By Melissa Rodriguez
Learning to Write Using Harry Potter
Every student at Florida Southern College must take a basic writing course through the English department as part of their general education requirements, but just because it’s required doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
Dr. Catherine Eskin started the English 1005 Writing About Harry Potter course for students to pour their efforts into a topic they were interested in. There are a variety of “Writing About” courses in the English department, ranging from writing about memory and pop culture, to sports and art. Each “Writing About” class is a combination of the old English 101 and 102 Effective Writing classes, and subsequently combines teaching research methods and grammar skills into one course.
“I think students are excited about the topic, but also some students are sometimes disappointed because it ends up being a freshman writing class,” Eskin said. “It is a freshman writing class, what can I say?”
The Writing About Harry Potter class is not a course on Harry Potter—no prior knowledge of the series is necessary. Students are reading the series to analyze J.K. Rowling’s writing skills not simply for content. Daily, the class chooses a sentence and diagrams it to analyze the mechanics of Rowling’s writing. Throughout the course the class also evaluates the first three books in terms of how Rowling sets up her paragraphs and chapters and how her writing style contributes to the whole of the series.
“J.K. Rowling is a brilliant writer, not just in terms of her subject, but her writing is almost completely free of grammatical error and not just because she had an editor,” senior English major Jenna Curry said. “The woman can put together a sentence.”
How an 11-year-old girl influenced a college course
Dr. Eskin made a promise to her daughter to read all of the Harry Potter books together. Jointly they have read through the fifth book and have plans to start the sixth in 2012. Therefore Eskin’s class only covers the first three books of the series.
Eskin says it’s been rather challenging in the classroom and student reactions have been varied. Some students believe she shouldn’t be teaching the class if she hasn’t finished the entire series. For what she is teaching, Eskin believes only covering the first three books works out quite well.
“I was a working mom with two kids and didn’t have the time to do much fun reading,” Eskin said. “I really wish I had gotten into them sooner. It’s been a very exciting ride.”
Reading the series with her daughter has reenergized Eskin’s passion for reading. She entered into the literature profession because of her love of reading and stories but has since then learned about theory, analyzing techniques and plot progression. Throughout her career she has gained a very professional perspective in how she reads a text. It’s both a blessing and a curse, she says.
She equates her relationship to reading to being a professional in diamonds. A professional looks at a diamond and evaluates it for carats and flaws, while others can appreciate the simple sparkle of the diamond.
“Being able to look at it with my daughter I can watch it sparkle in ways that maybe I had forgotten a little bit about,” Eskin said. “It really is a gift.”
Eskin says her daughter interprets things from a more naïve perspective, but reading together has allowed them to talk about the books on a more level field. It excites Eskin to be able to reimagine literature and her approach to authors that she has “taken for granted.”
“My daughter was saying, ‘Are you sure Snape is a good guy?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know I guess you’ll just have to make some decisions on that’,” Eskin said.
Since the series has been out for more than ten years and the movies have just wrapped up, avoiding spoilers has been a challenge for Eskin. Unfortunately, spoilers are everywhere.
“I cover my ears and hum to myself. It’s hilarious,” Eskin said. “It’s a very childish thing, but I do what I have to do.”
Harry Potter isn’t just an English class
Many students have already done their required English courses but still find Writing About Harry Potter interesting. To appease those students, Eskin always cross lists her courses with the women’s studies department.
“I would love to take this class,” sophomore Trissa Dodson said. “It sounds really interesting.”
Taking Writing About Harry Potter as a women’s studies class simply changes the writing assignments a student has to complete. The papers they write must correlate some how to gender studies.
“I think it offers another way into the texts,” Eskin said. “There are a lot of very good questions to be asked of how women’s studies plays into that.”
As much as she loves the Harry Potter series, spring 2012 will be the last time Eskin teaches Writing About Harry Potter. Since starting the course in the fall of 2010, she will have done four semesters on the topic. The final Writing About Harry Potter class section will be taught at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays of the spring semester.
“If you’re going to get up for anything it might as well be Harry Potter,” Eskin said. “I think you really do have to break things up a little bit.”
In its place, she intends on teaching a course on the Hunger Games trilogy. She may eventually bring back Harry Potter, but for now, it’s time for a rest.