Saturday, January 4, 2014

On saying yes (Teaching Mormon Lit)

Some of the biggest opportunities in my life have come at the most inconvenient times. Just after my twenty-first birthday, when I'd spent the last 22 months impatiently waiting for my missionary boyfriend to come home, Bruce Young asked me to be his TA for the London Study Abroad Program. I said "no," burst into tears, walked across campus to my job, and called him as soon as I got in the door to tell him I wanted to do it after all. When I look back at my college experience, it's definitely that time in London that was the most memorable and the most formative, and if I'd done the safe thing and not left the guy I'd been writing an average of a dozen pages a week for the last two years (my roommates were aghast that I'd even consider it), I would never have had those experiences.

There have been other times when we were absolutely certain, my missionary and I (he did wait those four months for me after all), that our lives would take us in one direction, only to have us sent somewhere else. We had an apartment and jobs lined up for him to go to medical school at Duke, only to have a full-tuition scholarship come through from Washington University just days before the decision deadline. We packed up our stuff and moved to an apartment we'd never seen in a city we didn't know. And eleven years later, at the end of our training, we were sure he'd end up with a job in Provo, near his family, but just before he put his pen to paper and signed the formal contracts, the job opportunity came through here. Things were less certain in many ways with this job, but it's turned out to be a great experience for all of us.

Similarly, I applied for BYU's MFA program on a whim, at the recommendation of a friend, and was terrified to find out I'd been accepted. I had four kids, and the youngest was only three, when I started, and it felt both overwhelming and completely indulgent. A year later, we were DONE, DONE, DONE building our family when the undeniable urge to adopt Rosie came, and we followed it even though it meant going back to diapers, sleepless nights, surgeries, and eventually Eli. And undoubtedly, they've been the greatest (most overwhelming) blessing I never thought I'd have.

But as many of you know, I've found it hard to keep up with having two two-year-olds (and four older kids). The babies get into everything. They hit and talk back. They don't sleep. They both want to be cuddled and carried and fed at the same moment. I've spent the last nine months barely keeping my head above water. Shortly before we went to get Eli, I took on the responsibility of heading up Segullah, and I feel like I barely give it the attention it deserves most times, and my list of "to do" things for the journal is a mile long (in my mind, because writing it down is too much work).

So it should come as no surprise at all that I got a call a little more than a month ago. Did I want to teach Mormon Lit at the BYU Salt Lake Center?

I didn't see any conceivable way that I could do it. I can't even manage to get out of my pajamas some days. My house is a wreck. My running schedule has all gone to pot. I can't manage much but baby wrangling and driving people places and Instagram posts most days.

So I said yes (of course I did).

Because while my short-term plans included not much more than laundry and potty training, my ten-year dream plan included teaching at the Salt Lake Center, and my wildest dream included teaching Mormon Lit. And when your wildest dream falls in your lap, you don't say no, even if the timing isn't right.

I finally started working on the syllabus this week, after several weeks of denial. And thanks to Margaret Young (who is teaching the immensely popular section in Provo), Angela Hallstrom, Michael and Karen Austin, and the entire staff at Segullah, who have been amazing at providing recommendations for what we should study, I'm not totally terrified any more.

This Wednesday, the class will start. And for the next four months, I'll spend Wednesday afternoons in front of a class, and the rest of the week, I'll be praying that Rosie will nap so I can somehow keep up on the class and the 40ish Whitney books I need to read during the same time frame. And maybe this will even help me get some of my mojo back.

Wish me luck! And if you're free from 12:15-2:40 on Wednesdays, consider taking it-- there's still room!

There are people who've gotten wind of this crazy endeavor and have asked to see my syllabus, so here is the reading list and schedule of assignments. I know it looks like a lot of reading right now, and I plan to pare down some of the readings as I get a sense of the class, but I'd rather subtract from the syllabus than add to it.

Literature of the Latter-day Saints
Course Description :
This course surveys the foundations and current state of Mormon literature as demonstrated in journals, essays, poetry, short fiction, novels, drama, and cinema.

Course Objectives:
English 268 will introduce students to the rich Mormon literary heritage and to the current state of Mormon letters/art. The course will also encourage students to become a part of the Mormon literary endeavor by writing their own work or by researching an author or subject of their choice.

·      Regular quizzes on the readings (approximately weekly)
·      Mormon literary events–you will attend one event and write up a short response essay.  These events may be author readings, LDS films, or specifically LDS dance/music concerts or an LDS play.
·      Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction Presentations. While it’s impossible for us to read more than a representative sample of some Mormon literature in this course, we’re going to do our best. Twice during the semester, students will pick a novel written by a Mormon author, write a short review (500-800 words) and prepare a 15-minute presentation/discussion of the novel. 
·      Final Project–you may choose ONE of the following for your final project: 1) Research paper–write an 8-10 page research paper (using at least four outside critical sources and MLA format). 2) Write a series of poems, essays, or short stories totaling 10-12 pages.

