Nearly 500 registered for the 2015 Harry Potter Conference, an annual, interdisciplinary, academic conference. Forty speakers presented papers or gave lectures, including eight high school essay finalists. Since the day of the event, co-organizers, Patrick McCauley, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious studies, and Karen Wendling, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, have been fielding compliments and getting feedback that is encouraging and exciting.
“The plenary speakers stood out as conference highlights,” McCauley says. “Loris Vezalli’s talk got a lot of attention and allowed people to see that there is measurable evidence that the Harry Potter series produces a tendency toward tolerance in its readers.” (Loris Vezzali, Ph.D., professor at the University of Medena and Reggio Emilia, addressed the conference via Skype about the Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.)
Many participants told McCauley after the conference that this aspect of the series connects directly to the College’s mission, and that Vezalli's presentation revealed just how important the conference is and can be for the College, going forward.
“Karin Westman was able to show that Rowling has created something so new that former means of criticism and comparison just don’t suffice,” he adds when mentioning that many critics say that the books are simple kids’ books that do not measure up to serious academic scrutiny. (Karin Westman, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Kansas State University, presented a lecture titled, Mind the Gap: Harry Potter and the Fantasy [of] Genre.)
McCauley added that Maria Tatar, Ph.D., John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, is an internationally recognized authority on fairy tale and folklore and her insights allowed for a “serious and new grasp of Harry Potter and his participation in a long tradition of literature written for children and young adults. Her topic was Of House-Elves and Children’s Tales: The Fringe Benefit of Escapist Reading.
“Together, the plenaries are serving notice that we are turning a corner in academic regard to the Harry Potter cultural phenomenon,” McCauley adds.
He and Wendling are especially excited about the success of the high school section of the conference and have high hopes for it.
“Someday, we hope to have most of the high schools in the Philadelphia area participating in the competition for these essay scholarships,” says Wendling. “The winning essays this year could easily have been placed within any of the other sections of the conference and measured up.”
And the icing on the cake, according to McCauley, is the note they received from Andrew Slack, the executive director of the Harry Potter Alliance, a national organization that raises money for worthy causes through Harry Potter events, and a major figure in that world.
“He wrote to us and simply said, ‘This conference has become legendary!’”