Hogwarts Letters Have Finally Arrived: MSU Class Focuses on Harry Potter
Above: Professor Anita Skeen with student Emily Bengel
You may have thought, growing up, that the owl carrying your Hogwarts acceptance letter might have gotten lost, and that was why you never attended the wizarding school. That has all changed for a group of students who get the chance to attend Hogwarts at MSU, thanks to Professor Anita Skeen’s class on the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.
Nestled in North Campus, Snyder-Phillips Hall is home of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, which in many ways actually looks like a wing of Hogwarts from the outside. Skeen has only taught her class on the Harry Potter series five times, and this year it functions as an RCAH 395 Special Topics class titled The World of Harry Potter.
Whether you are a self-proclaimed Potter-Head yourself, or are simply curious about the books, this class has something for every student. Rowling’s books are not just children’s novels; they explore very deep and vital issues ranging from gender and discrimination to morals and religion.
The first day of class in January was filled with excitement and nervousness, not unlike Harry and his companions the first time they entered the Great Hall to be sorted at Hogwarts. Skeen, Headmaster of Hogwarts, walked into the room of jittery college students wearing a Ravenclaw Wizarding Robe and a Witch Hat (most students wear Harry Potter related clothing in class). She then wrote a quote from Elie Wiesel on the chalkboard: “some stories are true that never happened”.
After passing out a comprehensive syllabus and going over plans for the semester, it was time for each student to be sorted into one of the four Hogwarts houses: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Students picked a random paper out of the witch’s hat, and then simultaneously flipped over their paper to reveal their houses. Each house is comprised of around six students, and each is appointed a Head of House. The Heads of House are all RCAH staff, who also sported wizarding clothing when introduced to the class. The houses would, from then on, be in a battle for the House Cup and the house with the most points at the end of the semester would win the Cup.
The concept for this class all started with Skeen listening to the audio book of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, narrated by Jim Dale. The books were always a subject of discussion around the college, and after picking up on her students’ passion for the series, she started to really read the novels and develop the class. “So many people were talking about the Harry Potter books,” Skeen remembers, “that I thought we needed a place where people could talk about it in an intellectual, academic setting,” and so the class was born.
In many ways you can say a stop was magically created in East Lansing for the Hogwarts Express. Originally, the class started off as a project-based sophomore tutorial in the RCAH titled Harry Potter: The Secret Lives of Children with a ten student limit. It started small to see if there would be any student interest, and there certainly was. By the fourth time teaching the class, Skeen renamed the class The World of Harry Potter to encompass all of the themes, ideas, and topics that the books explore.
The last time she taught the class was in the spring of 2012, the class having grown to twenty students. “I thought it was a smashing success,” she recalled, “I actually thought in terms of student engagement and in terms of people being excited about learning, it was the best course I ever taught in 43 years of teaching in terms of student learning.” In fact, this class was so successful each time, she was almost afraid to teach it again, convinced that the success and the student devotion could not be replicated.
Now though, Skeen happily admits that she was wrong, “There was a part of me that was a little hesitant to do it again, if I’m being honest, because it was such a good experience. And I had a lot of other things to teach, so it’s taken me a while. I had this little tug that said ‘don’t do this again; it’ll never be the same experience.’ But it is!” Skeen smiles, “I think it’s been the same experience so far, and I’m happy.”
Slytherin House students (left to right: JP Navarro, Maggie Hermanson, Erin Lammers, Melanie Sweet, and Kelsey Block) complete a class activity, the House Points in the background.
Current students would likely agree with Skeen. RCAH Senior Kelsey Block had asked the Dean if this class could be offered before she graduated, as she had heard of the class years ago, and the books were such a large part of her life. "I've read the Harry Potter books every summer since I was eight, and my best friend and I can't go a week without having some kind of major discussion about the series,” she explained, “It's so much more than just a children's series (although children's books are certainly worthwhile on their own). Harry's ability to impact real people's lives is really important whether you believe in magic or not. So when I came to RCAH and learned there was a Harry Potter class, and then when I learned that Anita taught it, I was completely thrilled.”
Kelsey was not the only student who admitted their decision to come to the RCAH at Michigan State University was in some way shaped by the Harry Potter of this class. Sydney Meadocrowft, RCAH Junior, was one of the students whose excitement for the class was almost tangible. Extremely happy that she was sorted into Hufflepuff because she mostly identifies with the house, Sydney explained how important the books are to her. “These books have been a huge part of my life since middle school,” Sydney said, “and the idea of sharing my nerdy obsession with other fans in an intellectual setting was a huge part of my decision to come to the RCAH.”
Students say they love the class, but they also say it’s a lot of work. This class has many assignments, presentations and textbooks just like any other MSU class, as well as two very difficult exams (the OWLS and the NEWTS), but focuses mainly on an individual student project. This project is proposed by each student and is developed over weeks during the semester, some ending in term papers and others having a more creative element to accompany it.
Skeen tries to hit on the big ideas during class time, and then let the project be a way for students to dive into the topics that are meaningful to them and may not have been covered in depth. “I always tell people, work on a project that has value to you, work on a project that won’t just be filed away in my drawer. Work on a project that in going to hold meaning for you.”
