The Glittering Caves of Aglarond Ted Nasmith, artist
If you understood the title to this post, you may have the same problem that I do: an (obsessive) interest in the fictional world created by JRR Tolkien. I don’t remember exactly when I first read the Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion, but it was at least 30 years ago. I’ve re-read them all (plus “Unfinished Tales” and the recently published “The Children of Hurin“) dozens of times, and spent way more time than I would like to admit reading about Tolkien’s world on various websites.

None of this time has gotten me anything other than some personal satisfaction and a nagging guilty feeling. But I now have another place to feed my Tolkien obsession. One enterprising and creative Eph is using his interest in Tolkien to make a name for himself and further his academic career. Corey Olsen ’96, a tenured professor of English at Washington College in Chestertown, MD has branded himself The Tolkien Professor.

According to Prof. Olsen:

I have become increasingly frustrated with the separation between academics and general readers, and I am determined to come out of the cloister and spend my own career sharing my scholarly work with the public. I founded this website because I wanted to connect with other people who are eager to be included in a thoughtful literary conversation about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Since I launched this site in July 2009, listeners have downloaded more than 1,000,000 of my lectures.

The Washington Post recently ran a nice article on Prof. Olsen. The article spends some time discussing the intersection of popular culture and academic scholarship:

A million downloads later, Olsen is one of the most popular medievalists in America. His unusual path to success – a smartly branded Web site and a legion of iTunes listeners – marks an alternative to the publish-or-perish tradition of scholarship on the tenure track.

“Instead of spending all my time doing scholarly publishing, which we’re told to do – which most people will never read – I basically decided to put myself out to the public,” Olsen said.

It remains to be seen whether the academy will reward Olsen or punish him for breaking out of his scholarly track. When it comes to building résumés and courting full professorships, podcasts don’t typically count.

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Olsen received tenure last year, unusual for a scholar who hasn’t yet published a book. But Olsen was denied promotion from assistant to associate professor. Tenure means lifetime employment, but promotion means higher pay and stature.

Olsen the professor finds himself in much the same spot as Tolkien the author: beloved by the public, yet not entirely accepted by the intelligencia.

“I get the fact that some people don’t believe that what I’m doing counts as scholarship,” he said.

Christopher Ames, provost of Washington College, said he couldn’t discuss Olsen’s personnel file. But the school, he said, is “very supportive of people working in new media.”

But within academia, there is also subtle resistance. Olsen’s podcasts, after all, are not peer-reviewed or vetted by fellow scholars. That means no one has given a formal blessing to his scholarship.

At U-Md., works of that sort “wouldn’t cut any ice in terms of your ability to be promoted,” said Flieger, who has written three books on Tolkien and co-edits the Tolkien Journal.

“But that may change,” she said. “The whole profession is changing.”

I wonder how receptive other academic institutions would be to a professor with this kind of profile? If he were an excellent teacher, and performed well in his community service activities, would Williams think he was worthy of tenure? Or does academic success require publication of academic writings? Should it?

What do our academic readers think?

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