Her response was not only heartfelt and illuminating, it also helped me to understand several of the presentations I attended. The role of trauma, violence, and grief were the focus of several presentations and it was clear that Harry Potter has helped countless people survive, process, and heal trauma of all kinds. My student’s response was the kernel of a paper that I will encourage her to write and submit to neat year’s call for papers.
As I noted in part one of this two-part blog, the papers accepted and presented at the Harry Potter Academic Conference are selected not based upon academic credentials, but on the merit of the ideas presented in the abstract. There is also a clear effort to include undergraduates, independent scholars, and even high school students. This approach helped to create a diverse multi-generational, interdisciplinary, group of presenters and attendees and an environment for a free exchange of ideas.
My plenary was an overview of my work about the Girl on Fire—the power of the symbol and the potential of imagining the future through the lens of girls and women. And while I was there to give participants a new lens on Harry Potter, I also gained a new lens for my Girls on Fire work. While the presenters were not explicitly using a “Girls on Fire” lens, their work spoke to the spirit of the Girl on Fire—as symbol, as role model, as activist, as mentor.
There were a wide variety of interdisciplinary presentations that applied lenses of psychology, sociology, science, critical theory, religious studies, queer theory, feminism, history, Shakespeare, and pedagogy, as well as character studies including an insightful and entertaining powerhouse of a presentation by Kate Glassman, an MFA, poet, and middle school teacher from Minnesota: “Irascible and inflexible, perhaps, but always dependably, solidly present: The Preeminence of Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter.” She was on fire: sassy, witty, and unapologetic.
Two Girls on Fire gave inspiring talks in the last session. The first, Madison Stump from Bowling Green State University, presented “Harry Potter as a Discussion of Environmental Harm and Impact.” She was on fire, imagining an environmental movement made up of visionary Potter fans. The second, Wellesley student, Anto Chavez Alfonzo, presented with her mentor, the advisor of the Miami Dade College chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance, Emily Sendin. She was on fire describing the social justice events that Hermione’s Army organized and the “transformative effects on a community of student readers and leaders.”
While there were plenty of men at the conference, the majority of presenters and attendees were women. This may be due to any number of factors including women’s majority in education generally, and their over-representation in the humanities and soft sciences. It might also be due to the ways in which the Harry Potter books speak to female readers through the “Girl on Fire” character of Hermione Granger—and a number of other female characters like Luna and Ginny.
Further, the men who presented illustrated the best characteristics of allies to Girls on Fire. For instance, Brett Slattery presented “You Won’t Need Any Ink: Dolores Umbridge and Pathological Tribalism” while dressed in the most fabulous drag ever—a skillfully crafted ensemble of pink and camp. And, co-organizer, Patrick McCauley, presented “The Appeal of the Universal Under the Shadow of the Postmodern”—a brilliant call for an intervention in postmodern theory and practice. He framed his talk with a story about the silencing of his female students—a call for approaches that empower young women who choose not to speak up because of the costs of being a know-it-all.
While I had no doubt about the richness of the Potterverse—I see it reflected in my students and colleagues all the time—I was not fully prepared for the magic (ah, there’s the obvious reference again!) that came from witnessing the best qualities of academic conferences. Enthusiasm, critical inquiry, celebration, connection, imagination, collaboration, vision, and inclusion. As I learned to say, we all solemnly swear that we are up to no good!