Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Conference 2016: A Pictorial Report

by Emily Strand (@ekcstrand)

Chestnut Hill College's St. Joseph Hall

Chestnut Hill College’s St. Joseph Hall

The fifth annual Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Conference on Friday, October 21 in quaint Chestnut Hill, PA was yet another rousing success. As conference organizer Patrick McCauley noted in closing remarks, although we’re the furthest away in time from the release of the final Potter book, this year’s conference was the most well-attended yet, with 500 tickets sold. Look, serious readers of Harry Potter, if you haven’t had a chance to attend this thing, take the matter into hand and make your plans for next year (confirmed for Friday, Oct. 20, 2017; paper submissions will be accepted beginning July or August). This is the hub for serious readers of Potter, and it’s an event not to be missed.

This year was my second attending and presenting at the conference.

Emily Strand bringing the Star Wars to a Harry Potter conference

Emily Strand bringing the Star Wars to a Harry Potter conference

Last year I talked about my Quidditch paper, which appeared in Harry Potter for Nerds II. This year I spoke about the common sources, themes and trajectories between the Harry Potter books and the Star Wars franchise. (I’ll write that up in post-form as we get closer to the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.) For now I’ll just say I borrowed one of my friend Arthur Harrow’s many puns to open my talk, welcoming everyone to “HogWars”. (Cough.)

I, of course, took many pictures, which I post here for your enjoyment. I also live Tweeted the event (@ekcstrand). However, John tells me that we’d have much better photographic evidence of CHCHPC2016 if Toni Gras had been in attendance this year, with her camera and her husband David. We want to give a shout-out to Toni and David with our wishes for Toni’s good health and a return to the conference in 2017.

Emily Strand, Katherine Sas and Katy McDaniel (3 Potter nerds)

Emily Strand, Katherine Sas and Katy McDaniel (3 Potter nerds)

For me, the best part of the conference is getting to be with good friends and associates usually relegated to the digital realm of my life due to distance. Connecting with For Nerds II editor Katy McDaniel and essayist and Mythgardian Katherine Sas was easily my favorite part of the day. And both years I’ve come away with intriguing new friends, like Umbridge apologist Patrick Ross (last year) and Laurie Beckoff, who gave an excellent talk this year, based on her senior thesis. Then there was the young professor named John who came to the conference all the way from Las Vegas, and both thrilled and

Laurie Beckoff on Harry Potter and Le Morte D'Arthur

Laurie Beckoff on Harry Potter and Le Morte D’Arthur

humbled me by saying he uses my Quidditch essay in his undergraduate course on Potter. I met several families with school-age children, enjoying the conference together. And there are always a handful of cosplayers (like Nick and Grace who inspire me) for whom Potter is well more than a dress-up opportunity.

But if fascinating people are not enough to convince you to start stalking airfares to Philly for next year, let’s talk about the meat of the conference. Organizers Karen Wendling and Patrick McCauley opened the conference with some brief

Professor Granger, teaching us how we read Potter in rings

Professor Granger, teaching us how we read Potter in rings

remarks, and then 21 concurrent scholarly presentations began for the conference’s first session. Session topics ranged from John’s Seven Keys to Harry Potter, to Campbellian Hero’s Journey motifs in HP, to sexual imagery in Chamber of Secrets, to child abuse in HP, to an examination of the use of “Hedwig’s Theme” in the films, to the narrative mirroring of Quidditch in each of the books (Strand theory; Granger corollary… woot!). Truly, attendees were spoiled for choice.

Then Italian social scientist Loris Vezzali, whose ground-breaking work shows how Potter helps break down stereotypes and prejudice in young readers, gave a fascinating plenary lecture. Lunch and book signings by authors like Jack Gierzynski, John Granger and Lorrie Kim, accompanied by a Potter-inspired choral concert by CHC students (a lovely treat we didn’t experience last year), followed.

Chestnut Hill College Choir, serenading us with Potter-inspired music

Chestnut Hill College Choir, serenading us with Potter-inspired music

After lunch, Keith Hawk, John, Louise and I interviewed Snape: A Definitive Reading author Lorrie Kim for Episode 52 of Mugglenet Academia. Kim has loads of wonderful insights into that most complicated character in Potterverse; her book is a rich look at the series from Snape’s point of view. Much fun was had by all, especially by me when I ran around taking audience questions with the microphone, much like Phil Donahue. (It’s a glamorous life I lead. Obviously.)

While we did, 25 concurrent sessions took place all over CHC’s St. Joseph Hall. Once again, it was difficult to choose among the many scholarly topics, which ranged from the glorification of motherhood in HP, to Pottermore and issues of canon, to Hogwarts’ architecture, to a

Louise Freeman on the pro-social effects of reading fiction, especially Potter

Louise Freeman on the pro-social effects of reading fiction, especially Potter

critical race theory study of hierarchies in HP, to debate on Cursed Child, to PTSD in Potter, to Louise’s excellent talk on the pro-social effects of Rowling’s fiction.

