UI officials: Classes like 'Harry Potter' and 'The Beatles' help engage students


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The end of the Harry Potter series signified the end of Cristina Ponce's childhood.

The University of Iowa senior said she grew up "alongside" Harry Potter and often imagined their two worlds intertwined with magical adventures filled with fire-breathing dragons, scary boggarts, flittering golden snitches, and tasty butterbeer.

"I must have read the first book 16 or 17 times, probably more," she said. "Each time I still laugh at the funny parts and cry at the sad parts."

So when the UI Honors Program announced a new Harry Potter-centric literary class would be offered during the 2012 spring semester, she jumped at the chance.

UI officials said modern-theme course work featuring popular cultural subjects, such as the boy wizard, helps students resonate with important lessons in the classroom.

Art Spisak, the director of the Honors Program, said the Harry Potter class helped students connect to historical periods.

"That whole mindset looking through the Potter lens lets you understand what was going on in Germany in World War II," he said.

Spisak said the Honors Program continually looks for ways to offer courses that engage students through popular culture.

Two new Honors first seminars will be offered this fall: One on the HBO series "The Wire" and the other focused on comics.

Prior to the Harry Potter class, the UI has offered a class on the Beatles.

Spisak said throughout the semester-long course, students used parallels between the Harry Potter series and a variety of social issues like racial purity and religion.

"You can make comparisons with what is going on in the Harry Potter series to meaningful issues that are relevant to what's going on today," Spisak said.

Student demand pushed the class cap of 19 to 28. The seminar was fully enrolled after only 8 hours of registration.

Donna Parsons, a lecturer in the Honors Program and instructor for the Potter class, said the course brought focus to other areas outside the series as well.

"I found it rather surreal to be asked Beatles questions in a Harry Potter seminar," she said. "But their queries allowed me to show the connections between Beatlemania and Pottermania, Sirius Black and John Lennon, and that truly 'all you need is love.' "

Melinda Finberg, a visiting English associate professor at Swarthmore College, has taught freshman seminar Harry Potter courses in the past.

"It brings very relevant humanistic questions that are still being written about today," she said. "It was a very good way to bring to students."

Finberg's past classes have compared the Harry Potter series with other popular modern literature from authors such as J.R.R. Tolkein.

Although Spisak focuses his classes on more classical studies dating back 2,000 years, he admitted to using popular movies such as The Gladiator and Troy to engage students.

"Another approach, however, which is equally valid, is to bring out the relevancy of whatever material is treated in a course," he said. "For example, as a classicist, my course subject matter is usually 2,000 years or older. So, my challenge is to have the students understand how that very old material is relevant to their lives."

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