Department debuts Harry Potter course

Tara Powers

The department of political science will offer a new course entitled Harry Potter and International Relations this fall.

Joseph Thompson, who will teach the course, got the idea for the class after talking to a colleague at a conference who would be offering the course at his institution. Thompson thought the same course would work at Villanova, so he put together a proposal to offer to his department.

As prerequisites for the course, students are expected to have read all seven books in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series and to have previously taken a PSC 1200 course. 

The actual coursework includes a text book and several articles, all of which use the issues raised in the Harry Potter series to deal with serious international relations issues.

Connections between aspects of popular culture, such as Harry Potter, and the field of international relations make up what is called public political culture, Thompson explained. Interest in such connections started in the 1960s with the proliferation of radios, TVs and movies, all of which had an impact on how people perceived the political system.

“I feel all my courses have to have hard and soft, fun and serious,” Thompson said. “The fun thing is Harry Potter, but the hard stuff is that it’s really advanced international relations.”

For most of the week, the class will deal with serious issues such as defining the nature of political culture, globalization and bureaucracy.

But for half an hour every Thursday, Thompson plans a “Remembrall” challenge. One person from each of the class’s four Houses — which correspond to Rowling’s Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Slytherin — will be challenged to answer six questions. In this way, each House can earn weekly points for providing correct answers. At the end of the semester, those with the greatest number of points will receive Thompson’s “Gringotts” prizes.

The major project for the class will be a 10-page paper broken down into five sections. According to Thompson, each house will have different questions, using Harry Potter terminology to explicate issues of international relations. One section, for instance, will investigate terrorism and security issues through the lens of Rowling’s Death Eaters. For those that are not Potterheads, they are Voldemort’s clan of followers.

“I know from experience of teaching 40-plus years that if students are enjoying it, they do more work than they usually do,” Thompson said. 

Thompson also plans to bring two guest speakers to class. One of his guests, a professor who teaches about sports and religion, will discuss issues related to Rowling’s game of Quidditch, such as the implications of having male and female players on the same team.

Always a science-fiction fan, Thompson first read the series with his grandchildren in mind.

“My eight grandchildren have gotten into it, and we talk about it and joke about it,” Thompson said. “For them it’s something really relevant, so that’s how I came into it.”

He also added that despite the objections certain religious groups have raised to the Harry Potter books, Villanova was nothing but supportive when he suggested running the class.

“It’s really about good and evil and growing up with morality,” Thompson said. “There are very Christian concepts that are in [the books].”

The imaginative component of the books, he said, is only the surface of a larger narrative that describes much larger issues of human nature.

“Political culture helps us to understand what goes on in the world,” Thompson said. “What about the fictional world might help us understand what’s going on now?”

Thompson is not opposed to offering the class in future semesters if interest remains strong.  However, Harry Potter and International Relations is already full for the fall 2010 semester.