We’ve been running our Tips on Applying Series for nearly a decade. We heard from Taylor Petrey back in 2010 when he offered some advice on securing an academic position in religious studies. Taylor has recently received tenure, which is a big deal not only for him, but for all Latter-day Saints involved in the study of religion. He graciously agreed to talk to us about his work and how he earned tenure.
Tell us a bit about your research and teaching.
I received training in a religious studies graduate program, and I specialize in New Testament and Early Christianity. This training involved learning lots of languages, and my research spans Greek, Latin, and Coptic texts from early Christian literature. My teaching appointment is in biblical studies, and some of my courses are part of the Jewish Studies program. My particular research interests focus on gender, sexuality, family and kinship, and sexual difference in early Christianity.
My first book examined early Christian debates about the status of sexual difference in the resurrection. If in the resurrection, “there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage,” and people “will be like angels in heaven,” what does it mean to say that there are males and females? Early Christians wrestled over how to see the body as substantially different in the resurrection, and yet also somehow the same. The early Christians writing on this topic had difficulty articulating an idea of the human being that made sense of the contingency of sexuality, without also impacting sexual difference.
My interests in gender studies and religion naturally led me to think deeply about my own religious community of Mormonism. Many Mormons have spent the last several decades thinking about this topic, and so I decided to contribute to the conversation by bringing gender theory to bear on Mormonism in ways that I hadn’t seen before.
Briefly, what is tenure, and what was the process of earning tenure?
Tenure is a contract that a professor may obtain from their college or university that grants permanent employment. The system is designed to allow for academic freedom and give professors the protection to pursue research that may fail or challenge conventional thinking.
Earning tenure begins with obtaining a “tenure track,” or “tenure stream” job. Not all professors can obtain one of these jobs, which are highly competitive (applications for tenure track jobs in the humanities routinely attract hundreds of qualified candidates). If one is hired into a tenure-track position, it entails meeting certain benchmarks over a five or six year period. After this probation period is over, the candidate for tenure submits an application that makes the case for their promotion. This application is reviewed by the academic department (e.g., history, religion, or psychology), a few professors from other colleges/universities who are experts in the candidate’s field of research, a committee at the college made up of faculty outside the home department, an academic administrator, the president of the college/university, and the board of trustees. At each stage, the reviewers can recommend for or against tenure, but the board has the final say.
Every college has their own standards, but most require some successful accomplishment of 1) published research in recognized venues; 2) teaching excellence; and 3) service to the college/university, which includes things like performing the administrative duties that make the academic and financial life of the college/university go smoothly.
Your book Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference was about early Christianity, but did your work on Mormonism help in earning tenure?
I met the publication standards for tenure at my institution with my publications in early Christianity. However, I also had a few articles on Mormonism that I included in my tenure application. At my institution, tenure applications are evaluated by four “outside reviewers,” or professors who are experts in the field and teach at other colleges or universities. Their job is to attest to the value and quality of the tenure applicant’s scholarship. In my case, I had three reviewers who were experts in early Christianity, and one in Mormon Studies to evaluate my work on Mormonism. I don’t know what went into the decision to know whether it helped or not since the decision making process is confidential, but I can say that my work on Mormonism was a part of my application and that my application was successful.
Are you the first Latter-day Saint in your field [i.e., Biblical Studies] to be tenured at a non-LDS university?
There are increasing numbers of tenured Latter-day Saints in religious studies departments around the United States. To my knowledge, I am the second active LDS person to receive tenure in the subfield of biblical studies at a non-LDS institution. Over two decades ago, LDS biblical scholar David Wright received tenure at Brandeis not long after he was excommunicated. About a decade before that, Stephen Robinson was tenured at Lycoming College in 1984. Those are the only precedents I know of. There are a few LDS biblical scholars at non-LDS institutions coming up for tenure in the next few years, so I will hopefully not be the last.
What does this mean for the respectability of Mormon studies and Mormon scholars of religion?
I can only speak to my anecdotal experience, but I have not found that my commitment to my faith was a hindrance to my advancement in the field to a masters program at Harvard, a doctoral program at Harvard, obtaining a tenure track job, and receiving tenure. The same, I think, is true for many of my LDS peers at Harvard and dozens of other graduate programs. Mormons are regularly accepted into excellent graduate programs in all aspects of religious studies. The current generation has benefited from the fine work of many predecessors over several decades before us.
For my part, I focused on producing the best work I could, whether in early Christian studies or Mormon studies. I am sure that I have been seen as a bit of a peculiarity on occasion, but I have made amazing friendships and let my work speak for itself.
I hear that next year you will be a fellow at the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard’s Divinity School. Tell us a little about the project you will be working on.
I am extremely honored to have been awarded this fellowship. My project is a Mormon Studies topic that treats gender, sexuality, kinship, and theology. The project grows out of some previous work I have done on this topic, including “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” (Dialogue, 2011) and “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” (Harvard Theological Review, forthcoming 2016). These articles will likely be incorporated as chapters into the final book project, and I will be developing more chapters during my fellowship on marriage, the discourse of homosexuality, and other theological topics.