Harry Potter Scholarship

harry-potter-joel-hunter-ravenclaw-readerI’m delighted to announce that a new anthology of Harry Potter scholarship has just been published. Hogwarts Preparatory Academy has details about the book launch.

You’ll note that this anthology has emerged from a remarkable conference at St Andrews University in 2012. It was easily the most enriching, challenging, and rewarding conference experience I’ve ever had. I hope that enthusiasm for the book will encourage other institutions and societies to plan another international Potter conference in the near future. Cultural and literary analysis of the Hogwarts saga has evolved considerably since the earliest criticism, ca 2001.

I think a conference in 2017 organized around the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the series is an excellent idea. I’ve had a lot of success teaching an advanced Honors course on Harry Potter because so many of my Honors students were Potter devotees. I believe that an Honors program, or consortium of Honors programs, would be able to draw scholars from all over the world and are better positioned to garner national attention and general interest than those of specialized professional meetings (e.g., studies in popular culture, American culture, young adult literature, and so on).

My main contribution is chapter 5, “Folktale Structure, Aesthetic Satisfaction, and the Success of Harry Potter.” An earlier version of the essay is available on my Academia.edu site (it’s been my number one download in both papers and conference presentations). This is a literary analysis of each book in the series using the folktale structure model of Vladimir Propp, which I argue is sufficient to explain reader enthusiasm for the series. I also show why readers find some of the books more satisfying than other books within the series. For example, why is Prisoner of Azkaban enjoyed more than Chamber of Secrets? I created an empirical method for measuring aesthetic satisfaction, and point to further applications of this research.

The book has a “dynamic dialogue” structure, so each main contribution is accompanied by a response essay. The response to my “Folktale Structure” essay is “Venturing into the Murky Marshes” by Prof Gabrielle Ceraldi. I haven’t yet read her response, but look forward to doing so and offering comments in due course over at Hogwarts Prep.

My second contribution is a response to Dr Jessica Tiffin‘s essay on pedagogy at Hogwarts. I was delighted to be asked to write this response as I so enjoyed Dr Tiffin’s talk at the conference.

How to Read a Difficult Text

Over the past year, I’ve written several posts that explore how to read difficult texts. In this post, I have pulled together some of the key points in those posts to help you here at the beginning of your studies this semester.

Journal-Blank-Page-676pxMost of the reading we do during the day is desultory. Most of what we consume on the Internet, or during times we want to unwind, reading at the beach…these are usually done without any serious effort put into understanding what we’re reading. But some reading that we do needs to done with a more critical eye because we need to work to understand what the author says, or there’s something important that we need to grasp, or we just need to think about what the author is saying. Because so much of the reading you need to do in your hardest college courses, especially in the humanities and liberal arts, requires serious effort to “get it,” I encourage you to develop skills in close reading. As a philosopher, this is the kind of reading I have to do all the time in my line of work. What is close reading and why do you need to read your assigned texts this particular way?

Close Reading

By the time you enter college, you have probably developed reading habits from email, texting, chatting, and web-based content that cripple your ability to read books and texts that require sustained, careful, reflective reading to be understood. That’s why it’s not enough for your teacher to tell you to “read the book.” You need to know the kind of reading that you’ll need to do–close, or studious, reading–and how to develop techniques or new habits to do this kind of reading well. Here’s the logic:

  • You are assigned books or selections from books of lasting value to “digest,” so you need to study what you read.
  • And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to annotate the text or take notes.
  • And if you annotate or take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary.

Here’s another way to put it:

  • The point of close reading is to be able to critically evaluate what you read.
  • Critical evaluation of what you read must be done by careful analysis of the material until you understand the author’s claims or point.
  • Once you understand, then you are prepared to weigh its merits and demerits more objectively.
  • Objectivity requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible.
  • This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned, subjective authority, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow rational being and critical thinker.
  • The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it: annotations in the text and journaled commentary.

You will need the right tools to do close reading well. A comfortable chair and desk. Accessories such as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks. Water, tea, a cup of coffee. Atmospherics and location that will encourage your focus on studious reading, be it a particular playlist or silence, indoors or outdoors, in a library, a study room, a park, your dorm room.

