Scott Hales is a literary critic, Ph.D. student, writer and all-around Mormon culture raconteur. He was one of the brains (and brawn) behind the Mormon Lit Blitz, he blogs about Mormon literature and other stuff at The Low-Tech World, and also writes for Modern Mormon Men. He just finished teaching Mormon literature to non-LDS college students and graciously agreed to an interview about the experience.
For our readers who weren’t aware of this project, tell us briefly about how you came to be teaching a unit on Mormon literature and how it fits into the overall context of the class.
About a year ago I submitted a proposal to the English department for me to teach a 200-level Topics in Literature class called “American Religious Landscapes.” The basic idea behind the class was to look at fiction that explores the ways religion attaches itself to landscapes both concrete and abstract. I had just finished an independent study on Mormon fiction for credit toward my degree, so I was looking for an excuse to try out some of my ideas about Mormon literature on a captive audience.
At the time, a lot of my ideas focused on how Mormon fiction often suggests ways to reimagine the boundaries Mormons set around themselves. So, I found myself thinking a lot about Mormonism and its literature as a landscape or network of landscapes, which seemed appropriate considering how Mormons from the very beginning have tried to establish a strong physical presence with planned cities and temples. I also found myself looking at the way other religious groups do much the same thing. I figured that while Mormons are a peculiar people, they’re not that peculiar in their desire to stake their claim on the land.
As a PhD student, I’m normally consigned to teaching bottom-level composition courses, which aren’t really my thing. Every academic year, though, doctoral students are given the opportunity to propose a 200-level literature course and teach it as long as the proposal gets accepted. So, I submitted the proposal for “American Religious Landscapes,” indicating that the class would look at literature by or about Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, and other religious groups in America. I didn’t hear back from the department for several months, but I eventually got word that it had been accepted and scheduled for the Spring quarter 2012.
Before we dive into the class reactions, I want ask this: what were you hoping for? How were you going to define for yourself whether or not the Mormon fiction unit was a success?
From the beginning, I wanted to show that Mormon fiction could stand on equal footing with the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, Bobbie Ann Mason, John Updike, and other established American writers who are also on the course reading list. I was pretty sure going into the course that Mormon fiction could hold its own, but I also knew that my love for the stuff made me a little biased. So, in a sense, I wanted to prove to myself—and especially to any naysayers out there—that Mormon literature is not only on par with the best of contemporary American fiction, but also sophisticated enough for the college classroom.
Interestingly, several months ago, I was teaching the Book of Psalms to my Early Morning Seminary class, and I thought it would be a good idea to bring in Fire in the Pasture and read a few contemporary Mormon poems to my students. So, I read them a few poems by Susan Elizabeth Howe and others—good poems by good poets—but my students refused to take them seriously. In fact, after I finished reading, one student even made the comment that she didn’t think the poems were good enough to be published anywhere but in a book of Mormon poets—as if “Mormon” were somehow synonymous with “mediocre.”
Now, I understand that my seminary students—all of whom are very smart—are no experts in contemporary American poetry. I also understand that this happened at 5:30 in the morning, a time when the aesthetic judgments of most people are significantly impaired. Still, I think their response to Fire in the Pasture is fairly typical of that of many Latter-day Saints who refuse to believe that Mormon artistic output can be anything but mediocre. It’s a critical trap that even well-read Mormons fall into. I don’t want to generalize, of course, but I think we need more people walking the walk and less people talking the talk, so to speak. Too often, the well-read Mormons who are criticizing Mormon literature are often not very well-read in Mormon literature. One should read at least one (maybe two) Mormon novels, short stories, or poems published in the last five years before he or she says or writes anything about Mormon literature. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to ask.
So, getting back to the question, success was always about proving to myself that Mormon fiction could pass as legitimate literature. As a teacher, I wanted to see a seamless transition between Updike and Levi Peterson—and I think that’s what I got. When it came to discussing and analyzing Mormon stories, my students didn’t have to do any critical stretching. The stories were rich enough on their own.
You’ve written several posts about the process of selecting works for the class to read (and even got help from some of us in the Mo-lit community). Both in that process as well as in how the course went were there any obvious gaps that came up? Moments where you thought, I really wish I had a story that dealt with that aspect of Mormonism or an essay that addressed a particular issue related to Mormonism? Where are we thin with Mormon narrative art?
There are gaps in Mormon fiction, of course, but I think its in good shape considering how young it is. Still, we don’t have a whole lot of stories from non-white or non-American perspectives. We also don’t have many stories—not in Dispensation, at least, which is the textbook we used—that deal with Mormon interactions with non-Mormons. What we have a lot of, I think, are stories about the tensions within Mormon communities—Mormon vs. Mormon stories. As a teacher of non-Mormon students, I wish we had a few that looked more at the tensions between Mormons and their neighbors—especially as they exist outside of Utah. If I were to teach this unit again, I might seek out more stories about Mormon/non-Mormon tensions and relations. Dispensation has a few stories that come close to exploring this tension—stories like Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” and Coke Newell’s “Trusting Lily”—but not any that I found really satisfying. What I’d like is something like Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead in short fiction form, twenty pages or less. I’d love to see how my students would respond to a work like that one, which I had a chance to see when I was in Utah for the AML conference. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine their responses to that kind of story would draw upon their own experience as observers of Mormonism, maybe bring out more their ideas on Mormonism’s relevance to the broader, pluralistic community.
