Why Support Research at BYU?

Why Support Research at BYU?

As an undergraduate I didn’t have much feeling for research, not as such, although I did have an affection for ideas and a deep gratitude to teachers who helped foster and allowed me to express them. At some point in my education I began to recognize subtle distinctions between “learning” and “research”—the former being, in my youthful experience, an activity associated with individual classes and the latter extending well beyond them, gathering into its orbit entire series of classes, large expenditures of time and imagination, and crafting through force of repetition—of disciplinary habit—the authority of specialization. Research represented a more intensive form of learning. Actually, it’s more than that: research involves not only learning, but also something like a professional identity. I’ve sported several such identities over the years: “I’m a theorist,” I said when I first began graduate school; “I’m an eighteenth centuryist,” I said when I was completing my PhD; “I specialize in Scottish literary and intellectual history of the eighteenth century and after,” I said as I was working toward tenure; “I consider myself a scholarly migrant, wandering between areas of specialization,” I now say. All the old specializations are still with me, but the identity has changed, and keeps changing.

Of course, “learning” is a vaster category than my simple dichotomy suggests. But let me stay with that dichotomy as a way of making a larger point. If we reflect for a moment on professional identities we can probably agree that they are important if also problematic. In most cases, they’re cultivated from larger societies of which scholars are part—societies whose histories and exigencies exceed the parameters of individual institutions. What is “hot” or “important” in a given field, and hence what forms the center the gravity in a field that orients a scholar’s work (even in negative—in resistance to what is “hot”), often has little to do with the needs of a local department, the structure of its curriculum, or the life circumstance of an individual student. But these scholarly associations and the identities they nurture always feel large, usually much larger than what is afoot at any given university; connecting scholars to vaster worlds outside the university, they also, to some extent, wean faculty from identification with their home institutions. Indeed, these institutions often seem like platforms for the scholarly lives that transcend them. This is obviously the case at most research universities, which, for all their excellence, often seem interchangeable with each other (at least within a given tier). And the same is true closer to home: few scholars would be at BYU, for example, if their love for their job were rooted in the university itself. There is usually a “first love” behind a scholar’s appreciation for the institution: I am, first, a theorist, an eighteenth centuryist, a scholar of Scottish literature, or what-have-you. And if BYU were to close my department, my first inclination, therefore, would be to seek another academic job in my field. Certainly, I would more likely do that than apply for another position on campus (e.g., administrative, grounds crew, alumni association–all the things that keep a campus going) just to remain part of the BYU environment.[1]

And this, it seems, is an ongoing source of tension for BYU, an institution with an outrageously outsized sense of its own identity. I’m not being critical; I love this about BYU. But what else does one say about a university whose stated mission is “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life”? My graduate institution, UCLA, always ranks as one of the world’s finest universities, and its mission statement barely expresses an ounce of BYU’s ambition. What is more, various topics have been “hot” in the fields in which I’ve worked: distant reading and creaturely life and new materialism and object-oriented ontology. None is remotely as grand as eternal life—thus far, a hot topic in no field whatsoever, at least none I know. But these other, terrestrial subjects and scores like them (e.g., the Anthropocene, the limits of critique, the postsecular, etc.) consume a great deal of intellectual and emotional (and even spiritual) band width in the mind of any scholar. And, as scholars pursue these topics, BYU expends significant amounts of money in the form of lightened teaching loads, digital and print resources in libraries, funding for travel, supplies, guest lecturers, professional conferences, and much, much more.

This means that BYU—which is to say, the Church—shells out big bucks to support activities it knows (and outright declares) to be of lesser value than its stated educational mission. And its reward for doing so is partly to foster if not the indifference then at least the independence of its faculty relative to that mission. “Yes, class, our collective aim is to seek perfection and eternal life. But our ‘real’ purpose in this course is to explore how the novel as a literary form undercuts the methods we employ to interpret it, subverting modern pretensions to knowledge in a way that makes politics possible. And as we will see, this dynamic emerges during the eighteenth century.” Does this divided purpose really make sense? (“No, not at all,” you may reply; “it’s only later, in the nineteenth century, that that epistemic crisis really begins to take hold.”)

