By Laura Fenton
Learning to read was a painstakingly slow process for U of M freshman Preston Blair.
Double vision and low-level dyslexia meant “everything was double and backward” when
he looked at a page. Yet, as Blair would discover, the only way to learn to read is
by actually opening a book and giving it a try.
On the weekends, Blair as a first-grader would spend time with his grandfather, who
would read at least three chapters a night to him from the Harry Potter series.
“I’d read the first paragraph and he’d help me with the words I didn’t know,” Blair
By the fourth book, Blair was reading silently, and was actually finishing the book
before his grandfather did. Nowadays, Blair forces himself to read every night to
keep his reading skills fresh.
Preston Blair, a U of M freshman, and his classmates read excerpts from the Harry
Potter series aloud at the Amtrak Memphis Central Station as part of the “Potter”
Honors program class.
The Potter series focuses on a boy who discovers he has a mysterious, magical past and follows
his seven years of adventures while attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The books, published between 1998 and 2007, have been translated into 68 languages
and have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide.
Students like Blair are the last of the target audience of the Harry Potter series. The series is their generational story.
“There’s no one ahead of them and not one behind them that will have had the same
experience with the books that this group of students have had,” said Tammy Jones,
U of M English instructor. “We’re trying to capture that experience.”
In a course available only to freshman Helen Hardin Honors students, Jones and Catherine
Dice, also a U of M English instructor, transposed the themes of the Harry Potter series into a one-hour forum course upperclassmen covet. The two sections of the
course are taught by both professors.
The Fall Semester 2012 course, “UNHP 1100: Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower,” focuses
on topics relating to culture, socioeconomic standing, mythology, religion and British
history. It is not a literature class about the series. It’s a platform that encourages
students to understand their lives and the post-graduation world in which they will
“Some of the topics are pretty heavy, but because it’s a world where they’re so completely
invested in, they don’t mind,” Jones said. “Plus, we’re trying to get them acculturated
to being a part of the Honors program and taking the lead in their own educational
U of M freshman Kristin Curl snuggles up to a stack of books from the Harry Potter
series. Curl is one of the students in the “Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower” class
offered through the Helen Hardin Honors program.
The seven books in the series are the required textbooks, and the professors lead
discussions under the assumption that students have read the whole series at least
once. Students are also expected to be versed in the wizardry vocabulary of the series.
Delving into the varying themes open discussions for many avenues because the series
“wasn’t something that was thrown together haphazardly for making a quick buck,” Dice
Both Dice and Jones hold the genre of children’s and young adult’s literature close
to their hearts, valuing the thematic depths and art of storytelling present in modern
books. This especially holds true in the Harry Potter series.
“There’s a lot of academic scholarship within the series,” Jones said. “For example,
there is an examination of cultural imperialism and how that translates worldwide
— that is such a global force that we can study.”
Of course, with a topic like Harry Potter, Jones and Dice don’t take themselves too seriously.
Both have matching hot pink T-shirts that say “muggle” (a term from the Potter series that means “a human that was not born in a magical world and doesn’t have
magical powers”). And on the first week of classes, both wore academic gowns they
bought online and stitched Hogwarts badges onto the appropriate places on the dresses.
Now that it’s cooler outside, they’ll break the gowns out more, meaning there may
be two Potter-esque professors traipsing about campus.
By the end of the term, students will create a digital ethnography of their Harry Potter experiences. They’ll present the ticket stubs, building block sets, childhood photos
and whatever else they find in the attic that relate to their Harry Potter story.
Freshman Alexis Boucher is glad to be around Harry Potter fans. She understands the overall perspective of the course, and related a Harry Potter excerpt from the series with a book from another class about Frederick Douglass.
“Even though we talk about the books, we talk about so much more,” she said. “We bring
outside references into the classroom to relate it to what’s going on in the books.”
The “literary event” of the class is one Blair is thankful he chose to attend.
“I’ve gotten more out of it than I expected to,” he said. “There’s a lot more ‘thought’
in the books than people give the series credit for.”