For me the most stimulating part of the day came last, when political science professor Anthony “Jack” Gierzynski gave the final plenary lecture of the day. Like Professor Vezzali, Gierzynski has conducted extensive surveys to attempt to draw conclusions about the impact of reading Harry Potter on the politics of the millennial generation. Particularly in the heat of this unusually gross election cycle,

Prof. Anthony "Jack" Gierzynski giving the second plenary lecture of the day

Prof. Anthony “Jack” Gierzynski giving the second plenary lecture of the day

Professor Gierzynski’s talk delighted and inspired the large crowd gathered. The talk was entitled, “Do fictional stories really can make us more tolerant and accepting?” His unsurprising (to serious readers) but still very engaging, and not unqualified answer was: yes.

The conference closed with remarks from Chestnut Hill College’s

Sr. Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College

Sr. Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College

president Sr. Carol Jean Vale, Ph.D. calling for Harry Potter as a write-in candidate for president. Which made everyone laugh and cheer in the moment, and later say to each other, “wait, has she read the books? Hermione is far more presidential.”

Dear friends, this is all to say: won’t you join us next year? The only thing missing at the conference was you. Oh, and air conditioning. For some reason, we needed it that day.

Happy Halloween at HogwartsProfessor! Potter Postcard Potions-Cocktails Class

Dear Serious Readers! In anticipation of your Potter-themed celebrations this Halloween (and following, since we have only a few weeks before the Fantastic Beasts mayhem shall begin!), I offer an instructional video (ahem) for adults on how to make your very own potions – the suitable-for-consumption kind – inspired by the books we love.

Enjoy, but do remember never to operate a bewitched Ford Anglia, fly a broomstick, ride a Hippogriff or even just hex anyone if you’ve been drinking. Happy Halloween from your friends at!

We’re live from the 5th Annual Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Conference!

Chestnut Hill College1Dear readers: Friday, October 21 will find more than a few Hogwarts Professors rubbing elbows, sharing insights and in-universe jokes which would be embarrassing in any other context at the Chestnut Hill College’s Harry Potter Conference. The conference is in its 5th year, and this year’s lineup looks amazing.

The conference will feature lectures by John Granger, Loris Vezzali, Jack Gierzynski, and shorter talks by Potter scholars from all over the country (including Louise and me!), not to mention book signings and even a live Mugglenet Academia recording interviewing Lorrie Kim, author of the new book Snape: A Definitive Reading.

I’ll be live Tweeting the event, so follow me (@ekcstrand) and the event #ChestnutHillHPConf2016 if you can’t be there but wish you could.

The new spin of Jar-Jar: Star Wars through the lens of Harry Potter

jarjar1Jar-Jar Binks, the long-despised, floppy-eared, duck-billed, orange alien who character-bombs Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, is experiencing a resurgence of popularity of late. More than once in recent weeks, I have listened as a Star Wars fan quite passionately came to Jar-Jar’s defense. Yes, I said Jar-Jar. Jar-Jar Binks. Yeah, I know. I wouldn’t have believed it myself had I not heard it with my own ears.

And frankly, the reasoning employed to defend Jar-Jar makes sense to me. But that may be because I can appreciate where these Jar-Jar defenders may be coming from: Harry Potter.

Let’s go back. Who is Jar-Jar Binks?

Jar-Jar is a Gungan from the planet Naboo, an outcast from his own people, whose life is saved by Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn early in The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon, ever clear-sighted, sees Jar-Jar’s potential to assist the Jedi, and allows him to tag along in fulfillment of a life-debt, despite the liability Jar-Jar’s bumbling, trickster persona presents. Jar-Jar goes on to act as a bridge between the humans who have adopted him and his Gungan people, creating an alliance that helps save Naboo, thwarting the Trade Federation baddies. Later, in Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, Jar-Jar un-saves the day by motioning the Senate to grant Palpatine more control, ultimately facilitating the creation of the Galactic Empire and the Clone Army. (Letting Jar-Jar fill her Senate seat while in hiding = not one of Padmé Amidala’s shrewdest moves. I mean, what the heck, Padmé? This isn’t Student Council.)

Jar-Jar is a mostly CGI character, portrayed by African-American actor Ahmed Best doing a throaty little-kid voice, and speaking in a dialect George Lucas invented. And here’s the real problem. It was too reminiscent of certain Afro-Caribbean dialects – a socially toxic combination with a (very talented) black voice actor and Jar-Jar’s bumbling, ne’er-do-well character. While Jar-Jar’s general annoyingness and lack of appeal to most people over age seven contribute to his unpopularity, his dialect and character ostensibly pushed him from disliked to hated, from annoying to offensive.

