In his political science seminar, professor Julian Wamble takes students into Harry Potter’s wizarding world to conjure lessons on politics and society.
By John DiConsiglio
Like millions of other people around the world, senior political science major Lauren Wagner has read ever Harry Potter book from cover-to-cover—several times. Her mother introduced her to the series in the first grade, and ever since she’s loyally followed the boy magician and his stalwart pals Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger on their adventures through the wizarding world.
“They’re a great escape from realty,” Ms. Wagner said. “But they’re children’s books. I never dove too deep into their political and societal messages.”
That changed when she enrolled in Assistant Professor of Political Science Julian Wamble’s seminar on Harry Potter & the Politics of Social Identity. Within a few classes, Ms. Wagner was debating whether Ron flaunts his white privilege and Hermione condescends to the rights of elves and giants.
Is the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry a mirror of our own institutions? How do the evil Death Eaters resemble extremists groups—now and through history? And when the villainous Draco Malfoy insults Hermione’s “mud blood” magical linage, is he actually using a racial epithet?
Those aren’t the topics discussed at typical Harry Potter book clubs, but they’re exactly the kinds of questions Dr. Wamble encourages in his Writing in the Discipline proseminar for students majoring in political science and public policy. A self-described “Potterhead”—he owns a wizard robe and two wands and can pinpoint quotes from the seven book series’ 4,000 collective pages—Dr. Wamble designed the course as a launching point to debate contentious cultural questions in a nonthreatening context.
With more than 500 million copies of the series having sold worldwide, publisher Scholastic estimates that one in every 15 people owns a Harry Potter book. Dr. Wamble said that built-in familiarity frees students to expand difficult discussions of gender, class and social status. His class conducts “meaningful, potentially uncomfortable conversations about identity and politics through the lens of these beloved books,” he said. “We talk about the wizarding world, but we’re also talking about the world we live in.”
Dr. Wamble, who joined the GW faculty this academic year, is better known as a scholar of race and politics than wizard wisdom. His forthcoming book, tentatively titled “We Choose You,” looks at how race and social identity influence the electoral patterns of Black voters. Last summer, while mowing the lawn at his Maryland home—and listening to a Harry Potter audio book—Dr. Wamble found himself reflecting on identity politics in the halls of Hogwarts. “My mind was wandering about whether Voldemort was a kind of a wizard supremacist,” he said. “Then all these analogies of Harry’s realm to our world started hitting me. I thought there might be a class in this.”
Although most of his 14 students are Potter experts, Dr. Wamble said he still has to overcome their reluctance to search for social commentary in a children’s book. He doesn’t break out his robe and wands. Instead, he diagrams the Potter-verse hierarchy—“pure blood” magicians like Ron are at the top of the social order while wizards with non-magical parents like Hermione are a discriminated caste—and guides them to academics papers and podcasts. “There are scholars who have made careers out of studying Harry Potter,” he said. “If a professor of political science takes these questions seriously, I hope it gives [students] permission to do the same.”
Students consider whether the imperious professor Dolores Umbridge can be a tyrant without sacrificing her femininity and whether the Hogwarts admissions board is too exclusive. (“Why isn’t there a wizarding community college?” posed one student during a class debate.) No topic is off-limits, including author J.K. Rowling’s own controversial remarks about the transgender community. “I go deep down the rabbit hole,” Dr. Wamble said. “My job is to help students feel secure following me.”
Last summer, Ms. Rowling tweeted comments that seemed to mock transgender identities, igniting a backlash among many fans, activists and even actor Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry on screen. Dr. Wamble was forced to confront whether he should teach the class at all. Ultimately he decided it was better to call out the controversy than ignore it. “Part of the reason problematic texts remain problematic is because we don’t engage the problems in them,” he said.
Senior Zoe Ades credits the frank class discussions for helping her reconcile her love for the books with her disdain for Ms. Rowling’s words. “This class has allowed me to reclaim my Harry Potter fan-ness,” she said, “by providing me a way to engage with the books that doesn’t feel like internalizing Rowling’s toxic views.”
And students are eager to add their own impressions to Ms. Rowling’s texts. Ms. Wagner recently challenged Dr. Wamble’s assertion that the brash escaped convict Sirius Black is a “dead-beat” godfather to Harry. Ms. Wagner noted that Black was banished for decades to the notorious Azkaban Prison for a crime he didn’t commit. “When considering how prison developmentally affects younger incarcerated people in our own society, it’s actually astounding he’s this sane at all,” she argued.
“I was blown away,” Dr. Wamble recalled. “Suddenly we were having this conversation about the prison system. I never saw that coming. That’s the moment I thought, ‘This class works.’”