A Ravenclaw’s Round-Up: Louise’s Nearly-Annual Report from the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Academic Conference

As I do almost every year (save my college reunion years that end in 8 and 3:  it’s usually the same weekend! ), I attended and presented at the Annual (in this case, 11th) Harry Potter Academic Conference. Though I attended online the last two years (my talks can be seen here and here), this was my first time back on the beautiful campus since 2019, given that the College was responsible enough to move the conference online for the worst of the COVID pandemic.

I’m happy to report that the conference is still going strong, despite the triple threats of COVID, the demise of the fan festival the helped launch the conference, and the concerns of many scholars, including myself, whose concerns about J.K. Rowling’s public anti-transgender rhetoric have caused them to rethink the wisdom of promoting her writing. But, conference founders and organizers Drs. Patrick McCauley and Karen Wendling report that the Colllege’s new president is enthusiastic about the conference and wants it not only to continue, but to expand, so I am optimistic that the HPAC is here to stay.

Onto this year’s highlights after the jump.

Friday morning: Before David Martin became famous as the MVP of the Tournament of Houses Champion Hufflepuff Team, (thanks, in part to hogwartsprofessor.com helping to recruit him), he was well-known for his wonderful conference talks, on subjects ranging from books to trees to Briticisms that US readers miss. As he attended virtually this year, he didn’t get to do his trademark sherbet lemon-throwing, but his talk on “Secrets and Lies: Deception in the HP Novels” was my favorite of the morning session.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll turn it into a Hogpro post soon.

A close second was Emily Strand’s “Who, Exactly, Saves the World in the HP Saga?”: a great examination of Harry and Dumbledore’s relative contribution to the overarching saga and their relationship as figurative and spiritual Father and Son. This was one of the few talks with explicitly Christian content, something that was much more common in the earlier days of the conference.

In the category of “Presentation I am sorriest to have missed” is Mitchell Parks’s “The Houses of Riddle: Oedipus The King and Intertextual Salience.”  I caught the tail-end of this and wished I had heard more.  Fingers crossed that this one is available on video soon.

The keynote: it’s not every day that your invited speaker wins a McArthur Genius grant days before the conference, but I don’t think anyone who heard Loretta Ross’s “Calling In, Not Calling Out” could doubt she was a worthy recipient. Her presentation was inspiring and certainly timely, given the divisions in fandom over JKR’s transgender position, and the different responses scholars have taken. I particularly liked her characterization of people with different opinions working towards a common goal as a movement, and people working towards a common goal with the same opinion on everything as a cult. I am hoping this presentation will also be made available on video for repeat viewing.

Highlights of Friday afternoon included Mark-Anthony Lewis’s “The Modern Prometheus: Severus Snape and the Subtle Science and Exact Art of Techne” which reminded me that I really need to read the original Frankenstein, and Beth Sutton-Ramspeck’s “When Ron was Reg: Why Ron’s Experiences as ‘Mr. Magical Maintenance’ Matter.”  I was especially touched by this since one of my first efforts at serious Potter scholarships was on the Cattermoles and their significance; it was great to see someone else look at these under-appreciated characters.

On Saturday morning, I enjoyed Katy McDaniel’s in-depth look at mirrors in the series, a subject I thought had been pretty thoroughly examined, but Katy, as usual, managed to outline multiple points I had never considered before. Caitlin Harper gave her annual Quidditch-themed talk, but one that appealed even to a non-sports enthusiast like myself. I laughed several times a she pointed out that muggle sports, seen objectively, make no more sense than Quidditch.  Patrick McCauley’s “The Last Enemy” was also a thought-provoking philosophical examination of death in the series.

I went into my own talk, on Saturday afternoon’s special session on JK Rowling and the Trans Community far more nervous than usual, as I had two tough acts to follow. The session opened with Brent Satterly’s “Hem Hem…  I take Umbridge with Canceling Queer Fans,” which he, as he has done for several years now, delivered in his drag-Delores-Umbridge-attire and, as is his custom, managed to entertain and educate at the same time.

Next was conference stalwart Lorrie Kim, whose presentations I always find amazing. Lorrie celebrated the updated publication of her book Snape: the Definitive Analysis of Hogwart’s Mysterious Potions Master at the conference, with a beautiful Cauldron Cake at lunchtime.  The book has been updated to include more about Snape, including his appearance in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and also to re-examine his presentation in light of his author’s expressed opinions in the years since the book’s original appearance (as Snape: A Definitive Reading) in 2016. Lorrie gave a touching account about how she chose to address Boggart-Snape in the new addition, a scene she felt had to be interpreted quite differently once the world was aware of Rowling’s trans exclusionary position. It was a fascinating account of a difficult thought process that showed the challenges writers face when putting together scholarly volumes. She certainly made me view that scene through new lenses.

After two such emotionally touching (albeit in different ways) presentations, I was frankly worried that my own, a 40-minute neuroscience presentation and the only Cormoran Strike presentation of the conference to boot, was going to come across as dry as the bones of Tom Riddle Senior. I spoke about the treatment of BIID (more properly called xenomelia) in the Strike series, its hypothesized neural connection to transgenderism and how Strike’s reaction to Tempest and Jason can be understood through his own trauma history. I connected this back to Rowling and her 2020 essay where she cited her own history of domestic violence and sexual assault as a factor in her current views of transgender rights and access. As worried as I was about the presentation’s potential reception, I wound up feeling quite happy about it, particularly after hearing some very kind words from a young man in the audience who was both transgender and disabled. Also gratifying were the two people who told me my talk had convinced them to read the Strike series.

Once my adrenalin levels had declined, I was able to enjoy another highlight of the special session, a presentation by teacher Maria Matsakis, “J.K. Rowling and the Subtle Trans-Coding of Severus Snape.”  Through John’s writing, I had come to appreciate Hagrid’s alchemical role in the series as a mother-like figure, with his pink umbrella, flowered apron, and Madonna-like grief over Harry’s “dead” body as he carries him out of the forest in Deathly Hallows.  Through Ms. Matsakis’s talk, I appreciated for the first time all the feminine qualities of Snape.  Having just written a chapter on the Wolffian female archetypes of mother (Molly) and Amazon (Ginny) in the series, I am now wanting to look at the characters of both Hagrid and Snape through this lens.

There were, of course, many fine presentations other than the ones I have highlighted here; these were only a few of my personal favorites. I hope conference highlights will become available on video soon. While Potter scholarship clearly looks different than it did Pre-Covid and Pre-Twitterstorm, it remains deep, diverse and relevant. The Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Academic Conference remains an event that no Potter Pundit–or Serious Striker– should miss.

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