'Tolkien Professor' Corey Olsen brings Middle-earth to iTunes via podcasts

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:18 PM

CHESTERTOWN, MD. - Corey Olsen had a lot to say about J.R.R. Tolkien. But it seemed a pity to consign his thoughts to a scholarly journal, to be read by a few hundred fellow academics who already knew more than enough about the author of "The Lord of the Rings."

So in spring 2007, the Washington College professor took his scholarship public, with a podcast called "How to Read Tolkien and Why" and a Web site called The Tolkien Professor.

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 academia will reward Olsen or punish him for breaking out of his scholarly track. When it comes to building resumes and courting full professorships, podcasts don't typically count.

Olsen is a new breed of public intellectual, the latest in a long line of scholars who have leveraged mass media to reach a broader audience.

Traditional public scholars - Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould - spoke mainly through books, magazines and op-ed pieces. Today's populist profs tap potent new platforms: blogs and podcasts, tweets and Facebook fan pages. Podcast celebrities include Harvard government professor Michael Sandel, whose "Justice" course explores right and wrong. Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan has a course called simply "Death."

At 36, Olsen represents a new generation of professors who grew up around computers and knows its way around an iPhone. The bookish son of a New Hampshire construction worker, Olsen read "The Hobbit" at age 8 and was a self-professed expert on "The Lord of the Rings" by seventh grade.

He took up a sort of permanent spiritual residence within Tolkien's imagined Middle-earth. As an undergraduate at Williams College in Massachusetts, Olsen took "every medieval thing that they offered" and later earned a doctorate in medieval literature at Columbia.

The young medievalist proved an immediate hit at Washington College, a small liberal arts school tucked behind the Chester River in the colonial hamlet of Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He won the school's top teaching award in 2007. Some current seniors have taken five or six of his courses.

"You go to class, and he has all these new insights that you didn't even think of," said Elizabeth Hurlbut, 21, a junior from Keller, Tex.

Olsen published an article and a review in the scholarly journal Tolkien Studies in 2008 and 2009, but he sensed an opportunity squandered. More than 100 million copies of "The Lord of the Rings" have been sold. The Peter Jackson movies of the past decade earned roughly a billion dollars each.

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