Chronicle of Higher Education Finally Notices Harry Potter

On August 1. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief piece about how effectively Rowling satirizes the (American) educational system, particularly in the person of Umbridge, the administrator we all fear and loathe, particularly if we work in an academic setting. Though Rob Jenkins’s article is about nine years late to the party, it does have some merit. In addition, many of the comments posted by readers are even more chortle-producing for their “I just woke up from a decade-long coma” tone (I am really amused by the attorney who wants to be the literature police. What is he even doing reading the Chronicle? Hopefully, he’s not planning to sue a teacher for giving a student the grade the student earned, but that’s another post). So check out the article, and then follow me after the jump for a few thoughts on yes, indeed, why Umbridge is, to some of us, much scarier than Voldy himself.

Really? People are afraid of little old Dolores and her fluffy pink sweater? Absolutely. At this time of year, I often think of Umbridge, as I get ready to head into the fall semester. For one thing, this is the time of year when I am preparing my educational decrees, otherwise known as the syllabus. There is a constant struggle to make the syllabus comprehensive without making it incomprehensible. Unfortunately, the language of the syllabus is sometimes dictated by a standard format that is created far above my pay grade. Sometimes, since I have the joy of working at a great, small college with a fantastic group of peers, I offer to wordsmith uniform statements we have to put on the syllabus to try and make them clear as well as complete, but sometimes we are stuck with some edu-speak from on high that even the faculty can’t understand, much less the students.

That edu-speak is not just in higher ed, either. As a homeschooler, I always download the grade-specific standards for my children to make sure we are covering the same topics (or have covered them already). What I would like is a list of topics, like “This year, students will be studying American history from 1623 to 1945” or “Science topics this year will include Newton’s Laws of Motion.” What I get is this:
“The ultimate goal for a scientifically literate person is the ability to use appropriate scientific principles and processes in making personal decisions. Therefore, making personal and societal connections to scientific challenges is imperative for middle school learners. Concepts, skills and theories for middle school science afford opportunities to develop scientific understanding for many aspects of personal and societal health. Opportunities that nurture students’ abilities to think creatively and scientifically abound, as students connect science to personal decision making. Personal and societal connections can be made as sixth grade students conduct in-depth investigations which:
• analyze the role of humans in the natural world using issues that concern the lithosphere.
• interpret the interconnectedness of all organisms in an ecosystem and the effect of disturbing parts of a system.
• evaluate the benefits and knowledge gained from space exploration.
• investigate the importance of soil quality.

Now, granted, I can parse this out, but it’s cumbersome, and, like Umbridge, it tends to suck the joy out of my learning adventure with my children. That is, of course, why I treat these standards like the Pirate Code: more like guidelines than actual rules. I am worried about how this morass appears to homeschoolers unfamiliar with edu-speak or to public school teachers. No wonder so many of them are tempted to run off screaming.

Umbridge also comes to my mind as I get ready for the semester’s start, when the wonderful folks at my college have to go through the usual start-of-term checklist, much of which is dictated by state or national regulations (i.e. the standard review of policies on sexual harassment, drug policy, etc., most of which makes me think of Mr. Filch’s list of banned items). Unfortunately, start of term at most colleges these days often includes announcements about how (again) the faculty is not getting a raise, or that equipment someone wanted will have to wait (another) semester. Some administrators, I am sure, are tempted to use Umbridge-like edu-speak to sugar coat the bad news.

A desire not to be the bearer of bad news can certainly lure one into using Dolores’s dense, euphemistic language (the sort of goo I try to teach ENG 111 students to avoid). There is also the temptation to become enamored with one’s own power. When a person spends too much time in the kingdom of the academy, one can come away with the false impression that one is king or queen of that realm. When students tell me about bad experiences they’ve had with teachers or administrators, I often reflect that education basically draws people with two desires: the desire for learning and the desire for power. Teachers and administrators who are motivated by the latter are already in the Umbridge camp, but even those who think of themselves as motivated by the desire to share learning and to grow as learners themselves, may be tempted to slip into dictator mode. Frustration from a variety of sources can twist a teacher’s passion into a perverse desire for control almost as horrible as making students carve “I must not tell lies” into their hands. Or, enough run-ins with the bureaucratic red tape can make teachers throw up their hands with a “can’t beat ’em; join ’em” resignation that makes us start issuing our own educational decrees and scrambling up the ladder of power from whence we can fling those decrees down at others.

