When Laurie Maffly-Kipp began teaching a university course on Mormonism in 1999 she didn’t have many templates to draw from. What she did have was increasing public interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the 2002 Winter Olympic Games to the presidential candidacies of Mitt Romney, Mormonism has been the focus of countless news reports and pop culture references. In the latest issue of the Mormon Studies Review, Maffly-Kipp suggests that the stereotypes that often inform popular ideas about Mormonism can actually be turned to the advantage of a professor teaching Mormon studies to students who bring the stereotypes to class. “Use stereotypes,” she writes; “don’t ignore them.”
From her essay “What They Learned from the Mormons,” in the forum on Teaching Mormon Studies:
It is tempting to sidestep the fact that people say really uninformed and insulting things about Mormons. Students inevitably have been exposed to those views. While most of my students did not have previous encounters with the (institutional) LDS Church, they did have knowledge about the tradition and its members from their own experiences. All of my students offered mental images formed from media, memes that ran the gamut from church commercials to South Park to famous sports figures. In North Carolina, too, evangelical church teachings that Mormonism is a dangerous “cult” also form a backdrop for them. This data is useful: often those virtual encounters have motivated students to take the class in the first place, and thus they can provide a jumping-off point for further learning. Their impressions reveal common patterns, well summarized by the following:
Mormons get married at a relatively young age. Mormons really like to dance (as evidenced by an experience at a Mormon church dance in which I was shocked to find that boys I had never met before would ask me to dance with them—this is unheard of at most high school dances!). Mormons have really big families. Mormons do not let non-Mormons in their temples, and sometimes even Mormons are not allowed in. . . . Mormons wear secret underwear. Mormons do not drink alcohol, do not drink caffeine, do not smoke or cuss, cannot have tattoos or excessive piercings, or watch rated-R movies. Mormons are republican, have a lot of commercials on TV and really like mission trips. Mormons worship a man named Joseph Smith and have an inexplicable affinity for Utah over the other 49 states.
Missionaries provide a bountiful (and frequently very funny) source of images as well:
I thought Mormon missions were strange, without a purpose, and a way to get rid of problem children within the church.
I thought Mormon missionaries were either socially awkward guys, trouble making punks, or ultra fanatical Mormons. In my ignorance I assumed that going on a mission was something Mormon men did only in extenuating circumstances.
Voicing the stereotypes is important because otherwise they linger in the classroom as unbidden visitors, never quite materializing but not disappearing. We exorcise them early on by naming them, writing them on the board, and thereby acknowledging their shaping power (they also tend to look pretty comical when the students see them written down). The flip side of the stereotypes is the other major source of data imported by my students: their own encounters with “ordinary Mormons.” Almost everyone in my classes has known someone—a former girlfriend, a brother’s roommate, a sports coach—who is a church member and whom the student will describe as being “really nice” (playing into another stereotype, of course). They are intrigued and confounded because they cannot reconcile their quite positive personal impressions with the negative stereotypes. It is the examination of the puzzling space between these two data sets that fuels student motivation in class.
Laurie Maffly-Kipp is is currently the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. You can read the rest of her essay here.
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