Harry Potter magic rubs off on English students presenting at academic conference

By Costa Maragos Posted: May 4, 2017 6:00 a.m.

(l-r) Students Allie Fenson, Kaleigh Johnson, Kate Hughes and Tea Gerbeza.
(l-r) Students Allie Fenson, Kaleigh Johnson, Kate Hughes and Tea Gerbeza. Photo courtesy of External Relations

For student Kate Hughes, Harry Potter books have always been a part of her life.

Now Hughes and fellow English students Allie Fenson, Tea Gerbeza and Kaleigh Johnson get to share their love of Harry Potter in an academic setting.

In honour of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, DePaul University in Chicago is hosting a Harry Potter pop culture conference, May 6.

The students were encouraged by Dr. Susan Johnston, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair in the Department of English, to submit to conference organizers a topic for consideration.

“We grew up with these books. We started reading them when they were first published but we got into them really early. We waited in line for the books to be released and the movies,” says Hughes, a first-year English master’s student who completed her BA in Children Studies at York University. “And now we get to go to talk at an academic conference with a bunch of professors and scholars who published the books that we read. That’s incredible.”

Harry Potter

The students’ presentation, Inclusion and the Other, is a discussion about “marginalized magical beings and creatures in the (Harry Potter) series.” The students will seek to explore the challenges this young adult series makes to ideas of inclusion and exclusion.

“I never thought that I would be able to present academically on Harry Potter,” says Tea Gerbeza who is a graduating English honours student. “And now that I get to actually show people my honours work, it’s something that I’m really proud of because a lot of hours went into it.”   

The students found inspiration from a class taught by Susan Johnston, which treats the Harry Potter series from a variety of perspectives.

“I couldn’t believe that we got to talk about this thing that I was so excited about in this academic context,” says Allie Fenson, a first-year master’s student who has a Bachelors of Education degree from the U of R. “It made class fun every day and I didn’t mind doing the readings because it was something I liked talking about and finding that deeper level to something you have read for awhile. I didn’t realize there was so much more to it.”

The conference features an impressive lineup of speakers. They include notable professors as well as PhD and master’s students from across the U.S. who have devoted much of their academic lives to pop culture issues.  

The speakers include:

  • Dr. Christopher Bell - Director of graduate students and associate professor of Communication at the University of Colorado.
  • Katherine Larson – Teaches writing and media studies at George Washington University.
  • Dr. Anne Collins Smith – Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Austin State University.
  • Dr. Lynnette Porter – Professor in the Humanities and Communication Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and editor of the journal Studies in Popular Culture.
“I’m proud we get to represent the U of R,” says Kaleigh Johnson, a first-year English master's student. “It’s going to be amazing just to be there and be with like-minded people and see all of the different panels.”  

The students’ submission has impressed conference organizers enough to include the work in a retrospective book published by the DePaul Pop Culture Conference, now in its fifth year.

The collection of essays is titled Time Lords & Tribbles, Winchesters & Muggles. The proceeds from the sale of the book will be directed to an organization that empowers high school age girls in under-served communities around the world.

“We were all extremely excited to be published. Some of us for the first time,” says Fenson. “Again coming from an academic standpoint I didn’t even think it was possible.”