At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I’d like to start off this post by trumpeting a few great things about AML:
First, AML’s mission is pretty darn noble. Writing about AML, Gae Lyn Henderson says our mission is “to promote high-quality writing by, for, and about Mormons.” As an organizational goal, that works for me. What’s more, virtually every member of the Church I know—from high-minded academics to casual readers—would support this endeavor.
Second, AML produces a mighty fine journal. The works that appear in Irreantum are thoughtful, artistic, and good. In an era where Mormon literature often shows up as either pro-Mormon propaganda or anti-Mormon propaganda, Irreantum offers a platform for Mormon voices that are moderate, faithful, healthy, and appropriately critical.
Third, AML offers members of the Church a fairly safe aesthetic and critical venue. As a friend told me recently, AML feels comfortable. For some reason, other organizations whose missions are very similar to AML’s have sometimes become objects of fear and scorn. These other organizations have, for whatever reasons, developed reputations that cause many mainstream members of the Church to shun or avoid them. AML hasn’t. In fact, most mainstream members of the Church have no negative feelings towards AML at all. (Granted, this is largely because they haven’t heard of us, but more on that later).
Fourth, AML maintains a fantastic blog. Chances are, you know this already. It’s why you’re reading this in the first place. But if you need more proof, check out Dan Wells’ post on art and morality or Jack Harrell’s post on writing that is implicitly philosophical. Good stuff.
So, all of this begs a question—a question that’s been plaguing me since I first became involved in AML two years ago:
Why aren’t there more of us?
With so many virtues, why is it that AML’s membership is relatively small and has been for years?
Is it that a serious examination of Mormon letters still clashes with certain cultural factors? Is it that our goals are incompatible with mass participation? Is it that we’re facing difficult organizational issues? Could it be a combination of all of these things and more?
I don’t have any clear answers to this, but I do have an idea about how to expand AML (assuming that’s what we want). Forgive me if the ideas I’m about to offer are pedestrian and old hat. Also, bear with me if I’m approaching this topic with too much naivety. If I am, I welcome hearing about it in the comments.
What I’m about to share I’ve been kicking around for a while, but these ideas were really driven home last week when I bought a used car from a man in Lehi, Utah. He graduated with a degree in English from BYU. As we talked about his experiences at BYU and how he ended up selling used cars for a living, he told me he missed the literary discussions and the focus on critical thinking he received as part of his education. He expressed longing for a venue which could fill that void. I told him about AML. He’d never heard of us. I told him about Irreantum. He seemed delighted.
At BYU, not a stone’s throw from where the AML conference is held each year, there are roughly 900 English majors. At BYU-Idaho, there are about 700. Add to this the 80 or so English graduate students who attend BYU, and there are currently, at these two universities alone, nearly 1700 students, all of whom are at least somewhat interested in literature and Mormonism. And each year, there are new students—an endless fountain of fresh, young minds.
Beyond this, there are the countless English graduates like the man who sold me my 2002 Dodge Caravan. And there are Mormon students of literature at plenty of other universities, including those in the Mormon Studies program at UVU.
Is it possible to tap into this student and alumni population?
What if all of the professors involved in AML offered extra credit to students who presented at the AML conference? What if these same professors offered extra credit to students who submitted work to the Irreantum contests? (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that as a professor, I abhor extra credit. But I love AML and see plenty of value in getting students involved in it.)
What if the English departments at BYU and BYU-Idaho took a larger role in bringing students to the conference? At BYU-Idaho, we highly advertise the National Undergraduate Literature Conference and sponsor about 30 students’ attendance each year. Would the BYU and BYU-Idaho English departments be willing to do the same for the AML conference if we asked? Would we want them to? What if all afternoon sessions of AML were dedicated entirely to student presentations? What if Irreantum published an issue dedicated entirely to student work? What if among its officers AML had a Student President and a Student Vice President in charge of managing student involvement in AML? Would any of these things allow us to recruit students into AML more regularly? And to retain them?
When I was an English major at BYU, I’d never heard of AML or Irreantum. True, this could have been due to my own cluelessness, but I wonder if the key to AML’s future doesn’t lie in the thousands of students that many of us associate with on a daily basis.