The Lord of the Rings: A Cultural Studies and Audience Reception Approach

After having my introduction to Mythgard through Corey Olsen’s Mythgard Academy courses, I was woefully ill-prepared for a Cultural Studies class. Ultimately, it was a fantastic introduction to graduate work, but at first I was thrown for a loop.

Unlike the classes I’ve taken with Prof Olsen where the course is structured very loosely, Robin Reid’s course was more firmly structured and based around two papers which built off of each other. I found this helpful for a beginning graduate student without a background in academic writing, because it basically meant I spent the semester writing one lengthy paper, so I could really focus on nailing down the academic writing style.

This didn’t mean that I was immune from times of utter panic.

Dr. Reid was also very hands on with our research and dedicated substantial amounts of time to answering questions we might have about how our papers were shaping up and how to incorporate the critical framework of Cultural Studies. This was invaluable to me, though some classmates found this frustrating as it meant she wasn’t covering as much material as they would have liked. I think some of this frustration might be tied to how different a Cultural Studies approach is to, say, a close reading approach, which most of Mythgard seems to lean toward.

That frustration could also have been sparked by the fact that Dr. Reid had a more conversational style of teaching to Dr. Olsen’s. Not to say that Dr. Olsen has a prepared lecture that he doesn’t deviate from — they both encourage and welcome input — but Dr. Reid seemed to build down time into her lectures for preceptor session-esque discussion, whereas Dr. Olsen famously either runs over time, falls woefully behind, or some combination of the two: which is one of the charms of taking a class taught by him, he’s so into the subject matter he gets swept away and takes you with.

To clarify the usual Mythgard setup, each class generally consists of two lecture sessions run by the instructor and, for the MA student, one discussion session run by a preceptor. From what I’ve gathered, a preceptor is a very posh name for what my friends in the sciences just call a TA. All of these sessions are held online, usually in the late afternoon – late evening; I often have classes that run until 11pm eastern. During the dicussion sessions, all students are un-muted and able to voice chat, but during lecture the student can only text chat directly with the instructor within the class interface. This lack of student to student chatting has spawned student-only chat rooms for use during classes.

Having that sort of unfettered access to your professor is an awesome and terrible thing. I’ve found that I constantly have to fight the temptation to either tell jokes or steer the lecture into borderline inappropriate areas. Those two things have a lot of overlap.

I’ve found this derailing guilt is almost non-existent in the discussion sessions, where the students have a loosely guided conversation about what we covered in lecture. Since only the other MA students are in the discussion sessions, you’re rarely ever wasting more than 5 people’s time with jokes. Since the sessions are so small, you get to really know people, for better or worse.

“Spider porn” was actually directly related to the lecture. Were you aware that there is a school of thought which sees Shelob as a negative symbol of female sexuality? Right down to her devastating impalement upon Sting.

I might be a bit biased in terms of this class because the paper I got from it is one which has since landed me a few talks at conferences — and hopefully, soon, a publication. That is sort of its own subject, as this paper spiraled into a behemoth which took an entire year to finish research for and write.

The first paper revolved around taking a concept from our primary course book, Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History, and relating it to The Lord of the Rings. The second paper was essentially cannibalizing that first paper and extending it into real Cultural Studies work. I chose to push it toward audience reception.

Audience reception is now one of my favorite things to research. I find myself drifting down roads straight into conspiracy theory territory or into the morass of fan fiction, and it’s still legitimate research!

After the second paper was turned in, we had a short written final essay which basically just asked for our thoughts on Cultural Studies. Finals that are just opinion are my favorite types of finals.

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