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Students study Harry Potter on UK spring break adventure

Classes travel across British Isles in 10 days

Contact: Dan Digmann

​​​Students in two Central Michigan University courses traded in their bathing suits and sunscreen for a spring break filled with witchcraft and wizardry. These thirty-three students spent spring break learning all about Harry Potter on a 10-day adventure across the United Kingdom.

CMU Associate Professor Joseph Michael Sommers designed the two courses – one English literature course and an Honors Program course with the intention of immersing students in the living, breathing history of Harry Potter.   

"For me, for these courses, I tried to see the literature less from the books and more from the places from which the books derived," Sommers said. "The books being the artifacts of these magical locales. For example, it is one thing to read about The Hogwarts Express arriving at Platform 9 3/4, it's another thing to visit Platform 9 3/4."

The trip began in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a bus trip to Durham, Gloucester, Oxford, Watford, London, and Cambridge. Some of the experiences they had along the way included:

  • Eating at The Elephant House Café, where Rowling allegedly started the Harry Potter books;
  • Visiting key locations in the books and movies such as Edinburgh Castle, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Durham Cathedral and Castle, Gloucester Cathedral, Oxford's Bodleian Library and Christ's Church, the Tower of London, the London Zoo among dozens of other Harry Potter-related destinations;
  • Stopping in at Platform 9 3/4 in King's Cross Station;
  • Exploring sites in London's Zone 1 associated with Harry Potter; and
  • Experiencing "The Making of Harry Potter" at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in Watford.

"Most of the trip built up to Thursday's visit to the Harry Potter Studios," said CMU senior Taylor DesOrmeau of Novi. "After watching a brief introduction in a theater, the screen went up and behind it was the door to the Great Hall of Hogwarts. We walked through the door and there were five or six people from our class already in tears. It was a great moment."

By CMU junior Caitlin McBride

Hometown: Fenton

This trip went far beyond anything that a classroom could offer.

Of course, reading the books give us the plot of the story. We can understand the themes of the narrative, profile the characters, and reflect on the technique of JK Rowling's writing, but being able to live it brought to life a world that reaches far beyond the page.

Going to the UK allowed us to be fully immersed in a world unlike our own. As an American never having been abroad, hearing of castles that have stood from the middle ages seems something fantastic that belongs in a realm of fiction. It was hard to imagine that something like that could be real. True, we could see the constructed architecture on film or read about the dungeons and towers on the page, but going there – walking through the stone corridors of a real castle, seeing the gorgeous towers of a Cathedral that is more than a thousand years old – it was another world. These places are real, students really can – and do – go to school in buildings whose history predates any of our buildings by centuries. It was incredible.

Being able to see the sights JK Rowling was inspired by, it was hard to see how anyone could not be inspired in the same way. No amount of photographs or books can recreate the feeling of standing in the shadow of a castle for the first time. We were able to see something that otherwise only exists in fantasy become real before us. A place we could see from afar, then hike right up to and explore. A classroom cannot offer that.

Even simply going to the places where they filmed the scenes was extraordinary. We got to see the sets, the makeup, the special effects – the movie magic that brought the films to life. We learned the secrets of hair and makeup and wardrobe, got to peek at the models and concept art behind everything shown on screen. It is difficult to appreciate the enormity of the task that was creating these films until you see every step of the work gathered and showcased. Every single tiny prop down to the most minuscule necklace in the Room of Requirement had to be carefully constructed to create a believable world. It is difficult to comprehend until you can see it for yourself.

Films and books can only offer a limited glimpse of a scene or setting, often with no context. But now I know exactly where the Reptile House is in the London Zoo. I know that beneath the gorgeous cloisters and stone halls there are arching crypts and dungeons, just like at Hogwarts.

As an American, being able to go to the country in which the characters live, walk the halls of the places that pieced together Hogwarts, eating what they ate, seeing what they saw, being immersed in a culture that was not my own – no simple classroom can compare.

​​Sommers believes CMU may be the only school to teach Harry Potter in this format.

"Any university can – and likely does – teach Harry Potter, but not many places do it like this," Sommers said. "We did our best to re-examine Harry Potter, as a cultural phenomenon, the way the British experience it instead of simply reading and cutting into the text."

Sommers says his biggest challenge might be keeping his students engaged through the end of the semester after such an expansive adventure.

"This trip exceeded everything we set out to accomplish in the entire semester. I'm so proud of all my students, they are the real magic of these courses," Sommers said. "I may have completely taught myself out of the classroom, but that's not a bad thing."

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