[Quotes of Note will be a semi-regular feature in which I introduce an excerpt from a recent book or article that I found especially relevant, thoughtful, or otherwise worth discussing. Basically, this is a solution to a common problem in my reading: I often find myself stumbling upon a section of a book that I'm dying to disucuss, but the discussion never happens because I'm typically alone in a library, my office, or any of the other lonely places grad students frequent. Thus, this series.]
I recently finished Armand Mauss’s memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (UofU Press, 2012). The book is a gem that deserves a broad readership: it offers background to his major scholarly contributions, a personal view of Mormon culture in the second half of the 20th century, an overview and loving critique of Dialogue, and an insider’s perspective to the origins and growth of Claremont’s Mormon studies chair, all written in a readable style that is both entertaining and informative. While there are definite points of curmudgeon-ness—hell, isn’t that what memoirs by seasoned academics are for?—the curmudgeon-ness comes from a loving and informed perspective that should be seriously considered.
One example where I think he makes a really important point is found at the end of his chapter on Dialogue. (He had a long relationship with the organization and journal, including five years as chair of the board.) When talking about the future of the journal, he brings up the important point that many young Mormons no longer have to subscribe to Dialogue in order to experience intellectual stimulation—they can now do that by merely clicking on the many blogs. But this is a problem not only for the journal’s financial resources, but also for Mormon intellectual culture in general.
Here’s the quote:
Even the most solid and talented future leaders of Dialogue, however, will still have to find ways to attract more readers from the younger age groups–especially from those below age forty, where attrition in the Dialogue readership has been the greatest. This need not require a change in brand or editorial philosophy, since, as indicated in the surveys, readers preferences in such matters have not differed by age. My own assessment of the task facing current and future editors is that they must find a way to persuade their younger peers to spend less time in the blogosphere and more time in reading and writing in-depth, peer-reviewed literature on the Mormon scene. Blogging has its place, and it is a quick and easy way to get one’s opinions and observations broadcast to a certain constituency.
One drawback, though, is the tendency I have noticed for many who frequent the blogosphere to ask questions, or express opinions, in seeming ignorance of the rich literature found in journals and books that would bear importantly upon the very topics they wish to discuss. I realize that there is an immediate gratification in seeing one’s ideas disseminated to a large audience simply by hitting the “send” key, but in a couple of days one’s treasured thoughts disappear into the archives (or into cyberspace), where their future visibility will be limited. Far better, it seems to me, to collect one’s ideas (even if from one’s own blogs), document them, refine them, and submit them for publication in journals that are peer reviewed, indexed, and readily available for scholarly research. I hope that many more bloggers can be converted in that way into Dialogue authors, for this and many other journals in Mormon studies will be heavily dependent on their talent in the future. (143)
Notice that he admits that blogging does have importance and should not be done away with. (What would I do to procrastinate writing my dissertation?) But the concerns he brings up are very valid: blogging, and I would extend that to discussion groups on facebook, have led people to be satisfied with merely expressing angst without ever really resolving it. (Mauss is especially critical of the current Sunstone culture for that very reason.) Perhaps its because they types of platforms are typically landing spots where people go when they first develop a new interest or experience new problems, and thus blogs and discussion groups typically maintain an introduction-level dialogue.
It seems like there are three things that need to happen when one stumbles upon intellectual problems within the church. First, they need their problems validated and not merely dismissed. Second, they need to know they are not alone with those issues. And third, they need to struggle, research, formulate, reconceptualize, and struggle some more in order to work through the problems. Many online communities, especially those that gather the most people, are good at providing the first two elements, but rarely the third. In a way, internet Mormonism can make one lazy and content rather than inspired to actually find answers to the toughest questions. This is a shame, because the Mormon intellectual community has a deep tradition of sophisticated answers—or at least sophisticated questioning. We have leagues of books, articles, and essays that go a long way to help today’s most vexing questions, yet we are most often content to just read and write short blog posts or facebook statuses that give a superficial and cursory take on the issue; rather than actually dealving in, we are now conditioned to just express angst and leave it at that.
So, a couple questions. Do blogs and online communities actually cultivate intellectual laziness? How can we better utilize the online platform in promoting deeper and more sophisticated looks at our dynamic tradition?
Update: Dialogue editor and fellow BCCer Kristine shares this good news: “For those of you feeling moved to repentance, Dialogue is offering a special holiday rate on indulgences, just for today and tomorrow. You can get an electronic subscription, which includes access to all of Dialogue’s current content, for just $10. Use discount code BCC15 at dialoguejournal.com. (If you’re already an electronic subscriber, this will add a year to your current subscription.) Peace on earth, good will to all!”