Odd Classes Spark Talk

As students in an Intercultual Center lecture room listened to professor Carol Dover examine the Christian framework of “Laüstic,” a medieval narrative poem by the Breton poet Marie de France, many eyes were busy scanning the syllabus for the date of the reading assignments from their favorite novelist: J.K. Rowling.

The course, named “Knights of Old and Harry Potter,” provides context for the wildly popular fiction series by examining Rowling’s source material.

Georgetown faculty have perennially made attempts to integrate popular culture into course curricula. Ask philosophy professor Linda Wetzel, who for 10 years has used “Star Trek” to illustrate concepts in metaphysics. A new addition to the English department’s course roster, “Zombies!” examines why the undead are scary to society.

“You could take any figure to talk about cultural issues and that’s what happens in a literature class,” Nathaniel Rivers, the class’s professor, said. “The zombies seem to create a bigger sense of urgency to talk about infrastructure and law and justice.”

The reading list for Rivers’ class also features “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” which imagines zombies in Victorian England. Zombies, called “unmentionables” in the book, show up at parties uninvited and improperly dressed, Rivers said.

“Anything you can do to get students invested will improve the pedagogy,” Rivers said. But when students enter the class too familiar with source material, Rivers exercises caution. “They can’t achieve critical distance. That’s always the risk with classes that look at pop culture.”

The idea for Dover’s began when she received the Harry Potter novels as a gift in 2002.

For Chelsea Woodard (MSB ’13), analyzing the story of what goes into the beloved Harry Potter series has led to a stimulating class experience.

“When I find deeper meaning, it’s more interesting and more complex than just the book I read when in middle school,” she said.

any of the issues that pervade the novels, like friendship and growing up, have deep medieval roots, Dover said. The Breton lais or narrative poems typically with a medieval, romantic, chivalrous focus, illustrate different types of love, including friendship.

Thus, Dover asks readers of “Harry Potter” to reconsider their criticism of the series epilogue, when Harry and friends are described as parents content with the simple life.

“[The main characters] are doing what they should be doing. They’re remaining true to themselves. They’re all friends,” she said.

Even with connections to the Middle Ages, interpretations of the best-selling series are not bound to medieval lore, according to Dover. The character of Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, for example, alludes to a 19th-century Merlin character, not a medieval Merlin.

For Wetzel, the distinct pop culture link to “Star Trek” in her class helps students overcome the most abstract conceptual hurdles. Wetzel screens an episode every semester involving time travel, which leads into readings about different theories of time.

“You give them a coherent story, and they can see it,” Wetzel said.

It also helps students face conceptual questions like the relationship between soul and body, she said. She is less interested in “Star Trek’s” popularity than in its potential as a teaching aid.

“`Star Wars,’ on the other hand, is not philosophical. It’s all action with weird creatures and great bar scenes,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel’s course, now in its 10th year, had 25 students on the waiting list.”

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