Ever since I came of age and began to distinguish between learning and research, I have sensed some ambivalence toward research at BYU. More than a product of mere utility (“Do you know how expensive it is to support research?!” or “Do you know how many more students we could accommodate at this institution if we liquidated its research mission?!”), the issue of identity seems to me to fuel much of this ambivalence. “How long halt [we] between two opinions?” Elijah’s question to the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:21) applies at some level to most every scholar who works at BYU. If BYU’s mission is what matters most to us, then we should prioritize it in all our scholarly endeavors, research as well as teaching; but if our fields matter most to us, then we should privilege them—and learn to live with some unresolvable tension.

Of course, this is where any scholar, any careful reader, would wish to offer some correctives. Am I not setting up a false dichotomy between the exigencies of research and BYU’s educational mission? And can’t we all provide lots of reasons why research matters?

  • Research leads to knowledge and knowledge is power; it teaches us how to convert possibility into actuality.
  • You can’t have a world class university if you don’t support research, and the Church needs a world class university to dignify its educational mission.
  • Faculty research is foundational to student research, and student research is vital to learning (even when, like my undergraduate self, they don’t initially recognize it as such).
  • Research is what we share with those who do not share our educational mission; conducting research thus helps us establish valuable friendships and gives us a voice in important conversations.
  • Universities are laboratories for solving problems, and such solutions are almost always rooted in research.
  • Research is aspirational and healthy, a human good: in sponsoring research, we therefore encourage people to reach beyond and improve themselves.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of other answers to the question of why research matters. Some devolve on general principles, others are specific to disciplines (e.g., “If the Church cares about its own history it needs to be able to train professional historians who are also sensitive to the Church’s vision”). But one answer compels me more than all others. Like the issue I address above, this answer is also rooted in identity:

  • Research is important because it speaks to what we believe and who we are as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Why do I say this? Many colleagues can already anticipate where I’m going, giving voice to this idea themselves (and doubtlessly more compellingly than I’m doing here). I’m thinking, for example, of the Church’s doctrine pertaining to its care for “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:79). This breadth and degree of attention require serious, reflective study—the kind of learning born of serious research. BYU’s investment in research is thus in keeping not only with the demands of individual fields, but also with the Church’s theology. This is why Joseph Smith directed the young Church to build schools as well as temples—in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Brigham Young continued and eventually expanded that practice when the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake valley. Its legacy is alive not only in the temples that dot the Wasatch Front, but also in the University of Utah as well as BYU (to say nothing of academies the Church established in other parts of the world).

If we do research in large measure because research reflects who we are—because it is a theological principle as well as a religious and cultural value—then this means resisting two forms of “instrumentalization” that convert research into some end other than itself.

  1. Research is valuable to the extent that it gets students jobs; therefore, research, like all education, should be accountable to the demands of job training.
  2. Research is valuable to the extent that we can measure its impact; therefore, metrics—quantitative evidence of impact—should determine our investment in it.

BYU faculty can easily spot these two rationales obtaining widely in the profession and, perhaps, in corners of their own colleges or departments. Each is born of a certain kind of wisdom. Research is a subset of education, and it would be irresponsible to detach education from the preparation students need to thrive after graduation; and while thriving is not limited to job skills, it certainly includes them. By the same token, some scholarly research does greater work than others, whether in opening minds or improving some aspect of material life, and failure to cultivate impactful research, or construction of false equivalencies that ignore impact, would be foolish. And yet, when these two rationales begin to govern research, the tail begins wagging the dog; principles fall to practical outcomes.

