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Wizarding world collides with reality in new course at SUNY Cortland

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

SUNY Cortland philosophy professor Andrew Fitz-Gibbon reads passages from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” on Friday in his “Harry Potter: Morality and Human Nature” class.

Opponents of Harry Potter argue the book series teach readers — mostly young adults — about witchcraft and wizardry, but author J.K. Rowling has said it actually teaches about morality and human nature.

Her statement, like a spell from a wand, struck SUNY Cortland Professor Andrew Fitz-Gibbon, chairman of the Philosophy Department. He was inspired.

He created a new honors class for the department, something “fun and attractive.” Being a fan of the Harry Potter novels himself — having read the entire series, all seven books, about four times — Fitz-Gibbon created a philosophy class revolving around the wizarding world.

“I enjoy the magic of the books and love the stories,” he said. “I see the philosophy in it right away. (The stories) naturally fit into the course syllabus.”

The course, titled “Harry Potter: Morality and Human Nature,” began in January. Most of the students are in the honors program and philosophy majors, ranging from freshmen to seniors.

Fitz-Gibbon delves into topics such as, is magic real?, life after death, friendship, love, ethics, feminism and more — all based around the characters and events in the Harry Potter novels.

Words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and entire books are pealed like onions revealing layers to the stories and their themes typically unseen to the average reader.

“It is a good way to combine your interest with philosophy studies,” said Derick Goff, a freshman chemistry major.

On Friday, Fitz-Gibbon began his latest topic, feminism in the Harry Potter universe.

He read portions from the first book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and the fourth, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” each time focusing on the language used.

The scenes he read both highlight an occasion when a male character addresses male characters in the scene first, and then the female characters as if they were an afterthought.

The 13 students, of which only two were men, then got together to discuss how women are talked to and talked about in society.

Elizabeth Hradil, a junior philosophy major, said it’s demeaning to her when she hears the term “you fight like a girl.” Karen Weiner, a junior philosophy major added she hears girls get called “bossy” a lot, yet it is a term you never hear boys called.

Fitz-Gibbon, originally from Manchester, England, before moving to the U.S. in 1995, said it is dismissive in British society to call someone “she.” He has dropped using pronouns and tries to always call people by their names. And instead of saying “ladies” he will say “women.”

“Language is really important,” he said.

Goff said that while he is aware of the prevalence of male-dominated rolls in society, he had not paid attention to how sexes are written about.

Each class opens in-depth discussions, using Harry Potter as the magical train leading to a new world of knowledge.

“The books were a safe place to escape to when I was younger,” Hradil said. “Looking for critical thoughts were invisible as a child. It is interesting to see that now and connect with the stories critically.”

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