James teaches muggles the world of wizards

By Meha Ahmad

English Department adjunct instructor Susen James said she’s always been a child of literature, a lover of words and a bookworm through and through. A former Columbia student, James came to study poetry and now teaches it, along with her most well-known class analyzing the books by author J.K Rowling, Fantasy Literature: Harry Potter.

Usually filled to capacity within the first week of registration, no other U.S. college or university has a course quite like James’

Harry Potter class, delving into the series’ literary depths; though schools like Yale University have a course about the Harry Potter books, it specifically examines the series through the lens of religion, “Christian Theology and Harry Potter.”

The Chronicle spoke with James about her attraction to Columbia, the Harry Potter book series that inspired her unique class and the supernatural today.

The Chronicle: Where did you get the idea to start a literature class focused solely on the ‘Harry Potter’ series?

Susen James: I’ve always loved the books. I think I fell in love with the books before I ever read them. I bought [the first book] for my adult daughter … I read maybe the first paragraph and on my way home from her house I had to stop and buy the book for myself.

As for the class, I went to one of the opening nights of one of the movies and … all my adult children were also with me, and we got there very early and the movie wasn’t starting until 12:01 a.m. So, I was sitting there and I was kind of eavesdropping. The audience was primarily filled with what seemed to be students from Northwestern [University], and I heard them have these really intense, leery discussions about the books. I thought, “Wow, they’re talking so deeply about the books.”

I wish all literature would inspire that kind of searching … Searching for deeper meanings and hidden content and mysteries within mysteries within mysteries. A lightbulb kind of went off in my head, and I thought, “I could teach a class in this. And perhaps, not only would the students who love the books be inspired by what we studied in the class, but maybe they’d go on to other literature with that kind of eye.” Because great literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s always stories behind the stories and depths that sometimes you can only uncover with multiple readings.

What research did you do for the class?

I read mythology, I read lots of hero tales, looking for the common denominators. There’s all kinds of allusions and references to other literatures, and I wanted to give the students-before they even started reading the actual Harry Potter books-some of the background that I thought would help them understand it on a deeper level.

So, we start out with some mythology, and then we talk about the hero journey in literature. We talk about what good literature encompasses, like what is a plot curve? How does Rowling use the ideas of good writing in her books? What kind of words does she use, what kind of language does she use?

We spent one class talking about modern witchcraft, Wicca, paganism, whatever you want to call it, so that the students can look at the Harry Potter books and ask, “Is this really what [opponents] say it is, or is it something else?” I almost feel like I learn something from the students as well, because often, especially the people who have read the books multiple times, I feel like they may have picked up something that I didn’t notice. I feel that I become a stronger teacher of these books by subtle things the students might say.

What is the best part of teaching Harry Potter to students, new and old readers?

I think the students are really excited about it. It’s a class, but when they get into it, they really want to be there. I think there is a lot of response on the students’ parts. There’s less missing of classes than some classes I’ve taught before. I feel really lucky to be teaching a class that is exciting to me and still is exciting to me. This is the fourth time I’ve taught it, I believe, and it’s still exciting to me. It doesn’t get like, “Oh no, I’m going to have to teach that class this semester.”

I just like to see the look of discovery on the students’ faces when they start realizing there are certain patterns in the books. And students realize how intricate her thinking was on these books and how much research went into these books. It wasn’t just stream-of-consciousness writing and it happened to sound good and she sent it off to a publisher, but rather years and years of planning. Nothing happens by accident; there’s no lucky coincidence in the book. Everything was well thought-out.

Which character in the series do you most relate to?

There’s a little bit of a lot of characters, I think. I guess Professor McGonagall would probably be closest. I’d like to say I have Harry’s bravery, but I don’t think that’s my strongest point being that I’m a teacher and I’ve been a teacher even before I was teaching here; I taught yoga and I taught childbirth classes and all kinds of other things.

McGonagall is [the kind of] teacher I’d like to be who can pull her class to order without ever having to raise her voice. Her teaching is interesting enough that her students want to listen, and in her heart of hearts she’s a really good person-a little stern sometimes, but she’s always there when you need her.

What do you think of Harry Potter as its own culture, with its own genre of music, movies, etc., aside from the books?

You know, they say that when hero tales are written, they embody those things that a culture values. And for all the years I’ve read the books as well as all the years I’ve taught this course, I go over in my mind, “What is it that this hero tale gives us that other hero tales [didn’t]?” There are tons of hero tales that are contemporary; you can look at The Matrix or something like that. But something in Harry Potter is grabbing people’s imagination. So what is it in Harry Potter that stands out? I’m still not sure. The things that I think are the idea of the flawed hero, the idea that ultimately to make the right decisions, to care about your friends, to care about your world, sometimes you go about it in the wrong way and make mistakes along the way. I think people are looking for something to believe in. Call it the idea that magic exists, that there’s this world just beyond our Muggle eyes, that’s existing simultaneously with the world of reality-Chicago, 2008. I think people are looking for something that gives them hope.

Do you believe in magic?

Yes. Did you see how fast I answered that one? I feel everyone has the power to influence the world around them in some way, and I guess one can take that on any level. Prayer and rituals are all manifestations, the feeling that one can affect the world around them. And if you were to go into the average church and say, “Do you believe in the supernatural?” they would probably say no, but they believe in the power of prayer. So, there’s something in this world that we’re living in that they believe exists.

What kind of negative feedback have you gotten from the class?

Someone once asked me, “Why do you feel that this literature is good enough, that it deserves a whole semester class at the college level?” I think the books have value as literature and-although some old-school literature critics might not agree with me-I feel the books have a lot of merit on many, many different levels as literature. Especially as literature that inspires somebody to follow through and read other literature-and one doesn’t have to become enamored of the wizarding culture to realize the strength of the literature. You don’t have to totally start dressing in wizard robes all the time.

Speaking of wizarding robes, what are you going to be for Halloween this year?

Oh, I always dress as a witch. I’ve been doing that for years.

What would you ask J.K Rowling if you ever met her?

I would ask her if she’d meet me for lunch or for coffee because I really want to pick her brain. Because I’m sure there are things that I haven’t discovered, and I’d hope that she would say yes. I wouldn’t just have one question. I have so many that I couldn’t possibly ask just one.