Cassidy Mellin ’12 pulled out her red notebook and began jotting down a list: “Parseltongue, Sirius Black motorbike, Voldy prophesy, and Dumbledore hiding and revealing.” Such writings, however, were not merely the daydreams of a self-described “big fan of the ‘Harry Potter’ series.” Mellin is one of 18 freshmen in Professor of Psychology Robert Steele’s “Myth, Magic, and Movies” course, a First Year Initiative (FYI) course more commonly referred to by students as “the ‘Harry Potter’ class.”
The course, which explores the power of myth to reveal the intricacies of the human psyche, focuses on the seven “Harry Potter” books because, according to Steele, author J.K. Rowling handily combines all the factors of mythology into a coherent story for people of all ages.
“She takes elements from classical mythology, from eastern mythology and from alchemy, and she weaves them all together,” he said. “But she doesn’t belabor it; she doesn’t make it boring stories. She actually just incorporates it into the story that she’s telling. She writes prose and narrative that’s utterly contemporary but has all these resonances that go back 5,000 years. Not a lot of people do that really well.”
The course has generated a lot of buzz around campus, both from the students who managed to gain spots in the class through course registration—Wesleyan’s own “sorting hat system”—as well as the large number of students who were denied spots in the popular course.
“Why did I pick it?” said Jeremy Koegel ’12, one of Steele’s students. “ ‘Harry Potter’ is the required reading. What else do I have to say?”
Steele plans to use the series to delve into various topics throughout the semester, including the differences between the books and their film adaptations, the role of women in the plot, and the connections between the protagonist’s adventures and the idea of the classical heroic quest. The course, which is listed under the Psychology Department, will also explore how all of these topics reveal links between popular culture and psychology. Other readings will include “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”
“Rowling knows so much and it’s just really nice to have it all in fiction form,” Steele said. “And from the fiction I can put in a lot about the psychological and cultural analysis. But we don’t have to start with the dry analysis. We can actually start with the story so we can experience the myth and then develop theories after, so it’s much more engaging.”
He credits the flexibility afforded professors teaching FYI classes as providing the impetus to create a course that incorporates the popular books series.
“The really nice thing about FYI classes is they actually encourage professors to teach more broadly, in more imaginative courses than what you might just do in a major,” Steele said.
Enthusiasm for the course seems almost tangible to Steele. Though the class meets for three hours on Tuesday afternoons, he notes that students will continue the discussion, even during their 15-minute break.
“It’s because of ‘Harry Potter!’” Steele said. “I can’t think of a better reason. Because [the students] are in the age group that started reading these at age 11 or so. This is central to [their] growing-up experience.”
The course was so popular during summer registration that, according to Mellin, potential students had to rank the course first to have a chance of getting in. Even then, there was no guarantee. Like Steele, she also attributes student enthusiasm for the course to her generation’s attachment to the “Harry Potter” series.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the “Harry Potter” series, and I felt like it would be really interesting to explore it more in depth and explore the [idea of the] hero’s journey in relation to ‘Harry Potter,’” she said. “I thought it would be more interesting to study that and not just read it as a fun story.”
Such outside knowledge quickly manifested itself within the classroom. During the second class session, the students were given a quiz. One of the questions was to name all seven members of the Gryffindor quidditch team—a seemingly esoteric question to which, according to Steele, almost everyone in the class knew the answer.
“The skills I want to teach are reading really closely, and looking at books and movies for particulars,” he said. “A lot comes out from seeing small things, from actually remembering who’s on the quidditch team. Remember, in ‘Harry Potter,’ that’s going to be important. So I want to teach a caring and love in reading for specifics, but always to link that to broader, bigger social questions.”