5 Minutes With the Professor Whose Popular Class Analyzes Harry Potter
UCF English Professor Tison Pugh teaches the big-name literature classes: Shakespeare. Chaucer. Rowling.
Yes, Rowling, as in J.K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter. As you might guess, it’s the Rowling class that fills up the fastest. “We can learn a lot from the Harry Potter books,” says Pugh, a voracious reader who knows a good literature lesson when he sees one. Pugh acknowledges that after he read the first novel in the series, The Sorcerer’s Stone, he had no idea he would one day be teaching Harry Potter courses to college students.
You could say I was late to the party. Honestly, I thought of Harry Potter as a book for kids and teens. I finally picked it up to see what all the fuss was about. Any skepticism vanished after I read the very first line — “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” It’s one of the best opening lines in all of literature, and it’s my job to read a lot of literature.
No one knew Harry Potter would be such a big hit. Scholastic won the U.S. rights to publish the books for about $100,000. The craze just snuck up on us. People like me opened that first book and were swept into this strange world of wizards. We were hooked.
Some might question why we have a Harry Potter class. It’s just as meaningful as my literature classes on Chaucer or the King Arthur legends. The character development and trajectory of plots are so deep. I can use that to challenge students to become better thinkers. By the end of a semester, students have not only read books totaling 4,000 pages, they’ve analyzed them — and they’ve done a lot of analytical writing themselves.
Class time is not trivia time. Many of my students have never read a Harry Potter book, even though they’ve grown up around the series from birth. But they take the course to be motivated to read all the books for the first time.
I’ve read the entire series eight times. But students sometimes remind me of details that I’ve forgotten or missed. It’s like a student asking a history teacher about the specific date of an event. You learn not to be embarrassed if you don’t remember the answer. Again, our goal is to inspire critical thinking and analysis.
My favorite book is probably The Goblet of Fire. The story has a plot you cannot leave. It took me about 16 hours to read 800 pages. The book really makes you think — and that makes it a great teaching tool.
We can learn a lot from the author, J.K. Rowling. She isn’t just a fantasy novelist. She’s a voracious reader, and you can see her interest in British literature embedded into the Harry Potter stories. There are deep levels to the plots, yet they aren’t difficult to follow. Peeling back those layers, that’s the challenge for the class.
The students motivate me to think, too. They’ll draw parallels between the details in the books to actual cultural issues of the day. Or they’ll suggest what Rowling might have been thinking during the train ride that supposedly inspired the books (which, if the legend is true, must have been a multi-year train ride considering the depth of the stories).
There’s often a waiting list for the class. We have 100 seats and they’re usually full. Most English courses at the 300 level have 30-40 students. So this one is popular coming in. Hopefully, it’s popular going out.
Boredom has no place in a literature class. To me, this is exciting. And remember, I have to engage 100 young adults, which would be impossible if I didn’t love the subject matter. I hope they would agree that my enthusiasm shows.
Then there’s the money. There are so many students that I divide them into teams or Harry Potter “houses”: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. In each class I give them a challenge inspired by one of the books, such as coming up with as many connections to fairytales as they can in eight minutes. At the end of the semester, the winning house receives $100 to celebrate their victory. It gets their attention and makes them think. That’s what it’s all about. A little competition doesn’t hurt either.