Sorting Still Spellbinds Students

Why Durham University’s Harry Potter Module hasn’t lost its Magic…

A year on from the launch of Durham’s controversial Harry Potter module, and some things haven’t changed. A plethora of students bustle outside Castle’s Great Hall, fuelled by the rising crescendo of the Harry Potter film score. Gowned up to the nines, they can barely contain their excitement for the forthcoming ceremony that will see the timely division of the noble and the weak-willed, of the worthy and the moral degenerates, into their rightful Houses. And this is just the prefects…

Armed with a guest list of Durham University’s great and good (and of course the obligatory prefect badge), I took to Durham Castle’s entrance to meet and greet this year’s expectant fans in a spot of harmless Potter indulgence.

But aside from faultlessly delivering (to use the immortal words of Professor McGonagall) a bit of ‘well mannered frivolity,’ the Sorting seemed to create more than just a sense of occasion. Whilst there is no doubt that the ceremony was a reconstruction of the novels’ fictional event, that the House cup and Sorting hat were merely props, and that no student there would be enrolling at Hogwarts that day, Durham students still appeared to be… well… nervous.

Was this down to some sort of disillusionment on behalf of a group of overexcited fans, eager to create a Potter fantasy? Or… perhaps more accurately, is this process of Sorting students on the module a master stroke of module convener, Dr Martin Richardson.

Almost without realising it, students have been summoned to the front of the hall, branded with a popular stereotype and separated from their friends into newly assigned House tables. They have, unknowingly, already been part of an underlying selective process that claims to have the ability to prejudge the character of each student before they have even embarked on their most pivotal years of character-forming teenagedom. Even as one of my close friends is assigned to Slytherin, I can barely contain a bubble of newfound hostility towards her House.

Whilst it is unquestionable that students enjoy the module, more interestingly, contrary to popular belief and indeed departmental expectation, the module has not encountered the torrent of criticism it was first anticipated to attract. Far from it. Whilst there were some national papers that could not resist jibing Durham for its announcement to offer students a “degree” in Harry Potter, the module has mostly been met with intrigue from rather more well informed academic sources.

Indeed, the Education Department’s decision to offer “swots the chance to study the social cultural and educational impact of Rowling’s hit books” has only proven the impetus for greater demand of the subject, with particular interest from overseas. Certainly one of the highlights of the Sorting this year was observing the amusement of a group of Danish students who had been invited to attend the ceremony to see how the British do Potter. They were, needless to say, not disappointed.

Far from simply pandering to the popular demand of students who wish to live vicariously through these novels, this module continues to defy negative criticism. Are we to criticise a module for being… well… let’s face it… as fun as it is challenging? Is it a mistake to draw parallels between our fictional escapism and our own society when Harry Potter is after all a work of fiction? Thousands of school children have been invigorated to read and learn by the moral examples set in the series, however literacy schemes in schools have failed to generate anywhere near as much interest and enthusiasm for the written word. Finally, if a module can marry the binaries of business and pleasure in academia, does the level of enjoyment of a module equate to it being branded a less intellectual one?

If nothing else, the Sorting raises a multitude of questions about the nature of learning and enjoyment; for surely there can be no better inauguration for students than for the imagination to be encouraged to run riot?

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