A Little Suggestion

As you know, I’m reading the latest Dialogue, and on the train this morning I get to R. John Williams, “Remembering Gene and His Generation,” which is a review of Robert A. Rees, Proving Contraries: A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene England (SLC: Signature, 2005). At pp. 186-87, Williams comments a bit on the Bloggernacle:

But no matter who assumes the reins of “independent” Mormon scholarship in the future, one can be relatively certain that the venues for that intellectual activity will seldom involve paper. The “next generation” of Mormon scholars do not, as a general rule, shell out $35 for essays in honor of the previous generation (which is not to say that they shouldn’t). They do not, unfortunately, even subscribe to Dialogue. Whoever these next Mormon intellectuals are, they are connected to digital networks, computer screens, and online discussion groups. One finds them woven into the fabric of online “threads,” moving through cyberspace with relative anonymity. They show up at online sites like Times and Seasons, Exponent II Blog, By Common Consent, Feminist Mormon Housewives, Millennial Star, and a host of other blog-like discussion sites.

Having perused many of these online sites myself and even contributed to these discussions on occasion, two things strike me as interesting. First, how exciting, heated, wonderful, and brilliant some of these discussions can be on the one hand, while sometimes slipping into a kind of quasi-intellectual form of “self expression” rather than true “communication” and “dialogue” on the other. And second, how seldom, if ever, those participating in these discussions realize the enormous wealth of foundational intellectual work already done in forty years of Dialogue publications. While some may argue that each generation must work out these problems on its own, I would contend that there is incredible value in digging into the discursive past. Trolling through these online forums, I have often wondered things like, “Wasn’t that Michael Coe’s point back in 1973?” Or, “Wouldn’t this person benefit from Gene’s Letter to a College Student from 1974?” Or even, “Isn’t there a great article on that topic in the current issue of Dialogue?”

Your reaction to any of Williams’ comments is on topic for this thread. But I have had a similar thought many times to his second point above. And therein lies my little suggestion.

If Hugh Nibley were a young student of Mormon things in 2007, I can guarantee that he would already have read through all of the journals. That was how he acquired knowledge. You go to the stacks in the library and read everything on a given subject, and then you find the relevant journals and read through their entire history. (Not that you read every word; there is a lot of browsing and skimming that goes on in this process.)

So my little Nibleyesque suggestion is that people take some time and browse the many riches that are there for the taking in the Mormon journals. They are pretty much all online now, so expense is no longer an excuse. Start at the beginning and work forward, or start with the current issue and work backward, whatever makes sense to you. If you do this, you will get a bird’s eye view of Mormon studies, and your capacity to intelligently contribute to the ongoing Bloggernacle conversation will increase exponentially.

Here are the links for your convenience:

Dialogue

Journal of Mormon History

Sunstone

BYU Studies

Journal of Book of Mormon Studies

FARMS Review

Comments

  1. a random John says:

    Browsing the U of U’s online copy of Dialogue is an exercise in frustration. I’d read more of the old stuff if it were online in a usable form. Locking it up in an unbrowsable format doesn’t do us lazy bloggernacle types any favors.

  2. Kevin and arJ both speak wisdom.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Right on, Kev. It’s amazing how often our commonplace topics have already been dealt with at length.

  4. My memory is that you get the Dialogue DVD with all PDFs when you subscribe. I’d recommend that option (I agree the UofU installation is a mess).

  5. Kristine says:

    Amen, Kevin. I have occasionally begun an exasperated “do your homework!” post. What stops me is 1) I have my own children to nag, about things like washing their hands at least once a day, and 2) I remember that most people younger than I am grew up in the post-1993, post Oaks “independent voices” era, and that they may well have been encouraged to steer clear by people they trust. (instead of, for instance, receiving a Hugh Nibley book every year since they were 8 and their very own Dialogue subscription for Primary graduation–lest anyone wonder why I had no friends in jr. high!)

