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Using J.R.R. Tolkien to teach corporate leadership

Based on the first 11 years of her life, for Miller-Purrenhage to describe herself as an “avid reader” is a mini miracle. For the first part of her life the opposite was true - she never read.

The 200-mile drive from Big Rapids, Michigan to Detroit was one that Dr. Laura Miller-Purrenhage was accustomed to as a child. It was a visit from her home in west Michigan to grandma’s house in southeast Detroit. It was usually an uneventful 2.5-hour drive in each direction but when Miller-Purrenhage was 12-years-old, one of those trips would transform her life for the better.

“When I was 12, my mom read The Hobbit to me on a car trip. At the end of it, I desperately wanted to know what happened next,” Miller-Purrenhage said. “It took me a year to read the Lord of the Rings after that and because of that I became an avid reader and because of that I became a literature professor.”

Based on the first 11 years of her life, for Miller-Purrenhage to describe herself as an “avid reader” is a mini miracle. For the first part of her life the opposite was true - she never read.

“I was a late reader. I liked being read to but I did not find myself compelled to read at all,” Miller-Purrenhage said. “I think I was fascinated by fantasy. Nobody had given me fantasy stories to read before. It was a different world. It was a clash of good and evil.”

Miller-Purrenhage didn’t stop at the Lord of the Rings either. As a 13-year-old she transitioned from epic to myth as she read The Silmarillion which is more of an encyclopedic history textbook than a deeply woven narrative.

“I’ve barely read anything in my life and the next book I’m reading is The Silmarillion,” said Miller-Purrenhage, laughing.”

Tolkien’s stories have since guided her life as Miller-Purrenhage has partnered with fellow Kettering University Department of Liberal Studies faculty member Dr. Denise Stodola to make her lifelong passion for Tolkien into her professional pursuit as they have combined to offer LIT 374: Seminar on J.R.R. Tolkien as a Liberal Studies course for Kettering students.

Dr. Laura Miller Purrenhage and Dr. Denise Stodola

Re-Discovering Tolkien

Stodola is a medievalist scholar who was attracted to the parallel between her studies of The Reeve’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer and Tolkien’s work.

“It’s something that I was passionate about from a different perspective than most people,” Stodola said. “Tolkien himself was a medievalist like I am. I used Tolkien’s published academic materials in my own research because I was interested in the different dialects in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Tolkien did a lot of work in linguistics. You can certainly see his love of language in both The Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings.”

While Stodola’s pursuit of Tolkien was academic, Miller-Purenhage’s re-commitment to Tolkien occurred after a devastating personal health issue in the mid-2000s. Although Miller-Purrenhage, consistently re-read the Lord of the Rings every few years, it took a life-threatening illness for her to reflect on and guide her efforts to her truest passion.

“During that time, you get to reflect a little bit,” Miller-Purrenhage said. “When I got back to work, I thought: what is it that I want to do more than anything else? I want to teach Tolkien.”

So Miller-Purrenhage deviated from her work exploring identity through Russian, Polish and African-Caribbean poetry to focus on studying themes in Tolkien’s works. Miller-Purrenhage approached Stodola about developing the course together from the perspective of medieval studies and leadership and they have alternated teaching terms since 2012.

“What I found after reading Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion at the advanced stage was that the motifs that Tolkien uses are similar to what you find in some medieval works,” Stodola said. “When the chance came to teach it, I was like yeah, let’s do it.”

Corporate Leadership in Tolkien’s Work

Miller-Purrenhage wanted to develop a course that was relevant to Kettering students who split their educational careers between the classroom and corporate settings. She also wanted to direct her research to coincide with the themes of the classroom and chose to study leadership and withstanding evil - both narratives in Tolkien’s work that can be analogous to corporate environments.

“We look at leadership. What makes an effective leader?,” Miller-Purrenhage said. “Aragorn, Gandalf, Theoden and Denethor - what are the differences in the way they lead?”

Miller-Purrenhage uses the examples of Frodo and Sam to discuss how unethical behavior can be resisted in the corporate environments just as the hobbits resisted the temptations of the Ring.

“What causes unethical behavior?,” Miller-Purrenhage said. “We all hope to be good people but over and over again, we find that even the best of people can get corrupted.”

Stodola explores similar themes when she teaches the course but also focuses more on rhetoric when discussing reluctant leaders, overall arguments Tolkien’s texts make about being decent human beings, the differences between myths and epics and providing students with the tools necessary to identify and interpret these premises on their own.

Miller-Purrenhage researched and presented on the themes of leadership and ethics in 2012 and 2014 at the annual Tolkien conference held in England and continues to explore and relate these themes to Kettering students.

Each of the conferences she attended concluded with a visit to Tolkien’s grave in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford England. The scholars and attendees of the conference, gathered around the grave to sing a poem in Elvish while individuals left notes of appreciation for Tolkien and his “masterpieces of literature.” Just as they have re-inspired her scholarly pursuits, Miller-Purrenhage is hoping the texts can do the same for Kettering students.

“I think Tolkien knew in his life that he’s affected many people with his work,” Miller-Purrenhage said.