Hogwarts Reimagined in New Harry Potter Course

CSUSM student teaching assistants Brandon Torres and Amanda Lenox CSUSM student teaching assistants Brandon Torres & Amanda Lenox.

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On Thursdays at noon in Science Hall 2, you will find a group of a dozen enthusiastic students dissecting their favorite childhood book series, chapter by chapter. Is this a secret book club for super fans? The palpable excitement might lead a casual observer to think so, but it is actually a group of dedicated teaching assistants and their professor working to create an upper-level interdisciplinary studies course on one of their favorite topics: Harry Potter.

The course, to be introduced in spring 2014, will be facilitated by Folklore and Cultural Studies Professor Linda Pershing. Drawing on her cultural anthropology background, she uses modern pop-culture phenomena to engage in a deep study of culture and folklore for a modern college crowd.

In Interdisciplinary Studies 370, Harry Potter: Culture and Folklore in J.K. Rowling’s Magical World, students will learn to read Rowling’s fantasy series with a critical eye, discussing cultural issues from the fantasy realm of Harry Potter, such as the roles of social institutions, love and death, class and race issues, and politics.

One of the reasons Pershing chose to study the Harry Potter book series is because it is so widely read. “I’ve worked closely with a lot of students, but I’ve never seen anything about which they were so personally excited as they are about Harry Potter. For this generation of students, it has a very special place in their hearts and it's a part of their lives,” Pershing said.

She chose it over other young adult fiction or fantasy series’ such as The Hunger Games or Twilight, because Rowling’s heptalogy—the word given to a seven-volume book series—has proven it can withstand serious critical study from cultural and folkloric perspectives.

Pershing grants that some of her colleagues might not take her academic analysis of pop culture seriously, but she argues that through it she is able to reach a larger audience and find engaging ways for students to think critically about the media they consume every day.

“If we’re not looking at pop culture, we’re not understanding the world in which our students live,” she commented.

Recreating Hogwarts in the Classroom

Not only is the subject matter novel, so is the class’ structure and instructional approach. Pershing is employing the help of a dozen student assistants to help her construct the new course and to facilitate projects and activities around each book.

“Working with students to create this course has been among the most rewarding work I’ve done,” said Pershing. “It empowers the students by helping them become skilled researchers and critical thinkers, and it has built their self-esteem as they’re able to share their knowledge and growing expertise with me and with their peers.”

CSUSM students Lauren Hammond, Brandon Torres, Melissa Martinez and AManda Knox prepare to facilitate Harry Potter course
Teaching assistants (l to r): Torres, Hammond, Lenox, Melissa Martinez

While the course will contain elements sure to delight long-time Potter fans such as sorting the students into Hogwarts “houses,” class prefects, academic Quidditch competitions and an end-of-term feast, prospective students shouldn’t get the idea that it will be easy. The teaching assistants have prepared in-depth quizzes as well as writing and research assignments that ask students to identify and explore provocative themes in each book such as love, death, racism, social class, politics and gender.

The study has drawn students from a variety of disciplines who are discovering the academic value in studying the world of their childhood fantasies. Sociology and women’s studies double major Brandon Torres commented on the merit of studying pop culture phenomena from his perspective, “Harry Potter is the second-most sold book series in the world and has been translated into almost 70 languages. As someone who studies sociology, it doesn’t make sense for me not to want to analyze something that millions of impressionable people all over the world are reading.”

“It has been mind-blowing to me to see how carefully the series was written,” said literature and writing major Amanda Lenox, who has read the series more times than she can count. “As a child I couldn’t appreciate the mythology Rowling incorporated, the folklore, or even the meanings of the characters' names. This project has been like reading the series for the first time.”

Lauren Hammond, another literature and writing studies major, hopes the class isn’t filled with just Rowling fans. “I hope we get people who are skeptical, and we convert them,” she commented.

Brandon Torres added, “I think there will be a healthy mix of fans, people who have seen the movies and people who sign up for the class thinking it will be easy.”

“And then they’ll have a huge wake-up call,” Hammond said, laughing. “I want them to know that it’s academically valuable and it’s going to require hard work.”

If all goes well, Pershing hopes to offer this course yearly. She is also planning to teach a four-week international studies course that will take students to the UK to further study the cultural settings that inspired J.K. Rowling to write the series  as well as many of the locations filmed during the making of the eight Harry Potter movies. The course is tentatively slated for summer 2015.

“If we’re not looking at pop culture, we’re not understanding the world in which our students live,” said Professor Linda Pershing.