    Part of what the bloggernacle can do, if we’re doing our job, is to point to the good stuff from the past, as well as helping people figure out where on the Mormon Studies spectrum (from reading absolutely everything including the Tanners to reading only BYU Studies and CES Symposium proceedings) they’re comfortable.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    arJ, the BYU Studies online interface used to be the same way, where you can only view one page at a time. Within the past year they changed it, so that you download entire articles at a time, which works much better. Maybe the University of Utah could make a similar change to the format of the Dialogue archive.

  7. I think that there is some impetus to keep it in a more difficult format so that you will by the DVD archives. BYU Studies has a little bit more freedom as they aren’t as worried about their budget.

  8. Kristine, that’s a wonderfully perceptive comment. Perhaps we could consider some edits occasionally in posts to move recommended reading up into the main body of the post for people to pursue.

    And I agree with you that some people will find a full review of Dialogue (e.g.) both intellectually stimulating and faith affirming, others may find it disorienting, and people should be allowed at some level to have a sense for what they’re getting into.

  9. My only quibble with this is that the bloggernacle is not some exclusive intellectual clubhouse (point proving by giant neon arrow point back this way.) It is more accessable than and journal or text has been up to this point, thus topics are bound to come up which have not only been written about in Journals, but written about on the internet a million times over. I mean people sometimes can’t find the online stuff with google, much less find the correct journal articles with old dewey decimal.

    Further, you can’t ask a journal to clarify itself when the author hides behind jargon.

    And Finally, Journals have a tendancy to give the long answer to the short question, whereas blogging typically calls for a more blunt and simple approach, which is preferrable in most instances in our modern McDonald’s Eating, Channel Surfing Society…

  10. I really don’t have time for this. So I hope that when I happen to start scratching the surface of something that someone will give me an specific and appropriate link, and thus save me weeks of research.

  11. I wonder if the old-timers of 1966 would have something similar to say about Dialogue? The tendency to believe the world was created the day each of us was born probably was also around before we were.

  12. Re comments 1 & 3, so if someone actually came up with a sensible and useable web interface for these things, then that would effectively kill the Bloggernacle, right? Because then someone would always just kill conversation by linking to the website by comment #5 and pointing out the answer has already been provided to the best of anyone’s ability. R. John Williams thinks the next generation of Mormon Intellectuals is going to come out of the Bloggernacle? That is hillarious, and scary, if true.

  13. I’m not sure I agree with Williams’ assessment of things.

    While it may be true that every participant in the bloggernacle hasn’t carefully perused these publications, those few doing serious work on Mormonism have certainly done their “homework” in this regard. I also disagree that the future of Mormon scholarship rests with blogging, least of all with bloggers who are ill-informed.

  14. One more item to further expand my ever growing “only quibble” [comment #9] The research done in any of the above publications is by no means authoritative, so even if “It’s all been done before” that certainly does not mean it ought not be done again.

    and ED, people point back to old information all the time, and this by no means kills the conversations so far. If U of U wants people to use their website, they need to upgrade to a usable format. (I am fairly sure it’s U of U that has the issue and not Dialogue itself, but I could be wrong)

  15. Steve Evans says:

    I think Williams is more accurately depicting readership trends than scholarship. He’s right that far, far more people read the blogs than read any mormon academic journal. Because Williams presumes that readership is the source of the next generation of authorship, he’s free to say that the blogs are where the scholars will be found.

    Is he right? I am skeptical like many of you, but at the same time I can think of several people who acquired an interest in Mormon Studies and began the transition towards serious scholarship in that field by reading the blogs. So as a springboard, I think we definitely have an increasingly important role to play.

    Extreme Dorito (#12), since when has the notion of beating a dead horse ever deterred anyone in the Bloggernacle?

  16. Kristine says:

    “I can think of several people who acquired an interest in Mormon Studies and began the transition towards serious scholarship in that field by reading the blogs”

    Really?

  17. Really, truly!

  18. Blogs are a blight! I decry the ephemeral nature of the discussions on the blog. Here for 5 days and then gone into the vast archives which will disappear as soon as the server burns up. Add to the that the often anonymous nature of the comments and free-wheeling flame wars that come out of that anomymity and get a good discussion on a street corner with a person having a bag over his/her face.

