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Deconstructing Hogwarts

2014-02-23 22:39:18
Chapman business major Cristiana Wilcoxon and her classmates are
part of the Harry Potter generation.
They grew up on J.K. Rowling's seven-book series. They waited in
lines to get each new book and devoured it in hours. They've read the
books more than twice. OK, probably more than five times. The books
hold a special place in their hearts, even today.
So while at an honors conference in Albuquerque, N.M., two years
ago, Wilcoxon and her classmates learned about a London travel
course that critically examined the Harry Potter books. They all
agreed: “We have to do that at Chapman.”
They just had to find a professor daring enough to teach the course –
and get the administration to approve it.
“They Facebooked me from the conference,” said Julye Bidmead, assistant professor of religious studies
at Chapman. They said, “We have a class that you have to teach.” Bidmead teaches an honors course
exploring Disney in the context of gender, race and religion. Next year she's teaching a travel class in New
Orleans on voodoo in context.
“She's willing to teach the subjects that others might not think as critical,” said Cristina Smith, a dual major
in English and religious studies. “I've taken every class she's offered,” Smith said. “She teaches students
how to take fun or popular things and make them academic.”
The three-credit travel course to London had to be academically rigorous and interdisciplinary,
requirements for Chapman honors courses.
Bidmead looked at the Harry Potter class syllabus the students brought back. “It just wasn't something that
would fit me, so I said I would work on it.”
And she did. But Bidmead didn't do it alone. About a year in advance of the class, she invited four students
to help design the travel course to London. She assigned four students – Wilcoxon, Smith, Megan Parish
and Daniel Levy – to be “prefects” of one of the four houses portrayed in the Harry Potter books:
Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw. Each house prefect would lead four students.
For those who haven't read the books, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a school where
wizards and witches learn to use their wands, make potions and hone their magic skills. Each student is
selected or “sorted” into one of the four houses by a “sorting hat,” a wise and enchanted talking hat.
Themes such as embracing differences, humility, good vs. evil, morality and self-sacrifice permeate the
book. In the wizarding world, a class system exists; at the bottom are Muggles, with no magical abilities.
Bidmead and the four prefects arrived at a name for the course: “Deconstructing Hogwarts: A Critical
Examination of Harry Potter in Context.”
“We brainstormed lots of different titles until we finally got it,” Bidmead said. The course was approved by
university administrators.
The students left on their 11-day adventure in London in January, visiting famous places such as London
Tower, where Henry the VIII beheaded two of his wives, and The Eagle and the Child pub, where J.R.R.
Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other writers used to meet, calling themselves “The Inklings.”
Most of their stops were tied to the Harry Potter books. For example, there was a competition among the
houses for points. Participants could get points added or taken away.
Bidmead assigned them to find something related to Harry Potter at the British Museum. “Really, there is
nothing in the museum related to Harry Potter,” Bidmead said.
But a Hufflepuff student discovered that a chess set at the museum was used by J.K. Rowling and the
moviemakers as the model for Wizard's Chess. Hufflepuff won the competition.
While there, the students read academic papers, including many readings that were critical of the books.
Ahead of the trip, Bidmead scoured the Internet for scholarly papers on Harry Potter, amazed to find that
there were hundreds. “I looked at academic criticisms about Harry Potter. People think it's terrible
literature. People think it's witchcraft. Others think it's a classic in line with Lewis Carroll,” she said.
She had each prefect read 10 articles and choose three to four of those to assign to the students in their
respective houses. “These prefects did a lot of extra work. It was a great of experience for them,” Bidmead
In context of the books, students in each house explored specific topics such as class and race, female
characters vs. male characters, wealth and the Harry Potter phenomenon itself.
“We focused on social justice in the Harry Potter series, such as how the house elves and the goblins were
treated,” said Levy, a history major and the prefect for Gryffindor.
In the books, Dobby the house elf was abused by dark wizard masters. Hermione Granger, one of the
main characters, started an organization that advocated for the rights of Dobby and other house elves.
Hermione herself was subject to bullying. She was magical and yet perceived by the Slytherins as a lower
class because she was born of Muggle parents.
In London, Chapman prefects led house discussions, which mostly took place at breakfast. They also met
for all-house discussions at places such as Kings Cross station and outside the prime meridian in
Greenwich. “We found very creative places to have discussions,” Bidmead said.
If what the students learned had to be summed up, it would be this: “You can critically analyze anything
you enjoy. It doesn't mean you enjoy it less; it just means you can look at it from a different perspective,”
said Parish, a theater technology and French major and the prefect for Hufflepuff.
After looking critically at the books, most of the students retained their love of the series.
“It doesn't diminish my experience of the books or films,” Smith said. “It makes me engage with the book. It
gives me another way to engage with the text,” she said. “For some people, they can't love something and
critique it. Having the ability to critique something that you love means you're at that level of higher
While the course was academic, it was also fun. Students toured the Harry Potter movie sets and props at
the Warner Bros. studio in London. “J.K. Rowling wrote these magical books full of so many rich details,
and then they had to translate them to the screen somehow. It was fascinating to see how that process
was done,” Parish said.
They visited 900-year-old University of Oxford, styled in gothic architecture and the setting for many
scenes in the Harry Potter movies. Wilcoxon said their Oxford tour guide compared the Bullingdon Club, a
renowned “secret” society at Oxford, to the Slytherin of Hogwarts, calling them “brats in expensive jackets.”
Students also got free time to see a play. Most of the students went to see “Mojo,” a play starring Rupert
Grint, who played Ron Weasley, Harry's best friend, in the Potter movies. Some of the students met him
and took photos with him. “I got to see him get into his car and light up a cigarette, so that was funny,”
Wilcoxon said. “It was truly awesome to meet Ron.”
Finally, when the group got back from London, all 20 students wrote a paper together and presented their
findings to local schools.
“The kids couldn't believe you could create a class out of something they enjoyed so much, like Harry
Potter,” said Mark Michel, a teacher at El Cerrito Middle School in Corona. “I wanted to see what they were
doing. I'm a big Harry Potter fan myself.”
The Chapman students dressed in their house regalia to give the presentation, Michel said. “They were
passionate. They were talking from the heart,” he said.
“The best part of the class, apart from visiting the studio and actually being in London, was coming back
and getting to present to a generation of Harry Potter fans that are about 10 years younger than us and
realizing that the phenomenon is still alive,” Wilcoxon said.
Michel's students gave book recommendations to the Chapman students, such as the “Divergent” series
and “The Hunger Games.” “I think I'm going to take them up on it,” Wilcoxon said.
“It was great to see that they were all voracious readers,” she said. “It reminded me of how I had been at
their age.”
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