Guest Post: Harry Potter Brings Magic to Clayton State with the “Potter Talks” Series


The following article was written by Dianne Hill, Jordan Knight, Bre’auca Thompson, Keondra Walters, and Evelyn Tran, students in Dr. Margaret Fletcher’s ENGL 1102 Spring 2017 classes as part of the library’s partnership with the university’s PACE initiative. In addition to this article, the students created a series of research guides to accompany the Harry Potter’s World exhibit. Find more information about the Harry Potter’s World exhibit and the PACE initiative following this article.


Harry Potter’s visit to Clayton State brought out students who have been reading the series since middle school as well as professors who also enjoy and search beneath the surface of the complex fantasy series.   The exhibition which was brought by the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health was sponsored by the Clayton State Library under the leadership of Erin Nagel, Assessment & Marketing Librarian. The exhibit invited students and professors as well as the general public to join in exploring Harry Potter’s world and its roots in Renaissance magic, science, and medicine.  One important part of the program was the “Potter Talks” series, in which Clayton State professors and their kin led us deeper into the realms of magic and meaning that inspire Potter fans. Those of us who attended the talks learned that Potter’s world is fun and intriguing, but it is also extremely complex.

Valuable vs. Priceless; The Invisibility Cloak; blank slide

Real picture of an invisibility cloak, from Dr. Pratt-Russell’s talk

The first speaker was Dr. Kathryn Pratt Russell, a professor in the English Department, who spoke on the convergence of Renaissance and contemporary monetary policy in the world of Harry Potter.  In an interview, Dr. Pratt Russell stated that she usually writes on British Romantic literature, mentioning in particular the work of Walter Scott, a British novelist whose work was often concerned with how regular people survived the harsh world of 18th and 19th century British economy.  She pursued the topic of money in Harry Potter’s world because of her interest in how Harry appears to be much more financially privileged that many of his friends.  She also felt that a focus on money would expand the interests covered in the exhibit.  In explaining her research methods, she talked about how she looked up every source dealing with Harry Potter and money.  Although she already had ideas of what she wanted to talk about, she explained that academic writers do extensive research to avoid plagiarism that can occur even though the writer hasn’t seen someone else’s work.  She stated that if someone else had already written on the ideas she had in mind, she wanted to be sure to give them credit.

Dr. Pratt Russell said that she felt the Potter books are mainly for children and teenagers; however, because author J. K. Rowling is so knowledgeable about general folklore and British and Irish legends, the books are educational.  She explained that she saw many influences from periods other than the Renaissance.  The book she found most interesting was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and her favorite movie in the series was the Prisoner of Azhabn, which showed a shift in tone from the other films.  Dr. Pratt Russell concluded her interview by saying that one of the best things for people to take away from the exhibit was the fun of studying history.  Many people will leave the exhibit motivated to learn more about history and to expand their reading both in the fantasy genre and perhaps other areas of British literature also.

Your Potion Mistresses; Antoinette with cartoon image; Mary with cartoon image

Artist rendering of presenters Antoinette and Mary Miller

The series’ second speaker, Dr. Antoinette Miller, psychology professor at Clayton State, demonstrated the multi-generational interest in Harry Potter by bringing her teen-aged daughter Mary with her as a co-presenter.  The topic of their talk was potions and their links to various psychological phenomena.  The mother-daughter duo shared information about a number of potions including the “Amortentia” or love potion; the “Drink of Despair” which includes fear, delirium, and extreme thirst; and the “Felix Felicis,” also known as liquid luck. All potions can bring disaster or bad luck if used incorrectly.  In the world of psychology, Dr. Miller and “Mistress” Mary related these potions and the need for them to humanistic explanations of psychological disorders and self-actualization undermined by unhappy relationships and unfulfilling jobs.

In an interview, Dr. Miller said that one of the most interesting aspects of the study of potions is Wolfsbane which helps in inpulse control when given to a character like Lupin, a werewolf, for  control of his wolf side so that he wouldn’t try to kill people when he was transformed.  She also enjoyed the idea of the placebo effect taking place when Ron imagined that he mistakenly believed a drug had made him more relaxed.  Even though potions are magical in Harry Potter’s world, they bear a resemblance to the real world of psychological needs and cures.

