Sunday, October 19, 2003

Graduate School for Tolkien Studies

In the past week I've received a few email queries about where to go to graduate school to study J.R.R. Tolkien. It's probably worth a blog post.

It's important to note is that we don't have a graduate program at Wheaton, so some of my information may be seven years out of date, so take all that follows with some NaCl.

First, what do you want the degree for? If you want to become an English professor with a tenure-track job, you need to think long and hard about studying Tolkien. The job market is much better this year than any year in the past ten, but it still sucks wildly. Departments get 100+ applicants for each tenure-track job, so you need to both 'stand out' and be in some sub-field that the department thinks it needs. A tricky balance.

Because where would you fit Tolkien? I've argued that he should be considered a 20th-century author, but I think it would be very unusual for someone to get hired to take up a whole 20th-century slot with a dissertation solely on Tolkien. You might have a shot if you worked on, say, Tolkien, Golding, T.H. White, Orwell, C.S. Lewis, but even then you're on shaky ground when the department wants someone to teach Virginia Woolf through Toni Morrison.

The other approach, and the one that has worked for me, is to become a medievalist and then also work on Tolkien. The problem with this approach is more global than local: almost all the good Tolkienists are medievalists, so the criticism tends to continue to be divorced from current discussions in 20th-century lit. (which makes it hard to get noticed in that field) while at the same time medievalists want to talk about, well, medieval literature, which, of course, Tolkien didn't write. You can try to carve out a niche on Tolkien's scholarship, of course, but your dissertation director will say "why the meta-scholarship when there's so much primary work to be done?" -- and he or she will be right. And if you don't like medieval for its own sake, you will not survive doing a medieval Ph.D. -- no matter how good you are, you'll be competing with 100 people who love medieval lit.

Discouraged yet?

But let's say you, like me, refuse to be discouraged by well-meaning advice. Good. Your head is probably just rock-hard enough to make you a good English professor. Then here's what you should study in order to be a good Tolkien scholar:

Short List: 1. Medieval Literature, including Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Gothic, German, Middle English (particularly non-Chaucerian Middle English), and "mythological" literature in general, esp. Finnish and Danish. You'll also need to be good in Latin.
2. 20th Century Literature, focusing on WWI authors, particularly the non-canonical ones.
3. Later 19th-century adventure- and children's literature.

This is the intellectual approach to becoming a top-notch Tolkien scholar. As far as I know, there is no program in the U.S. or England that would provide all of this for you; your better bet would be to put such a program together by taking classes or studying with a good prof. at a top English program. You need to do some research to feel out who is amenable. Of the people I know personally at big schools, Rick Russom at Brown or Verlyn Flieger at Maryland come to mind as the most likely people to study with, but I don't know if they are taking grad students, etc. right now or if their departments support Tolkien studies for graduate students.

The other approach, which I don't endorse, but which might work better than what I've suggested, is to study Tolkien in one of the big pop-culture programs. There are a growing number of jobs in pop-culture, and the LotR films have, strangely, legitimized Tolkien in pop-culture studies. I question this approach because almost all of the scholarship on Tolkien that I've seen from this direction is shallow and unconvincing. But it doesn't have to stay that way. If you became an academic specialist in, say, the influence of Tolkien in film, video, gaming, etc. (which would mean, by the way, that you'd have to explain how awful and dangerous Tolkien stuff was and how socially defective everyone in the gaming / on-line world was, whether you believed this or not), you'd have a shot at making a mark.

But could you really understand Tolkien and make a real contribution without knowing the medieval material? It would take some work to convince me.

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