Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Harry Potter & the Ph.D.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Harry Potter & the Ph.D.

What does the struggle to bring down He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named have to do with grad school?

It’s all ending.
For those of you who have already seen Part 2 of The Deathly Hallows, it’s already ended – “it” being the film phenomenon of the Harry Potter series, which began in 2001 with the Sorcerer’s Stone and has lasted a solid decade. Although I not among the record-breaking number of people who have seen the film, I am a Harry Potter fan, and I’ve been following the worldwide response closely.

Last Friday, July 15th, I watched my Facebook newsfeed erupt in statuses about the film. Some of my friends confessed to sobbing at the film's end; others questioned whether the epilogue was successful or necessary. One friend, a Fordham Ph.D. in literature, of course, posted quotes from the seventh book:

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”


“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?” 

As an aspiring writer and scholar of literature, I am amazed whenever a book (or, in this case, a septalogy of books) becomes such a cultural force. Rowling’s books have not only made millions for all those invested in the franchise (book publishers, film studios, and makers of HP-themed lunch boxes), but they have shaped the way a generation of young readers think about the world. Rowling has not shied from theological, political, and moral issues in her books, and the Deathly Hallows mania is a testament to the cultural impact of the series.

While some academics might frown upon the Harry Potter books as “low” art and simplistic (it's contemporary children’s fantasy literature written by a woman!), many academics are intrigued by the way effects of the books and have taken an interest in all things HP.

One such scholar Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio has taught theology classes about Harry Potter and published a book about the experience entitled God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction In An Ivy League Classroom. Her students' conversations about Harry Potter and theology sound fascinating and have become a part of their experience in higher education.

These conversations about Rowling's books have gone beyond the academy; the "big themes" of the series (Morality, Death, Friendship, Good, Evil, etc.) are happening all over the internet. Facebook, The Leaky Cauldron, and Twitter are alive with closereading, questioning, and dialogue about the series and its conclusion. The average reader has become more than just a fan but is at work on message boards and in social media as a critic and theorist in his or her own right.

I have especially enjoyed reading all the feminist criticism of Harry Potter that has emerged on the internet, like the fantastic Ms. Magazine article, “Hermione Granger and the Fight for Equal Rights,” and “An Unabashed Love Letter to Ginny Weasley” that went up on Feminsiting after the release of Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows

These non-academic pieces are illuminating and provocative... sans jargon! These pieces are available online to a broad audience. Young readers might stumble upon some feminist theory when they Google Hogwarts! How exciting for us, as grad students, to see these conversations thriving  across a range of communities and platforms. Very.

While I have yet to meet someone whose dissertation is on Harry Potter, the impact of the books on our cultural and intellectual life is clear. And as the world buzzes over the eighth and final film, we grad students get to satisfy our deep nerdy inner desire to talk about Apparation and the Dark Mark, what it all means, and why it matters.  

What is your take on scholarly interest in pop culture phenomena like Harry Potter? What about the closereading and theorizing happening on Facebook, message boards, and Twitter? And, most importantly, what can we learn from Snape about the nature of good and evil?

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