Weekly Quizzes- 20%
Culture Project- 10%
Genre Fiction Presentation- 20%
Literary Fiction Presentation- 20%
Final Project- 30%

Required Reading:
Anderson, Nephi, Added Upon
Chadwick, Tyler, ed,. Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets
Dalton-Bradford, Melissa Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five
Languages, One Family
Hallstrom, Angela, ed., Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction
Morris, William Henry and Theric Jepson, eds., Monsters and Mormons: Thirty Tales
of Adventure and Horror
Peck, Steven L. The Scholar of Moab
Peterson, Levi, The Backslider
Stewart, Mahonri, Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama
Weyland, Jack, Charly
Williams, Carol Lynch, The Chosen One
Additional essays and material available on MyBYU
Two additional novels of your choosing (see attached list of suggestions)

January 8- What is Mormon literature?
“Mormons offer Cautionary Lesson on Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness” by Mark Oppenheimer,  “About Serious Mormon Fiction” by Douglas Thayer, “Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook” by Scott Hales, “Unrealistic Expectations of Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares” by Jettboy, “Fisking the NYT: It isn’t just me. My whole religion can’t be ‘real’writers” by correia45, “As Much as any Novelist Could Ask: Mormons in American Popular Fiction” by Michael Austin
January 15- Added Upon by Nephi Anderson, Jane James’s Story, Eliza Partridge’s Diary, King Follett Discourse
January 22- Charly by Jack Weyland
January 29- The Backslider by Levi Peterson
February 5- Selected Poetry from Fire in the Pasture
February 12- Melissa Dalton-Bradford class visit, read Global Mom
February 19- “Easter Weekend” by Eugene England; “Barcelona, Venezuela: 1998”
by Brittney Carman; “Take, Eat” by Tessa Santiago; “Smoke and Mirrors” by Stephen Carter; “Of the Drowned” by Jaren Watson; “Working at Wendy’s” by Joey Franklin; “On Laughter” by Patrick Madden
February 26- The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
March 5- Genre Fiction Presentations
March 12- Stories from Dispensation: “Calling and Election” by Jack Harrell;
“Wolves” by Doug Thayer; “Buckeye the Elder” by Brady Udall; “Clothing
Esther” by Lisa Torcasso Downing, “Obbligato” by Lisa Madsen Rubilar
March 19- Stories from Monsters and Mormons: Preface by Terryl Givens, "The
Mountain of the Lord," by Dan Wells; "Allow Me to Introduce Myself," by Moriah Jovan; “Charity Never Faileth,” by Jaleta Clegg; "The Living Wife," by Emily Milner, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone
March 26- Plays from Saints on Stage: “I Am Jane” by Margaret Blair Young and
“Gadianton” by Eric Samuelsen
April 2- The Scholar of Moab by Steven L. Peck
April 9- Literary Fiction Presentations, Semester wrap up
Final Exam Period- Final Projects due


Karen D. Austin said...

Looks great! I am sure you and your students will have a wonderful time taking this journey together.

ellen said...

Instagram? How did I not know you were on Instagram? I'm following you as of 5 seconds ago. Good luck with your new job! You know it's the busiest people that get the most done, right?!? :)

Deirdre said...

Congratulations! You will be terrific. If I weren't going to be in Brazil, I'd take your class! My only suggestion would be to get a bit of an historical perspective and look at a few of the early pieces of Mormon Lit, such as Giant Joshua by Maureen Whipple.

Adam Gonzalez said...

What is "the BYU Salt Lake Center"? Is it LDS Business College?

WM said...

Very cool. Thanks for sharing the syllabus.

Shelah said...

Adam, the BYU Salt Lake Center is part of BYU continuing education. It's located in the Triad Center, west of LDS Business College. Here's a link to the website:

Th. said...


Fabulous, Shelah. I hope you'll let us know how it goes.

Selwyn said...

I'm excited you're including Larry Correia's "Fisking" - his response is great. (He's a great author, I love his books too).

I think I'll be reading your texts, even being unable to attend your class!

J Travis Washburn said...

Dang, Shelah. You're amazing. And the class sounds awesome. Glad you included some Thayer. This was inspiring too. I respect your daring. A lot.

anna said...

I am okay with this as long as it doesn't affect your book reviews :) just kidding. I am sure you will do a wonderful job and it will be a learning experience for you and your students.

Maria Hoagland said...

This sounds like an amazing class!! I took an LDS lit class at BYU from Eugene England--one of my favorite classes of all time. That, and a creative writing class by Margaret Young. Best of luck on your endeavors and, absolutely you can't turn down your dream!

Jonathan Langford said...

Hi Shelah,

This sounds really great. I'd love to get some posts over at the AML blog about your experience teaching the class. Or posts from your students about taking the class. Or something (hopefully something that doesn't add too much to the craziness of your life). Please email me about possibilities at jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.