    Scholarship on the blogs? Serious scholarship is often presented in the form of papers that are pre-published on the net. But blogs seem to me to be just blurbs like the 30-second sound-bites that render our culture about as deep as jell-o. Anything worth disucssing can be fully laid out in a 30-second sound bit or a three paragraph statement. Anything longer is just too tedious because it goes beyond the bottom of the computer screen! If that is what scholarship means, then we are impoverished indeed. It is the illusion of scholarship IMPOV.

  19. Blake, I assume you’re referring to your own blog contributions as well.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    I guess I’m a little surprised that there isn’t more intellectual curiousity out there in the Mormon blogosphere. Aren’t folks the teensiest bit curious what intelligent Mormons have been writing about for decades now?

  21. since when has the notion of beating a dead horse ever deterred anyone in the Bloggernacle?

    Never. But, if the first 5 comments are all links to various periodicals which the original author overlooked, then thats a conversation killer that implicitly impugns the author (e.g., what a fool, didnt even do their homework). People who disagree with the position will attack the authors of cited periodicals with ad hominems (e.g., apostate, secularized, PhD=Piled high and Deep) and people who agree will attack those who disagree with ad hominems (e.g., you are so ignorant and unschooled and parochial and dumb!). Yay. Sounds great.

    Forgive my unschooledishness on matters of Mormonian Studies, but I think the state of the art with respect to some hot button issues is still pretty weak and could easily support some rather good PhD thesis work and debate online and elsewhere (e.g., a vigorous documentation of all available recorded material pertaining to all of Smith’s alleged wives and categorization of such regarding its source [pro-, anti-, detached], a rigorously documented Blacks & the Priesthood Chronology with additional research into who Elijah Abel really was and what he looked like [the histories and sources of the one drawing and one photograph current purported to be him are pretty sketchy], and exhaustive and ubiased documentation of material pertaining to the history of the Word of Wisdom with cultural and historical commentary [that could be 3 PhDs, there has been a lot in Dialogue on this, but there is still plenty of room]).

    But, I dont see the Bloggernacle doing any of this. The nature of blogging and the internet is to largely satisfy impulsive time-killing and compulsive narcissism. It doesnt lend itself to serious research. For example, name one topic that has been seriously researched to death on the Bloggernacle to the point where it is over and everyone refers back to that thread as a fete accomplis. Can you? No, there are plenty of dead horses being flailed, but the amount of serious research and informative substance that comes out of them is scant.

  22. Steve: I’m referring especially to my “contributions”. When I write a paper I edit and make sure I get everything to express matters the best way I can. On a blog it is off-the-cuff and shoot-from-the-hip. So I second Kevin. There is no substitute for the actual study and thinking through of issues before spouting off. However, I have at least read everything on Kevin’s list of publications before contibuting. Did I say everything? Yup.

  23. Kevin, the term “intelligent” here is somewhat debateable. Anyway, of course people are interested, but this is the information age, and we want the information in a useable format where we can get in, get what we need and get out without having to waste a lot of time digging through crap we aren’t interested in in a format that is hard to use. Both Sunstone and Dialogue suffer from poor formatting on their websites, and Sunstone further suffers from an incomplete database. Even BYU studies could enhance it’s ability to be searched.

    Perhaps we have been sadly spoiled by the ensign’s current ultra availability.

  24. I just realized how pompous the first sentence sounds in my last comment. Please disregard it.

  25. Blake, I agree that we rarely see original scholarship on the blogs. But they serve another very important purpose; at their best, they help replace the nonexistent undergraduate classroom in Mormon Studies. Here, we get to talk amongst ourselves and digest the large amount of research that exists. There’s a serious lack of institutional support for this kind of activity in any other arena of Mormondom. Blogs reduce the elitism of Mormon Studies by making ideas from it more accessible to the rest of us.

  26. Randy B. says:

    “I have at least read everything on Kevin’s list of publications before contributing.”

    Well that’s a pretty high bar to entry.