Image of Professor Seth Shaw presenting in front of screen

Professor Shaw talks about Immortality and Memory in Harry Potter’s World

Professor Seth Shaw of the Archival Studies Department discussed “Immortality through Memory.”  He explained that maintaining archives is all about acquiring and preserving records in perpetuity which is a type of immortality.  A major theme in Harry Potter is the quest for immortality, which Professor Shaw compared to using records to create memories that will endure, which is the purpose of an archive.  Our physical bodies are not immortal, but what can endure is the record of what we do and the things we think.   Records are really the closest that we will get to immortality, barring spiritual notions and beliefs in immortality. Based on what we can see and understand in the physical world and the academy, memory is the closest that we can come to physical immortality.  A huge plot point for the Harry Potter series revolves around Voldemort and his attempt for immortality through the horcruxes.  In an interview, Professor Shaw explained that in terms of research, he watched Dr. Kathryn Pratt Russell’s presentation, and talked with her about some of her resources.  She mentioned a book of academic writing on the topic of philosophy in Harry Potter, which she lent him.  He found the book invaluable to his presentation on immortality; also, he gave his interviewers an important lesson on how scholars work together and learn from each other when researching ideas.

In terms of the overall series and J. K. Rowling’s artistic success, Professor Shaw noted that “you can see the progression and complexity that develops in her ability to discuss very complex topics that arose as the Harry Potter series went on.”   He felt that her knowledge of various myths and legends as well as magical practices of old definitely comes through in the series.  He stated that “you can tell as you read her material the things that are consistent with theory and philosophy and previous modes of thought and that she must have been well read in those areas” based on the progress she makes as the series develops.

Image of Dr. Furlong in costume presenting in front of screen

Professor McGonagall (AKA Dr. Furlong) talks about genetics in the wizarding world

The fourth and final speaker in the series was Dr. Michelle Furlong, professor of science.  The title of her presentation was “The Mendelian Genetics of Wizards.”  She defined scientific terms such as phenotype, genotype and alleles, and used interactive techniques to get her audience involved.  In terms of Harry Potter’s world, there are squibs, which are nonmagical children born to magical parents; there are magical children born to or raised by Muggles (nonmagical people).  Hermoine is an example of a magical child born to Muggles, and Harry is a magical child raised by Muggles.  Dr. Furlong explained how environment plays a part in magical development.  Although Harry had magical genes, his magical powers didn’t truly develop until he began school at Hogwarts.  Children born in the same family, such as the Dursley children may have varying degrees of magical power; for examples, Ron’s powers were weak while Ginnie’s were strong.  Dr. Furlong noted that this was an example of incomplete dominance.  Although the magical gene is recessive but usually strong in the offspring of two magical parents, traits can blend so that children in the same family may have differences in magical abilities.

Dr. Furlong explained that evolution and mutations can play a part in the strength of magical traits.  She also explained the existence of regulatory genes that can turn traits on and off.  She concluded her presentation with an explanation of magic that delighted her audience who had been working hard to understand how mutation changes can create the ability to talk to snakes. Most people, and certainly most readers of Happy Potter, believe themselves to be common Muggles.  Actually though, because the magic gene is recessive and because the regulatory gene is recessive, we may not develop magical powers, but the magic, and the potential for magic, exists in all of us. Thus her audience left the final presentation feeling that they too had some connection to the incredible magical universe of Harry Potter and the use of magic to make positive changes in the world.

Writers:  Dianne Hill, Jordan Knight, Bre’auca Thompson Keondra Walters, Evelyn Tran


The Clayton State Library hosted the Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine traveling exhibition in March and April 2017.

Clayton State Library exhibit announcement
Clayton State Library exhibit website
ENGL 1102 PACE students’ research guides (pathfinders)
Potter Talk recordings
National Library of Medicine exhibit website

The Clayton State University PACE initiative, Partnering Academics and Community Engagement, focuses on student engagement through community projects that enhance learning. This Plan is aligned with our institutional Mission of cultivating an “…environment of engaged, experienced-based learning, enriched by active community service, that prepares students of diverse ages and backgrounds to succeed in their lives and careers” and Strategic Plan emphasis on providing students with an “engaged, experienced-based learning, enriched by active community service.”

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