits both the time available for research and also the sort of enriching student/teacher interaction that can come in upper-division courses on more specialized topics. My own BYU religion classes, long ago, did not offer much more than early-morning seminary, with the exception of one class on Isaiah and another on World Religions.

    If I were teaching religion at BYU, I would be interested in offering a course on canon, with Lee McDonald’s “The Biblical Canon” as a textbook and detailed discussions of Brevard Childs’ theories of canonical criticism. I think that the scriptures of the Restoration provide remarkable, recent examples of canon formation (especially given the admirable work of the Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project) and provide a striking challenge to established notions of the way canon has long operated in Christianity. With appropriate comparisons to non-Western texts like the Adi Granth or the scriptures of Baha’i, the LDS example could easily be part of a much broader conversation in religious studies. My perception is that the scholarly world is ready, and even eager to welcome Mormon perspectives, but there are few LDS professors who are capable of speaking the language of the academy, and the way that Religious Education is organized presently is not conducive to creating either students or faculty who are prepared to move beyond the CES bubble. It is a terrible loss of opportunity, since BYU should be a place where Mormons can explore significant religious and theological ideas with the kind of critical give-and-take that Ben describes, yet within a context of faith.

    A second problem is that a call for more peer review is likely to be met by the objection that mainstream university presses and scholarly journals will not publish books and articles written from a faithful Mormon perspective. That has not been my experience, and though I deliberately left room for skeptical outsiders in my recent book from Oxford, I also did not try to hide the fact that I myself am a believer who accepts the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately though, too often even well-trained scholars go to BYU, publish their dissertations, and never again engage with the outside world, instead publishing entirely in BYU or LDS church venues (including Deseret Book and the Maxwell Institute). As long as BYU professors are talking exclusively to insiders (and Mormons are not generally known for their incisive criticism), they will be vulnerable to the pressures and problems that were brought to light in the Bott affair. The adulation of the saints is so much more pleasant than the criticisms of one’s academic peers, yet without the latter, Mormon scholars will not be able to refine their ideas and sharpen their analysis. The point of a university is to bring together people who don’t already agree with each other, and then set the ground rules for mutually beneficial conversation. If I were a department chair in religion at BYU, I would treat publications aimed at Latter-day Saints as valuable service, but rank and status decisions would primarily be made on the basis on mainstream academic publications, just as it is in the rest of the university.

    I am actually rather skeptical whether the current curriculum, teaching load, and faculty composition would allow for an academic department comparable to what is found elsewhere at BYU, so one solution would be to create a small academic department in religious studies staffed by those faculty who are capable of and excited about offering courses and curriculum at the level appropriate to a university (though as with BYU’s philosophy department, there would obviously be an understood grounding in faithfulness). The rest of those currently teaching religion could together create the flagship Institute Program in the Church, under the auspices of CES (or S&I). The recruitment of faculty, expectations for publications, and assessment of doctrinal correctness would be the same as at Institute programs at Utah State or the U of U. Indeed, Institute classes, of the very highest caliber, would probably meet the needs of most BYU students, many of whom appreciate the fact that their religion courses do not have the same academic rigor as the rest of their schedule. Graduation from BYU would thus require 14 hours of non-academic Institute credit, or 14 hours of credit from BYU’s new religious studies department, or some combination of the two, depending on the interests and inclinations of individual students. Beside providing space at BYU for the serious, academic study of our own religious tradition, as well as that of other faiths, an actual religious studies department could prepare students for graduate studies elsewhere, and it would be great to get Mormon scholars teaching and researching on religion throughout the country (and not necessarily on Mormon Studies topics).

    Any emphasis on peer review needs to recognize that the many publications coming out of the Maxwell Institute or Deseret Book or the BYU Religious Studies Center or the Religious Educator, valuable as they may be in their own way, do not constitute actual peer-review, at least not the kind that should characterize a program at a major university.

  17. Emerson
    April 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Grant Hardy FTW.

  18. Kevin Barney
    April 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    I worry that as presently constituted, in-house peer review controls could end up just being more draconian enforcement of perceived orthodoxy, as Adam G. suggests above.

  19. manaen
    April 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Prof Bott’s last day of teaching at BYU will be Wednesday, April 11. I encourage everyone to hold their own “Free At Last” observance/celebration that evening.


    Elder McConkie’s “forget everything” comment was not literally to forget; it was part of his address to CES employees and he meant to drop it from their teaching. Sad that 35 years later, Prof. Bott still was acting counter to this directive.

    As Elder Holland explained in his 2007 PBS interview,

    Helen Whitney: “I’ve talked to many blacks and many whites as well about the lingering folklore [about why blacks couldn’t have the priesthood]. These are faithful Mormons who are delighted about this revelation, and yet who feel something more should be said about the folklore and even possibly about the mysterious reasons for the ban itself, which was not a revelation; it was a practice. So if you could, briefly address the concerns Mormons have about this folklore and what should be done.”

    Elder Holland: “One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. …”

    Helen Whitney: “What is the folklore, quite specifically?”

    Elder Holland: “Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …

    “We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in *teachings* that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic.”

    Sad that 4 years later, Prof. Bott still was acting counter to this directive.

    You can read Elder Holland’s complete interview here

    More information is available here

  20. Ken
    April 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    manaen: Prof Bott’s last day of teaching at BYU will be Wednesday, April 11. I encourage everyone to hold their own “Free At Last” observance/celebration that evening.

