Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2012 | In Class

Magic in the Classroom

By Tina Owen
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the eponymous hero stands before the Mirror of Erised, which has the power to reveal a heart’s desire. The magic mirror shows Potter’s parents, who were murdered when he was an infant.

University of Iowa students bewitched with J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful books might look into the mirror and see a course dedicated to their favorite boy wizard. Last semester, their wish was granted.

The debut session of the UI honors course “Harry Potter and the Quest for Enlightenment” filled up within hours; like millions of other people around the globe, UI students can’t get enough of Harry Potter. A cultural phenomenon, the seven-book fantasy series traces Potter’s path to adulthood and power through an inventive blend of humor, imagination, and suspense.

With more than 400 million copies sold in dozens of languages since its release in 1997, the series is credited with inspiring a whole generation of children to become avid readers. Successful on a scale unmatched by any previous literary work, it made Rowling the world’s first billionaire author, while the accompanying eight movies became the highest-grossing film series of all time.

When UI lecturer Donna Parsons, 90BM, 93MA, 01PhD, read the books, she was enthralled. When she asked her students in an honors seminar on Jane Austen what they thought about it, she was amazed. “They were screaming in delight about how much they loved the books,” she recalls.

Tapping into their enthusiasm, Parsons created her Potter course. “Students really want to talk about the books, to understand the themes, to learn from them,” she explains.

Parsons likens the Harry Potter books to a gateway that opens up wide possibilities. The 28 students in her class soon realize that their initial interest in Rowling’s wizardly tales can lead down surprising and often challenging paths. It takes more than a wave of a magic wand to ace this course. No mere fan fest, it requires students to wield creativity, critical thinking, and imagination.

“Taking this class is like taking a magnifying glass to the books,” says English major Sophie Amado. “It’s intensive because we’re not just reading the Harry Potter novels; we’re deconstructing them to find deeper meanings in the narratives and then applying those meanings to classroom discussions and research.”

With a combined total of 4,000-plus pages, Rowling’s epic work offers a treasure trove of potential topics for academic study and discussion—from mythology to social justice to the corrupting nature of power, and beyond. The UI class also examines how Harry Potter fits into the wider context of American popular culture: why the series appealed to such a large, cross-generational audience, and how the movies, audio books, video games, and fan fiction added to the allure.

The books’ widespread appeal doesn’t necessarily make them low-brow or superficial, Parsons argues; after all, Dickens and Shakespeare were popular in their time—and long after. Yet, not everyone is so enamored with Rowling’s work. Critics take potshots at the author’s language and themes, calling the works juvenile, hackneyed, unsubtle. The books may appeal to the masses, they sniff, but they’re not worthy of academic study.

Parsons disagrees. As she notes in her course syllabus, “J.K. Rowling interweaves literary, historical, and political references within a narrative rich with characters, landscapes, and thematic elements.”

Indeed, just a few months ago, St. Andrew’s University in Scotland drew international scholars to a conference called “A Brand of Fictional Magic: Reading Harry Potter as Literature.” Although the UK’s first scholarly conference dedicated solely to Potter, it wasn’t the first time the boy wizard has drawn such attention from academe. Last November, James Madison University held a symposium called “Replacing Wands with Quills” that attracted students and faculty from disciplines including history, law, religious studies, behavioral sciences, gender studies, rhetoric, and education.

Next year’s Modern Language Association conference in Boston will feature a presentation from the UI’s own Potter expert. The association includes a roundtable presentation by Parsons on “Colonel Snape’s Veritaserum: Teaching Jane Austen in a Harry Potter World,” which explores the connections between Austen’s and Rowling’s novels.

Elsewhere on the UI campus, a nursing professor and genetics researcher uses the books as a learning tool to help young patients suffering from conditions like cystic fibrosis. Realizing that so many of today’s youngsters are familiar with Potter and his posse of friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Martha Driessnack enlists characters from the books to explain concepts such as inherited and recessive genes.

Although the first Harry Potter book was aimed at a younger audience, the series enchanted older readers with its increasingly mature and complex themes. The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, unfolded over almost 800 pages, as it addressed issues like good vs. evil, betrayal, immortality, love, and sacrifice. Rowling herself has said that, ultimately, the Potter series is about death.

One of the first assignments in the UI course asked students to explain which Potter character they identify with—and why. Amado chose Hermione Granger, whom she describes as “the bookworm, the smart girl, the respected nerd.” For a later project, Amado compared the significant role that letters play in both the Potter series and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly, Harry Potter and other wizards receive their mail via owls, while Austen’s characters relied on more down-to-earth carriage post. Yet, says Amado, “letters are important for the plots’ development because they reveal characterization and move the stories forward.”

In addition to writing papers and participating in class discussions, the students formed small groups to create exhibits that were displayed for several weeks at the UI Main Library.After identifying a theme in the Harry Potter series, they used historical books, documents, and other items from the library’s Special Collections department to create engaging displays that reflected their personal or academic interests.

One pre-med student explored the development of medicine from the archaic beliefs and practices of the medieval era into today’s highly technical and complex discipline. Starting with the mandrake root, used as medicine in the Harry Potter series, she researched original 17th and 18th century texts to see how early physicians applied this real herb as a healing treatment.

Another group of students delved into the literary and historical origins of griffins, dragons, unicorns, and other mythical creatures featured in the books. Others compared the leadership styles of Harry Potter’s beloved mentor Professor Dumbledore with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, along with Potter’s arch-enemy Voldemort and Hitler. They analyzed Nazi government propaganda from World War II, finding similarities with the fictional Ministry of Magic when it fell under Voldemort’s control.

This semester, another group of UI students will sign up for Parsons’ course and step into the world of Harry Potter. Along with mandrakes and bureaucrats, unicorns and Nazis, they’ll discover true magic: the enduring power of the written word to enlighten minds and hearts.