Potter sparks scholarly study at University

By Sarah Bookstein


For those “Harry Potter” followers on campus who live, breathe and discuss every aspect of the series, perhaps the best way to feed their obsession is to take a course that incorporates the tales of the perfect magician in the syllabus. The course that uses “Harry Potter” most profoundly is “Young Adult Fiction” taught by associate professor of English Virginia Zimmerman. An expert in Young Adult Fiction as well as Victorian literature and geology, Zimmerman published an article entitledHarry Potter and the Gift of Time” in the literary journal “Children’s Literature.”

Zimmerman herself is passionate about Harry Potter. “I think the series is brilliantly plotted, and delving into the plot with all my analytical skills is always rewarding. I enjoy guiding students through that process. The extraordinary popularity of the books demands that we pay attention to them, but they are not just popular, escapist “good-reads”—they are high-quality, game-changing literary texts,” she said.

Zimmerman usually begins the course by assigning the first book of the Harry Potter series, because many student sign up for the course after hearing that they can read their favorite book for homework. Then students read other young adult fiction books such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Secret Garden” and “The Golden Compass.”

“A professor really can’t go wrong teaching Harry Potter in an English class, but it was a particularly engaging course because it was discussion-based so we all participated,” said Laura Hudson ’11, a past student in the course.

Using connections drawn from the other books analyzed throughout the course, students can see that J.K. Rowling employs themes common to this genre, such as an orphaned child, the idea of a prophecy and kids working together to solve problems. A less common theme that is still important to Rowling is family. “For instance, the narrative arc of the third book is really about Harry needing someone to sign a permission slip,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman also teaches a foundation seminar called “Fiction Inside Out” that primarily focuses on texts that have inspired movies and other spin-offs. “Harry Potter” naturally becomes the focus of a class like this because the series essentially opened a world of magic to the literary world. In this course, a discussion about the idea of a magic world being part of the real world arises. One example is the existence of Hogwarts Platform 9 3/4 in a real London train station. “We consider how the presence of, for example, actual Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans in the real world complicates the relationship between magic and reality in and out of the books,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman explained that many students sign up for her courses primarily because they integrate Harry Potter into literary discussions, and enjoy “discovering layers of literary depth in the books that they may not have noticed before.”

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