What was the biggest surprise you experienced in teaching Mormon literature to non-LDS students?
Aside from the shock of walking into class on the first day of the unit and seeing everyone with copies of Dispensation on their desks, the first big surprise I had was seeing how seriously everyone took the unit. Part of me, after all, was really worried that they would be somewhat suspicious of Mormon fiction and even fail to see how it was relevant to the course and question why we were reading it. But that never seemed to be the case. On the whole, they treated Mormon fiction like any other kind of fiction–which is exactly what I wanted them to do.
I guess what surprised me was how many of them really took the time to learn enough about Mormonism to be able to articulate how the Mormon elements in the work contributed to the story as a whole. One of the most common questions that came up in class discussions was “How is this a Mormon story?” My students, in other words, often made the point that one could easily switch around a few details, substitute elements from other religions for the Mormon elements, and still have essentially the same story. And, to a certain extent, they were right: there’s nothing uniquely Mormon about the family conflict in a story like Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving.” I mean, family conflict is as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and pumpkin pie.
Still, whenever this question came up, I would always ask a question of my own: “What do these Mormon elements bring to the story?” Basically, I wanted to get my students to investigate the Mormon aspects of the story as something more than local color or window dressing. My biggest surprise, therefore, came during our discussion of “Thanksgiving.” We were talking about the relationship between the mother and bipolar son-in-law in the story, and I asked the class if the story had an antagonist or a “bad guy.” One student proposed that Kyle, the son-in-law, was the story’s antagonist, and when I asked the class if they agreed with her, another student raised her hand and pointed out that Alicia, the mother, was more of an antagonist for the way she turned her back on Kyle. “As I understand it,” she said, “when Kyle was sealed to Alicia’s daughter, he was basically sealed to Alicia too. That would mean Alicia was turning her back on her own son.” The comment floored me! Here was a student who was trying hard to see how the Mormon landscape functioned in and contributed to the story. I was very impressed.
If you were to teach a unit on the Mormon experience again, what changes might you make in terms of which works you select?
I had good experiences with each of the stories I taught, although I think I would have prepared students better for a story like Levi Peterson’s “Brothers,” which was the first story they read. Although I don’t think the story is densely Mormon, I did sense a little confusion around the meaning of temple sealings in Mormon culture, which is a major aspect of the story. Once I explained it to them, though, they seemed fine. In fact, that explanation made it much easier to teach other stories later on, like “Thanksgiving” and Lisa Torcasso Downing’s “Clothing Esther.” In fact, I think “Clothing Esther” would have been almost impossible to teach if we had not had the discussions that came out of stories like “Brothers” and even Todd Robert Petersen’s “Quietly.”
I think the students liked “Quietly,” but I felt I did too much of the talking during our discussion of it. I had just returned from presenting a paper on “Quietly” at the AML conference, so I had a lot to say about the story. Looking back on the class, I wish I had let them take the discussion more to where they wanted to take it rather than where I wanted to take it. On the last day of the unit, I decided to offer my opinion less, which turned out to be a good thing. That was the day we discussed “Thanksgiving” and “Clothing Esther,” and the students brought a lot of good ideas to the table. They even ended up teaching me some things about the stories.
Of the six stories we used in class, my favorite was Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work,” which I would use again. Based on student responses, I’d also reuse “Thanksgiving”—which seemed to be their overall favorite—and Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves.” As I mentioned earlier, though, I might look around and try to incorporate more stories about Mormon interactions with non-Mormons—something that could get students thinking about Mormons as a community within a community. I’d like to use Todd Robert Petersen’s “Redeeming the Dead,” for example, or really anything from Long After Dark. Maybe that’s the book I’ll use for my next attempt at teaching Mormon fiction.
Finally what tips do you have for anyone who might be teaching a Mormon literature unit or workshop or course in the future? (Or someone who simply wanted to introduce Mormon literature to non-member friends or family members)
If you’re thinking about incorporating Mormon literature into your class, and have a good reason for doing so, do it. In many ways, I designed my current course around my desire to teach Mormon literature, and I was surprised by how easy that was to do. As my students kept pointing out during our Mormon unit, Mormon literature is not that different from other kinds of religious or minority literatures. Even a story like “Clothing Esther,” with its heavy Mormon elements, is not inaccessible for non-Mormon readers who take the time to learn enough of the language of Mormonism to get by. When it comes down to it, Mormons and non-Mormons are pretty much interested in the same kinds of ideas and themes. I think teaching Mormon works alongside non-Mormon works helps to bring that out.
Other tips: Teach good, well-crafted stories. Begin with stories that help teach the language of Mormonism to non-Mormon readers (Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work” is a good example) and move on, if you choose, to more densely Mormon stories. Find a way to make it relevant to the course and, if possible, to your students’ experiences. Let the students discover the stories on their own and allow their questions to guide your discussions. Don’t try to drown them with Mormonism. Give them what little they need to navigate the Mormon landscape and turn them loose. They’ll surprise you with what they find.
Also, ignore the haters. Mormon literature is a valid field of study for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It can hold its own in the classroom. Don’t let anyone lead you to think otherwise.