Tuesday, October 21, 2003

A Little News
Tolkien Studies, the first academic journal devoted entirely to J.R.R. Tolkien and his works, now has a publisher, though I want to wait until there's a signed contract before I say who. The first issue has been done for a while, so hopefully it will be out ASAP. I'm now working on all the little fine-tuning and other bits of things that take up huge amounts of time for little (seeming) effect.

We're still accepting submissions for volume 2, by the way. We're not quite filled up yet.

In other news, I'll be giving a lecture in Columbia, SC in January and I'll be speaking at the Duxbury Public Library in Mass. on January 28th.

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important to note is that we don't have a graduate program at Wheaton, so some of my information may be seven years out of date, so take all that follows with some NaCl.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

Friday, October 10, 2003

Advice for Academic Job Seekers
It's that time of year again: the October Job List for English and Modern Languages is out and hordes of graduate students, assistant professors unhappy with their current jobs, and exploited adjuncts are getting ready to apply. This is an utterly horrible process and I am so, so glad that I don't have to do it. There is not one redeeming aspect to the way that hiring is done in humanities academia and I want to start by saying that I think the whole thing is unfair, demeaning, dishonest and inefficient (I also don't know how to go about fixing it). But since I've been on both sides of the process I thought that perhaps I'd share a few thoughts and suggestions. I can do this because this year we are (finally!) not hiring anyone so I am not (I hope) providing tendentious advice for the purpose of making my life easier.

I should also note that my advice is geared towards people applying to liberal arts colleges where teaching is a priority. That's what I know. If you're only applying to research-only institutions, don't follow my advice (which, by the way, is worth exactly what you are paying for it)

First, you have to understand the numbers. There were, by my rough count, about 40 tenure-track jobs in medieval lit this year. That's pretty good; there were 20 the year I got my job. But for each of those jobs, the institution will receive at least 150 applications (the numbers, on both sides, are bigger for things like American Lit). At Wheaton, the applications that come in go into a computer paper box, in alphabetical order, with a cover sheet that has a list of every faculty members in the department and the following categories: Definite Yes, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Definite No. Faculty read the cover letter and the vita and put a check-mark in one of those boxes. The department secretary and the chair flip through the applications each day. As soon as someone gets two "definite yes" or "definite no" votes, their status changes, either into the "ask for dossier folder" or into the "no further action" folder. "Maybe" candidates eventually migrate to one or the other files as they get more checkmarks. In addition to checkmarks, faculty write in comments about why they voted as they did.

So what does this mean for the applicant? Very busy faculty are reading lots of letters. You have got to catch someone's eye, or avoid alienating them, in the first couple paragraphs of your cover letter. Obviously you deserve closer consideration, but to be realistic, it isn't always going to happen, so try to squeeze all the filler out of your opening grafs. Second, you're being read by a bunch of faculty in all different disciplines. The only one who won't be reading your application is the retiring medievalist! So you need to explain your work to a wider audience. It's not enough to say that you re-dated the Rule of Chrodegang. You've got to say, right away, why this is important (and give specific reasons). You also need to explain your dissertation research quickly. Your readers are going over 150 applications. Don't invoke theorists unless it's essential. Don't spend 250 words setting up the problem. Cut right to the point.

And this leads me to my two pet peeves as a reader (shared by at least some members of my department): you are not fooling anyone with the tiny margins and micro font. I've done this myself, trying to cram in everything in the world into a letter. Don't do it. When a faculty reader has 150 applications to read and comes across your letter -- which looks black when held at arm's length--he or she is not likely to be favorably disposed. Brevity, brevity, brevity.

Second, for the love of God, do not say "My dissertation is the first to apply the theories of X to the texts of Y." I must have read 100 letters like this in a previous search. Who cares if you were the first to apply the theories of X if those theories are wrong? Who cares if you studied the texts of Y if those texts are crappy? Answer, right away, the dreaded "So What?" question. You need the equivalent of a sound bite that your advocates among the readers can bring up: "oh, he's the guy who studies chickens in Old English" is better than "he's the guy using Foucault to question the traditional authority of authorship..." Within reason, you want to be "chicken guy."