    As much as Professor Bott might be misguided in his views and teachings on the subject of race in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this “encouragement” seems rather mean-spirited. As Joseph Smith once said, “It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”

  21. David Connelly
    April 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    I have taught at several Universities and have always had colleagues in my classes evaluating my teaching in both a pre and post tenure environment- so I do not find it odd at all that faculty should expect other collegues in their room evalutaing them- now is the evaluation meaningful, etc.- well that is another question but not abnormal- any faculty member should welcome such evaluations

  22. April 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Grant, in some ways I think the division you outline could be really useful, both to the students and the teachers. In my experience, the actual academic expectations in my religion classes varied greatly (on both ends of the spectrum). As a student, it was a bit of a gamble each semester … and I imagine it was a similar experience for the teachers. How does a professor in the current situation implement a more academic approach when their students complain, citing experiences in more Institute-like classrooms? It seems like having clearer expectations on both sides would result in a more positive experience for all involved.

  23. Tim
    April 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I like the idea of having a CES-like program at BYU, along with more rigorous programs.

    My religion classes at BYU varied from Bott’s extremely easy-A class to a more difficult “memorize all the generals and other silly minor details in the BoM and spout them out on the final” to “write a 3-page paper analyzing some aspect of the reading assignment.” Most of the religion courses I took were the same level of difficulty as regular GE classes. A’s were not easy to come by. Bott’s class, of course, was the exception. He once told us that the department had told him he needed to give out fewer A’s in his mission prep class, and he replied along the lines of “I don’t want our missionaries to be B-grade missionaries. Do you?” He continued giving out easy A’s, apparently in defiance of the department heads.

  24. Ben H
    April 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Emerson (#4), thank you for your comments. It is important to hear from BYU locals on this, and important for readers to know that there have been positive steps on this front, especially in recent years.

    I applaud the efforts by Religious Ed to hire more faculty with content-related PhDs in recent years. I know a few of the people Rel Ed has hired lately, and there are some real gems. I think as your comments show, there is still a long way to go, and even continuing the heightened efforts of late would not be enough in the long run. There needs to be a clearer shift in the priorities and support for scholarship. I am curious about your use of the word “balance.” What exactly is being balanced here, and why is it a balance between CES and academics that is being sought? Is it because the predominant approach in the department is a CES approach, and so there is a need to balance the need for change against the preferences of current faculty? Unfortunately, I’m afraid that if we really want change, a “balanced” approach to innovation will usually, predictably, lose out to the status quo. Particularly in an academic context where newcomers have to undergo a long trial period before receiving tenure (or “continuing status”), it is a lot to ask if you expect newcomers to change the culture.

    Don’t get me wrong; I had some wonderful experiences my religion classes when I was at BYU. I particularly remember my mind-expanding courses with Hugh Nibley, Steve Robinson, and Jim Faulconer (though Jim is on the Philosophy faculty). I was able to choose my courses quite freely, though, in part because my large number of transfer credits freed me from a large portion of the religion requirements.

    I am a big supporter of the basic project of religious education at BYU. I think the study of Restoration scripture and doctrine has to be an integral part of a BYU education, and I applaud BYU’s commitment to this, which is far above the norm at other universities, even those with a meaningful religious affiliation. I also think that as BYU raises the bar academically, it is essential not to allow any slackening in the commitment to devotional purposes. However, I still think BYU is far from fulfilling its potential to integrate faith and knowledge.

    I would love to hear more about the other aspects of your forecast. Why will the number of CES candidates be decreasing in the future?

  25. Ben H
    April 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Craig (#5), I am happy to agree that there are a range of subjects that are relevant as educational background for Rel Ed, depending on which courses we look at. I didn’t mean to be picking on any particular discipline as being a bad one for this purpose. I am also a big fan of having faculty from outside of Rel Ed teach Rel Ed courses sometimes, if they can do it well. As you suggest, though, overall, the mix of degrees in Rel Ed seems significantly out of line with the mix of course offerings.

    Jonathan (#6), I agree the training issue is more straightforward in Ancient Scripture. Still, while there are differences in degree, I think the concerns I mentioned apply to a significant extent in both the case of Ancient Scripture and Church History and Doctrine.

    As for your concerns about the level of maturity of Mormon Studies, saying that the literature is “extensive” does not really address my concerns. On many issues it is far from extensive, and quantity does not equal quality. In general, it seems to me most work in Mormon Studies has not had enough eyes on it to push it to the level of quality one would expect in other fields. This is partly because the number of practitioners is relatively low, and partly because many of those doing it are doing it as a secondary area, if not as a hobby. It is a very important area, and one with a lot of growth potential, but one that is still rather new in terms of quality man-hours that have been invested in it.

  26. Ben H
    April 3, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Grant (#16), thank you for taking the time to comment! I agree with quite a bit of the force of your comment, but would put a different twist on several points.

    Religious Education at BYU is primarily devotional in purpose. That is as it should be. The primary goal is to increase students’ knowledge of and active engagement with the doctrines and scriptures of the Restoration. Hence the core of the program is and should be courses in BofM, OT, NT, and D&C.

    In my view, however, this does not diminish in the least the need for the teachers to have strong intellectual training and the skills of creative and informed judgment developed through scholarship. I teach core texts in the history of philosophy all the time in my classes at Randolph-Macon College. I teach Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Mill every year. However, I see new things in these texts all the time, as I do when I read the scriptures, and my primary goal as a teacher is to help my students learn to read these texts for themselves and see things in them that I have not told them, and that perhaps no living scholar has seen before. I think they are doing it; I certainly have students who point out things that I see no evidence of the scholarly class’ having noticed.