Use a good dictionary to look up any words that are unfamiliar. Look up characters, places, or events that are unfamiliar in an encyclopedia (here Wikipedia may be a helpful resource, but use it cautiously). Find a system of annotations that works for you. Marginal notes are essential. Transpose and arrange your marginalia into more developed thought and commentary. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.

Your learning style might lend itself to making categories and lists, or nonlinear notetaking like maps or trees. If you are taking notes in preparation for a quiz or exam, you will save yourself a lot of trouble if you take the time at the time you read the work to impose a linear, sequential arrangement to your ideas. So apply some systematic method, such as SQ3R or the Cornell system, to organize and structure your notes.

What is Analysis?

So far, I’ve referred to this notion of analysis a lot. So what does analysis have to do with close reading? Everything!

Analysis requires that you first understand the author, to see or hear what the author has to say in his or her own terms. This requires you to enter into a system, that is, accept the worldview and presuppositions of the author as given. Next, your critical analysis begins by looking to the internal logic of that system and to the logical implications of the ideas and arguments contained within it. In other words, once you understand the author’s perspective and argument, look for logical consequences, consistencies, inconsistencies, etc. If you haven’t first understood (listened to) the author within the world in which he or she has written, your response will usually be little more than ideologically motivated fault-finding or anachronistic interpretations. For example, if you simply dismiss Plato’s metaphysics in the Republic and other dialogues, what are you really saying beyond “I don’t care for philosophical idealism” or “Plato annoys me?” What’s the argument contained in such statements? The works of Plato have survived many centuries of uninformed hostility; they’ll outlast another biased reading! You’ll have to push yourself outside your comfort zone to tackle difficult texts.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives helpful definitions of “analysis” and its cognates. Two of the entries are germane to what you’ll need to do in close reading:

Analyze, v. (General): “To differentiate or ascertain the elements of (something complex) in order to determine its structure or nature, and hence to explain or understand it; to examine closely and methodically for the purpose of interpretation; to subject to critical or computational analysis.” (Specialized—Literary): “To examine a text critically to bring out its meaning; to give a critical description of a work especially with regard to its style, structure, or composition.”

Analysis, n. (Specialized—Philosophical): “The investigation of complex ideas, concepts, etc., so as to determine their constituent elements and their structure.”

To analyze a text you examine the specific details you find in the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of the text, as well as the context. Analysis has a clear direction: it proceeds from the complex to the simple. A relevant and substantive selection does not speak for itself. You must “break it down” by differentiating its elements (words, phrases, sentences, ideas, concepts, and so on) and examining these elements methodically, how they relate to each other, and in their proper context. This comprehensive approach to textual analysis occurs in your thinking about the text. You need to be able to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant details in the text, and then focus on the relevant ones. Paraphrase your relevant findings from this effort and transpose them into your written notes and commentary.

This is where your thoughts encounter the author’s thoughts. Organizing the ideas of the text into relevant and irrelevant categories assumes that you have some framework, some model, some structure for sorting through those distinctions. This is often the most difficult step–being aware of the conceptual tools that you’ve been using to unlock the meaning of the text in your commentary. If you’ve written down what you think about the reading, then you’ve been using some criteria to justify why you take particular terms, ideas, and claims of the author as relevant or not. As you organize your annotations and write out some commentary, these concepts around which you are expressing your thoughts and discussing the text should become clearer. Eventually, you’ll be able to identify those concepts and figure out if they’re related to each other in some sort of organized, structured way. If you’re required to write an essay or long reflection piece on a reading assignment, this conceptual framework is what you will need to have a strong, insightful, original “take” on the text. And it will all have come about by the careful analysis you did through close reading.

Let’s Do It!

Not long ago I wrote a three-part mini-series on doing close reading and annotations–

Part I

Part II

Part III

RP-3411I used an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I had used to develop an essay for a philosophy conference and later into a published article. I encourage students to practice alongside my example and use my annotation system. Once you’ve tried it on your own, find an annotation system that works for you. If you’re annotating a text that you are going to write an essay on, then that system might look different than annotations that you are going to use to study for a quiz or test. Make up your own annotation system, adapt mine or another one you find, and use one of the notetaking systems linked above to help you get the most out of the time you spend doing your close reading and understanding difficult texts.

