Undergraduate English course examines Harry Potter through a literary lens

illustration of Harry Potter lightning bolt, glasses and opened book
Illustration: Mikey Burton

More than 25 years ago, J.K. Rowling invited readers into the magical world of Harry Potter for the first time—and the boy wizard has been enchanting new generations of readers ever since. Though typically classified as young adult fiction, the seven-part fantasy series has inspired hundreds of scholarly papers and a number of academic conferences focused on its literary merits.  

So it’s no surprise that registration for the undergraduate English course Harry Potter: Quests/Questions typically fills up quickly. “I’ve been a Harry Potter fan since I was young, and I wanted to re-read a series that I love in an academic setting,” says Julia Herrman ’23 CLAS. “The class challenged me to explore the themes of the books on a deeper level, and hear different perspectives about them from my classmates.”

That’s exactly the experience that Evan Radcliffe, PhD, had in mind when he created the course in fall 2021. “We use critical thinking and literary analysis to dive deeper into the series,” says Dr. Radcliffe, associate professor and director of the Graduate English program.  

Open to all undergraduate students, this challenging and writing-intensive English course studies all seven Harry Potter novels in one semester—which means Dr. Radcliffe and his students move at a fast pace. Reading assignments are given throughout the semester, but to best prepare, Dr. Radcliffe suggests students read all seven novels (4,100 pages) prior to the start of the term.

Like Julia, most of Dr. Radcliffe’s students grew up with Harry Potter and are now revisiting the series as adults. As more sophisticated readers and mature thinkers in general, students see the books through a much different lens. “They become more aware of their own ways of reading and of how they can use the interpretive skills they have developed in approaching all kinds of texts,” Dr. Radcliffe says. “Students often wonder: ‘What was I thinking when I read this the first time?’”

Questions like this drive lively class discussions and debates, required weekly journal entries and the final term paper. Students examine novelistic form, characterization, the evolution of the series, patterns and recurring elements. They also study issues of gender, class and racism in the books, as well as the impact the series has had on popular culture.

“The discussion is different each semester,” says Dr. Radcliffe, who is teaching the course for the third time this fall. “Even though we are covering the same books and the same themes, our conversation varies depending on who is in the class and the ideas they bring.”


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