Time has come for Potter exploration in the classroom

Gabrielle Ceraldi is sure it is a perfect fit for today’s generation of Western students.

A Western English professor, she is excited to teach The Many Faces of Harry Potter, a semester-long course that will look at all seven books of the series, alongside thematically related short works of fiction, like George Orwell’s 1984.

“In the last four years or so, there’s been more in-class engagement with the (Harry Potter) books. The clamor for this course gets stronger each year; the level of interest is extraordinary,” said Ceraldi, who has been teaching Children’s Literature for more than a decade, from year-to-year including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

“These are the students who grew up reading the series. It was written for them and they are the perfect generation for it. It wasn’t just an individual reading experience for them – all of their peers were reading it – they were experiencing it collectively. It was a formative influence on their lives.”

The day she teaches Harry Potter in class, she sees many new faces, with students bringing their friends along for the lecture.

Ceraldi wanted to delve deeper into the series with her students than she could just teaching one text out of the series’ context in her Children’s Literature class. She was thrilled when she got the green light to teach the new class.

“I love the books. I came to them as an adult, without having had the experience of growing up alongside them. But the series belongs to the generation of students attending Western right now. I wanted to be able to offer this course, sooner rather than later,” she said.

From Yale to UCLA, Potter classes have been popping up across the globe in recent years covering the boy wizard’s relationship with topics ranging from theology and psychology to library science and English comedy.But enthusiastic students and skeptics alike – those thinking this will be a ‘bird course’ – need not be quick to undermine the merit of a class dedicated to Harry Potter books, Ceraldi continued.

“First of all, there will be a lot of reading – they’re big books, all seven of them. And the main misconception is that the difficulty of comprehending the text is related to the difficulty of analyzing it,” she said.

“The books can be accessible and enjoyed by young children, but there are additional challenges they pose. The more we understand political theory, philosophy, the more we are able to appreciate them.”

Ceraldi noted she is particularly fascinated by J.K. Rowling’s emphasis on racism and social class in the series, adding she is interested in looking at how the author introduces more sophisticated notions such as these as the series progresses.

“The issues get more and more complicated as the books progress – and they aren’t easy issues. The books draw out some of the psychology of racism and tolerance. The issues are rooted in people’s fears,” she said.

What’s more, Ceraldi continued, because of the issues discussed and skills fostered, the class has academic merit beyond the subject matter of the books.

“One of the most useful things I do is to prepare students not just to have jobs, but to be good citizens, to engage critically with pop culture. It’s one of the most valuable traits we have as citizens,” she noted.

“And children’s literature allows people to engage critically with some of the most powerful kinds of literature that exists. The books I read today for the first time, as an adult, I forget a year later. But I can remember to this day a book I read as a child. Children’s literature has incredible power – people respond to it because they feel it is part of their identity.”

The Many Faces of Harry Potter is a special topics English course, slated for the Winter Term in 2014. Registration – not granted by an owl – will be capped at 100 students.