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

Tuition, fees and living expenses at Washington College run to $44,572 a year. By recording his lectures and posting them online, Olsen is effectively giving elements of that education away for free.

His overseers don't seem to mind. Olsen received tenure last year, unusual for a scholar who hasn't 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 intelligentsia.

"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 Olsen's podcasts, after all, are not peer-reviewed or vetted by fellow scholars.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 the University of Maryland, 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."

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