Becoming a "Tolkien Scholar"
I've been having a few conversations (email and otherwise) about how one becomes a Tolkien scholar, so I thought I would blog about it, particularly because the whole topic raises issues of credentialing, etc., that I think we in academia should be addressing right now.
It is an interesting fact that a great many of the very best contemporary Tolkien scholars are not professors: Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, Doug Anderson, David Bratman, Richard West, Carl Hostetter... many of these scholars have academic affiliations (at libraries, etc.), but they aren't professors of English or history or cultural studies. Yet they are among the best.
One big reason for this phenomenon is that Tolkien scholarship has not been an academically respected field. The only person I know who did a dissertation on Tolkien and has an academic position (and tenure) is Verlyn Flieger (also one of the very, very best Tolkien scholars ever). So, with academia rejecting Tolkien scholarship for whatever reason, the field was open for independent scholars to make a mark.
[Aside: this is not to say that indep. scholars can't make a mark in field where there is a strong academic presence, just that it is, I think, much harder. Academics have huge advantages of time and access over scholars who also have to have a real job to pay the bills. That so many indep. scholars have contributed to so many fields is testament both to the problems of academia and the brilliance of people who take the indep. route].
I am, I think, less biased against indep. scholars than many of my English colleagues because Anglo-Saxon studies has a long tradition of great independent scholars. Numismatics, place-names and local history are well-populated by 'amateurs' whom the 'experts' respect as knowing as much or more than the experts. This is a good thing.
So, in answer to people who want to contribute to Tolkien scholarship but don't have a credential: Just Do It. Study medieval lit, WWI lit, Victorian and Edwardian lit, and, most importantly, Tolkien's works themselves. Write up your conclusions and send them to me at Tolkien Studies. I'll have them anonymously reviewed and, if the reviewers agree, I'll publish them. You'll have the opportunity to be taken seriously (and thus both admired and attacked) just like any other Tolkien scholar.
To add one more thing: I am a pretty big Tolkien geek. I have read the History of Middle-earth, all twelve volumes, more than twice. I've read the LotR over 40 times and the Silmarillion about 30 times. I've memorized a lot of the poetry. I understand the logic behind the alphabets. But I know for a fact that there are a lot of people out there who know a lot more about the internal elements of Middle-earth than I do. These people are enormous resources for Tolkien scholarship, and they should be encouraged and listened to, not mocked or derided. I think that my additional training in literary study, ancient languages and linguistics gives me the opportunity to add value and context to the analysis and discovery by people who work only within the materials of Middle-earth, but I don't ever pretend that I know more about Middle-earth than they do.