Well, six months without posting, where have I been all this time?
Well may you ask.
I’ve written some posts, but couldn't finish them to my satisfaction. I have about a half dozen sitting in one state of incompletion or another.
Things got busy.
Even though I was scheduled to teach one course for spring term, I was asked to sub for another for two weeks – a course on the Harry Potter series, which I never finished reading, and the books I had finished reading have been on the shelf untouched for years. But hey, can I sub? Of course I can sub. Any kind of literature, any kind – I can work something out.
So what happens next?
All the school’s courses have to be switched online. And the instructor for the Tolkien course, who is not too big on technology anyway, and is a high-risk, category, and has been itching to sneak away and write a book about ... about what? Teaching Tolkien, of course. Anyway, the heads of the English/Creative Writing department ask me to take over for her. She askes me take over for her. Her students think the course is being taken away from her, so they contact me.
“Help! The English Department is trying to turn over the Tolkien class to some other teacher!”
“I know. I’m ‘the other teacher.’”
So this bounces back and forth, and I bring in the Part Time Faculty Union, because the department can’t really negotiate these sorts of changes without them, and the thing goes crazy for a few weeks, and the next thing I know I'm teaching Tolkien.
How did that work out for me?
The short version: not so bad.
I went into this thinking I was the least qualified person to teach Tolkien anywhere at any time.
It then occurred to me that when I started out teaching Science Fiction Writing I believed I was the least qualified person to teach that class, ever.
I’d met some of the students beforehand. Some of them had been students in my other classes. It was a big class, too. Almost thirty on the roster. twice as big as almost any other class I ever taught except for Freshman Rhetoric and Composition thirty years ago. But one thing about this class: they all loved Tolkien and they all knew ten times more about him than I ever knew.
What do I need to know about Tolkien? I thought. I have students. Just come up with some interesting discussion topics and let them teach you.
So I did.
The next few posts will comprise of some of the discussion topics I came up with for my online classes. I won’t reprint their responses, because that’s their work and they are entitled to their privacy. But I want to share with you some of my responses, because they surprise me even now. They make me sound as if I know what I’m talking about. In some cases, that’s the hardest thing for any teacher to do. And in this case in particular, it means that I actually learned something in the process of teaching the class. You may not think it’s true, but for any teacher, of any subject, that’s the most important part of the process.
Below, was the first discussion topic I gave them. We’d been away from class for three weeks and suddenly we were going to have to go about this subject in a different way, to students who were now scattered two-thirds of the way across the globe.If you’re trying to make sense of a pandemic, there are worse writers to be sequestered with than J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tolkien in the Post-Covid-19 Age
"I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it."
-- J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 1939
To inaugurate our "return" to class (online, at least), I'd like to pose a general question, or questions, in regard to Tolkien and what has been happening to us these past few weeks.
The question: has your reading of Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings, seemed more or less relevant in light of what the world has been going through with the Coronavirus crisis? If so, in what ways? What parts speak to you more clearly now than before? Or, is it harder now to concentrate on a work of fiction, of fantasy, in a world that seems more unreal than ever?
Does TLOTR help you keep your mind off of what is happening, or does it in some way help you comprehend, realistically or metaphorically, a dangerous and mostly incomprehensible world?
Your response is meant to be more personal than critical or scholarly. You can speak from your own experience as you can speak from which parts of the novel, or sections of Tolkien's other works, speak to you most personally (or don't).
It's okay to veer off topic and tell us about your own experiences this past month or so, where you are, what you've been doing, what you has changed, and maybe what hasn't.
I've only met a few of you, so it would also be helpful if you could go a little way in introducing yourself to me.
The ground rules: every comment is valid. Every reading is valid, even when, or especially when, it disagrees with your own. In other words, be nice. You can rail against politicians, administrators, executives, etc., all you want. But amongst ourselves we shall be generous and empathetic.
The important matter is that every voice be heard. We have all lived through the past few months. We all have something to say.
Also, it occurs to me that I haven't introduced myself to you.
I'm mostly known as a writer, but I've been teaching at Columbia since 2009, mostly the science fiction writing courses, but circumstances have forced me to branch out a bit. I got my Master's in English at Northwestern, and my thesis focused on Chaucer (why doesn't this school have a Chaucer class?) I refer to myself as a "recovering academic." My fiction and poetry have been nominated for a few awards and a long while ago I was fortunate enough to have won a Nebula, which is the award members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) give out every year to works they deem worthy.
What fascinates me about Tolkien I'll explain as we complete this course, but in brief it is this: there are scholars and then there are writers. Few can be both. Tolkien did it, and did it brilliantly, in that he managed two great works that have captured the imaginations of millions. No meager accomplishment. How he managed it we will never know authoritatively, but the endless speculations unearth truths we could not have anticipated when we first embarked upon them.
Okay, now it's your turn . . .
Here are my responses to their comments, which have been edited out for reasons stated above, and to protect the smart (them) for the innocently dimwitted (me):