In the comments, I’d like to hear about your annotation system. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you?



Robots and Natural Selection

it's-a-lathe-not-a-robotIn an interview on Here & Now today with researcher Fumiya Iida, it was claimed that a robot – “Mother” – builds child robots “using the process of natural selection.” Is this accurate?


This one, as the kids say, is not even wrong. It is a simulation of textbook artificial selection.

First, it’s ersatz artificial selection, not natural selection. See Chapter 1 of The Origin of Species, “Variation under domestication and under nature.” Where do the selection criteria come from? Just like actual artificial selection, they come from humans, from characteristics that humans want to select for when they breed living things. Natural selection, on the other hand, is when the environment acts on variations within a population. The process of “selection” undertaken by the overseer robot does not involve reproductive success; it selects for a trait that serves some pre-determined mechanistic purpose. The technology is no different in kind than what you find on plant floors all around the world, for example, in those processes that use ultrasonic or infrared flaw detectors on an automated assembly or testing line to kick out widgets that fail to pass “genetic” muster.

Second, it’s ersatz artificial selection. Just like a factory robot, Momma R is just an instrumental extension of a human activity. How does the robot “decide” what to do once the selection criteria are satisfied? It executes a subroutine written by a human being (or within parameters imposed by a human programmer). There is no agency here, only necessity. (”If the voltage at test point A for unit 1 is greater than the voltage at test point A for unit 2, then pitch unit 2 in the rubbish.”)

Two observations:

(1) Why are so many bewitched by breathless claims about artificial intelligence and the impending technological utopia that they do not get basic facts right? It smacks of desperation, this grasping at the weakest kinds of ersatz transcendence.

(2) I suspect it is this offense given to ersatz transcendence that evokes cries of “Luddites! Away with ‘em!” just about any time someone has the temerity to critique the stories that reassure us of how wonderful, how glorious, are the technological advances overseen by our Mustapha Monds. Because medicine. And smartphones. Quibbling over scientistic equivocation is just so ungrateful.

Neoliberal by degrees: The repackaging of an American college education

Fog-Stair-676pxWilliam Deresiewicz is interviewed on This is Hell about his Harper’s article, “The Neoliberal Arts.”

Some of the issues Deresiewicz highlights, like the shift in costs from the public treasury to individual families, are indeed problems. But his claim that the consumer culture fostered by a neoliberal ideology has all but eliminated the liberal arts curriculum, or “real” education, I argue, is specious. My two responses:

Upon Further Review

Honors Education: A Parallel College?

Honors Education: A Parallel College?

In my response to “The Neoliberal Arts” by William Dereciewicz last week, I took issue with his characterization of “real” education as it applies to the experience of first-generation college students.

The Neoliberal arts by William DeresiewiczAmong the disputed points, Dereciewicz argues that the development of a “parallel curriculum” and “parallel college” is symptomatic of higher education’s abandoning its traditional mission to develop in its students “the ability to think and live” for both personal and public enrichment, and instead reorganizing the function of education around neoliberal aims and purposes. I described in my earlier post why I think this analysis is flawed. In this addendum, I will focus on one example of why we should be hopeful rather than alarmed about some of these “parallel” initiatives: the growth in numbers of and accessibility to public Honors programs and colleges.

Honors programs arose in the 1920s and 30s as “Great Books” programs in private colleges. These programs were developed by a group of academics who sought to (re)introduce the liberal arts tradition as the center of American higher education, thus broadening what they viewed as a too-narrow specialization that had emerged in response to the growing economy and culture of industrial scale manufacturing in the late nineteenth century. The growth of the early Honors programs stalled during World War II, the immediate post-war period, and during the Korean War. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union spurred unprecedented federal investment in higher education and reinvigorated the growth of Honors programs.

