It's back. Possibly the most controversial class ever offered at UVSC: Mormon Cultural Studies. It's on the spring schedule, cross-listed as COMM 350R and AMST 300R: Special Topics: LDS in Media and Culture.
Why isn't the official title in the schedule "Mormon Cultural Studies"? Because it abbreviates either to Mormon Cult or Mo Cult Studs, both of which carry connotations the professors don't want.
What is the class about, and why is it controversial? According to Professor Phil Gordon, one of the co-teachers of the class, "It's about "Mormonism," but not as a religion.
"It's about the culture of Mormons," Gordon said. "What does it mean to "be" Mormon? How is the meaning of 'Mormon' constructed by Mormons and non-Mormons? What does it mean to be 'non-Mormon'? How does that identity come to be meaningful in Utah? How does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operate as an institution of social power? How is it subjected by other forms of social power?"
As Professor Gordon argues in his forthcoming article, "Suddenly, I'm Jewish", it's important to interrogate both anti-Mormonism and anti-non-Mormonism. As a non-religious ethnic Jew working closely with many Mormon students, Gordon describes the emergence of a new personal identity, unique to his experience in Utah: "non-Mormon." Gordon refers to himself as a nomo.
Gordon thinks it is important for "nomos" to be, if not necessarily "pro-Mormon," at least to be "anti-anti-Mormon," by which he means to be against the sort of knee-jerk, anti-Mormon stereotyping he sometimes encounters, both inside and outside of Utah.
Correlatively, Gordon thinks it is important for Mormons to be, if not always in favor of the values and practices of all non-Mormons, at least to be "anti-anti-non-Mormon," by which he means to be against the practice of Mormons stereotyping non-Mormons.
The controversy of the class stems from fears that the class will be either a forum for Mormon-bashing, or, conversely, an encroachment of the Mormon Church into the secular classroom.
For Dr. Gordon, these sorts of fears are indicative of the need to responsibly engage the cultural divisions we live with every day on the UVSC campus. Gordon often blends humor with serious cultural criticism as a means of overcoming resistance to his ideas.
In his article, addressing the issue of teaching religious students, Gordon writes,"...What is the point of teaching if you don't respect your students and meet them on their own ground? After all, religiosity, whatever else it may be, is also a type of intellectualism. I figure, 'hey, at least they've read a book.'"
The other teacher for the class, Professor Dennis Potter, from the philosophy department, has been deeply involved in Mormon theological and political issues for years, and has published widely on the subjects.
Potter is famous on campus for his passionate lecturing style and general scrappiness in the scholarly debates that rage at UVSC. Potter was just as unconventional in the mission field as he is in the classroom, once unintentionally convincing an atheist to convert to Roman Catholicism.
The class is scheduled to be visited by the authors of two of the books on the syllabus: Maxine Hanks, author of "Women and Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminism", and Darron Smith, author of "Black and Mormon". There are likely to be other guest lecturers as well.
Gordon hopes this is the sort of class students remember years after graduating. And it is being taught by the sorts of teachers all students should take at least once while they're in college.