    It is undoubtedly true there is a whole lot of blog talk that is largely unaware of discussions that have gone on before. At think most people figure that out, at least if they spend much time in the bloggernacle. Blogs are not scholarship (generally speaking). Instead, I see them as a gateway to more serious reading. While blogs probably won’t serve as a breeding ground for new scholars, they will almost certainly grow the audience for scholarly material. Speaking personally, I suspect there is a good chance that I would never have gotten around to the likes of Bushman and Brodie (let alone Ostler!) were it not for the blogs.

  27. In my own personal use of magazines like Sunstone, BYU STudies, The Ensign and Dialogue, I have been uncomfortable in my own ability to discern the good from the bad, in my ability to discern which information is up to date and what is now outdated. As a relative neophyte to all this, I am typically searching out the most current up to date data from the most trustworthy sources.

  28. I think I remember reading somewhere(how’s that for a footnote!) back when Sunstone first started, Peggy Fletcher had thought about calling the magazine “First Draft”. She perceived a need for a forum where ideas that were not quite ready for prime time could be discussed.

    I agree with JNS and Randy B. The blogs can be like undergraduate survey courses, and they expand the market for serious academic work. I’ve never been involved with MHA or SMPT before. As a result of my participation here, I have now joined both organizations. See you next week, Blake.

  29. Mostly blogging is just a fun little hobby and a chance to spar with friends online.

    Occasionally, though, it serves a useful purpose. I have two print papers currently working their way through the editorial machine. Both began as rough ideas which benefited greatly from the input I received when I blogged about them and on behind-the-scenes blog email lists. It’s the modern equivalent of thrashing out ideas in the Kaffeehaus. Most fall by the wayside, a few find fertile ground. Where else can I discuss things Mormon intellectuel? Not in Baltimore, and not in Vienna.

  30. Matt W. (#27) raises an interesting point. Journals are how we keep current in a field, not how we get up to date. Then journal archives are available for tracking back the particular issues that matter to us. There is usually something interesting to be found in any old bound periodical volume sitting on the library shelf. The hour or two I may spend in a given afternoon browsing forty-year-old articles usually has the taste of a guilty pleasure, more nourishing than reading blogs certainly, but hard to justify from an efficiency standpoint.

  31. Matt W, remember that research AT bycommonconsent DOT com can be a useful resource as you’re trying to sort through fact and fiction. We are glad to open up the blogs for people interested in learning more and navigating the Mormon Studies literature more ably. We’re hoping to have another couple questions up soon, and we would be glad to serve as a resource for people in your position.

  32. Steve Evans says:

    JNS, I think you hit it on the head when you said “they help replace the nonexistent undergraduate classroom in Mormon Studies.” I think that best represents our potential.

  33. I personally count on the well read participants of the bloggernacle to point me to relevant books and articles on the various Mormons topics we discuss around here. I know there are treasures out there but I often need a little guidance to find them. Once I find them I try to pass them on in my posts though. For instance, here is a post based on an excellent article in the Journal of Mormon History on the poetic rendition of The Vision that Kevin pointed me to here at BCC. Here is a post on a 1998 Dialogue article discussing the flood narrative that Robert C. mentioned over at T&S. I could link to several others but you get the point.

    You well read folks are of course free to gripe that people like me aren’t as well read as you. As long as you keep pointing us in the right direction for these articles I won’t complain.

  34. I subscribed at one time to both Sunstone and Dialogue, and picked up back issues from time to time. Over the long run, my real life of six kids (mostly grown), keeping a home, a career in high tech that requires constant updating of skills and credentials, and church callings limit my ability to be a serious scholar. So from time to time, I pick up copies of books, the odd publication here and there, and have only recently dropped into this and one or two other blogs.

    I have no intention of being a credentialed Mormon scholar, but I have a deep interest in the things we see here. I drop in from time to time when it’s quiet at work, or in the evenings at home. It’s a way for me to keep the intellectual curiosity satisfied, and some of my critical thinking skills sharper. I appreciate that many of you are serious scholars, but don’t dump us amateurs. We need this sort of outlet, mostly to listen, and occasionally to drop a comment or two. Yeah, it’s a hobby, and I don’t have my complete library of source material handy, but I do enjoy it.

