As a consequence of a post I published here last Christmas I have finally embarked on the very difficult mission of teaching J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series next year. Yes, very difficult, believe me.
Since the subject is formally ‘Cultural Studies’ I have decided to use the first few weeks for an overview of this research methodology, which I’ll base on my colleague David Walton’s excellent academic best-seller Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice (London: Sage, 2007). Students will take an exam on this volume for me to make sure that they have grasped the essentials. The remaining 12 weeks of this (semestral) elective course will be focused on Harry Potter as a significant case (or cultural phenomenon) worth studying within Cultural Studies.
I have the same feeling now that I had when I wrote my book on The X-Files (Expediente X: En honor a la verdad, now out of print, hopefully soon to be available as e-book). The material is so huge that the main difficulty is how to organise its study. Logically, I cannot have students in class who are not already familiar with Rowling’s seven volumes, nor can I follow a chronological order to teach the books as the whole point is to be able to treat them as a single text, which is what they are: the Harry Potter series.
So, after making a list of the issues I would like to deal with, checking the bibliography (more than 450 entries in MLA…) and checking the syllabi for other courses (about 50 mainly in English-speaking countries), I have come up with a list of topics, quite obvious but also, I hope, quite solid. Here it is:
1. Is Harry Potter Literature?
2. The construction of the hero: Myths and stereoypes behind Harry Potter
3. Why not a heroine?: Gender dynamics in Harry Potter
4. Voldemort and blood purity: Racism in the world of magic
5. The construction of the secondary characters in Harry Potter
6. Hogwarts: Social prejudice in British ‘public schools’
7. Fandom and fan fiction on Harry Potter
8. Beasts, creatures and different humans in Harry Potter
9. At what age should we read Harry Potter?
10. Against Harry Potter: Religious readings and moral censorship
11. The film adaptations: lights and shadows
I am now ready to re-read the series this summer, pencil in hand, to find the passages and ideas I need for every topic (this is for 4, this for 10, etc.). Ideally, my students should also do the same BEFORE the course starts in February 2014 so that they come to class ready to discuss whatever topic is due with their own notes at hand. Difficult, I know…, but I will put my faith in them and hope for the best as, after all, I am teaching the subject on demand, that is, because they asked me to.
The other matter that worries me is the plain logistics of how to carry the text to class. Obviously, I can’t ask students to bring the whole seven volumes every day to class, so my own set will have to be always there. Yet, what nags me is how we’re going to find a particular passage if the need arises… Um, tricky.
As for students’ implication in classroom activities, I have had the crazy idea of not opening my mouth at all during these 11/12 weeks and leave all the teaching in their hands –now, that would be radical!! The problem I have right now is that I have no idea about what the real number of formally registered students will be (a few have already asked to attend as unregistered students or ‘oyentes’). Depending on how many finally enrol (anything between 25 and 70), I’d think of having as many oral presentations as it is feasible to have, with intense debate as a main target throughout the subject.
I have already spoken with some students regarding the subject as my main doubt is what exactly they expect from me. They tell me that the idea is using the subject to learn more about Harry Potter. Yes, of course, but this will not happen fandom-style in the sense that at the end of the course we will not have accumulated information to compete with the Wikipedia. My aim is quite different: to turn the students’ pleasure in the popular texts they love into proper academic material, as this is what I do academically most of the time. I did warn these students that they would have to take exams, write a paper, read bibliography and they were still enthusiastic, so that’s the challenge for me: to make the most academically of that enthusiasm and keep it alive to the end of the course. I don’t want Harry to become another boring chore…
As for myself, I have vowed to write, finally, that overdue essay on Sirius Black which I started long ago and abandoned overwhelmed by the enormous amount of bibliography on Rowling’s saga. My focus will be, of course, masculinity (as this is what I have been working on for the last ten years) but also what exactly appeals to us as readers in relation to Sirius – I won’t anticipate more here, but I’m considering the idea that Freud missed much by limiting relevant roles in childhood to the nuclear family.
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