The Inside Story of the St. Andrews Harry Potter Conference: Ten Questions with John Patrick Pazdziora, School of English

Yesterday, we reviewed the Press Coverage of the first International Academic Harry Potter conference held last week at St Andrews University in Scotland. Today, the inside story via a 10 Questions exchange with conference organizer and co-director, John Patrick Pazdziora! (Picture of St Andrews Cathedral ruins by Daniel Peckham of Tracing Light)

Ten Questions: 1. Whose idea was it to have an academic conference at St Andrews? What was s/he thinking?

It was my idea, partly. My office mates and I would get into these arguments about Harry Potter–whether the epilogue was good or not–and one of them was reading the series for the first time in the run up to DH2. So then we started wondering what sort of academic work had been done on the series, and found out that there’s really very little looking at the Harry Potter novels strictly as a literary text. Which seemed odd, since they are literary texts. So the idea of a conference came up then–mostly out of curiosity, I think.

2. How long did it take from drunken idea to sober reality, i.e., conception to acceptance of proposal?

A colleague and good friend of mine really encouraged me to go forward with it, and we had a few meeting where she helped me narrow the focus of the conference, and write the CFP, and so on. This was probably over the course of two, three weeks. We did the usual rigmarole of settling the dates, booking the venue, and so on, and once you and Jessica Tiffin agreed to speak we knew we’d have a conference. Then Fr Micah agreed to come on board as my co-organiser, and then things really started to happen.

3. Tell us about the principal topics discussed. Was it primarily about the work as literature, e.g. structure and language? Or was there a lot of ‘text as cultural artifact’ discussion as well?

It was primarily about literature, yes, being a literary conference after all. One of the very interesting things about this conference was the breadth of literary topics brought to bear, so we had metanarrative analysis, and structural critiques, and historicist and new historicist readings, and, yes, some postmodern criticism. And some interesting criticism looking at the reception of the text in various cultures. Nearly 50 papers–so there was a lot of ground covered.

4. What sort of academic predominated at St Andrews, if any? Were there philosophers and sociologists as well as English literature mavens? Graduate students as well as tenured types?

Yes to all! We had Greg Bassham give the opening paper, and he’s a philosopher of course. But then James Thomas is a literary professor. Mostly it was literary critics–again, this was simply the nature of the event. But there was a pleasing number of people from theology as well (shout out to BIOLA alumni, who had a tremendous turnout). And we had all varieties: high school teachers and independent scholars, full professors and undergrads, doctoral candidates and fans.

5. Where did they come from? Was it a UK/US event for the most part?

They seemed to come from everywhere! Off the top of my head, the countries I know were represented there were: Mexico, the Netherlands, India, the Philippines, Spain, Ireland, South Africa, of course Scotland and the UK, and the US, and Australia–and I think some others I’m forgetting. We billed it as an “International Conference” simply by force of circumstance. The reach and effect of these books has been tremendous.

6. Tell us about the venue and actual event. Was the beautiful May weather incentive for participants to play hookie? What building and rooms at the 600 year old campus were used?

John, you’re joking! It was the worst weather we’d had since January–a howling easterly rattling the windows and drenching me on the way to the venue, bitterly cold. Very uncharacteristic for May in St Andrews, I might add, and the weather’s been absolutely lovely since you left. But the good thing was, everyone seemed perfectly content to huddle together in the conference rooms and listen to papers with titles like “The Canonisation of Neville Longbottom”–which admittedly sounds interesting whatever the weather.

The venue itself was Kennedy Hall, one of the School of English buildings, an old Edwardian residence as I recall, converted into thoroughly modern classrooms. Just across from the castle ruins and in sight of the sea. It’s a lovely venue, I think.

The publicity pictures were taken in the older, Medieval buildings, of course. Lovely places to pose for photoshoots, but a bit less practical for public speaking.

7. What else did participants do beside talk about Harry? Were there any Wizard Rock concerts, Fan Fiction readings, or Quidditch matches?

There was a conference dinner, of course, which was great fun–it was in a local restaurant which has pictures of Alice in Wonderland on the walls. And there was also a walkabout St Andrews the day after, and plenty of socialising in the local pubs and other such establishments. Of course people had come halfway across the world to attend, so they made a point of getting the tourist thing in–seeing the Cathedral and the Old Course and so on. But predominately this was a professional academic conference, so mostly we were arguing about Harry and related subjects, like Plato and prosod

8. The University put out a press release. What kind of media response was there to an historic University sponsoring an academic conference on Harry Potter?

