It was Cody Geib’s first day teaching at UCLA.
“I was incredibly nervous,” Geib said. “I mean, you have all these eyes just staring at you.”
When Geib looked out at his classroom, the 20 pairs of eyes staring back at him were not only his students, but also his peers.
Over the course of one academic year, Geib, a fourth-year English student and former Daily Bruin staffer, designed and taught the curriculum for a weekly spring quarter seminar called “One Course to Rule Them All: Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s “˜The Lord of the Rings.’”
Nine weeks into the quarter and Geib stands at the blackboard listening intently to a student. The student explains how Frodo, one of the protagonists of the trilogy, sometimes wears the ring to avoid the unfriendly gaze of his peers.
The motif of an all-seeing eye is woven throughout “The Lord of the Rings.” Although Geib said he initially shared Frodo’s sense of unease at being looked at by so many people, he no longer feels uncomfortable in front of his class of 20.
Geib transitions easily between directing a discussion of the novel’s thematic elements and writing down possible essay topics on the board. In a week, he will face the challenge of not only writing final papers, but also grading them ““ 18, to be exact.
Geib said a challenge was exactly what he was looking for when he applied to the Undergraduate Student Initiated Education program, which trained him to teach the seminar. His intent was to share his literary love of “The Lord of the Rings” with other students, especially those who were not English students.
The program, which began in 2005, allows third- and fourth-year students to teach a lower-division seminar of their choice. Students apply to the program during fall quarter, take a winter quarter pedagogy course and work under the close supervision of a faculty mentor.
His seminar was one of many offered this quarter, from “Physics of Superheroes and Science Fiction” to “Allure of the Medieval: Middle Ages in Popular Culture.”
Geib said he was nervous about whether his proposal to teach a class on Lord of the Rings would be accepted.
“When it was first published, a lot of scholars thought of it as a fun, silly little adventure story, and some of those attitudes still exist in academia,” he said.
But Geib’s application to the program was accepted, and his seminar reached its enrollment cap the same day as the enrollment period began.
“We’re part of a generation that is falling in love with Tolkien’s work all over again, I think in part because of the widespread appeal of the movies,” Geib said. “Students love it when we get to discuss a popular topic in an academic format because it validates our popular interests.”
One of Geib’s students, fourth-year English student Evan Manzanetti, is a self-proclaimed Lord of the Rings nerd.
“I read it for the first time in sixth grade and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it since,” he said.
Manzanetti said he was concerned about how Geib would approach the class ““ but not because Geib is a student.
“It was just really vital that he was passionate about Lord of the Rings,” Manzanetti said. “I wanted the treatment of the text to be serious, not gimmicky.” Manzanetti added that he quickly realized that Geib treats “The Lord of the Rings” like a sacred text.
Once Geib starts talking about Tolkien it’s hard to get him to stop.
Geib recalled one particular class when a student asked him why the character of Gandalf said, “You shall not pass,” in the movie instead of the novel’s version, “You cannot pass.” In response, Geib launched into a long-winded explanation of Tolkien’s obsession with philology, the study of historical language.
“I think I lost some students in that discussion,” Geib said, laughing. “But then I realized how I could simplify my explanation for the next class.”
Geib said he thinks the fact that he is a student made his peers less hesitant to give him feedback about his teaching style.
“Students will frequently talk to me after class and tell me what worked and what didn’t work,” Geib said.
He was most surprised by how often students would redirect the discussion, and uncover things about the text Geib had never considered himself. Sometimes he felt like he learned more than he taught, he added.
Ultimately, the most important thing Geib learned while teaching the class, he said, is that he wants to pursue teaching as a profession.
He added that teaching gives him a feeling of comfort and satisfaction, as he both listens to new ideas and formulates his own.
His faculty mentor, English professor Jonathan Grossman, who guided Geib throughout his teaching experience, said he saw Geib develop a serious academic interest in the subject over the course of the year. Geib would send him lengthy emails every week, analyzing the failures and successes of each class discussion.
“He’s really only a half step away from writing academic articles and doing scholarly research,” Grossman said.
Geib is graduating this spring, and hopes to spend next year teaching English abroad.
He said he sometimes envisions his future self standing in front of about 80 students or so, going over the syllabus for a fully fledged Lord of the Rings class. Next time, he’ll be a professor, not a student.
“In my mind, I’d start off my lecture telling them how I started this class as student,” he said. “I’d begin with: “˜Well, when I was an undergraduate student…’”