    We need professors in BYU Religious Ed. who can see in the standard works things that no living mortal has pointed out to them before (and I’m happy to say that I studied under at least a couple of professors like that when I was there as a student). We as a church have hardly begun to draw out the implications of the Book of Mormon in particular for our faith, doctrine, and daily habits, and that is partly because we have not approached it with the seriousness that it deserves. I am persuaded that the example of Joseph Smith shows that the expansion of our intellects is a great support to the deepening of our spiritual understanding, not a competing purpose. If BYU religion classes are like a slightly fancier version of seminary, we are not delivering the college-level experience, understanding, and provocation that we need to if our young people’s spiritual growth is going to keep up with their intellectual growth in other areas.

    My own training in philosophy has been very stimulating for my reading of the scriptures, and some of my favorite academic papers have centered on an original reading of some passage or theme in scripture. There is plenty of room for more of this kind of thing. As it happens, I think your work and Terryl Givens’ work provide more great examples of how studying the scriptures in a way that is quite at home in a publication from a top academic press can also be very spiritually moving and edifying.

    I agree that we need to also have more creative, upper-division-style courses in the mix that count toward the 14-credit requirement, and your idea for a course on canon formation would be a great example. However, I would resist the idea of creating a separate department for that sort of thing, because academically demanding study of the scriptures should not be the exception for BYU graduates, but the norm.

    You and others have proved that non-Mormon presses are happy to publish high-quality work on Mormon subjects. The main problem here is not a lack of willing presses, but a lack of sufficient quality in much of what is being done on Mormonism. There is a presumption among many Mormon scholars that anything done on Mormonism is inevitably second- or third-rate. It seems to me this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Certainly there are some fora for Mormon-oriented work that do not maintain high enough quality standards. We need more institutional support not only for work that has already made it to (say) Oxford quality, but for work that may be on the way. So long as BYU continues to see work on Mormonism as marginal to the professional work of its faculty, it will be an uphill battle to get more than a few outliers at BYU to put in the energy and care to raise such work to the quality standard of the work they actually get professional credit for. Since BYU has a rather large chunk of the people with the training to do good work on Mormonism, BYU’s policies on this have a big impact on the field.

    I agree that purely in-house approaches to peer review at BYU are likely to be a little too friendly to have the full effect that they should. However, I’m not recommending an in-house process. The peer review process in scholarship is normally done in a community of inquiry involving scholars from many institutions, and that’s what I’m recommending here. Are you saying that the problem is not a problem within BYU but a problem of talking to other Mormons? Catholics have professional organizations and publications devoted to the study of Catholicism. I would be surprised if there weren’t a large plurality in that scene who are Catholics themselves, but that doesn’t keep their work from being academically legitimate. Mormons should be able to do the same thing, and to the extent that we don’t, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and little more. So, when you say, “If I were a department chair in religion at BYU, I would treat publications aimed at Latter-day Saints as valuable service,” I wouldn’t put it that way. Rather, there should be a relatively clear distinction between academic publishing and publishing for a general audience (whether LDS or not), and peer-reviewed, academic publications in Mormon Studies should count toward promotion and continuing status decisions, just as they would on other subjects, with consideration of the quality of the place it’s published, as there would be in other subjects too.

    Obviously there would have to be adjustments to the teaching load if BYU Religion faculty are to spend more energy on scholarship. That’s what it takes. Other BYU departments have factored this in to their teaching loads, and Religious Ed can too.

  27. Ben S.
    April 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    “Religious Education still exists primarily to teach basic scripture literacy to vast numbers of BYU students” This is only true if by “literacy” we mean “bare familiarity.” Most students come away knowing a few more factoids and little more. Teachers need to model scholarship, close reading, dealing with challenges faithfully, but instead it is often overly devotional with little in the way of critical thinking or outside challenges presented. Some of that is the institutional culture, some the institutional constraints (e.g. teaching a 2-credit class doesn’t allow a lot of time or assignments for depth.)

  28. Ray
    April 4, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Where was peer review when I took religion classes at BYU? My classes were about 10 percent religion and 90 percent Republican politics.

  29. Grant Hardy
    April 4, 2012 at 7:47 am

    I think that a close reading of the scriptures themselves should be at the heart of BYU religion classes, and identifying life-applications of their teachings should be a lifelong endeavor, but at the same time I have found that I see new things in the scriptures most often when I am reading thoughtful outside materials, that is, when I come to the standard works with new questions and insights that have been spurred by reading scholars who are themselves good readers, or who bring new facts and observations to the table. I don’t see a sharp distinction between spiritual and academic approaches.

    In my opinion, it would be wonderful if there were at least a few religious education courses at BYU that were actually college-level courses–you know, the kind that were three credit-hours, that required research papers in standard scholarly sources, and used academic textbooks. It would be great to be able to read the Old and New Testaments in conjunction with mainstream introductory textbooks (and with the professor providing a distinctive LDS take on the major issues of biblical scholarship), or to read the Book of Mormon along with Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon, or to read the Doctrine and Covenants along with Rough Stone Rolling or Alister Mcgrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction. Do you think there aren’t faithful BYU students who have questions about Book of Mormon historicity, or Joseph Smith’s personal life, or who wonder how the truths of the Restored Gospel compare with traditional Christian theology (and not the caricature of it that we too often pass along in Sunday School). These students deserve an opportunity to work through tough, but often inspiring issues with faculty who know the field and who themselves have found faithful answers to difficult questions. A merely devotional approach can leave students with somewhat shallow, brittle testimonies that may not be up to the challenges of even the sort of information can be readily found on the Internet. Innocence is not as good as virtue.

