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Course explores medievalism, Harry Potter

| Tuesday, February 18, 2020

When Susan Ohmer, professor of film and television, was approached about teaching a new course titled “Harry Potter, Medievalism and Transmedia Narratives,” she said “it didn’t take me more than five seconds to think about it before I said ‘yes.’”

The class, which focuses on author J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy book series and subsequent film adaptations, was conceived by Ph.D. student Jake Coen and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Medieval Institute Linda Major.

Coen said that once he and Major “realized the untapped potential of Harry Potter at Notre Dame, [they] immediately reached out to Dr. Ohmer.”

Ohmer has previously taught other courses covering a wide range of topics, including presidential elections, Disney, Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Pan. Ohmer and Coen co-teach the course, alternating weeks of giving lectures and hosting film labs. The class was first taught in the Spring of 2019, and this is only the second time it has been offered.

“There is a special focus on the films, and the class examines how elements such as camerawork, lighting, costume, set design and acting are used to create the characters and settings,” Ohmer said. “The films and books were created during a time of profound change in film and in publishing. In the early 2000s, the period when the films were released, studios were moving from special effects that use physical elements to digital effects. We can trace that change in the films.”

In addition to focusing on the film aspect of the Harry Potter universe, the class also allows students to explore the medieval aspects of the series. Coen said there were plethora of connections between the Harry Potter series and medievalism.

“There are just too many connections to count,” Coen said. “Some of my favorite connections are how Rowling plays with medieval bestiaries and literary wild men archetypes, as well as how her work — especially later in the series — subverts critical elements of medieval and medievalist quest literature.”

For one class activity, students participate in a “Medieval Field Day,” in which they can try out medieval forms of entertainment and see how these forms’ legacies persist in modern culture.

Coen said that teaching this course is a “dream come true,” and his students share in his enthusiasm for the material.

Senior Claire Stanecki, an Anthropology and Spanish double major, says that she would absolutely recommend the class to other students.

“I love being able to study something that I’m interested in personally in an academic setting,” she said. “It has allowed me to engage with a series that I love in new, interesting and challenging ways.”

“[I hope] that students come away with a deeper appreciation of their favorite books and novels, and an understanding of how writers and filmmakers rework elements from other forms of literature and art to craft their stories,” Ohmer said.

The syllabus lists some of the goals of the course as “identifying and describing the role of medievalism in the Harry Potter franchise” and “discussing some of the issues involved in adapting literary texts across different media platforms,”

“At its heart, this is a class about community building,” Coen said.

The course provides the “opportunity not just to explore this generation-defining cultural moment in a deeper academic way, but also to get students from many different backgrounds and levels of experience to talk about something that they share,” Coen said.

As for their own Hogwarts Houses, Coen, Ohmer and Stanecki are split. Coen said he is “Ravenclaw, of course.” Ohmer is “Gryffindor all the way.” And Stanecki is “100% Hufflepuff.”

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