Honors colleges are an even more recent phenomenon. According to the NCHC, a survey of their member institutions showed that of those responding, 60 percent of Honors colleges had been established since 1994. And 80 percent of those had evolved from an earlier Honors program. As of May 2015, there were nearly 200 Honors programs and colleges in the U.S. (NCHC guide). The period of this historical development coincides with the very period Deresiewicz claims that neoliberal values appear triumphant. If he were right that higher education has been debased to a mere instrumental good since the 1960s, the rise and growth of these humanistic, interdisciplinary, “Great Ideas” and “Great Books” programs should not have occurred over that same period. Honors programs and colleges express their mission in the very terms that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared in the age of Reagan, Walker, “Third Way” DLC Democrats, and Obama: learning how to think critically and independently, developing an individual’s personal and intellectual welfare, and creating self-governing citizens with a sense of social responsibility, capable of pursuing the common good and sustaining a democratic society.

Thriving Honors education at public institutions all over the country – Macaulay at City University of New York, Western Kentucky University, the University of Alabama, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, the University of Cincinnati, UCLA, the University of Arizona to name just a few – constitutes a substantial counterexample to Deresiewicz’s dire view of the current and future states of liberal arts education.

The largest residential Honors college in the U.S. is Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University – as of 2014, Barrett had over 5,400 students enrolled. Barrett developed from an earlier Honors program under the direction of its founding Dean, Ted Humphrey. He wrote a contribution to The Honors College Phenomenon (2008, ed. Peter C. Sederberg) called “The Genesis of an Idea,” (pdf) that describes the background to Barrett’s founding and his reflection on its mission. After reviewing the history of the “Great Books” movement that drove the early Honors programs and finding “Great Books,” understood as a classical curriculum oriented around a Western canon, inadequate for the task of a public Honors college, he asks what honors education is if it is not a distinct subject matter.

For a number of complex reasons, I came to think of it in terms of the habits of mind we were engendering by emphasizing the importance of the Great Books tradition. This perspective makes the reason for focusing on the Great Books the development of specific intellectual dispositions, most importantly, the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly. Further, the Great Books are models of good and effective writing. Although the Great Books provide invaluable insight into human nature and values, into the reasons for and goals of social existence, they are yet more valuable as examples of those habits of mind that give rise to humanity’s self-understanding and attempts to progress to a more fulfilled state. Thus, it seems to me, honors education is better served by taking the Great Books as paradigms of certain habits of mind than as the particular repositories of human wisdom that all must master.

If a public institution of higher education is committed to serving highly qualified students able to undertake rigorous course work, then the challenge becomes organizing the college under an inclusive conception of honors education.

This task consists of three parts: first, to attract and bring together identifiable cohorts of able and ambitious students who commit themselves to the project of becoming educated members of a democratic society; second, to help them understand that they are pursuing an education for life, citizenship, and career, in that order; and third, to create a set of curricular and co-curricular opportunities that can provide such an education, that is, to organize the resources of the university for those students’ benefit. In sum, the honors dean’s job is to provide the campus with cohorts of superb students and to make sure the campus opens its resources to them.

Given that this precise effort has been duplicated in dozens and now hundreds of public colleges and universities, a handful of which I listed above, we may well ask how Deresiewicz overlooked the phenomenon of Honors education in his article. For it seems to embody the very values he applauds as a “real” education, a vanguard against neoliberal values and ideology. Perhaps Honors education is insufficiently committed to inclusiveness or egalitarian values insofar as it is confined to a particular population in the university, and for whom the university establishes a “parallel college.” Is Honors education elitist?

The answer is, “Could be.” Honors programs and colleges are, by their very nature, selective. They exist in part to enable academically bright young adults to flourish in a curriculum that often includes Socratic seminars, enrichment opportunities in their disciplinary courses, and access to independent study and projects with faculty eager to engage in “the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds.” My experience has been that many Honors students “will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way” and “care deeply about thinking and learning,” just like their most dedicated faculty.

