WHERE’S MY MAGIC WAND??: PLANNING HOW TO TEACH THE HARRY POTTER SERIES

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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20 thoughts on “WHERE’S MY MAGIC WAND??: PLANNING HOW TO TEACH THE HARRY POTTER SERIES

  1. I’m taking this subject next year (hopefully!) and I think that it would be quite interesting to study the character of Hermione as the true heroine of the series. Personally, I think that Harry would not have gone through his ”mission” if it wasn’t for her help.
    I also would like to look at the roles that Love and Death play in Harry Potter. In the series, Love is considered the most powerful magic that exists and Death is always present throughout the series. Yet, Rowling tries to diminish the sadness and anxiety that Death conveys and turns it into something beautiful (Lily’s Death to save her son; Severus Snape’s Death and what the reader learns from what that implies).
    I find topics 1 & 3 really interesting and I would also add something related to the figure of the villain. Is Voldemort the protoypical villain? (that may be included in topic 4).
    Finally, as a curiosity, it’d be fun to look at how the names are translated into Spanish and Catalan, for instance Pomona Sprout – Pomona Coliflor.

  2. First of all, I’m very happy to see the approach that this subject will take on Harry Potter. It is an ambitious project, but I find that the eleven points cover a lot of things essential to understand the importance of the Harry Potter narratives.

    I would maybe like to point out that I’ve seen that racism is generally tackled in the series by talking about pure-bloods vs muggle borns or the discrimination against house elfs, goblins, centaurs, giants… And that seems a pretty intentional message in the text, but I think that it would be interesting to analyze race representation in the Harry Potter world. For example, we are only aware of about 5 students of colour in Hogwarts (the Patil sisters, Dean Thomas, Angelina Johnson and Cho Chang) and Kingsley Shacklebolt outside the school. That’s 6 people of colour in the whole Harry Potter universe (without counting the people mentioned in the Quidditch world cup, who are just mentioned as ‘extras’ in the background) In a series that is actually set in contemporary UK there should be much more diversity, but somehow this point is generally ignored. Not to speak about the movies’ change of actress for Lavender Brown from a black actress to a white one as soon as she became an “important” character.

    Also, all relationships are heteronormative and Dumbledore being referred to as gay after all the books were published could have been handled much better, and at least be really mentioned in the text to really become ‘canon’.

    I don’t know if such issues were to be talked about, but I think they are worth mentioning, and as it is such an important text to so many people, we should be aware of its flaws as well as of the many things that make the books great.

    PS: thinking about Sirius and masculinity, I think he’s kind of the embodiment of male white privilege (particularly pre-Azkaban), he could have been the hero, and he is an attractive character because he represents so many good things and ideals like his loyalty and sense of justice and honour, but he’s deeply flawed (his attitude towards Snape and Kreacher for example) and many good things that could redeem him as a character have been cruelly twisted in Azkaban and he’s been turned into a delusional adult that is emotionally stuck in his early twenties.

    I’ve always loved Sirius as a character, but he is deeply problematic at the same time and I think this is one of the reasons why people are so attracted to him, his complexity. Also, he is portrayed as a victim of a system which really doesn’t care for justice and I think that resonates with a lot readers as well.

  3. I LOVE the topics! They’re exactly what I was expecting!
    This summer will be a busy one, since I have a couple books in my to-read list (I have tones, but I promised I would read these two before next year) and re-read the Harry Potter series, which will be a pleasure as always! Most of them I have only read in Spanish, so this is the perfect excuse to finally read (and have) them all in English!
    I’m not a big fan of class participation and oral presentations. I mean doing them myself. But I guess it’s Harry Potter and my love for the series will be more powerful tan being shy.
    The thing is, I really can’t wait! Thank you! And the topics are just perfect!

  4. It’s nice to know that some of those books that helped me grow into the person I’m now are algo going to be part of my almost-adult life in an extremely different but awesome context. I’m looking forward to working in this subject and I think that the subjects that you plan to deal with are really interesting. See you (hopefully) next year!

  5. Good afternoon Sara,

    I just found the different topics to deal in class very interesting especially the one regarding racism in The Harry Potter Series and the one refering to Gender dynamics since for me Hermione Granger is a key character in the whole series, without her, Harry and Ron will be completely lost. Of course, the one referring to the world of Fanfiction is also very important since it allows to see the different interpretation of the series from part of the fandom.

    Referring to the class participation, some people are shy to speak in class and include myself in this group of people. Maybe, the best thing is just give the first idea to the discussion in order to encourage people. This is just a suggestion, it does not have to be like that.

    The people who who will in the subject ara part of the fandom of Harry Potter (mostly) but I think the subject is not going to be bases on it since we all know that is an academic subject to be taken seriously. It is going to be funny anyway since we all love this world of fantasy that is Harry Potter.

    Finally, I find the essay about Sirius Black a very interesting choice because I think it is a peculiar character that we really do not know much about him and I wanted to know more from when I was reading the books,

    I have already planned to re-read the whole series this summer and I am happy to know that you recommend it.

    Thank you for your attention,

    Pilar

  6. Oh, and about carrying the text to class… I guess having an e-book would be the most reasonable way. And yes, I hate e-books… But I can find no other way to carry 7 books to class!

  7. I’m really sorry that I won’t be able to take this course even though technically I will be enrolled (I’m going abroad on my 4th year and to be able to make my learning agreement, I’ll have to enrol to all the subjects from the Literature “Menció”…) I hope I’ll be able to come as “oyente” whenever this subject is available again.

    In case this be of any use to you for your paper, contrary to the general opinion, I strongly dislike Sirius Black. Thinking of it, it might very well be on account of the type of masculinity he portrays. (Al least in part.)

  8. OMG! I can’t tell you EXCITED I am that you are doing this. In fact I remember talking to some Potterheads back in first year and we agreed that it would be incredible to do a subject exclusively on Harry Potter. We didn’t have to wait much to have it!

    For now the topics and themes look really nice and I guess many of us who are studying this degree and are used to analyze texts have thought some time or another about at least one of those. I am particularly interested in the one about fanfiction, the gender dinamics and the religious readings. I really can’t wait to come and hear that 🙂

    About your paper on Sirius Black, for the hints you’re pointing at it looks reaaaaaally nice, I’d like to read it when you’re finished with it! 🙂

  9. Thanks, Melissa, it seems that I’m going on the right direction though it feels weird to explain, particularly to other teachers, that I’ll focus on just Harry Potter… They seem to think it’ll be boring, I’m beginning to think that 12 weeks won’t be enough!!

  10. Dídac,
    If you could expand, I’ll be very happy to hear what you have to say against Sirius. I don’t LIKE him in many senses but I think he supplies a need that goes beyond the nuclear mother-father-son family.
    Thanks,
    Sara

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