Harry Potter topic of new course at St. Catherine University

Cecilia Konchar Farr

Professor of English Cecilia Konchar Farr with a selection of Harry Potter novels. Photo by Katherine Maher.

The seven-book series was completed back in 2007, but Harry Potter is still very much alive at St. Catherine University.

“Six Degrees of Harry Potter,” a 200-level literature course taught by Professor of English Cecilia Konchar Farr, was one of the University’s most sought-after classes this winter 2010 semester. Thirty-one students made the cut — only three have not read all the Harry Potter books by British author J. K. Rowling.

“Everybody is going to be rereading the books, and for a lot of them, it’s their fourth or fifth or even sixth time through,” Konchar-Farr says. “To protect those three people, we’ve made a no-spoiler rule. We can talk about books one through four, but we can’t talk about the ending of the series until after spring break. So they have a chance to read those books first.”

The class, which meets every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. on the St. Paul campus, is the result of a question posed at a meeting of the student-run English Club last year: If you could have a class on anything, what would it be?

Evan Gaydos ’12 and Rachel Armstrong ’12 suggested Harry Potter, and Konchar-Farr, the club's faculty advisor, took note. Today, the two sophomores are her teaching assistants.

“They sat down with me several times,” Konchar-Farr explains, “and we started generating ideas and decided that the three of us together would teach the course.”

Despite the fun subject matter, this class involves work.

In addition to the seven thick Harry Potter books — chronicling the adventures of the adolescent wizard Harry Potter and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger — the students have to read one scholarly book and a compilation of essays on Harry Potter, and participate in class and small-group discussions. They also have to complete a final project, which could include writing a research paper or creating a character that lives at Hogwarts for a computer game. (One student actually is doing just that.)

However, students don’t seem to mind the extra reading or homework if the boy with the lightening bolt and magic wand is involved.

“I’ve talked with people who really want to take the class and I tell them, ‘You’re going to be doing a ton of reading in this class, in an extremely short period of time,’” says Gaydos, one of the student co-teachers. “And they say, ‘That’s fine.’ They’re totally willing to do it.”


A magical name

Typically, most of the English department’s literature courses draw about 20 to 25 students. But Harry Potter — well, he just has way too many fans.

In fact, two of the 31 students currently taking the class are from Macalester College and the University of St. Thomas. (They landed a coveted spot thanks to St. Catherine University’s membership in Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities, a consortium of local private colleges and universities that shares academic offerings for students.)

The overwhelming demand surprised Konchar-Farr, especially since a description of the course was never even posted. “It just showed up on the St. Kate’s course schedule as ‘Harry Potter,’ and that’s all it took,” she says.

Konchar Farr, who’s been teaching at St. Kate’s for 16 years, will offer “Six Degrees of Harry Potter” again in fall 2010. Already there is a 10-person waiting list.

Konchar-Farr is a Harry Potter fan herself. She even attended the midnight book release parties — even though it meant being exhausted the next day.

“I read the books starting when the very first one came out,” says Konchar Farr, who studies popular literature, bestseller lists and book clubs. “I saw it on the New York Times bestseller list and thought, ‘What’s this about?’ [My two children and I] were big fans by the second book.” And the Konchar Farr family always bought more than one copy of each book: “Otherwise we’d fight over them.”

Konchar Farr says the appeal of the Harry Potter series, like all good books, is rooted in good plots and interesting characters.

“These novels were very meaningful to my children, in the same way they are to my students,” she says. “For this generation, this was a huge phenomenon. They grew up with the Harry Potter novels.”


Engaging readers for life

The “Six Degrees of Harry Potter” course isn’t only for English majors, says Konchar Farr. “It’s meant to meet the liberal arts core requirement for literature and to help students see that having a reading habit will just make their life richer,” she explains.

Inspiring students to be lifelong readers is what Konchar Farr strives for whenever she teaches a literature course. “It’s about engaging your imagination and also your critical faculties,” she says. “And different books will do that for different people.”

The English professor grew up in Pennsylvania, reading a lot of romance novels, but one fateful day she picked up Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey out of a bargain bin. She’s been “a student of literature” ever since and has even penned her own book, Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Change the Way American Reads.

“I’m always trying to meet my students where they are and show them how making literature a part of their life is a valuable experience,” she says. “It’s a part of our liberal arts learning at St. Kate’s.”

Editor’s note: Melissa Rohs is a staff writer at The Wheel. She wrote the original story, “New course on ‘The Boy who Lived,” for the St. Catherine University student newspaper Dec. 11, 2009. We have updated it to reflect more information about the course, the professor and the English department.

The Star Tribune ran a story about this course on February 23, 2010: "College students study at Hogwarts."

By Pauline Oo