Adventures in Literature

by Sheryl James, Published August 02, 2010

Harry Potter reader

The Harry Potter course was designed as a novel way to introduce students to literature.

The classroom in Pray-Harrold is dark. Forty-four students--in other words, a packed class--stare at an image on a large screen. It's an illustration of a British hero slaying a dragon. He's wearing a white tunic marked with a red cross. His name is St. George, and he's the patron saint--and superhero--of Britain.

But the class is not British Literature, British History, Legends in Literature or anything of the sort. It's CHL137, i.e., Harry Potter: Literary Allusion, Children's Literature and Popular Culture.

Harry Potter? There's a class about Harry Potter at Eastern Michigan University? How did that happen? And if this is a class about Harry Potter, who in Hogwarts is St. George, and why do we care?

Therein lies the tale.

Helping Students Fall in Love with Lit

EMU's Harry Potter classes have been around for several years. The first such class was introduced at the graduate level five years ago. An undergraduate version quickly became popular; classes filled up about 40 minutes after registration opened, says Annette Wannamaker, assistant professor of children's literature, who launched the whole idea of using the popular book series as a basis for a children's literature class at EMU--and whose Harry Potter-like name escapes few.

When EMU's new General Education program took shape in 2007, opening up opportunities for new ways to introduce students to literature, the Harry Potter class was one of the first to be proposed, says Rebecca Sipe, English Department head. The Gen Ed program "allowed people to be really creative in our thinking about what first-year students need, what will appeal to them. In my mind, I think a general education program should help a new student fall in love with something."

Since most students who sign up for the class already love the Harry Potter series, Sipe is referring not to Harry but to literature. Falling in love with literature is exactly what the class is about, Sipe says. "With this course, we're entering into an ongoing conversation about literary things, such as literary allusion, literary terms, all the really basic stuff we would always do in a first-year literature course, plus a lot more. But we're doing it from a platform of novels that really reach out and grab an 18-year-old."

Making the Case for a "Real" Course

It took some doing, of course, to get Harry into the curriculum. When Wannamaker first proposed the idea, she says, "the reaction was mostly enthusiastic, though there are a few folks who argued that these books are not 'real' literature. When I teach the course, I actually share these objections with my students: Why might someone say these books are not 'real' literature? Who decides which texts are worthy of merit or worthy of disdain? Why are works of fantasy and science fiction--many of which are wonderfully rich and ambiguous--considered 'low-brow'? In other words, we spend a lot of time in the course discussing the politics of canon formation, the social construction of taste, and the ways that factors like socio-economic class play a large role in determining what is 'real' or 'high-brow' literature or mass-produced fluff-'low-brow'-popular culture."

It's that kind of well-articulated rationale that helped get the classes through the rigorous process of approval, Sipe says. "It wasn't an easy conversation because we were bringing in a really popular text. This is a big department. We have some people who are more adventuresome in terms of children's literature and other people who are more traditionalist in their viewpoints.

"The question was, 'Is this a course about Harry Potter, or is this a course on literary allusion and a broader literary study?' And it was widely debated in the department. We had this conversation at the curriculum committee level and at the department level, and the children's literature faculty really did a lovely job of helping everybody to understand what this course was going to be about--not a single book or author, but classic mythology, classic literature and a variety of different genre perspectives."

Want an Easy "A"? Think Again

Finally, after the course was sent back to be tweaked, it was approved. There are now four sections offered fall and winter terms, and there is always a waiting list. Faculty teaching it include Wannamaker, who still teaches the graduate level class, and adjunct lecturers Wendy Gouine and Gina Boldman, who teach the undergraduate classes.

Of course, some students' initial expectations when enrolling for the course reflect those who doubt the books' literary merit. "Five percent of them are surprised it's not a blow-off class," says Gouine. "They saw the movie and thought it'd be an easy A."

Think again. Gouine, who teaches the class featuring St. George, covers everything from basic literary criticism, Greek epic poems and Arthurian legend to race, gender and discrimination and how Harry Potter has affected American culture.

"I can tell some people in the class are surprised" at how challenging it is, says Scott Habowski, a senior who took Gouine's class winter term. He says he has learned a great deal about various topics-including how the Harry Potter series has helped increase boys' interest in reading.

Yale Wanna-Be? Not Exactly

Freshman Hayley Brunson loved the class and enjoyed the way it showed how the books relate back to classical literature.

Senior Kaitlyn Harder liked learning "how much the Harry Potter series is connected to Greek and Roman history, and how it has been influenced by some of the most famous works in history." Still, she adds, "I was skeptical about this class to begin with, but after it began, the passion that you feel from the teacher was enough to keep anyone's interest."

Passion, indeed. "I love these books," Gouine says. "They're fascinating. They epitomize a hero's journey, they're adventurous, they're amazingly well written. The characters are engaging."

Despite such enthusiasm and early signs that the class indeed is making literature more attractive to students, there are still some doubters out there, Sipe says. "We get a lot of gibing across the university. It's, 'Oh, you're the department with Harry Potter.' "

Perhaps, but Sipe says she gets inquiries from other higher learning institutions all the time. Meanwhile, Wannamaker says, Harry Potter-based courses are also offered at such places as Yale University, Georgetown University, Kansas State University, and several others, and Frostburg State University in Maryland offers an honors course in the science of Harry Potter.

So to the doubters (poise the wand, please), stupefy! You are hereby stunned into submission.

Behold: At Eastern Michigan University, Harry Potter is here to stay.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of Eastern Magazine.


Sheryl James

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