The magical world of Harry Potter and the real world of social activism combine in an honors class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Tamy Burnett, an English and women’s and gender studies professor, teaches UHON 298H Section 004, “Harry Potter and Social Activism,” and said the class blends English subjects and hands-on community service. The syllabus focuses on the fourth and fifth books in the series: “Harry Potter and the The Goblet of Fire” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
“We look at the books overall and the themes — Voldemort and the Death Eaters, S.P.E.W, Dumbledore’s Army and discipline in schools associated with Professor Umbridge,” Burnett said. “We talk about how power is manipulated and how people misuse it and others stand up to it. That’s the history of the world.”
Burnett started the class in 2017 after hearing from former students who loved Harry Potter and wanted a class based on the series. Burnett said she thought the idea was a great concept, but wanted it to go beyond reading assignments and discussions.
An upper-level feminism course she was teaching at the time inspired her to include activism in the course.
Burnett also drew inspiration from The Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit organization run primarily by Harry Potter fans. She said the group focuses on social activism problems like LGBTQ equality, youth advocacy, racial justice, climate change and other issues.
“There’s this amazing fan activism within Harry Potter that is a great entry point to talk about activism,” Burnett said. “We have plans for next semester to do more with it and learn more about how shared fan excitement can be leveraged about doing good in the world.”
The students’ activism is heavily centered on the class’ final project, in which Burnett said they explore what social problems they are passionate about and work to impact the community.
Students work as a group with other classmates also interested in a specific problem. Burnett said one group focused on homeless pets and worked with Husker Cats, a group of volunteers on campus that ensure a high quality of life for feral cats. Their interest from the project led the students to become executive board members in the group.
Burnett said students also visited downtown Lincoln restaurants to ask them to stop using plastic straws unless requested. Buzzard Billy’s, a New Orleans cajun-style restaurant in the Haymarket, is now waiting for corporate approval to put the group’s request in act.
Kyle Driver, a freshman secondary education and social science major, said he didn’t know the class existed until last year at New Student Enrollment.
“We do lot of different things in class, and it’s very discussion-based,” he said. “I’ve really loved finding other students who are interested in the same aspects of activism I am.”
Driver’s group project focused on UNL’s gender faculty ratio to see if different colleges have a big difference between males, females and transgender individuals.
“During this project it’s caused us to realize who we are learning from and how subjects are heavily gendered,” he said. “There isn’t even data on transgender faculty. This class has just made us more aware about marginalization around us.”
Burnett said her favorite part of teaching the class is seeing what the students do with their project and how they address real world issues.
“It’s really awesome to teach about Harry Potter,” Burnett said. “But it’s even more awesome to watch my students become more invested in activism.”