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Potter In Universities A Harry Subject

July 14, 2009  |  8:45am
Potter In Universities A Harry Subject
My brother took a swimming class in college; my father signed up for Judo. They enrolled in these courses for two simple reasons: They stuck out from the normal droning material that fills most professors' syllabi and, perhaps more importantly, they seemed like a painless way to boost their respective grade point averages.

When I found out my aunt was in a bowling class during college, I wondered, "How is that a university course?" But that's probably her generation's response to the news that many higher learning institutions are offering credit for classes involving Harry Potter.

“People saw this [course] and they said, ‘Ah, that’s ridiculous. It’s going to be a Mickey Mouse course,” says professor George Plitnik, who teaches the course “The Science of Harry Potter” at Frostburg State University in Maryland. But Plitnik explains that the course uses the magic of Harry Potter as a hook to teach students about basic physics and what’s on the forefront of scientific research.

Plitnik got the idea for the class after he stumbled upon a book by Roger Highfield called The Science of Harry Potter. Highfield, who is the former science editor at The Daily Telegraph and the current editor at New Scientist, used the book as a lighthearted approach to familiarize readers to science and history.

“Rather than start out with a big idea, such as cosmology or evolution, and then think of how to popularize it, I prefer to start out with a popular idea, such as Christmas or Harry Potter, and then look for the science,” Highfield says. "It does, however, assume that readers will not be literal minded and keep a sense of humor.”

Using Highfield’s book, Plitnik’s lessons discuss topics that appear in Harry Potter while explaining how they theoretically can/could be possible. In the course, Plitnik teaches things like apparating using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, levitating using diamagnetism or electromagnetic repulsion force, and using super conductors in liquid nitrogen to repel a small magnet. Pretty mindblowing stuff, frankly. If high-school chemistry wasn’t so difficult and also taught these kinds of lessons, I might have become a scientist.

And that seems to be how many universities are using Harry Potter in the classroom: as a gateway to introduce students to material they otherwise might shy away from.

Two years ago, Danielle Tumminio taught a course at Yale titled “Christian Theology and Harry Potter," and realizes it was the wizard who caught the eye of most.

“I tell my students each year, I know very few of you applied because you’re profoundly interested in Christianity,” Tumminio says. “I know what drew you here was the Harry Potter books. But I really hope what keeps you here is Christian thought, and not because you’re a Christian, not because I have any interest in converting you to Christianity, but I think the questions Christianity and any other religions ask…are good, relevant and important questions. I hope the class gives students a vocabulary to talk about those questions without being didactic or trying to convert people at all.”

Most of the backlash surrounding the J.K. Rowling series has come from religion fundamentalists who are quick to cry witchcraft and denounce the books as Satanistic.

“I have come across people in church settings who are a little more reticent about the book,” Tumminio says. “I spoke with a woman once who came up to me and said something to the effect of, ‘You’re polluting children’s minds by teaching these books.’”

Tumminio believes that Rowling’s books aren’t going away and encourages her students to examine the novels with an open mind. “I’m a perfectly open to my students saying these books are heretical or these books really don’t jive with Christianity, but I want them to do it in an educated way and I think right now this conversation isn’t being held in a broad enough forum,” she says.

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