by Scott M. Sprenger
Mountains, Students, and Mint Brownies
After 21 years at BYU, I left the university in August 2014 for an opportunity to be the provost at the American University of Paris. I am sincerely thankful to the BYU community for its incredibly warm and generous support over the years and especially to those individuals who took a chance on me to get me hired and to advance my career here.
I said “take a chance on me” because I am not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This surprising fact has been exposed in a number of amusing ways over the years. In the beginning, of course, I was confused by a number of unfamiliar references and vocabulary (ward, stake, funeral potatoes, and oh my heck). I also often mispronounced common Mormon names or cities, which was of course a dead giveaway.
Such mistakes and misunderstandings diminished over time, but they do still happen. Typically, though, the exposure now occurs when people inquire about my ability in French, which is followed by the inevitable: “Did you serve a mission in France?” or more confidently: “In which French-speaking mission did you serve?”
As you can imagine, students are always surprised to learn, sometimes deep into the semester, that their professor is not a member. The revelation often generates a number of interesting questions, such as one student’s unforgettable question a number of years ago: “You’re not LDS? So what the heck are you doin’ here?”
Let me hasten to say I’ve never in 21 years felt unwelcome. On the contrary! I even joke with my non-Mormon friends outside of Utah that I have, by osmosis, become at least half Mormon in disposition and outlook. I’m pretty sure that I’m a lot “nicer” than I used to be. I have a better sense of what it means to live in a real community; I have also learned an enormous amount about organization and leadership by working under some truly magnificent leaders. A lot of really positive things have rubbed off on me in 20 years. Here’s my top-five list of the most awesome and memorable things about BYU for a non-Mormon like me:
No. 5: Mint brownies. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to find these in Paris. Initially—I know this is a bit blasphemous—I did not take to these overly sweet and gooey things. But after dozens of graduations, meetings, and retirement gatherings where there was nothing else to eat, I slowly developed a taste for the iconic mint brownie.
No. 4: The setting. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of this incredible setting—the campus, the JFSB, and especially the mountains. They’re absolutely spectacular. I’ve become deeply attached to this geographical setting, and I know I will miss it.
No. 3: Colleagues—in French and Italian and elsewhere at BYU. As associate dean and also as director of European studies, I was able to meet colleagues from across campus, and I’ve developed a deep affection and respect for them.
No. 2: BYU’s mission. By that I mean the objective to consider the secular in light of the religious.
This may seem to be a bit of a paradox for a non-Mormon, but this aim has been deeply influential on my teaching, my course offerings, my research, and me.
I learned about the teaching mission by failing at it miserably. It’s a little surprising, but nobody told me before they sent me into the classroom that I would be evaluated for such things as “being spiritually inspiring” or “bringing gospel insights” to the subject matter, even to French grammar.
I’ll never forget reading my first set of teaching evaluations: things like classroom management and teacher competency were actually quite good. But I had big black dots indicating poor performance on spiritual matters. The Spirit had decidedly not made an appearance in French 202 that semester.
I eventually translated this requirement into terms that made sense for me. My approach became, over time, simply caring as deeply as possible about my students, their learning, and their futures.
The research aspect of the BYU mission was much easier and even fortuitous for me because my graduate work focused on religion and literature at a time when religion was pretty much a taboo topic in the academy, especially in French studies.
Since then, religion has become a hot topic, opening doors for me to a Mellon Postdoc at UCLA, the Fulbright Scholar Program, and several prestigious publications. For me, the religious focus of BYU’s mission has thus been an entirely unpredictable source of my academic freedom and flourishing. I really cannot overstate how lucky and grateful I am for my employment here.
No. 1: The amazing students. I will miss them more than anyone or anything from my time here. I understood the minute I stepped foot on campus that BYU is the most unique academic community in the United States, if not in the entire world, because of its students and the incredible gift of the overseas mission experience.
I will never forget the 20th-century French lit class that I guest-taught during the interview process. The class was bursting at the seams with smart, energetic, and curious students, and the foreign language ability was simply off the charts. It was clear to me immediately that BYU students were positioned for success in the international arena in ways that no other university, not even the Ivies, could ever match.