‘Harry Potter’ Goes To College: Students Study The Books Seriously In New Courses

J.K. Rowling's novels are being taught in literature, theology and science classes across the country.

SWARTHMORE, Pennsylvania — “I don’t know if it went past everybody,” began Professor Melinda Finberg, “but what happens when Hermione deceives Umbridge, and she takes her to the Forbidden Forest?”

“Hermione puts Umbridge in a horrible situation,” a perky blonde named Bess Matlock offered.

“Yes, but what happens?” Finberg asked. After receiving blank stares, she continued. “What in mythology are centaurs?” More blank stares. “They become what they are in mythology. They abduct the female and carry her off. They rape her,” Finberg declared, to the students’ shock.

“What?!” one student gasped.

“Whoa,” another muttered.

“But,” one protested.

“Harry Potter!” a couple of girls interject, as if the name itself is a talisman to keep innocents from harm.

Innocent no more, the students in Swarthmore College’s “Battling Against Voldemort” class are learning to look at their favorite children’s series with adult eyes. Finberg teaches “Harry Potter” (along with the “Lord of the Rings” and “His Dark Materials” series) as a bridge to get students to grasp basic concepts of literary theory and step up their writing skills.

“I thought, ‘What are the kids reading this summer? “Harry Potter”!’ ” Finberg said. “This group of students is the ‘Harry Potter’ generation.”

This is one of several “Harry Potter”-themed courses being taught on a collegiate level throughout the country — and not all of them are in English departments. Yale has one that uses “Harry Potter” as a prism for theology. Georgetown uses the story to look at international relations. Frostburg State University in Maryland employs the series to teach Physical Science 100. And more classes just keep popping up.

At Swarthmore, “Battling Against Voldemort” remains one of the most popular freshman seminars, and a lottery determines who gets one of the 12 seats.

“It was one of the classes that everybody was talking about,” student Thomas Soares said. “It had the coolest name.”

Even though the majority of the students in the class have read “Harry Potter” at least once, the seminar teaches them to read it in a new way.

“We’re looking at the subtleties,” Soares explained. They analyze each book, looking at themes and metaphors, reading up on scholarly perspectives, going over Jungian archetypes. For a discussion of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” they were guided by a critical essay by Veronica Schanoes, called “Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts,” to explore the ambiguities in the constructions of good and evil and the unreliable narratives of Harry’s world. It made students understand that even Harry himself can be an unreliable narrator.

“We see the world through Harry’s eyes,” Finberg said, but since Harry starts off as a child who sees the world in black and white, she explained, he doesn’t always pick up on ambiguities.

“[In 'Order of the Phoenix,'] we see him wondering about Voldemort, about himself, and he’s realizing there’s a lot more gray area,” Matlock said.

“Haven’t we been led to believe that the difference between Death Eaters and those who are not is the use of the Unforgivable Curses?” Finberg asked the class when the discussion turned to Harry’s usage of the torturing Cruciatus curse.

“He uses it on Bellatrix; he uses it on Carrow,” Hannah Edelman observed. “He also uses the [controlling] Imperius curse.”

“He is just really upset when he uses that curse on Bellatrix,” Matlock said. “I don’t think that means he’s a bad person. It just means he’s more human.”

“Do you think J.K. Rowling is playing with us?” Matt Bowers asked. “Do you think she’s telling us, ‘Look, you thought Harry was a good guy, but what if this were from the point of view of Draco?’ ”

“But Harry would never use [the killing curse] Avada Kedavra,” Soares argued. “This is really dorky, but a hero, like Superman would never kill Lex Luther.” The class laughed.

Not all comparisons are made in geek-speak. References to “Crime and Punishment,” “1984,” Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and the French Revolution come up in this hour-and-a-half class.

“We’re not just reading Harry Potter and giggling,” Matlock said. Still, she has to admit, along with her fellow students, it’s her most fun course.

“This is by far my coolest class,” agreed Jeff Davidson.

“I’m reading ‘Harry Potter,’ and [a fellow student] is reading Plato’s ‘Republic,’ ” Edelman said, adding with a touch of glee, “It felt a little unfair.”

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