This is part three of a 3-part conversation with Joe Spencer
Ken Krogue completes his three-part interview with Joeseph Spencer, who explains his path to his professorship and how his book, The Vision of All plays into that.
Ken: I’ve been working fairly closely with BYU scholars now for about four or five years. And I’ve had the structure shared with me that it’s probably about 80 percent of the scholars are research-based, is that right, I think religious, and then about 13 percent or more the teaching scholars who…they’re not under the gauntlet of publishing or perish, they’ve got to teach and then there are professionals who come into the faculty, maybe they don’t have a PhD, but they had 15, 20 years out in the workforce and those together, you know, they’re a very different mindset of those three types of people, and what sort of the mandate that you’re under, you’re on the research side.
Joseph: I’m a research scholar.
Ken: Describe a day in your life and what your mission is over the next year or so. What are you being asked to do?
Joseph: To publish.
Ken: What does that mean, because we’ve got a lot of young people saying I want to be a scholar. How would you mentor them?
Joseph: That’s a really difficult question. I mean I have two kinds of conversations with young people who want to become scholars. I would say 90 percent of the cases I say run, run for your life.
Ken: Tell me why. Why?
Joseph: Because if they want to do it for a living, the job market is disastrous. It’s just utterly disastrous.
Ken: It’s getting tougher and tougher all the time.
Joseph: So, when I finished my degree, for instance, in philosophy and in my subfield of philosophy, there were seven jobs the year I graduated and 700 people in the market.
Ken: Oh, my heavens. Is that on a national basis?
Joseph: Or that luck is a real thing. I mean it’s a brutal, brutal job market. So it’s like trying to make it into the NBA, right? You’ve got to compete at that level. So, if you want to be a scholar as a real paid job that this is what you do, I mean you’ve got to be the best of the best. You’ve got to be willing to compete at the highest level and what that means is publishing in very respectable venues and being able to…
Ken: How often do you need to publish?
Joseph: It depends on where you land.
Joseph: So, in our college, the expectation is one review publication a year.
Ken: Okay, right. That’s a real quality, forceful work project to make that happen.
Joseph: Right. And so, it depends, if you land at a job at an Ivy league school, it’s gonna be higher. If you land at a place where there’s a higher emphasis on teaching than on scholarship, then it’s going to be lower. So, it varies, but that’s the expectation in religious Ed. You’ve got to be working constantly and that’s the minimal bar, right?
Ken: This is not easy. I mean they’re all telling me the same kind of thing. That as a latter-day saint with a faith background, a God-centric background, when you publish in those journals, that doesn’t really go. You’re not allowed to go into that world so much and still get it past your peers.
Joseph: It’s complicated. I’m less pessimistic than many maybe. I think there’s definitely a, you can call it a kind of a secular bias if you will. There’s no question, that’s the reality, but there’s space within the secular world for religion. There really is.
Ken: Well you said some of those evangelists.
Joseph: Especially in the field of biblical scholarship, there are many, many people working in biblical scholarship who are religious, a deeply committed. So it’s not a field that’s just filled with like angry, flag bearing seculars who are trying to get rid of God. That’s not the picture at all. When you write for that audience, you write without your faith commitments as much as possible in a certain sense, but no one’s afraid of you stating your faith commitments, as long as you make clear what they are and why they might be shaping your argument. It’s something like if you write a journal article on some drug you’re developing, you have to state up front, here are the people that funded me, so the people know the background.
Ken: The thesis, the things that might have skewed initially.
Joseph: Exactly. And so, in some sense, you just do this in the world of Biblical studies as well. You might say, I’m reading this as a Mormon and there’s space for that in the world of scholarship. So, you have to be careful. You have to know how to talk the right way. You have to be able to communicate well. You have to not be dogmatic about positions. You can’t come in and say everyone’s stupid because they don’t see what the restoration has revealed, you’re not going to get published. But you can go in and say, writing as a latter-day saint, here’s how I see this.
People will give you a spot at the table. So, I’m less pessimistic about it than some people are. Yeah. But it’s a complex field to maneuver, that’s for sure.
Ken: Yeah, absolutely. I get a lot of feedback from a lot of directions that it’s challenging.
Joseph: It’s challenging, but it’s not as challenging as I think it’s sometimes made to me.
Joseph: Oh, is it? I didn’t even know.
Ken: Yes, half in one and one half in the other. Pretty handy. I love it in the Kindle version. Tell us about what was the background of this. It’s personal lectures of Isaiah in Nephi’s records.
Joseph: That’s very specific. So the current book project I’m working on, the big Isaiah book is what led me to write this one. So, I began writing the big Isaiah book maybe five, six years ago now, began gathering data, doing research. Some of it is not recycling but developing some of my earlier things I’ve said on Isaiah. But there was a certain point at which, in my research, I had so much floating in my head. I’d worked through every variant of Isaiah and written up… I’ve got 200 pages of notes I’ve written up on all the variants in Isaiah. I had gone through stacks and stacks of literature on Isaiah scholarship and on theological interpretation and everything I could read by Latter-day Saints on Isaiah and I just had all this stuff in my head and I needed to get it out and organize it.
So, I began doing various projects to kind of organize this, I wrote up literature reviews and just posted them on a blog somewhere. But in order to sort of sort through all the thoughts, I had developed about what Isaiah is doing specifically in the book of Mormon, I began to think, what if I wrote a kind of popular book? And that’s how this came about, right. So, at the time I had developed a style of writing for when I’m just going to present.
When I first began as a scholar, I was only writing for written published stuff and so even when I went to give a paper, it was a very scholarly, dry, no one knows what I’m talking about, kind of thing. But at some point, I realized if I’m giving a paper and it’s just for presentation, there’s no reason to do that. So, I began writing and trying to figure out how to write very fluid, very chatty papers that work better in a delivery context, and so, I felt like I had gained the right voice there. And I thought, well, what if I did something like that with all this stuff floating in my head, I could get a lot of things, kind of worked out, sort things out.
Ken: And that’s a different approach than your first couple of books. I mean, they were to the scholarly audience. This is more of a free flow lecture format in more of a populous kind of approach.
Joseph: No footnotes.
Ken: Even the voices if you’re in a lecture.
Joseph: I’ve never given these kinds of public lectures.
Ken: Yeah, you fooled us. We thought we were listening to a recording of some 25 great lectures.
Joseph: That’s what I was going for. I will say I’ve had people criticize me for it. Some people are like, stop telling me we’re running out of time. I wanted it to feel like my classroom and really, what I aimed for was how do I sound when I teach in my classroom because, there my students can follow what I’m doing, where they might have a hard time reading my scholarly work. I wrote it like I was going to give the lecture in a chatty way. And nonetheless, I hope it’s nonetheless very academic. The contents are heavy and so on, but I’m trying to deliver it in this down to earth.
Ken: Yes, more digestible. It’s doing pretty well.
Joseph: I’m happy with it.
Ken: Well good. Well we have been so excited to have you give us more insights into, especially into the Nephi journey concept, we just love that, and I hope it’s okay, we may come back at you and see if you’re willing to actually take us in and help us in almost a real-world workshop, study a few things and see if we can come at it that way.
Ken: Thanks for joining us today. Thanks, everybody.