    I majored in Ancient Greek at BYU and sought out New Testament classes that were taught by professors who actually knew some Greek. Nevertheless, after graduation I discovered that I didn’t know enough to even begin conversing with informed non-Mormons about the Bible. I knew next to nothing about canon formation, textual criticism, redaction criticism, the synoptic problem, the quest for the historical Jesus, the sociology of early Christianity, extra-biblical early Christian writings, or the history of bible translations–even though these concepts are pretty familiar to freshman and sophomores in introductory religious studies classes elsewhere in the country, many of whom are much less serious about the scriptures and religion than most BYU students. Over the years, I have found biblical scholarship wonderfully enriching, both intellectually and spiritually, though obviously I still have not gotten over my disappointment with my own BYU religion classes. Perhaps things have changed since the 1980s, but my understanding is that it is still not possible for religion professors to require non-CES textbooks, and so perhaps BYU Religious Education is still living in its own world, with students who are similarly not well prepared for the spiritual and intellectual challenges of life after Provo. If Religious Education at BYU functions as an isolation/containment facility–the very opposite of what a university ought to be–than it is not fulfilling its potential.

  30. April 4, 2012 at 7:58 am

    “In my opinion, it would be wonderful if there were at least a few religious education courses at BYU that were actually college-level courses–you know, the kind that were three credit-hours, that required research papers in standard scholarly sources, and used academic textbooks. It would be great to be able to read the Old and New Testaments in conjunction with mainstream introductory textbooks (and with the professor providing a distinctive LDS take on the major issues of biblical scholarship), or to read the Book of Mormon along with Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon, or to read the Doctrine and Covenants along with Rough Stone Rolling or Alister Mcgrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction. Do you think there aren’t faithful BYU students who have questions about Book of Mormon historicity, or Joseph Smith’s personal life, or who wonder how the truths of the Restored Gospel compare with traditional Christian theology (and not the caricature of it that we too often pass along in Sunday School).”

    FWIW: when I teach D&C at BYU, my students read a broad range of secondary literature to buttress their readings of the scriptures, including works by Bushman, Givens, and several non-Mormon scholars on both history and theological topics. They also do rigorous research papers that force them to dig deeper into other sources (I require at least six non-Ensign references) and make sure they are aware of mainstream academic arguments on whatever issues are found in a particular D&C section. Of course this can only be done within the limits of a two credit-hour class—and perhaps tapered off a bit more, too, since students revolt if they have to work too hard in a religion course—but I know a number of professors who do the same. Sure, it’s still a minority of the department, but the number is growing.

    I share this not to make my own classes sound awesome (though they are :) ), but to lend credence to something Grant points out: students crave this type of engagement in religion courses. I was worried when I started that some students would complain and paint me as a heretic—and there was a very small number who did indeed do so—but a vast majority loved it and I still receive communications from former students saying that was exactly the type of religion class they had more of during their schooling.

  31. Ben S.
    April 4, 2012 at 8:22 am

    There’s a significant portion (minority? majority?) of students who want this kind of thing, and I tried to do with my classes what Ben P has done with his (and talked about it a bit here at T&S). When I taught the 2nd half of NT, I took in a few recent NT intros, recommended them, and said, “if we were at any other school, you’d be working through one of these books in this class.”

    It’s really on the department to make changes. Attempt too much in a 2-credit class and even the interested students revolt; since student feedback is highly determinative of one’s teaching future, you just can’t push the envelope too much.

  32. Rachel
    April 4, 2012 at 8:34 am

    While I will be the first to acknowledge that change of any kind can be painfully slow, I have seen some encouraging improvements in Religious Education in the 18 months I have been a part of the college. Just this past year, our rank and status document was revised; particular attention was given to the definition of peer review. I believe a number of important clarifications were made (and I am convinced improvement will continue to come over time). As a member of the 2012 Sperry Symposium Committee, I saw some of these changes implemented. We did not use internal (meaning our own faculty) to peer review; we selected scholars from other departments on campus, as well as a (high) number of scholars from off campus. I obviously cannot disclose who engaged in the peer review process, but I can say it was an impressive group of people.

    Religious Education is also bringing in a number of graduate students to teach class for us during the summer (those teaching for Church History and Doctrine this year are coming from places like Princeton, Cornell, Cambridge and Claremont); teaching fellowships, in addition to the stipend that comes for teaching the class, are being made available. We also provide dissertation research grants (please apply!) without any strings attached. In addition, I happen to know that Religious Education provided funded that enabled approximately 15 undergraduate students to attend a conference at Princeton this past fall. We are supporting scholarship in number of other ways (some of our donations are anonymous).

    We do have some peer review in the classroom (although not in a “big brother is watching you” sort of way). Last year, the Associate Chair of Church History and Doctrine attended one class of every faculty member. Additionally, we were each assigned to observe one faculty member teach two classes. This year, our dean is observing each of us teach a class (he happened to see me teach Official Declaration 2). I have never felt like anyone has asked me to fit into a particular mold. In fact, I have only felt an incredible amount of support from university, college, and department administration (in terms of my approach to teaching and my scholarship).

    I can certainly see the problems, but I also see vision and transformation.

  33. April 4, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Rachel et al.,

    I’d be interested in your take on what your department would say about Ben P teaching from Bushman, Givens, and non-Mormon scholars if they knew he was teaching therefrom. I’ve seen official department documents outlawing these types of sources as required reading in Religion courses, and in my view this is part of the problem. Ben P is no doubt correct to say that many students hunger for this kind of thing, but I think the institution actively squelches the use of such materials. To their shame.