But even when they don’t – even when principles, not (only) outcomes, guide our research – principles often reveal other layers of meaning. Take the schools the Church established in conformity with its own doctrine, schools that were constructed along with (even alongside) temples (as in Nauvoo in the early 1840s). By this logic, learning—research—was seen as part of a larger economy of meaning, of living, less instrumental than integrated. Returning to the scriptural passage I quote above, the verse that ends by invoking “a knowledge … of countries and kingdoms” proceeds as follows in the next verse: “That ye may be prepared in all things when I send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you” (D&C 88:80). Research in these terms is conceived less as an end in itself than as prelude to a greater “calling” and “mission.” It is part and parcel of what it means to learn “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), a phrase emblazoned on one of the walls of BYU’s campus library. Each category makes demands on the other: study demands that faith invest in the things of the earth even as faith requires that study prepare to leave its desk in the service of a higher cause.

Does this instrumentalize research? Consider some of these higher causes. Some colleagues are called to serve missions or work full-time for the Church; others are called to serve the Church locally in ways that place inordinate demands on their time. Some enter seasons of life when they feel compelled to adapt to evolving family circumstances. In these instances, research takes a back seat. Other times, it evolves. We have colleagues who modify their research programs to respond to direct requests from the Church and/or to magnify their faith more fully. Still others recognize that their talents as scholars are best suited to working with students and they refashion their scholarly work to better fit student needs and opportunities. What these and other cases share is a responsiveness of research programs to ideals that have little (perhaps nothing) to do with scholarly “fields.” Indeed, in all these instances, scholars exfoliate their fields and either find or reveal other, non-professional identities. Knowledge here is less an end in itself than a companion of something else, like character development. As such, academic fields lend BYU its shape but they do not comprise its soul.

I was thinking about this as I listened to BYU President Kevin Worthen’s address at this year’s university conference, especially during the story he told about J. Reuben Clark. Born into meager circumstances, President Clark rose to great heights as an attorney, as Undersecretary of State, and as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. But he renounced all this to respond to a call from the Church—a call he initially felt disposed to decline before reconsidering. President Clark’s story is a kind of parable illustrating the principle Elder David A. Bednar had addressed at the previous year’s university conference, when he spoke about walking in the meekness of the Lord’s Sprit. Among other things, that talk was about research, Elder Bednar reiterating an issue raised with university leaders by President Dallin H. Oaks “[i]nviting serious consideration of and adjustment to the patterns of what and how we measure student learning and faculty research and publication.”[2]I do not know exactly what President Oaks had in mind, but it seems to point to a paradox: research at BYU is supported in part because it is not of ultimate value. But neither is it an utterly practical, outcomes-driven activity. And that makes it necessary to revisit, habitually, the question of what research at BYU means.

I believe that’s a good thing. It brings to mind a conversation I had years ago with one of my graduate school professors. A highly accomplished scholar herself, she told a story about another scholar who had a grossly inflated sense of self-importance, customarily speaking of the books she was writing as “gifts” to the profession and world. “Give me a break,” my professor cackled, less in disdain for this other scholar’s work than in a kind of echo of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity; no scholarly accomplishment is a gift that great. I took my professor’s point, though it was somewhat disconcerting for a young, ambitious scholar. But there was wisdom in her laughter—and hope in the reason why I have felt so supported in my research at BYU, where scholarly attainment, no matter how great, is always smaller than the principles that uphold it.

Leaders who oversee the university and supply funding for research seem to have taken this lesson to heart. It cannot be easy to devote that many tithing resources to academic research—to something important but impermanent or incomplete. But there seems to be a principle behind that decision, one linking study and faith that attaches dedicated research to something transformative, like character development or spiritual growth. The colleagues I most admire understand this principle, negotiating study and faith in a variety of ways. To me, they personify the reason why BYU supports research.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center.


[1] My list here is intentionally random. The point is simply that scholars often identify as scholars first and as members of a campus community second.

[2]“‘Walk in the Meekness of My Spirit,’” August 28, 2017, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/david-a-bednar_walk-meekness-spirit/. Accessed October 20, 2018.

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