Behind the Lectern: Stephen Potts – A Journey to Middle Earth


Illustration by David Juarez

Tia Ikemoto

As a herd of students files into WLH 2111, it isn’t obvious who this class is meant for, as literature majors take their places next to pink-haired punks and electrical engineers. However, at 2 p.m., Professor Stephen Potts sweeps into the room, plumed hat in one hand and a weathered edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in the other. Today, they go to Middle Earth.

Potts has been an avid Tolkien fan since first reading his work in the late ‘60s, a time which he described as “the drug-saturated hippie era.” While some found their escape in psychedelic drugs, Potts called Middle Earth his home away from home.

For him, the appeal of Tolkien’s stories lies in its construction as a complete world.

“I really enjoyed the fact that he had created languages and he created these thousands of years’ worth of history,” Potts told the UCSD Guardian.

After reading the books during the summer before starting college, Potts purchased a splashy poster of Middle Earth from Ballantine Books for $1. Today it hangs in his office next to a bookshelf teaming with genre fiction.

In class, Potts is almost a Tolkien character himself, one day spewing sorrowful soliloquies in perfect Elvish, the next day unintentionally dressing like a hobbit in billowing sleeves and a gem-toned vest.

Although his love for Tolkien is tangible, in practice he is a much bigger science fiction fan than fantasy buff. In fact, after reading Tolkien’s comprehensive work, he finds most fantasy novels redundant.

His love for science fiction started with a passion for science that continues to be a part of his life today. At just six years old, Potts began his study of science fiction with “The Golden Treasury of Natural History, which he still owns to this day.

“Two of my great intellectual pursuits from a school age were the natural world of science and reading, and so it’s natural that [I got into] science fiction once I got old enough to really embrace it,” Potts said.

Nowadays, if he isn’t reading his favorite science fiction author Philip K. Dick, he can be found perusing Science News Magazine, attending environmentalism lectures at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, participating in panels at San Diego-based conventions from Comic Con to Condor, or hiking the Rocky Mountains with his son. In between, he teaches courses in children’s literature and science fiction.

Whether he is teaching Tolkien or space travel, the waitlists for all of Potts’ classes prove that his passion is expressed through his teaching.

But at ten to the hour, Potts’s spell is broken. Students leave the Shire behind and return to orc-less reality, already looking forward to the next chapter of adventures through Middle Earth.