Harry Potter and the Chair’s Dilemma

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Image: Austen Squarepants, Creative Commons

By David Anthony 

Recently, a colleague in the English department emailed me to confer about her topic for a forthcoming undergraduate seminar. The class is a new requirement, and we’re trying to get it right — attract students, challenge them, and send the message that English is a stimulating department for a major.

She suggested building the course around the Harry Potter books.

I marked the message for "later response."

Not long after, I had a conversation with another colleague about our creative-writing curriculum. He stressed the need to open up our courses to what he termed "genre fiction" — which includes mystery, romance, and horror, but often centers on fantasy and world-building narratives of the sort you see in Harry Potter or in the Game of Thrones series.

I told this faculty member we should meet later to talk.

Why was I hesitating? Both of those people are highly regarded teachers. Moreover, they’ve taught versions of those courses before. Each time, the classes were well-attended, with great student evaluations. Still, I was ambivalent.

Some context: I’ve been the chair of the English department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for just over a year, and times are tough. Everyone knows the humanities are in decline across the country, but it’s particularly bad for public universities in Illinois, where the state has just emerged from a 793-day stretch without a budget. The resulting cuts in state funding have meant that students are avoiding Illinois institutions in droves. On my own campus, enrollment has dropped 15 percent from 2015 to this year — and, of course, that is felt most profoundly in liberal-arts departments like English.

Which brings me back to Harry Potter and creative-writing classes focused on genre/fantasy fiction. Only someone who has slept, Rip Van Winkle-style, for the past 20 years is unaware of the vast appeal of fantasy fiction to undergraduates. Young people want to read this stuff, and they want to emulate it in their own writing.

So why wouldn’t the chair of a struggling English department jump at the chance to offer a class on the dramas of the Hogwarts crew, or a course on how to create a world peopled with dragons, White Walkers, and the like?

Certainly, English departments at many other colleges and universities, including elite ones, offer courses on Pottermania and the like. Similar courses are popping up in other departments, too — religion, political science, and philosophy, to name a few. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the action.

Creative-writing programs have been following suit, offering courses that ask undergraduates to experiment with genre fiction. Emerson College, for example, now has a creative-writing class titled "World-Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature." The department’s website describes it as follows: "The course examines the ways sci-fi and fantasy writers build their imagined worlds. A credible setting is as much required for fantasy and sci-fi stories as any other kind. We will study how writers handle the difficult problem of exposition in this regard."

Clearly, these departments have decided to embrace the commercial side of the literary world. In so doing, they’ve positioned themselves to attract a steady and potentially sizeable stream of students who are heeding George R.R. Martin’s dictum: "The distinction between literary and genre fiction is stupid and pernicious." Or maybe they’re thinking about Flannery O’Conner’s clever critique of writing programs: "Many a best seller could have been prevented by a good teacher." Whatever the case, if it’s good enough for elite institutions, then it ought to be good enough for the English department at tuition-hungry SIUC. Right?

Well — maybe. But as I say, I’m ambivalent.

On the one hand: I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the actual role of fantasy in the lives of our students. It’s not just that they already spend so much time playing video games, watching Netflix, and surfing the web on their iPhones. It’s also that the very democracy on which their future depends has been handed over to a reality-TV star, one who refers to journalism he doesn’t like as "fake news."

Now more than ever we’re teetering on the edge of the "culture-death" that Neil Postman warned about in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman’s argument is that we as Americans — because of our desire to be constantly distracted and entertained — are both easily manipulated and dangerously complacent. When, he writes, "cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."

Those words seem especially prescient in 2017. The reality-show farce of Donald Trump’s presidency is precisely the "vaudeville act" that Postman worried about, and the gleeful media coverage that Trump receives is grim proof that we’re more "audience" than citizenry.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that a class on Harry Potter novels equals "culture-death." But I am saying that we should think seriously about what it means to provide space in our curriculum for students to retreat from the real at the very moment when it’s under assault.

After all, the courses I am describing don’t represent the Romantic embrace of the imagination over the encroaching rationalism of the Enlightenment. My concern is that they’ll become the preferred option for students who want a break from close or critical engagement with the real world — which is exactly what writers like John Milton, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison demand.

The story of Satan’s rebellion in Paradise Lost is a complex meditation on freedom, monarchal authority, and the emergence of democracy. Moby-Dick is an allegory of national expansion and slavery. The Harry Potter stories, meanwhile, are wonderful reflections on friendship, courage, and the dichotomies of good and evil — which is to say that they’re great children’s literature. Why make them out to be more than that?

On the other hand, there are persuasive counters to that admittedly churlish line of thinking.

For starters, the Harry Potter novels needn’t be as complex or as politically engaged as Shakespeare to be valuable for students. Indeed, one could argue that a student who is excited about reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets may well learn more than the student who’s put off by being assigned to read Richard II. That’s especially so if the student engages in passionate discussions with her classmates, and writes long, detailed analyses of the book that examine narrative structure, gender roles, ideologies of nationhood and imperialism, psychoanalytic issues, Marxist perspectives, and so on. Because yes, you can bring those perspectives to bear on a mass cultural phenomenon just the same as you can to novels by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.

Similarly, it’s quite possible that a student who writes ardently about the imagined world he’s putting together in a course titled "How to Write Fantasy Fiction — and Sell It" is learning more about his craft, and perhaps even more about colonialism, race, or class, than the student enrolled in "How to Write for The New Yorker — and Never Get Published." He may also be writing himself into a job at a computer-gaming company or a PR firm. Or he might be expanding his mind in ways that make him an ideal candidate for law school or med school.

As for my critique of world-building — wasn’t Milton engaged in early versions of just that activity in Paradise Lost?

And, of course, there’s the issue of enrollment — butts in seats. The person who takes a Harry Potter class at Carbondale might actually proceed to sign up for that Shakespeare class — and like it. He or she might just become an English major. I sincerely believe that would be good for the student, who will find the major both enriching and quite valuable on the job market.

It would also be good for my department. If we get enough majors, we might actually receive approval to hire a new professor or two — something we haven’t been able to do during this period of fiscal crisis, even as faculty members have retired, or departed in favor of institutions with healthier budgets.

So what to do?

Well, I met the other day with a high-school senior who’s applying to SIUC and wants to major in English with a specialization in creative writing. She’d driven six hours from Chicago with her mother. Apparently she’s already written a 200-page "fan fiction" novel. This is a genre in which the writer takes a character or situation from a popular novel, TV show, or film and continues the narrative online. Once posted on the fan site, the text receives comments from other readers, some of whom are also writing fan fiction.

I imagine it’s both exciting and gratifying to receive that sort of feedback from members of a shared community. Certainly this is what the young woman I spoke with said. She said that it motivates her, and that she just wants to write, write, write. She also hopes to continue working on this narrative in a creative-writing class at SIUC. And she said she’d seen a listing for a Harry Potter class offered in the English department a few years ago.

"Will you be offering that class again?" she asked.

I paused, and as I did, both she and her mother looked at me expectantly.

"Yes," I said. "We probably will."

David Anthony is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

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