Because of this approach, students have the freedom to make the assignment personal, which often leads to unique and creative ideas. “One student did a curriculum revision of Hogwarts, because she said that Hogwarts didn’t offer enough Arts and Humanities courses. She went through the books and found every single class that was ever mentioned, the people who were mentioned as teaching them, what she could find out about when they were offered, and then offered her own curriculum as though she was presenting to a college curriculum committee. It was very good. Her argument for why they needed the Arts and Humanities, i.e. ‘look at Voldemort,’ you know it was a very good project because she was going into education,” Skeen recalled.
Other past projects have included an in-depth look at magical numerology in Arithmancy and the two different sides of Severus Snape. “I often get theology,” says Skeen, “people looking at the Christian metaphors. They usually take up that question of ‘is this a book that people who are religious should let their children read or not?’ and the students in my class always end up arguing yes, that these are critical books and they learn more about Christian values by reading them than not.”
Dr. Niki Rudolph, RCAH Director of Student Affairs, commented that though this class has only been taught five times, it is extremely popular among the students and often creates a waiting list to get in. “The course seems to be a melding of students' passion for literature, a connection to growing up with the novels, and the incredibly salient societal issues the books address about culture, class, and diversity.” Rudolph adds that “the course allows students to go deeper into the stories about philosophy and literature, and it may be the only course where all of the students have read almost all of the required texts before the class even begins.”
Students Monica Tovar, Holly Bronson, and Dani Dillon partake in a class assignment.
The sorting and House Cup are the elements of the class that students tend to get the most excited about. While the sorting isn’t based on actual personality traits like at Hogwarts, the process adds ingredients to the potion of the class: comradery, competition, and ambition. Skeen started sorting people in her class in 2011, as there were never enough students to do it randomly and evenly prior to that.
“What I think the House Points do is that they encourage people to go out and do things, and sometimes I think that people don’t really think about how many co-curricular activities they participate in until they start filling out their point sheets. It also encourages a sense of competition, which is good and maybe it’s the Syltherin part in me, but I want people to feel ambitious about winning the House Cup,” she explains.
In order to get the points added to their house scores, which are written down and updated on a bulletin board in the classroom, students must partake in outside campus events. These events can range from being a part of a club, going to a concert or guest lecture, or doing well on a paper or exam in another class. Students tend to get extremely competitive as the weeks go on, and Gryffindor House has won every time Skeen has held the House Cup.
“I like having the students in houses because it also encourages a kind of comradery in houses of people they didn’t know before. The reason I do the two group presentations early on in the class is to build a sense of community in the class before we start getting into the heavier discussions on controversial topics, and it really lays the foundation for a sense of community” said Skeen.
While there is a competition between houses, students become very close with each other (there are no Draco Malfoys in this class) and many students know their peers from other classes. Skeen has also noticed that as the semester goes on, students are quick to identify themselves with certain characteristics of the house that they were placed in, even if they didn’t like their sorting in the beginning.
Kelsea Solo, an MSU alumna who graduated in the class of 2013, now works as an Enrollment Advising Specialist at Eastern Michigan University. Kelsea was a student in this class the last time it was offered in 2012. She was also in the Gryffindor House which won the last House Cup tournament. “The Harry Potter class definitely stands out and is a highlight of my time in the RCAH,” Solo remembers.
“The class stands out to me for a couple reasons. One, because of the houses that we were sorted into. My house (Gryffindor) was a group of amazing ladies who were all so passionate and exemplified ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’ We were so engaged and active in getting ‘points’ and supporting one another that we grew very close and developed friendships. The class was also challenging. Most people would think that a class about a beloved "children's series" would be fun and easy; while it was definitely fun, it was not easy. We explored deep themes throughout the books, had enlightening debate, reflected on our own societal thinking, and really had to use our RCAH critical thinking caps. Our exams were difficult, our conversations were intense, and Anita Skeen held us all to a high standard.”
According to Skeen, “Rowling may not have set out to teach us about how to be a moral person, but the books do teach us that. And they stretch that notion of becoming, that you are always in the process of becoming. I think the novels let us see how people become who they are; that it’s not the family you were born into, it’s not the brains necessarily that you have, but it’s who you choose to be and how you act on who you have chosen to be, which is a good lesson for all of us.”
When asked if this class will be offered again, Skeen nodded her head, “I don’t feel like I’m done with this class, and I think the Dean will let me keep teaching it because students are so interested in it.” She added that student interest is what drives the class, and so as long as there are students who want the class and ask for it, she believes it will be offered.
As to what the future holds, we don’t have a Sybill Trelawney at our disposal. But Skeen did say this: “next year is my last year of full-time teaching because I’m going to retire, but I will be sticking around for about three years, teaching only one class at a time and doing more work with the Poetry Center. The next time I teach this will probably be during the 2017-2018 school year.” When asked if she would allow somebody else to teach it, she smiled, “maybe when I am gone somebody else will teach it, though I’m certainly the most passionate person about it in the college. But if enough people are interested, somebody else could teach it.”
She also thinks that this class could possibly function outside of the RCAH, but with a different focus depending on the college that offered it. “Here in the RCAH, of course, our focus is civic engagement, the Arts and Humanities, and ethics. If you look at the four cornerstones of the college, it is the perfect place for this course to land.”
Scattered with past Harry Potter projects and objects from the class, Skeen’s office is a definite indication that the course has found its home. “I do have people outside of this college that ask me if it’s possible to take it,” she added, “and I reply that only if there is an opening after the RCAH students enroll, but it’s pretty unlikely that would ever happen!” she laughed.
Editor’s note: Ashley Carlini is presently a student in Skeen’s RCAH 395 Special Topics class on Harry Potter.