A college with a focus in fantasy, science fiction

  • Some of the courses offered at Signum University, an online-only school in Nashua. Courtesy of Signum University

Monitor staff
Published: 1/28/2019 6:26:30 PM

There is a certain subset of people who, if they were to design a college degree, would include courses like “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Poetry,” “Literature, Film and Technoculture,” and “The Cosmic Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.”

Since that subset overlaps strongly with Granite Geek readers, I’m happy to say there exists an online college in New Hampshire which does offer them, even though you’ve probably never heard of it. It also offers classes on literary antecedents to Harry Potter, literary successors to Sherlock Holmes, and such audience pleasers as Germanic philology, “Beowulf” and Medieval Scandinavian languages.

“Old Norse is selling like hotcakes – people love Old Norse,” Corey Olsen said.

Olsen is a former tenured English professor at Washington College, a small liberal-arts school in Delaware, who has built up quite a following by podcasting about Tolkein of Lord of the Rings fame, which thinks may be the greatest literary work of the 20th century despite the academic world’s snooty opinion of fantasy.

As Olsen tells it, he became distressed during his career by the student debt crisis as well as academia’s increasing use of low-paid adjuncts to teach courses, and thought the online world could help address both.

Using his podcast to help build an audience, he founded Signum University, which is sort of based in Nashua, eight years ago. (Software folks may misread that name as “bignum,” a nerd joke about numerical placeholders, but it’s from the Latin word for a sign or a portent.)

Signum offers masters-level classes in a few very select topics, with an emphasis on fantasy and science fiction and on Medieval works, as well as some old European languages and philology, the study of how language develops.

Very focused

Unlike online institutions like Phoenix University, Signum isn’t looking to provide full undergraduate education. “We’re looking to go deep, not broad. ... My goal is to have the best fantasy literature and Germanic philology program on planet Earth,” Olsen said.

“We’ve really begun to tap into a large number of people who are interested in philology. Increasingly it’s becoming not just Tolkien folks who are interested in philology, but people who are really passionate about studying languages in the first place. ... I think it’s safe to say we are the only place where our German philology program is growing,” he said.

There’s a big caveat: Signum has no accreditation, which means its classes aren’t accepted by other colleges or, importantly, by public schools judging whether an English teacher has met the requirements to get a bump in pay. But Olsen is working on this.

A state law, SB138, has been proposed that would authorize Signum to grant degrees in New Hampshire. If that passes, the school will seek accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Even without accreditation, Olsen says the school has attracted enough students to its interactive online courses at about $625 apiece, with lower cost available for less interaction, to break even on its tiny (about $200,000) annual operating budget.

He says this is true even though he says Signum pays its lecturers more than they’d usually get as adjuncts at small colleges. Adjuncts only get paid per course. This effort to pay lecturers more while charging students less is key to what Olsen hopes will be a restructuring of higher education for the digital world.

Proof of concept

Of course, many colleges offer programs online. The poster child is Southern New Hampshire University, which has used its Manchester-area campus to launch a degree-granting internet behemoth. Many other colleges are following suit, launching online programs in hopes of countering a decline in traditional enrollment.

But Olsen says they’re saddled by legacy costs from their physical campus and by existing course structures.

“It takes the traditional brick-and-mortar model and moves it online in terms of program identity, curricular coverage ... and cost,” Olsen said. He likened them to old-fashioned correspondence schools that sent coursework through the mail.

Signum University has no physical presence to speak of. Its Nashua address is a postal drop-off and is there only because Olsen, who was a member of the last graduating class of Milford Area High School, moved to Hollis after leaving Delaware.

That’s a big cost savings, of course. Its finances also benefit from a number of Tolkien-fan staff who are volunteers.

Still, Olsen thinks universities can thrive through very focused quality education online, and hopes to show the way.

“We are a proof of concept, essentially,” he said. “Even if you’re not interested in the content, what you should be interested in is what we’re doing.”

It certainly is interesting. Whether it’s important is another question.

We’ve all heard a lot of promises about the internet reshaping higher education through things like MOOCs, those massive online courses, and open-course software classes. There’s also the push for certificates, to signal completion of single courses or small classes short of a degree.

All that is still around but it hasn’t exactly reshaped the education world. Will slicing academia into very narrowly focused degree-focused segments taught online prove more significant? Possibly, although it seems an uphill battle.

However, if nothing else, Signum University offers the opportunity to take an online course called “Sherlock, Science and Ratiocination,” which “focuses on Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and how their works blended scientific method, mystery and imagination to create the modern literature of detection.”

Which sounds pretty cool, even if I don’t get a pay raise out of it.


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