Does the selective admissions process for Honors programs and colleges institutionalize systemic elitism? Do such programs create an academic upper class, diverting resources and opportunities away from the lower tier underclass, a 99% left outside the gates of the Honors community? This is a serious concern, especially for public institutions of higher education, who are commissioned to serve all of the citizens of a state and contribute to the commonweal. Can the danger of elitism and exclusivity be avoided or overcome? Let’s consider this objection.

An elite enjoys privileges difficult or impossible to obtain by the general population. Having different access to advantages and resources than the masses, elites live and work on an uneven playing field. At a public college or university, if funding and resources are unequally transferred to special cohorts or schools, that appears to be fundamentally at odds with the mission of public institution that exists to serve the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals. The benefits of an education underwritten by the citizens of a state are not (or should not be) prioritized by the good that is served to individuals, but to the common good. Since Honors education is organized in such a way as seems to benefit a small percentage of the student population, it seems to follow that such programs are illegitimate and inconsistent with public supported higher education.

This objection demands an answer. Is it legitimate to divert revenue obtained from the whole population of students to benefit a smaller group of students? Yes, sometimes this disproportionate allocation is a legitimate response to serve the overall public good. Funding diversions are recognized and routinely practiced for students with documented disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language. Disability resource centers and intensive English language programs exist to make a college education attainable for all citizens, including those with special needs. Additional services, such as tutoring and accommodations for attending and participating in amateur sports, are provided for athletes. If institutions of public education are obligated to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential, then differential support from the public treasury is necessary. Are Honors students one of those populations with special needs? Yes, I believe so, and for two reasons.

Honors students are comparable to athletes. Competitive amateur sports in college have been recognized for over one hundred years as a means for enabling able and ambitious students to pursue their physical development, which, unless we take a disembodied view of the student, is a legitimate component of their full potential. Students admitted into Honors programs are the academic athletes of the college or university. If sport athletes are a population of students who require support to meet their special needs, then Honors students are as well. It is clearly a legitimate special allocation of resources to develop “appropriately conceived and rigorous course work for able and ambitious students.” If the analogy with athletes holds, then able and ambitious students are one of the university’s diverse, special needs populations.

The second reason Honors students are a group with special needs in a public institution of higher education is related to the first. The reason institutions of public education are obligated by charter or institutional values to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential is bound up with the point of education itself. Education refines the individual, nurtures creativity, and contributes to the overall commonweal of the state by the general effect of conviviality encouraged within the institution’s society. By these means public education equips students to contribute more fully and richly to the economic and cultural welfare of civil society. If Honors students are not provided with an appropriate level of course work and academic challenge, the public would be impeding its own economic and cultural development by handicapping some of its brightest citizens from achieving their full potential. Of course private benefits accrue to students provided with accommodations – the student with a documented disability, the athlete, and the Honors student among many others – but states have long recognized the legitimate justification for reallocating resources to meet these students’ special needs is the important contribution they make to the public good.

Contrary to Deresiewicz’s claim, public Honors education is not a parallel curriculum developed by students for careerist aims or institutions for neoliberal aims. The values underpinning Honors programs are not “encased in neoliberal assumptions,” based on meritocracy, or “generating a caste system.” On the contrary, my own experience, and the experience of thousands of faculty members who teach Honors students speak to the very principle that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared: the “counterbalancing institutions” that advance a set of values in deep tension with, and at important points in opposition to, neoliberalism. He asks “What is to be done?” For starters:

  1. Develop and encourage Honors education at all public colleges and universities, including community colleges.
  2. Establish broad-based faculty support for Honors education, particularly in institutions with strong professional and technical colleges.
  3. Ensure equal access to Honors education by not levying fees or required student expenses over and above those already assessed by the broader institution.

Deresiewicz says that the fundamental problem with efforts to push back against neoliberal education “is that we no longer believe in public solutions.” He says “[w]e only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions.” I do not know who this “we” is, because when I consider the growing movement of public Honors education, I see a strong commitment to a public solution. It may not solve the problems in private higher education, but the residential Honors college developed in public universities has been exported and adapted to some of the most prestigious of private institutions as well. “Real” education, contrary to Deresiesicz’s false alarm, is readily available to all students in this country, in spite of social and political forces that may wish to suppress it.