Honors College ‘Retro Readings’ Seminars to Explore Middle-Earth and Technology’s Role in Art

Russell Cothren

Honors College Retro Readings courses focus on seminal texts viewed through a contemporary lens. While past and current offerings have invited analyses of material like Herodotus and presidential speeches, the courses delve into topics highly relevant to our world today. However, classes don’t shy away from delving into more contemporary readings either. Next semester, honors students will examine The Lord of the Rings trilogy and theorist Walter Benjamin’s concerns about art’s role in the face of technological progress. 

“Tolkien’s rich work allows us to have great conversations about technology, progress, religion, race, gender, history and much more,” noted Joshua Byron Smith, associate professor of English, who will lead the Lord of the Rings course. “Teaching this class has been one of my favorite experiences at the University of Arkansas. Some students arrive with a deep knowledge of Tolkien and his mythos, but others arrive having only seen a movie or two. The mix is exciting, and it makes for some really great discussions.” 

Additionally, Director of the World Languages and Digital Humanities Studio Curtis Maughan will lead a course, Technology in Crisis, examining “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility,” by Walter Benjamin, one of the 20th century’s most provocative and unique thinkers. 

“Anyone who is excited by, worried about or interested in how the explosion of generative AI will radically change our media landscape should consider taking this course,” Maughan said. “We will develop and deepen our understanding of the present moment by looking back to an analogous moment in the 1930s, when the explosive growth of film began to impact all elements of daily life, from the dissemination of news to the creation of celebrity to methods of scientific inquiry.” 

Though the courses no longer require an application, interested students should register as early as possible to ensure they get a seat.

Fall 2024 Readings Seminars

Lord of the Rings: This Retro Readings course invites students to develop a more sophisticated appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. One might think Tolkien’s work is all fantasy, but he was an Oxford professor of medieval literature, and he thought deeply about the power of myth, the justness of war and humanity’s relationship to the natural world. This course taught by Joshua Byron Smith, associate professor of English, will have students close read The Lord of the Rings. In particular, the course will study the critical reception of Tolkien’s work, his status as a post-war writer, adaptations of his work and his use of medieval literature in creating his own fictional universe.

Technology in Crisis: This seminar, taught by Curtis Maughan, director of the World Languages and Digital Humanities Studio, will guide students through an extensive analysis of one of the most influential essays of the 20th century, “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility,” (1936) by the German Jewish theorist-philosopher-public intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). As movies grew into the primary mode of mainstream entertainment in the 1930s, many of Benjamin’s contemporaries asked the question, “Can film be art?” — to which Benjamin responded by asking “How has film changed the very nature of art?” Since its publication, Benjamin’s essay has been called forth whenever society has had to reconsider the boundaries of art in the face of technological advancement, from the golden age of television to the digital turn. It’s particularly relevant to our contemporary moment at the dawn of AI.

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