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

By Daniel de Vise
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.

Tolkien is not as popular among academics. Though Tolkien was a language scholar at Oxford, he is not generally counted among the great fiction writers of his century, nor is "The Lord of the Rings" counted among its great books.

Yet, Tolkien scholars and Tolkien classes have multiplied over the years, and Middle- earth fanzines have evolved into academic journals.

"If something isn't going away, that tells you something," said Verlyn Flieger, a Tolkien scholar at the University of Maryland.

Olsen's Web site generated little traffic until summer 2009, when he uploaded his 28-minute introductory lecture to iTunes. He's put up 78 more podcasts, with such titles as "On Dragons and Orcs" and "Tolkien and Food." His lectures have ranked as high as third among top university course downloads.

"Within two months, I had 5,000 subscribers," he recalled in an interview in his office on campus. "And then the people who were listening wanted to talk."

Olsen communes with his growing fan base in periodic Skype call-in sessions and on his Facebook page, answering urgent queries about Tolkien taxonomy. He hosts discussion boards on his Web site and, this winter, is running an online seminar on the posthumous collection "The Silmarillion" for 15 lucky followers.

"He's like a Tolkien evangelist," said John DiBartolo, a Long Island musician, graphic designer and amateur Tolkien scholar.

The questions never cease: Do elves farm? What do orcs eat? Could any living author write a worthy sequel? What does Olsen think of the upcoming "Hobbit" movie? Has he played "The Lord of the Rings" computer game online?

Naturally, Olsen knows all sorts of arcana about Tolkien and hobbits. He likes to note, for instance, that the One Ring of power and its corruptive influence were absent from the first edition of "The Hobbit" in 1937. "Gollum and Bilbo end up shaking hands and waving," he chuckled.

The centerpiece of Olsen's podcast work is a chapter-by-chapter analysis of "The Hobbit" that Olsen hopes to repackage as a book when it is complete. His delivery is swift, affable and erudite.

"English professors as a group tend to rule Tolkien out of the literary canon without blinking," Olsen lamented in the introductory lecture, "largely because fantasy stories about elves and dragons obviously cannot be serious literature."

"He is a fantastic lecturer. He's engaging. He draws you in. I would have loved to have taken a class from him in college," said Dave Kale, 29, a follower of Olsen's podcasts who lives in Los Angeles.

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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