The result was fan outcry. Jar-Jar Binks, thinking fans said, is an embarrassing character who perpetuates negative racial stereotypes – a Stepin Fetchit sort of anachronism beyond which the world of entertainment had, we thought, long ago progressed. And Amy H. Sturgis has pointed out how dissatisfaction with Jar-Jar pointed to other weak points of characterization in The Phantom Menace: namely, Lucas’s over-reliance on racial or ethnic stereotypes to create his “exotically other” characters, like the Neimoidians as the inscrutable Asians, or Watto, the slave-owning junk dealer, as the penny-pinching Jewish merchant. This is damage the Star Wars franchise has worked carefully to repair with diverse characters, like Finn and Maz Kanata, who are both heroic and authentic in Episode 7: The Force Awakens.

So how does one defend Jar-Jar Binks in this “politically correct” day and age? By conflating him with Dobby the house elf, of course.

“Be nice to everything!” is the lesson Jar-Jar Binks teaches one host of a popular Star Wars podcast. jarjar2Qui-Gon Jinn could see Jar-Jar’s usefulness, despite others’  clear disdain for the Gungan. This foresight on Qui-Gon’s part helps save the planet – and everyone on it – later in the film. The podcast host went on to conjecture that Yoda’s strange, child-like behavior upon first encountering Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back is meant to bring this lesson full-circle. Yoda imitates Jar-Jar, the host theorized, in order to teach him that wisdom and power can come in many forms, even that of the fool. So, the host concluded, Jar-Jar is the key to everything. (I wish I could remember who said all this on which episode of what podcast (I’m pretty sure it was the very excellent Full of Sith), but I can’t take notes while jogging, or at least I don’t, so apologies to the unnamed but very clever theorizer.)

The podcast host’s theories immediately made me think of Dobby the house elf. Harry does not have to give Dobby his sock, freeing him from the Malfoys, just as Qui-Gon is under no obligation to invoke the life-debt which frees Jar-Jar from punishment at the hands of the Gungans. But both do. And both pathetic life forms, Jar-Jar and Dobby, go on to provide essential service to the heroes.

DobbyThe difference is Dobby’s service is to the end game, whereas Jar-Jar’s is short-term. Jar-Jar sinks back into “plot device” territory when he is used by Palpatine to seize power, whereas Dobby goes on to become a devoted servant to Harry Potter and his friends, and a formidable freedom fighter, even sacrificing his own life to rescue Harry and company from Malfoy Manor, the setting of his own former enslavement. Dobby’s arc from “pathetic life form” to “heroic contributor to ultimate victory” is complete, unlike Jar-Jar’s.

I agree that “Be nice to everything!” is a valuable lesson both characters might teach fans. But in Star Wars, the lesson is incomplete (the Yoda part of the theory is interesting, but an uncorroborated stretch as a link to Jar-Jar). One almost needs the lens of Dobby’s character arc in Harry Potter to come to the host’s conclusions about Jar-Jar, for his contribution to the good guys’ successes in Phantom Menace are nullified – or at least severely compromised – when he is manipulated by Palpatine in Attack of the Clones. It’s a zero-sum game with Jar-Jar.f38699558

But not with Dobby. The ultimate lesson the house elf teaches Harry, as he digs Dobby’s grave in Deathly Hallows, is this: it’s not about you. It’s about the end game. Dobby’s death gives Harry the perspective he needs to walk away from his pursuit of the Hallows and focus himself on destroying the Horcruxes. A pretty important perspective, really. Kind of makes up for that pudding Dobby drops in book two.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Harry Potter characters influence the way fans encounter and interpret characters from Star Wars. What do you think of this new spin of Jar-Jar Binks? Is it influenced by Dobby, or motivated by something else? Share your thoughts below.

Connect with Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).

Discussion: Which Potter film will lure YOU to an IMAX cinema this week?

FB 7by Emily Strand (@ekcstrand)

In anticipation of Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, movie theaters across the country are showing all eight of the original Harry Potter films. The movie marathon starts today in selected IMAX cinemas and includes Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, which have yet to be displayed in the IMAX format, according to Time.

In research for my upcoming talk at Chestnut Hill College’s 5th Annual Harry Potter Conference next week, I came across a fascinating article which argues the popularity of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was due in large part to the book’s cinematic qualities – its adherence to the rules of modern classic cinema, especially those rules that were set in the late 1970s by the first Star Wars film. (I’ll say more about what that means in a subsequent post.) The article argues that a desire to please fans with close fidelity to the original book hemmed in director Chris Columbus, resulting in a clunky film adaptation in Sorcerer’s Stone which failed to capture the magic of the book.

What do you think?

ron 4In celebration of this nostalgic event, I propose a film discussion here at Hogwarts Professor. In the comments, share your thoughts on the film adaptations of our favorite books. Which of the Potter films to date is your favorite and why? What is your favorite moment of all the Potter films? Which film will find you huddled in an IMAX cinema this week, popcorn in hand, ready to relive the Hogwarts Saga? How excited are you about Fantastic Beasts? Will these new films ignite Potter passion after the (for many) disappointment of Cursed Child?