  34. April 4, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Jupiterschild: I received not only approval, but encouragement from the administration level in everything I did/used.

  35. Grant Hardy
    April 4, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Ben P., supplemental academic readings are certainly a significant step forward, but an actual required textbook was out of the question, right?

  36. April 4, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Grant: correct. Baby steps.

  37. Meldrum the Less
    April 4, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Reply to mansen #19

    I will see if I can get my dad to participate in the April 11th festivities, it will be his 86th birthday.

    I appreciate Elder Holland’s remarks. Notice this is a PBS broadcast and probably not viewed as widespread as I would hope. Like really, who actually watches PBS? Obviously not Professor Bott and his cronies in positions of responsibility.

    But it raises another question for back row Mormons like me. What the heck is the difference between folklore and doctrine? Today’s doctrine is tomorrow’s folklore?

    What is needed is the truth, yesterday’s doctrine was wrong. Not yesterday’s folklore was wrong. By implication today’s doctrine needs to not be taken as the perfect truth. But we don’t want to go there do we?

  38. MDKing
    April 4, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I think some notion of peer review would have lessened the likelihood of the Bott problem. Part of peer review (in most disciplines) is having your work evaluated by other authorities in your field on a double blind basis (the author doesn’t know the evaluators and the evaluators do not know the author).

    The problem in religious education is a relative absence of this kind of critical evaluation. The scholarship many of them produce is not subject to this process, and their status in the Mormon community (as propagators of correct Mormon “theology”)alleviates them from critical engagement offered from a community.

    While Rachel points out many of the positives going on, peer review of scholarship shouldn’t be done by those at the same institution as the authors. So while moving beyond the college is a step in the right direction, I hope those in the college realize that it isn’t the final step.

    I quite like the guarded optimism offered in this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2012/03/the-trouble-with-byu%e2%80%99s-religious-education-part-iii/

    It seems that there is reason to expect some good changes.

  39. Rachel
    April 4, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    The vast majority of the reviews were from outside BYU, and I can guarantee most of the authors did not know each other. That being said, I don’t believe in final steps. There is always room to improve.

    As for reading material, I draw from a variety of historiographical and primary sources in all of my classes.

  40. Kevin Barney
    April 4, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    In the early 80’s I worked as a teaching assistant to S. Kent Brown, a (now retired) professor of Ancient Scripture. (He liked to hire kids out of Classics because they had relevant language skills.) He would put about 20 different Old Testament books, virtually all of which were written by non-LDS scholars, on reserve. Every week students had to write short papers demonstrating that they had read from and understood the relevant material from at least two of those sources. The required papers weren’t particularly rigorous, but what students learned in those classes was way, WAY beyond what you would get in a typical BYU OT class. One time a student was transferring to the UoU, and of course none of his religion credits would transfer. He then sent a copy of the syllabus for Kent’s course, and that part of the transfer immediately went through.

    So there were good classes, if you knew where to find them. But they were few and far between. I still remember the divide between the professors with relevant terminal degrees (a minority) and the more common family living, education, etc. types. It was a political minefield back then. My impression is that things have improved somewhat, but I can’t say how much.

  41. MDKing
    April 4, 2012 at 12:26 pm


    I’m cursious about the rank and status changes you mention. How is peer review defined? And how many publications are they asking for in order to earn CFS?

  42. Rachel
    April 4, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Oops-I should have said the authors and reviewers did not know each other.

  43. Ben H
    April 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Rachel, is the peer review you are talking about review of particular pieces of scholarship or review of particular faculty? Perhaps you are talking about evaluation letters for promotion and continuing status? It sounds a bit like what I did this year as part of my application for tenure, with both internal and external letters on various aspects of my work. Of course this kind of peer review is just as important, in a somewhat different way, as review of, say, a particular article or book. I love the requirement that each faculty member visit someone else’s class! I wish we did that here at RMC.

    Obviously, the changes you are talking about are exactly the kind of thing I am advocating in this piece. May they prosper and lead to more progress in a similar vein.

  44. Ben H
    April 4, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Dear readers, do please be mindful of tone in this discussion. Obviously in this thread as usual on T&S, reasoned criticism is entirely appropriate on whatever side of the question. There is a difference between measured criticism, though, and becoming dismissive or uncivil.

    For instance, Meldrum the Less (#37), please refrain from calling people unkind names like “cronies.” You are quite right, though, that statements on a PBS documentary do not substitute for statements in official church venues, and I think it’s fair to say that the message has not been delivered clearly or firmly enough to leave behind the erroneous folk doctrines (we can debate the propriety of the modifier “folk” later perhaps).

  45. Ted_player
    April 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    I’m a BYU professor, but not in religion. In my experience, a professor will receive a giant “This class was useless!” response if students are not taught something they didn’t already know. (More accurately, they need to realize they didn’t already know it [hindsight bias]). Given the wonderful preparation most BYU students have in the gospel, how do you tell them something they don’t already know? I see three basic options for religion professors: (a) go deeper on the historical context of the scriptures, (b) go deeper on the scholarly discussion (e.g., Biblical commentaries, bringing in philosophy), or (c) go deeper on the church’s perspective on the doctrine. “News” for students is easy to accomplish with (a) and (b), but (c) is harder to do well. A professor could weave together bits of quotes from authorities here and there to support a pet interpretation and then start teaching it as doctrine. The original post was absolutely correct about this in academia: “While teaching students … it is easy for appropriate creativity and independence over time to drift into overconfidence and complacency, even into irresponsible speculation or self-indulgence.” I’ve seen it in others, and I’ve been guilty of it myself.