The media went wild. I don’t know whether that’s surprising or not. On the one hand, St Andrews and Harry Potter both have quite high profiles just now, because it’s the 600th anniversary of St Andrews founding, we’ve had a royal visit and so on, and because Harry Potter is–well, he’s Harry Potter! So I think the juxtaposition of these two big names was irresistible in some ways. On the other hand, it was a little bemusing–most academic conferences hardly get noticed at all, except by the delegates.

So it was deeply humbling, in that sense. A whirlwind of activity, everyone wanting a statement. And it was hilarious to listen to people trot out the same old tired arguments against Harry Potter from ten years ago–the same washed out Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt quotations. And then expect us to have never thought about this before! And the other thing which seemed to surprise the media–and I may be writing about this elsewhere–is this lack of awareness that children’s literature is actually an established academic discipline. So a lot of the surprise at this notion of a Harry Potter conference was really the surprise at discovering an academic discipline that people didn’t know about. Which is a good thing, really.

9. Any plans for a follow-up at St Andrews next year? Could this be an annual event?

I can neither confirm nor deny the possibility of a follow-up conference.

10. Please share the three or four highlights of the conference, events that made it all seem worthwhile to you.

Oh gosh, there’s so much to choose from…

Of course the papers given were fascinating. The conference was definitely a success from that standpoint; we made some serious critical inroads into literary study of these text. And the keynotes did not disappoint! I think the round table discussion at the end summed up the academic side of it for to me. You had undergraduates challenging full professors on the finer points of Harry Potter arcana, an argument about the (de)merits of Rowling’s verse, the lack of music in the series. Usually the last event of a big conference everyone’s exhausted, but there was so much energy in the room, even at 5pm on Friday!

I think it was the people, first of all–the sense that this little event I’d put together was deeply special to them. There was a young man who came all the way from India–University of New Delhi, as I recall–who was one of the first people to register for the conference. When he met me, he pulled me to one side and presented me with this beautiful, beautiful scarf–it’s a traditional garment from his part of India. And it was such a deep honour for me, to have him as my guest and to be so eager to show his appreciation. I’m wearing it today, in fact–just so utterly lovely. And later, when he was saying goodbye, he told me how much J.K. Rowlings books have meant to him all his life, and how much coming to this conference meant–a way to repay the author of these books that meant so much to him.

I’m honing in on this one story, but I could multiply these anecdotes over and over. Like the delegates who were good friends but living in disparate parts of the world, and were able to meet up in St Andrews. Or the lovely, lovely American couple–friends of this blog, in fact–who booked their plane tickets as soon as the CFP went out. They weren’t even presenting, they were just that keen to attend. Seriously–you don’t usually get that level of enthusiasm when you announce an academic conference! And I could tell stories like that about every delegate, really. That really made it feel that more than a just another conference, we’d done something really special.

Thank you, John Patrick, for these great answers and for the wonderful conference — the first of many, I hope!

Tomorrow: The Literary Legitimacy Controversy! Stay Tuned —

Comments

  1. Oh, I really wish I could have been there – that sounds like a lovely and memorable time! You’ve got my vote for a follow-up conference.

  2. As two of the incredibly fortunate people who were able to attend this conference, my husband and I give a big round of applause to the organizers and presenters. Everyone was outstanding and it was an honor to be in the company of all these academics. We made some new friends who share our love of the books and who can teach us even more about this wonderful series. Although it is alot of work, I would be remiss not to recommend that another conference be planned for the future. Kudos also to the staff who prepared and served breakfast and lunch – they were very accommodating to us. Thanks again for a fantastic couple of days!!!

  3. Carol Eshleman says

    Bravo to John Patrick and Micah who pulled off an amazing all around experience!! I wish it could’ve gone on for days and days!! It’s wonderful to be around so many people who share the same enthusiasm for this work.

  4. Danica Contor says

    We should make the conference an annual event. After going, there are so many papers I have to write. We’ll need these conferences for at least the next 300 years if I’m going to manage to discuss all the ideas I have floating around…finding the philosopher’s stone is obviously among them since I’ll need it to make it in 300 years ๐Ÿ™‚
    My husband and I had a brilliant time; it was incredibly refreshing to be around other people who respected Harry Potter as much as we do. The best part was that even between sessions, we were still discussing Harry Potter.

  5. Julia H. Hibbert says

    Loved reading about the conference. Certainly hope you will have more even if I can’t attend. Thanks.

  6. Frances Sangil says

    Thanks very much to John P. and Father Micah for organizing the event in such a fabulous manner, to the other participants/delegates for making the event fun and intellectual at the same time, and thanks most especially to Hogwarts Professor John Granger for a very illuminating keynote speech. I have proof of Mr. Granger’s humour, albeit photographic, hahaha ๐Ÿ™‚

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