Tolkien would have struggled as a modern academic

Yeah, this maybe will be a weird post, coming from a Tolkien scholar. Still, reflecting more on John M. Bowers's excellent Tolkien's Lost Chaucer (2019), I realize that Tolkien would have struggled badly as a modern academic ... and that I, most likely, would have resented him deeply as a colleague. 

Not as a person, mind you; Tolkien's a decent enough fellow. But my feelings are very much the product of academic labor under the modern neoliberal university. Thousands upon thousands of academics in various states of precarity: contingent laborers who, despite exceedingly high competence in every area of academic labor (research, teaching, and administration), and despite no research support, poor wages, and stressful labor conditions, nevertheless toil in precarity while certain excessively privileged faculty (certain tenure-trackers, Ivy Leaguers, etc.) muddy along with at best middling competence.

Don't get me wrong -- as a philologist, Tolkien was brilliant, and he performed his academic duties with diligence. Still, I can't forget how much of Tolkien's accomplishments are a matter of pure good fortune. Of course, his childhood was hard, and only his intelligence provided him a way out, but I'm thinking in particular of 1925 when Tolkien, already a professor at Leeds University, was elected to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. It was this position, basically, that allowed him to compose all his major works, giving him the time to tinker with his legendarium for decades before finally producing The Lord of the Rings.

When Tolkien applied to the position in June 1925, he went head-to-head with his former tutor, Kenneth Sisam ... and Tolkien's election at the tender age of 33 was basically down to no more than a coin flip (i.e., a 4-3 faculty vote).

Here's the thing: by all objectives measures, Sisam would have been a much, much better choice. Granted, hindsight is always 20/20. Going through Tolkien's Lost Chaucer, however, Bowers attributes a “sense of aggrieved merit” to Kenneth Sisam (59), and the phrase comes during a discussion of Sisam’s The Structure of Beowulf (1965), which spends a lot of space correcting “The Monsters and the Critics" by Tolkien. Some of Sisam's critical fervor, says Bowers correctly, probably derived from resentment.

However, the phrase used by Bowers, aggrieved merit, perhaps unintentionally recalls Satan who rebels against God in Paradise Lost out of a sense of "injur'd merit" (Bk I, line 98). Bowers himself strives to be fair toward Sisam, noting that he remained always professional with the dilatory Tolkien, keeping a “stiff upper lip when dealing with Tolkien and Gordon as their Chaucer edition inched forward” (59).

Sisam's temper, though, could flare in private correspondence. In a letter written to George Gordon, Tolkien's senior editor in The Clarendon Chaucer, and who shared even more blame for that volume's failure to appear, Sisam writes, “If he [Tolkien] would put the same time into working that he devotes to writing excuses, we might make some progress” (qtd in Bowers 25).

The thing is, Sisam wasn't wrong. Although Tolkien performed his day-to-day duties with diligence, he published very little in an academic way -- a fact even Tolkien scholars readily admit. Tolkien's entire research record is a history of incomplete or abandoned projects, punctuated by only a few well-known publications.

Sisam himself, though, after losing the Anglo-Saxon professorship to Tolkien, became an editor at Oxford UP, which certainly wasn't a bad gig, but he never attained the academic position which he felt he deserved. And it's hard disagreeing with Sisam's view that he would have done Tolkien's job much better than Tolkien himself. As Bowers observes, Sisam published a student’s edition of The Clerk's Tale in 1923, and he felt that "if he could complete his textbook single-handedly as a side project, he had good reason to feel annoyed that Gordon and Tolkien were not finishing their joint effort” (57).

Sisam, in other words, was extraordinarily competent. He was efficient. All academics complain about being too busy, and we are, but some know of us how to get things done despite the pressures we face, and some do not. Every day I see this in my professional life. Sisam belongs to the first group, Tolkien the latter. 

What would have happened if Sisam, not Tolkien, had won that professorship? We might never have had The Lord of the Rings, of course, but writing fiction wasn't Tolkien's job. Producing scholarship was, and medieval studies suffered a great loss when Sisam took his talents to Oxford UP. 

Indeed, even Tolkien's major and undeniably important academic essays like "Monsters and the Critics" .... would they have had the same impact if written by some obscure professor of Anglo-Saxon at Leeds? Tolkienists don't ask this question, but I don't think so. The Oxbridge syndrome was even stronger in the early 20th-century than now, and it was partly Tolkien's status as an Oxford professor that gave his work such reach and influence -- a point sometimes forgotten by Tolkienists defending their subject's singular genius. If Sisam had gotten the Professorship, he not only would have published more work, but the work he did publish could have easily enjoyed even greater prestige than what Tolkien's academic work enjoys today.

So I feel for Sisam. I empathize with his sense of "aggrieved merit" because, in many ways, I feel it myself. Although Sisam's loss wasn't particularly disastrous for him -- like I said, Oxford UP editor is a pretty good gig -- it also testifies to what I see so often today: entire fields of inquiry held back because competent contingent academics cannot do their work freely, while a small cadre of tenure-track professors with immense institutional advantages monopolize the system. 

If you've never read Erin Bartram's "The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind," you should. Some tenure-trackers make good on their good fortune -- their rank, their institutional affiliations, their Ivy League-connections -- by pushing their fields forward .... And some, like Tolkien, who never had to deal with being an adjunct or contingent, mostly fail to produce the scholarship that their institutional advantages were designed to produce.

And if Tolkien had ever been an adjunct .... would he had the wherewithal to pull himself up by his bootsteps and publish his way into a permanent academic position? Maybe, maybe not ... certainly not in today's academic job market, anyway.


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