Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Non-academic perspectives

Hwaet, I answered Michael Drout's call for contributors for the Tolkien Encyclopedia, primarily because one of the categories was "health and medicine" and I happen to know a bit about medieval health and medicine. As I've committed to do a paper on Tolkien for the Popular Culture Association next year, I thought it would be good to re-read all his stuff for the encyclopedia entry, just in case I find something good for the PCA paper. Plus, I'm becoming rather taken with my PCA paper, and will likely try to write an article-length version for publication.

Little did I know I was to become a minor celebrity.

For the non-academics among my readers, let me explain how rankings of academic publications go. These rankings generally aren't codified (though I seem to recall Wayne State did codify them and give them numerical value for tenure and promotion), but are part of the academic culture. The totem pole looks something like this:

1. Book of theory or criticism
2. Edition or translation (elsewhere I've complained that this should be subordinated, but regardless of the justice of its ranking, it is generally valued less than books of criticism).
3. Journal article
4. Book reviews and reference work entries
5. Conference presentation

Of course, this is a gross simplification. A really well-placed and well-received journal article can be of greater value to one's career than a not-so-well-placed book, for example. Even within these categories, there are lots of subtle differences. For example, my article in Anglo-Saxon England, the premier annual in the field, is of greater value than my article in Alabama English, since the latter is basically only going to be read by locals.

Now, let's consider where a single entry in the Tolkien Encyclopedia falls -- next to last. The only kind of peer-reviewed publication of equal-or-lesser value is a book review. Now, none of this is to denigrate book reviews and encyclopedia entries, since these are often hard work and need to be done. Nevertheless, the amount of effort I am putting into, for example, Curing Elf-shot and Other Mysterious Maladies: New Scholarship on Old English Charms that I am editing with Kathryn Laity is far more than I put into the recent Facts-on-File entry I wrote.

I mentioned to a non-academic that I was doing this entry, and she gasped, "Oh my gosh! What an honor!" An honor? I thought of it as filler while I was waiting to do some larger projects that require coordination with other scholars and their schedules. I mentioned it to my chair, and he replied, "Oh, good" -- a more typical academic response. Just to see what would happen, I started mentioning the entry to other non-academics, and the response has been remarkable. Someone said to me, "At last people are recognizing you as an important scholar." When I pointed out that Michael Drout is the editor, not me, he replied, "Still, it's an honor." This word "honor" keeps coming up again and again.

So now, I find people who in the past never showed any interest in my work asking how the Tolkien entry is coming (just fine, thank you ... I'm still in the re-reading stage). And in a box in my study, about two dozen offprint copies of my article in Anglo-Saxon England sit undisturbed, and un-asked for.


  1. Three reasons I can think of for this reaction:

    a) Tolkien has become a big part of popular culture. He has many, many fans of all stripes, most of them non-academics.

    b) Non-academics are MUCH more likely to see an encyclopedia entry than they are an academic article. Frankly, they're almost inherently more interested in the entry than the often-arcane minutiae of a peer-reviewed journal.

    c) There is something inherently magisterial about an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias, and dictionaries, are, from our earliest youths, considered the font of all wisdom, the definitive source of information. Frankly, when people think of scholarship, they think Encyclopedia Britannica, not The Love Poems of 18th-Century Bohemia as Intertextual Imperialism, even though the latter may be "better" scholarship, more important in its field, and more highly thought of, than the former. So, when people hear you're working on an encyclopedia, they think it's a Big Deal. And, frankly, I think it is, no matter what the academic hierarchy is, but who that's just me...

  2. Great comment, Frank. Thanks!