So why are educators so very repulsed by Professor Umbridge? Because, at our cores, we are all terrified of turning into her.

Your thoughts? Now, to shove that cardigan to back of the closet and get ready for a new semester. Hope springs eternal, or at least it still does for me. “I must not turn into Umbridge…”

H/T to Louise!


  1. Diana Patterson says

    Bless you for this. I think I shall post if for my own students. How awful it is to make that syllabus and try to get students to read and think but not being entirely sure what they are they are to read and think about in this class. If they had any idea what we go through!
    One year we had a minister of advanced education (O, how this sounds like Umbridge) who thought we could all be replaced by actors. That’s why we get so little real support. Nobody know what we do, but they know they want to give us freedom to do it in.

  2. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    Ack!! The edu-speak you speak of (with the administratese language, “learning goals,” etc.) is, at least in the U.S. anyway, thanks to a number of college accreditation agencies getting ahold of what’s known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” If you google it, you’ll see where it all began….

    Indeed, it is a struggle to include the mandatory stuff on the syllabus (aside from what it’s really for–namely, the course description, list of readings and assignments, and the discussion schedule) in such a way that the syllabus doesn’t become a long booklet. Going over it on the first day of class takes up more minutes than I’m pleased with, but I try to make it as clear as I can for the students, and then proceed to focus on what the course is really about.

    Are you required to do an end-of-semester assessment of courses in relation to those “learning goals”? We are–at least for our courses that count in the Gen Ed curriculum. There are Umbridges lurking everywhere to spring some new requirement on us every few weeks….

  3. Virginia Brannan says

    As a high school principal (recently retired), I often prayed for the wisdom and good humor of Dumbledore. After meeting Umbridge, I regretted that I had sometimes been too close to her rigid attitude, and sought purge Umbridgisms from my speech. . Many times I would be on the verge of uttering a platitude and would pause long enough to recapture the moment and treat my students with kindness, respect, and compassion. So, I guess I should be thankful for her deliciously bad example.

  4. And this was written 9 years ago???? Wow…could have been recently crafted and leaked from within the walls of our state’s Board of Education, a veritable treasure-trove of inane decisions and unfunded mandates influenced by the governor who just pulled another rug out from under us to redirect funding away from education!!!!

    I don’t know where the Umbridge poster came from, but I would love to get a copy for our Superintendent’s office!!!!

  5. That picture of Umbridge was brilliant — my best laugh all week!

    Also loved your Edu-Speak examples. “Opportunities that nurture students’ abilities to think creatively and scientifically abound, as students connect science to personal decision making” reminded me of a true family story about a science class during which the students heated wires in a bunsen burner to watch changes in the flame color. Everyone in the class soon screamed in unison since the teacher neglected to mention holding the wires with tongs!!! How’s that for making a personal connection with science?

  6. Rob Jenkins says

    Thanks for the plug. As a big HP fan, I’m honored that you mentioned my post on this blog. But I am a little surprised that you didn’t notice this somewhat longer piece that I wrote three years ago (which would make me not quite as late to the party):

  7. Louise M. Freeman says


    I thoroughly enjoyed both your columns, particularly the 2009 one. If I had noticed it when it was published I guarantee it would have been discussed here.

    I hope you will consider attending the JMU conference this fall. I think there are many of us who would like to participate in a “which Harry Potter character is your administrator?” roundtable.

  8. Rob Jenkins says

    Thanks, Louise. I would LOVE to come to the conference. Unfortunately, due to extreme budget cuts in our system, exaccerbated by a Fudge-worthy financial scandal at my own institution, we have, oh, approximately ZERO travel money this year. Maybe another year, though. Meanwhile, keep up the good work on the site.


  9. Elizabeth says

    Welcome, Rob! Thank you so much for the article, and for your thoughts ( I really admired your graceful dance with some of the commentators, the ones who really do seem to have not noticed there even was a party to which they were tardy.) I, too, will have to buy my own portkey to go to JMU, alas. Maybe we should do a post on the plight of poverty-striken Potterphile faculty! Many thanks for the link to your earlier article, as well. Alas, my reading in the Chronicle is seriously hampered by the fact that I do actually read all my students’ essays! I do hope you’ll continue to join us here!

  10. Rob Jenkins says

    I absolutely will, Elizabeth. I can’t tell you how much fun it will be to think of myself as a Hogwarts Professor.


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