September 15, 2011

Problem Solved...Sort of

by James Bennett

My children's elementary school has a wonderful schedule for living on the West Coast: an early August start is rewarded with a two week break in mid-October. Since September and October are the best weather months in these parts it makes possible some wonderful travel opportunities, although my less flexible teaching schedule means I'm often stuck joining my family only for the weekend in-between. This year the family is headed to Disneyland. Our five year old feels he's been unfairly deprived not yet having been there. The problem? The Western History Association meets the same weekend I would join them, and it meets in Oakland, a mere 40 minute drive for me. It's one of those rare opportunities when, in face of dwindling travel budgets, I could attend for only the cost of registration.

Now, I have no particular love for Disneyland, as my family will testify—the Happiest Place on Earth is merely a thin veneer for some of the crassest consumerism around—but it is sort of a rite of passage (to return to my native language of Religious Studies) and thus would be a disappointment to miss (as well as an unfair burden on my spouse to endure alone). But the schedule conflict exists no more for me.

In perusing the program for the WHA's grand semi-centennial celebration I noticed a striking lack of sessions dealing with religion. I have no way of knowing why that is—whether a lack of proposals, a lack of good proposals, or a lack of interest by the program committee. Regardless of the reason, the result is distressing for those of us who consider the role of religion in the West an important aspect of Western history no less than of American Religious History.

My distress magnified when, earlier this week, I received the fall issue of the Western Historical Quarterly, dedicated to the "State of Western History Scholarship." Now, I haven't had a chance to read the issue yet, but the index is disheartening: nothing on religion, at least explicitly so.

So, while I can join my family next month without worrying about what I missed at the WHA, I now wish a scheduling conflict was my problem. Instead, it seems that religion remains nowhere to be found on the landscape of Western History. That should give us pause.

In the meantime, the Religion in the American West seminar of the AAR continues to explore the contours of the topic and will feature a session bursting with conversation about the role of religion in the American West. Stay tuned here for information on accessing the papers and please join us in San Francisco in November. It's clear that we've got work to do!


Quincy D. Newell said...

Great (if depressing) post, Jim. I will also be missing the WHA because of another commitment. For those of you who are planning to attend, though, I’ve just gone through the program with a medium-tooth comb, looking for anything having to do with religion. (When I’m depressed about something, I like to quantify what’s depressing me. It helps me know if I’m being unreasonable.) Here’s my very short list:

1. There is a session called “Commerce, Diplomacy, and Religion: Forging the Mississippi River Valley Borderland, 1763-1803,” but I suspect religion is in there only for the one paper (that looks interesting!) on “The Importance of Religion in Shaping the Postrevolutionary Trans-Appalachian Backcountry, 1783-1792,” to be presented by Kevin T. Barksdale. This session is on Friday from 2:30-4:00.

2. There’s “Monumental Memories,” from 10:30-12:00 on Saturday, with Tim Lehman’s paper “Memorializing the Little Bighorn: How Stories Make the Ground Sacred.”

3. There’s the obligatory session on Mormons: “Mormon Women, Marriage and Identity across Generations,” with Rachel Cope as Chair/Commentator and papers by Natalie Rose and Chris Talbot. That’s Sunday from 8:30-10:00.

4. At the same time, there will be a roundtable entitled “(Re?)Shaping Western History: Synthesis and New Paradigms” chaired by Sarah J. Deutsch, who has done some good work on religion in the west (I highly recommend her book NO SEPARATE REFUGE [Oxford, 1989], which deals in part with female missionaries to Hispanic communities in Southwest), though you would not know that from the way Deutsch describes herself and her work ( and she appears to have moved away from religion in more recent work. Still, we might hope that she’ll pay some attention to religion in discussing “new paradigms” for western history. The WHA is a month or so away – we could start a letter writing campaign encouraging Deutsch to take up the cause…!

5. There is another Mormon paper on Sunday in the 10:30-12:00 session: Thomas A. Krainz’s “Aiding Mormon Refugees Fleeing the Mexican Revolution” in the session “On the Margins: Refugees, Immigrants, and Poverty in the Twentieth-Century West.”

6. That’s it. I didn’t find anything else. There might be something else, but if there is, it escaped my scrutiny.

What to do? How do we convince the WHA and Western historians in general that they need to take religion into account? The submission deadline for proposals for next year’s WHA is already past, but perhaps we should start networking in the seminar to get some sessions together for 2013.

Paul Harvey said...

Having served on a lot of program committees before, I'd say that if there isn't much on the program on your subject of interest -- in this case, religion -- it's almost always because there were few if any submissions on said topic. I got this last time I was on the Southern program committee, received aggrieved complaints afterwards about some particular topics that were missing, to which I responded we couldn't put so-and-so topic on the program because no one submitted anything on it. I would wager a guess that it's the case here.

It probably helps to contact program committee of next one, and see if they could have someone solicit session proposals on religion. OAH program committee had me specifically solicit proposals on religion, and result is ample representation of religious history for OAH next spring. Just a thought.

Brandi Denison said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Quincy and Paul. At last year's WHA in Lake Tahoe, I presented on a panel discussion with two other religious studies folks. There were a total of 4 panels dedicated to religion--something that the organizers were happy to see.

I think Quincy's suggestion that we work submit paper and panel proposals to the WHA is a good idea. We just need to be aware of the deadlines--they are about a year before the conference occurs.

Maffly-Kipp said...

I'm late to the party in this discussion, but on a completely different side of the issue: Go to Disneyland with your family! You will have many years in front of you to sit in on academic conferences. But there is nothing like a 5-year-old at an amusement park. I have great memories of trips with my kids. Yes, the place has its commercial tackiness, and you'll be witness to a thousand instances of childrens' emotional breakdowns and overdoses on sugar. But heck, don't let that stop you from having a little cotton candy and watching the fireworks.

My two cents: : )