Why Harry Potter matters to the humanities

By Bryce Traister
Chair, Department of English and Writing Studies

Students greeted the news that Western’s Department of English and Writing Studies will be offering a half-course on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels next year with anticipation and derision.

One student tweeted that on hearing the news, she upgraded graduation plans from a four to a five-year degree. Another announced that the barbarians were at the gates in the form of this obvious bird course.

Lost in the excitement was a discussion of why, at this time, the English and writing department had decided to introduce this course. There are several reasons.

First, the study of children’s literature has become a significant area of academic specialization in literary and cultural studies. DEWS has been offering a course in Children’s Literature for decades, so the Harry Potter course is a natural development for us, and for its instructor, Dr. Gabrielle Ceraldi.

Second, the Rowling franchise is a global phenomenon that has spawned a complex industry. It has either saved or ruined the bookselling business, to cite one example of Rowling’s impact. The Harry Potter business matters, in short, and so studying it intensively is where academic and practical considerations meet.

This sort of thing, point the third, is what students want. Media pundits like to criticize the humanities for being “useless” or “impractical.” Your parents unfortunately seem to agree. University administrations are being forced to “prioritize” programming, and are tending to favour those disciplines where research has significant commercial potential, or where there is high student demand.

When it comes to Harry Potter, the student demand is not merely theoretical—it is demonstrated each year in emails and conversations where students express their desire to study not just one or two books in the series, but the whole thing, including the final few novels with their increasingly challenging engagement with history, politics and religion.

The Harry Potter course is about teaching students in a way that is both academically responsible, from an intellectual perspective, and is, at the same time, responsive to the demands of the contemporary university. There will also be some fun involved in a course that shows how the books you read and the language you use is important to your “real life.”

Harry Potter saved Hogwarts. Perhaps he’ll save the study of the humanities as well.