    Is there room for all of us here?

  35. …But as to what that weird sign on the cuneiform text BRM 1 92 is all about, you lot are useless. I cannot read the blasted thing!

  36. Could BCC use its association with Dialogue to post classic articles from the past? Resulting comments could update the reader on subsequent research or extend the conversation the article had begun.

  37. Steve Evans says:

    “Could BCC use its association with Dialogue to post classic articles from the past?”

    Yes, or at least we should be able to provide links to where such article can be read at the U of U or elsewhere. That’s just a matter of marginal effort on the part of us permas. See for example my apostasy post, where I linked to a related (but not identical) Dialogue article. It doesn’t take long to look through the old TOCs and find something related.

  38. so… if the blogs are just re-hashing old topics already addressed…

    Does this mean in some past issue of Dialogue there is an essay about how Mormon Journals/intellectuals are just addressing issues that have already been addressed by… the prophets?

  39. Steve, I have to agree with others that the UofU Dialogue archives are almost unreadable; every so often I give it another try but I always give up before I’ve finished.

    Selecting an article, posting a summary with a few quotes, a link to a pdf file of the complete text and some relevant questions or new research/information would be a great way to expose a new generation to Dialogue and maybe even an enticement to get the older generation, maybe even those who authored the original, to get involved in BCC.

  40. Steve Evans says:

    KLC, it’s a good idea and one we’re definitely working on.

  41. I second KLC’s ideas as great ones.

    Another thought just occurred to me, making my statement of “only quibble” ever the more innacurate.

    My thought is that I, as a plain ol non-intellectual, really want this sort of information, but I want it filtered(Not attacked or disregard, just filtered) via a source which has the same basic biases that I have, what McConkie would call his five points of testimony.

    What I mean to say is a person can tell me almost any fact about Joseph Smith, whether about his many wives or about his secretly being an international jewel thief named miliscent bystander, so long as I know that that person believes what I believe about Joseph Smith(namely, that he’s a prophet of God).

    That may sound patheticly narrow to some of you, but I am striving for intellectual honesty here, and in a world where bias is a basic reality, I’d always take a bloke who said Joseph was a right bastard but a prophet of God over one that said Joseph was swell, but not a prophet. If I can get a swell prophet, so much the better…

  42. Kevinf–one of the great (and terrible) things about Mormon studies is that practically everyone who does it, even the ones who publish their stuff in Dialogue, BYU Studies, etc., is uncredentialed. Some are just more serious hobbyists than others.* So you are of course entirely welcome and as likely anyone to see the obvious point that all the people who’ve had their nose buried in fat books for years will have missed!

    *(At any moment now, a BYU Studies acolyte is going to post about how BYU Studies is more peer-reviewed, harder to publish in, etc. Spare us.)

    and by–drive-by cheap shots are in poor form. Anonymous ones doubly so.

  43. Kevin Barney has a really good point. But it needs to be taken one step further. How many of you have seen the Mormon Studies Index produced by Gary Gillum of the BYU Library? This was the only place, to my knowledge, where you could find articles in non-official LDS magazines and periodicals (e.g. Sunstone and Dialogue) indexed by author, subject, and title. A digital version of this index used to be available on the BYU web site but it has since been taken down. Someone needs to update Gillum’s index, put it in into an online database, and then link the entries in the database to the actual articles on the web. This would make it much easier for people on the Bloggernacle to quickly find out what has been already written on their topic and to include links to articles from Dialogue and Sunstone.

  44. Kevin, great post and very good (and needed) kick in the pants for many of us.

    I think one way that blogs could help bring many of us aspiring-/pseudo-intellectuals up to speed would be to focus discussions around certain gems in the archives of these Mormon studies journals. This would give many of us a piqued interest in these articles and a venue to discuss and think about such issues as we study them—sort of a virtual “readings course” for aspiring scholars (or just interested students).

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