    Outside religion, you could argue an idiosyncratic viewpoint from a professor is acceptable and even desirable. However, inside religion, a claim that “The Church’s doctrine is X” is too important to get wrong.

    What is the check on making up doctrine? Internal and external reviews of teaching in the CFS process and even in the annual review are exceedingly shallow. As the Bott case illustrates, they are plainly insufficient to catch incorrect doctrines. I respect peer review a great deal, but checks of a few things by like-minded peers are not a solution.

    It is a very difficult problem to solve. An added layer of difficulty is that profs from around campus are asked to teach religion classes.

    I’m not trying to be meanspirited. I’m saying that (a) and (b) fit well with what the university model is good at doing, but (c) does not fit well. Who can say what the Church’s doctrine is better than the Church? Is a religion prof really the expert on Church doctrine?

  46. Adam
    April 4, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Bott’s ugly ideas are no uglier than the current justifications for the ban on priesthood for women.

  47. Rachel
    April 4, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Ben, if I am following your question correctly, the example I used relates to particular pieces of work completed for the Sperry Symposium (it is important to keep in mind that the book is published by Deseret and the audience is educated church members – hence the reason I was pleased that we raised the bar for this project). When I refer to the rank and status document, I am referring to peer review of scholarship. Expectations are not perfect but they have evolved. From what I understand, rank and status documents tend to change over time (meaning rigor can and often does increase). I think we can see examples of this in various departments across BYU campus.

    I think Religious Education will always have a devotional side, will always strive to reach a lay as well as an academic audience, will always have to struggle a bit to find the right balance. I chose to be here because I like that mix. While I understand it is not the right job for everyone, I do think it has a lot more to offer than people might think. It’s an option worth exploring, in my opinion.

    I’ve said enough . . . :) Thanks!

  48. Ben H
    April 4, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Ted_player (#5), you’re quite right that peer review is far from being an airtight solution to the sort of problem we found in the Bott case. Peer review of scholarship is a somewhat indirect approach to improving teaching, though I’m arguing that the connections between scholarship and teaching are much closer than it might look like. I am relying on the principle that the process of peer review helps to establish and maintain both habits of mind (in individuals) and a culture of intellectual and, in this case, doctrinal responsibility, (in a department, and in the wider field), and I’m relying on those habits and culture to have a significant impact on their own, well beyond the particular items (pieces of scholarship) that go through a formal peer review. Peer review is part of an ongoing education for faculty, and hopefully they will then deploy the improved skills and awareness they gain from that process and self-correct in all kinds of ways, as well as correcting and advising one another in lots of informal ways. There may be other mechanisms that are needed in this case as well, but my point is that Rel Ed should be making full use of time-tested, standard mechanisms of peer review, which should help a lot, even if there are some other things needed to complete the picture in the particular circumstances given the unique aspects of BYU Rel Ed., but whatever else is needed, peer review is a key element.

    You make a very good point that the role of church authority in Rel Ed makes it a different game from scholarship on secular topics. There are some great conversations to be had in that direction. Perhaps I’ll take a swipe at them in another post some time. For now, my point is that peer review is an essential pice of the solution.

    Rachel (#47), as I said earlier (#24,26) I appreciate and totally support the devotional purpose of Rel Ed, and I think peer review is a key element there, too. What kind of scholarship is academically sound and also contributes to an overall program with devotional goals at center stage? I think these are compatible goals, and people can get better at combining them through trying, getting feedback from peers, adjusting, and trying again. Again, considering it is a program for all BYU students, it is a lay audience it is and must be aimed at, if by “lay” you mean “non-specialist.” I’m not challenging either of those things about the current program.

    However, I think that there are some people around who would suggest that the goals of a devotional program aimed at a lay audience are just not a good fit for academic approaches, and I strongly disagree. I think the mechanism of peer review is just as helpful for this set of goals as it is for the somewhat different goals in a secular context, and I also think the skills needed for academic scholarship are an essential element in good Rel Ed teaching, the kind that belongs in a university context, receiving university credit, and shaping the minds of university students.

    How do standard academic skills contribute to excellent devotional teaching in a university context? Hugh Nibley is a spectacular example, e.g. drawing moral lessons from across the history of civilization in a way that reinforces Book of Mormon messages. Jim Faulconer’s “Keys to Scripture Study” was also a great one. Terryl Givens’ “Lightning Out of Heaven” devotional is a great example (a lecture, rather than a class). Beyond these examples, I suppose we could have a whole ‘nother conversation about how to combine the academic and the devotional, but I don’t mean to be suggesting that BYU Rel Ed should be apologizing for being devotional and aimed at the general university student. I do mean to be saying that is no reason to set aside the quality control mechanisms that are standard across university practice.

    I take your comments about promising changes in Rel Ed recently as basically in harmony with the points I am making, and hope you (and others at RelEd) see my post as cheering them on, perhaps even offering ammunition for more in that vein, while maintaining that the project of change has only begun with them. Even the best policies take time to have their effect, when the goal is a department and intellectual culture, scholarship and teaching from classroom to classroom, that reflect the value of well-trained and well-cultivated faculty.

  49. Rachel
    April 4, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks, Ben. I agree with you and appreciate the cheers!

    I think that is precisely what we are striving to do (and/or should be striving to do) – to maintain the things that make us who we are, while also seeking to improve our academic scholarship. We are encourage to be bilingual, after all.

