Librarian looks to Harry Potter to cast spell over student research

Harry Potter may not have spent a lot of time in the library at Hogwarts, but one GW librarian is hoping to bring the fictional character into student research.

Tolonda Henderson, who has published three academic papers on the boy wizard, gave a presentation to about dozen students Tuesday about how to use the popular book series to expand their education.

Henderson said she had tried to teach a class about Potter, but she’s been unable to secure final approval. Instead, she will teach a workshop, called “Researching Potter,” this fall and again in the spring.

The reference and instruction librarian said it would be difficult to focus a Potter-based course on a specific area of study because the text can be easily applied to a number of academic fields.

“I would be interested in any department that would be happy to have me teach,” she said. “I think it is something that would interest students. You can take almost any lens and apply them to the novels.”

In an event series she’s hoping to call “Mr. Potter Goes to Washington,” Henderson wants to bring students across the city to read passages from the books and apply themes to well-known landmarks.

“There are scenes in the seventh book where Harry Potter goes back to Godric’s Hollow and there are memorials to him and his family there, and as a free event to go to the National Mall, go and see the Lincoln Memorial, go and see the MLK Memorial, go see Thomas Jefferson, and then sit and talk about what does it mean to erect an edifice to somebody,” she said.

“Let’s go to the Spy Museum and talk about Snape,” she added.

Henderson said for students trying to convince professors to use Harry Potter in the classroom, they can point out the relevant academic research already done on the series.

“Go with a plan of action. Be sure you know the material,” she said. “It’s not about an easy way out of a research project, it’s about having a real vested interest in what you’re working on and being willing to say, ‘I’ve never thought about Harry Potter like this.’”

In the meantime, Henderson plans to continue writing academic papers about Potter characters, and will present at a conference on the books in Philadelphia in October.

She said she has written about the role of a magical library in the novels, but her latest work looks at Ron Weasley, one of the series’ main characters. In the future, she hopes to write about the disabilities and weight of characters in the books, examining the details of the stigma surrounding both topics in the wizarding world.

Popular culture has already appeared in several writing-based classes at GW. A University Writing course and an exhibit at the GW Law School have revolved around Potter, and other University Writing classes are focused around television shows like “Mad Men.”

This year, the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University introduced a program for freshmen based on the point system that author J.K. Rowling created for her fictional school of witchcraft and wizardry. Students are sorted into four groups and can earn points for attending different lectures and completing other programs.

Other universities have also embraced classes on popular culture. Rutgers University offers a course about Beyoncé through its department of women’s and gender studies, and students at McDaniel College can study social issues through the lens of adult cartoon “South Park.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.