Two other tips: if you're applying to a place like Wheaton, mention teaching in your first paragraph. That's one of our weeding-out tools. Second, if you've got something great on your vita that a non-specialist won't know about (i.e., getting published in Anglia is a huge deal) then mention it in the letter. But otherwise don't bother to just put your vita in narrative form in the letter. Your readers will resent it.

You have to realize that the on-paper part of the process is the biggest crap shoot. Some people reject everyone with a degree from a certain place because there is already someone from there on the faculty. Other people reject anyone who seems "too early" or "too late" or "too general" or "too specialized." It is completely unfair. So hate that and rage at it, but don't let it undermine your confidence in yourself and your work.

Finally, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to do research and tailor each letter to each place. I resisted this approach, and it was a mistake. Get on the web, look at course lists and syllabi, figure out what you could teach, and mention it in your letter. If it looks like you have a sincere interest in an institution, you'll move up in the estimation of the readers. Even if this is a week of work, it is worth it: the difference between getting a tenure-track job and having to piece together a living from adjunct work can be 25 to 30 thousand dollars. Isn't it worth a few hours of research and a number of customized letters to give yourself a better shot at that?

In a few weeks I'll talk about the dossier process and then the interview process. But just thinking about all of this makes me sick to my stomach. For all of you out there who are applying: good luck, and I wish you didn't have to go through this.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Digging Out
I've finally finished my review of Rome and the North, an essay collection about the reception of Gregory the Great in Germanic medieval Europe. It's impolite to scoop your own reivew (for Mediaevistik), but I wanted to talk about the difficulties of reviewing and why reviews in academia are more important (in the long run; they don't do a lot for immediate sales).
The Humanities are faced with a crisis of specialization. People carve out narrower and narrower niches hoping -- reasonably -- to be the "world expert" on something. It's what you do for your Ph.D. But then it's really hard to get your super-specialized work published. I received quite a few rejection letters on the Wills article that said "well done, but too specialized for super-journal X."

Then, when you finally find a place that wants to publish you, you have to try to convince other people who only read about 10th century Anglo-Saxon Female Saint's Lives (and really only those without identified Latin sources) that they need to read your book for valuable context. So you desperately hope that your reviewer is interdisciplinary enough to be able to understand what you've done well and what's ground-breaking.

Not easy to find (or be) one of those.

A friend of mine had a review begin "I don't know much about Anglo-Saxon, but I know what I like." Now this was a very positive review, but I think my friend would rather have someone engage her on real points of argument, or even point out that hapax legomenon can only properly be applied to a unique lexeme, not to a unique inflected form of that lexeme. Just because a word only appears once in the accusative case does not make it a hapax legomenon if there are 30 instances in the dative case. But I digress...

The book I reviewed was difficult because I'll never been current on scholarship in Middle Dutch, Old Frisian, or the various Germans, and I'm only somewhat current on Old Norse. So I fell back on the one piece of advice I have to give: when in doubt, write a short, clear and fair summary. And, to quote a fellow member of ISAS: "It's nice to be important, but it's imporant to be nice."

Thankfully I haven't had to review a really bad book, yet.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Some More News

Well, the contracts have now been signed, so I can reveal that it is Routledge (a very good academic press) that will be publishing The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Thanks to all who have already sent suggestions (and please keep 'em coming). I need to get some things organized and then I will be back in touch.

The other news is that the Boston Globe story on Tolkien (for which I was interviewed) is now slotted for November 16. I'm still waiting to hear about the National Geographic video, which is supposed to be out soon.

I'm hopeful I'll soon have news I can post about the publication of Tolkien Studies

But I'll finish this post by saying that I have the greatest students on earth. My two research assistants this year are practically managing my life at Wheaton for me now (because I am so swamped, I've suggested they they wheel me around the campus in my chair, putting me in front of the relevant classrooms, meetings, computers, etc.). And one of my former students, who had joked about being willing to do some bibliography review for me, actually wrote first-rate reviews of the stuff I sent out (my sending it out was meant to be a lesson about the horrible things that happen to you if you volunteer for things). But instead of a dead badger in my mailbox, I got excellent reviews and summaries of things I hadn't had time to read. I made a real mistake letting this student graduate. Maybe I will fail my research assistants so that I can hang on to them for an extra year...