    I am always thinking about ways to align the devotional and the academic; I am not sure I do it well, but I believe it can and must be done. I think that is what the college and the university administration have in mind. I think that is what the improved rank and status policy implies.

  50. Mark D.
    April 4, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Try as I might, I find it difficult to appreciate how graduate education in education has any particular bearing on teaching university students about religion, or anything else except education. It seems like the only natural role of a department of religious education is to teach seminary teachers. That could be done as an adjunct of the Teacher Education department.

    The current generic religion classes could and perhaps should be completely spread out among the university faculty, and a narrow religious studies department established to teach more specialized classes. To reserve a special role to university faculty with no professional training in the subject that they are teaching seems to me to be making a pretense of knowledge.

  51. April 4, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Ben P, good to know. I know that even non-textbook “extra” readings are explicitly banned in Ancient Scripture, at least as of last year. Although there is a new chair now. Baby steps, indeed!

    Rachel, do I understand you correctly to say that the *Sperry Symposium* papers were subject to double-blind review by non-BYU (but presumably LDS) folk? This is surprising.

  52. Ben H
    April 4, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Mark D. (#50), you raise some interesting questions. As it happens, I think there is a rising awareness in the higher education world that training in a subject area is not enough to make someone good at teaching that area; training in how to teach, and effort to develop one’s skills on that front, are pretty important . . . so what is the right role for training in education versus in one’s content area? When you say, “the only natural role of a department of religious education,” though, are you talking about a role regarding graduate students? I think it’s pretty clear at the undergraduate level that there is a very sensible (some would say vital) role for coursework dealing with matters of LDS history, belief, and practice, so that students can deepen their understanding of and commitment to their faith.

    So long as training need have no special connection to course content in such a department, a separate Rel Ed department really might seem a bit inexplicable. I haven’t really looked at the numbers on who has what kind of degrees in BYU Rel Ed. I do think there are other factors in favor of a department that are hard to ignore, but in a university context where it is a huge deal in every other department to have a terminal degree in the area, you have a point. Still, I would rather say let’s work on getting what there is to where we want it. We really should be striving to have a department full of people who are good at combining the devotional with sound academics, so let’s keep it and work on it I would say (without suggesting that faculty from other departments, who are good it it, shouldn’t continue to be an important part of the mix).

  53. Meldrum the Less
    April 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Reply to Ben # 44:

    I was never properly educated on these matters of propriety at a high-toned place like BYU. Where a roommate could put your ass in a sling with the Standards Committee over a single cuss word. I was trained at the old AC where we had actual bovine sources for the B.S. that we kicked around.

    I am confused. I consider myself a T & S “chrony” and even one of your “chronies” since I found your article interesting enough to make a comment about it. Is that insulting to you or me? You be the Judge.

    It feels like to me that we are straining at knats (definition of words like “chrony” ) and swallowing camels (definition of doctrine in contrast to folklore. Sorry for this confusion I have wrought upon your tender minds.

    Pray tell me a definition of doctrine that would have been useful to me as a somewhat thoughtful teenager growing up in Utah circa 1960-70. Or to some of my most intelligent friends who left the faith over this issue which was one of the most important moral issues of the time. Being insulted by words like “chrony” is laughably insignificant in contrast to what was lost in this unnecessary conflict, which seems to me to be far from over.

  54. Meldrum the Less
    April 4, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Gosh darn it. How do you spell crony or chrony?

  55. Rachel
    April 4, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Yes, the Sperry Symposium Papers were (blind) peer reviewed by LDS scholars outside of Religious Education, a good portion of who were outside of BYU.

    It will still be a Deseret Book publication intended for a lay (but educated) audience – but the evaluation process was rigorous.

  56. Test
    April 5, 2012 at 12:20 am

    Testing new spam-blocking plug-in. testing testing 123

  57. Test
    April 5, 2012 at 12:22 am

    Testing again

  58. April 5, 2012 at 10:42 am

    (Rachel:) Okay, so some outside of BYU, most outside of RelEd but still at BYU.

    Do you know whether this is standard procedure for all the Sperry Symposia? Not to threadjack, but this is astonishing and interesting, given the low (academic) quality of the Sperry Symposia in the (recent?) past.

  59. MDKing
    April 5, 2012 at 11:36 am

    JC, see #39: The vast majority were from outside BYU.

    I think this is the most recent volume: http://deseretbook.com/Things-Which-My-Father-Saw-Approaches-Lehis-Dream-Nephis-Vision-Sidney-B-Sperry-Symposium/i/5061897

  60. Ben Huff
    April 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Meldrum the Less (#53), if you are willing to apply the word “crony” to yourself, then I will happily withdraw my objection to your applying it to Professor Bott! Thanks for being cheerful about it.

    As for what church doctrine is, it seems to me there are a couple of categories. The Standard Works have been presented to the church to be accepted as binding, so they have a special, formal status as doctrine. If it is in the Standard Works, it’s pretty much doctrine for sure, unless there is some very serious reason to think that passage is mistaken or misleading. We do have some official indications that there are a few flaws in the Bible, such as Article of Faith #8, but even there the presumption is that it is reliable and binding.

