Recently I’ve had two students sign up to study Lewis and Tolkien with me.  This is not in itself an unusual happening – I supervise dissertation students working on these authors, and I cover them in a guest section on a Speculative Fiction module.  But these students are part of a new online MA distance learning programme I’m part of.  The unit they’re studying on centres on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as case studies of how fantasy authors engage with religious ideas and texts in their fiction.  There are sections on reading fantasy critically, on the ways religion informs and infuses Narnia and Middle-Earth, and on the religious roots of fantasy literature. 

That last section was both fun and especially challenging to write, as it forced me to articulate how texts like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress influenced the visions and fictional techniques of modern fantasy writing.  What is it about Satan catching sight of the earth suspended in space which expands the options for speculative fiction, I asked myself.  Why does it matter so much that Beatrice explains the wind in the trees in Eden?  And why do I feel that (to quote the pod) Bunyan’s depiction of the fiend Apollyon is the beginning of “the strand of fantasy which ends with shape-shifter reporters dating werewolf bartenders in the modern paranormal romance genre”?

The pod includes audio and video, alongside set readings and exercises – here you can see me in one of the university gardens, apparently just having sprung from a rural grotto in order to discuss the finer points of fantasy literature

The overall programme is called “Applied English”, and is the result of the School of English at the University of Nottingham (where I work) spending a couple of years redesigning and rethinking the principles of distance learning.  The result is an online system focused around “pods”, smaller units than the traditional modules, which students can fit together to design their own academic programme.  They can select a range of pods from the major areas of study – literature, linguistics, drama, medieval studies – or concentrate more intensely on one area.  This flexibility extends to the pace of study and enrolment – there are several points each year when a student can begin their course.  They also pay for each pod as they study it, rather than paying all the fees up front.

One of the advantages of this system for the tutors is the chance we get to offer teaching to students in more niche areas.  Given the organization of most MA programmes, modules need to cover larger swathes of material and have a wider general appeal – with Applied English I can write a pod on a focused area like “Religion and Fantasy Literature”, and students can study it in depth, without needing to worry too much about whether it’s feasible on a bigger scale. 

I’m already working on another pod, this time about the Queens of Crime and their detective novels – another topic I hope will have appeal for students, but which I’d struggle to pitch as a whole chunk of a regular module.  And just as students can build their own programme, I can theoretically respond to interest in the areas I teach in by constructing more pods in future.  I’ve been looking at the list of pods written by my colleagues, and it has (as usual) made me want to enrol on a number of them.  To name just a few, “Metaphor”, “The Reading Public in the Romantic Period”, “Ecocriticism”, “Place-Names in the English Landscape”, “Reading and Editing the Medieval Text”, “Contemporary Fairy Tale Literature”… 

In fact, I believe that some of the pods are available to try out for free, so if you like you could take a look around them.  In the meantime, I shall be designing the materials for the Queens of Crime pod, which will apparently require rereading a lot of Dorothy Sayers and re-watching a lot of Harriet Walter.  The academic life is a demanding one…