    Outside of that, by “church doctrine” I think we mean teachings that all members should be expected to accept because they have been taught in an authoritative manner that makes it pretty clear the church leadership as a body stand behind it. There is a difference between being taught by a general authority, or even multiple general authorities, and having been taught in a conclusively authoritative manner, which involves a more thorough, more deeply rooted, acceptance and affirmation. To a significant extent we have to use our prayerful judgment on where to draw this line, and we won’t always be sure. On this topic, Nate Oman had a nice post a while back, which I recommend. In the case of the idea that the members of a particular race were spiritually inferior in some way, though, it seems to me there was a pretty strong indication that this was false, no matter how many people believed it or preached it, because the Book of Mormon directly denies any such thing. Can I expect members at the time to have known that this should not be taken as church doctrine? No, that would be unfair, considering it was supported by influential voices high in church leadership. However, the scripture has been there the whole time, and at this point, looking back, I think it is clear that it was not a teaching that carried conclusive church authority, but a widely believed folk doctrine (an idea believed and voiced within the church but without decisive authority), in large part because it’s pretty clear now that it was false.

  61. Mark D.
    April 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Ben H (#52), Part of what I am trying to say is that “Religious Education” is a remarkably strange name for a college or department that does not focus on pedagogy. “Religious Studies” is far more appropriate, and much less confusing name, if that is not the case.

    I recognize that teaching effectively requires special skills, but those should be promoted across the university. However, training in pedagogy as such certainly doesn’t grant any special knowledge or authority in the subject that one is teaching. By university standards, someone who has training only in pedagogy isn’t qualified to teach anything except pedagogy. We have higher standards for high school history teachers.

    So if the church doesn’t want professional institute level teachers promoting their own spin on church doctrine and teaching in class, there are only two real alternatives – one is to get rid of the idea that an institute class has any greater rigor than an average Sunday School class, and the other is to require graduate level training in the subject to be taught or a closely related field.

    I don’t see how training in education grants any more subject area expertise than is possessed by a typical ward level gospel doctrine teacher, and the pretense that any individual lacking such training does seems to be of the essence of the problem. It is like all ye who enter here – your professor isn’t particularly likely to have more reliable views on this subject than you do.

  62. Ben S
    April 6, 2012 at 1:08 am

    The problem, Mark D., is that “religious studies” has a well-defined meaning, and what BYU does just isn’t it, by a long shot. Rather, they “teach the gospel” or educate someone in(to) the Mormon religion.

  63. Mark D.
    April 7, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Ben S, then I would say that the way we understand the gospel, it is intended to be simple enough that it is not a university level exercise, and the pertinent BYU departments should drop the pretense that it is, and indeed drop the idea of having academic focus at all.

    The entire non-academic activity of religious education at BYU should be organized into an Institute of Religion, run like one, with regular devotional, faith building content, and academic content as secondary at best. Like mid-week Sunday School, in other words. No one misunderstands his Sunday School teacher as some sort of doctrinal authority.

    Anything left, that actually is academically oriented, could be transferred to some subdivision of the College of Humanities. I rarely if ever misunderstood my Institute classes as an academic exercise. They were devotional in focus, and rarely touched on anything in any greater detail than a Sunday School lesson – in fact many made a point of avoiding it.

    So the question for the College of Religious Education at BYU is, which do they want to be? An academic program or a devotional one? And if those two approaches are as incompatible as they seem to be, perhaps CRE could arrange an amicable divorce.

  64. Ben H
    April 7, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Mark D. (#63), you have a point. On the one hand, no one should be acting like being a good Latter-day Saint requires a college education, and we all know it doesn’t, so why do we need some special college-level program of study? Additionally, as an empirical matter, a lot of Rel Ed courses do not compare in academic content with other courses at BYU, so perhaps calling it Institute (at least those classes) would be more honest. Of course, one might ask, if we don’t need a special program like this, why do we need Rel Ed *or* Institute at BYU? We have student wards, so what else do we need? Sunday School should be enough, as it is for most members. On other campuses, it seems to me that Institute is primarily social in purpose, bringing young LDS together for fellowship, and the intellectually lightweight nature of the great majority of the Institute classes I’ve attended reinforces this conclusion. So since we have over 90 percent LDS at BYU, why bother even with Institute?

    I do think it would be very valuable to have a certain amount of Religious Studies offerings at BYU, and those courses should be distinguished from the Rel Ed offerings.

    However, I disagree that we don’t need a higher-octane intellectual experience in studying the gospel/church/scriptures for BYU students. I take seriously the scripture that is the basis for the BYU motto, “The glory of God is intelligence.” I think we need the kind of offerings that one would expect from a special School of Religious Education within a university. This sort of intellectual experience is certainly not a prerequisite for salvation/exaltation, but for those attending college it may be necessary for them to stay on track and continue growing. The gospel is not about clearing some minimum bar to qualify for heaven. The gospel is a plan of eternal progression. Sunday School actually is not enough for anyone. Those of us who live long enough to be considered for them need all kinds of other spiritual growth opportunities, like teaching Primary or Sunday School, serving in leadership at the ward or stake level, building a family and raising children of our own, finding ways to serve our communities in a manner that reflects our gospel priorities, and ongoing personal scripture study, temple attendance, and in general pressing forward to grow in our thoughts and our actions closer to God. Rel Ed is a form of growth very appropriate to the college student, when it is done right, and I have seen it done more than right (I have also seen Institute courses that were very intellectually stimulating, and we urgently need them to be for some young people, especially at elite universities).

    To build our minds up in other areas and not with regard to the gospel is like buying ourselves lobster and steak every day but giving the price of ramen for our fast offerings. And frankly, if we do not keep our gospel knowledge on pace with our knowledge of the rest of the world, it is likely to be choked out like the seed that fell among thorns. I worry right now that our Institute and Rel Ed programs are not strong enough to compete with the thorns, and that this is a major contributor to the large number of young people who fall away from the church either during or soon after college.

Comments are closed.