Hogwarts was, until very recently, the 100-percent fictional boarding school in J.K. Rowling’s popular “Harry Potter” books. But thanks to an untold horde of would-be wizards, Hogwarts is now — if not exactly “real” — then something approximating it.
Hogwarts Is Here is the newly launched, fantastically elaborate brainchild of 24-year-old Web developer Keith Cardin, and it’s essentially a volunteer-run MOOC (massive open online course) for Muggles who wish Potions and History of Magic were actual academic pursuits.
When you enroll and receive your electronic owl — “Due to the increasing use of technology of Muggle-born students, Hogwarts is introducing a new digital interface,” it explains — you’re instructed to sign up for seven nine-week courses. There are actual syllabi. And textbooks. And graded assignments. My first essay for Defense Against the Dark Arts, in which more than 16,000 students are currently enrolled, requested a two- to five-paragraph essay on “why defensive magic is important.” I can’t even view the second lesson, “Simple Standard Spells,” because I haven’t submitted the first essay yet.
All of this obviously begs the question: Why, in Dumbledore’s name, would I or anyone else write an essay on a thing that does not exist?
Easy, says Kelli Cleveland — in real life, a 17-year-old high school junior from Nebraska, and on Hogwarts Is Here, a first-year Ravenclaw. She’s enrolled in all seven courses and has completed every posted assignment thus far. Sometimes they take longer than her actual homework. She recently wrote a three-page essay for Potions class.
“For fans that have loved HP for years this is a dream come true,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Ever since I read the first book, I have wanted my letter to come … When I turned 11 and my letter didn’t come it was sad. Now I can go to Hogwarts and study the lesson I read about and loved.”
Plus, she adds, “it’s just fun.”
Many, many people apparently agree with her. Since Hogwarts Is Here launched, more than 62,000 students have signed up, Cardin says. More than a quarter are in that Defense Against Dark Arts Class I signed up for, with Professor “Lillian Mae.” Lillian, whose real name is Kristen, is a 21-year-old Florida college student studying theater design and teaching. She spends “a few hours” writing a new class lesson each week. On top of that, she grades student assignments with the help of a dozen teaching assistants and answers e-mails from a class with more students than some actual colleges.
“I usually spend any free time I have working on the course and the site,” she said. “It’s fun, though, and that’s why I don’t mind the hours.”
But the fun of “going” to Hogwarts doesn’t exactly ameliorate the conceptual weirdness of it. We are all familiar with other extravagant expressions of fandom: fan fiction, costumed conventions, even sports’ fantasy leagues — but those are, for the most part, all in good fun. Hogwarts classes are work. Work that ultimately goes nowhere. It echoes a critique the psychiatrist Drew Ramsey made of fandom last October: fan’s passions are problematic, he told Vulture, because they offer “no chance of rewards.”
That doesn’t sit well with Katherine Larsen, a professor of fan studies at George Washington University, co-author of the book “Fangasm,” and a devoted Supernatural fan. Research suggests plenty of concrete rewards for fandom, she notes, from identity and social group formation to feelings of pleasure and belonging. (Kristen, the HIH professor, is also quick to point out that her class teaches creative writing, critical thinking and research — “skills you can apply in the real world!”)
Every semester in her fan studies class, Larsen kicks off the course by assigning an essay called “Fandom as Pathology.” It runs through all the classic stereotypes and criticisms of fans: They’re too invested, they’re loners, they’re hysterical — they are, in other words, fanatics. Then the essay switches gears and analyzes academics. Frequently, they engage in the exact same behaviors as fans: the obsessive research, the constant fixation, the devotion of endless hours (and dollars!) to the subject of study.
“The only difference is the object of interest,” Larsen said by phone from Chicago, where she’s attending a national convention of academics in pop culture. “It’s fine to memorize and quote Shakespeare. But it’s not fine to quote a ‘Star Wars’ episode. The discomfort arises from the object of fandom itself … from a belief that some subjects are somehow more edifying.”
And it’s not just that some subjects are more edifying. Consider the different attitudes toward, say, an obsessive football fan and a 17-year-old girl enrolled in every class on HIH. It’s okay, even cool, for the football fan to paint his entire body in team colors, memorize the stats and life story of every player, spend hours online perfecting his fantasy — think about that, fantasy — team. But spending 45 minutes on a Potions essay? The knee-jerk response is “get a life.”
That’s because, Larsen says, “Harry Potter” is seen as childish, often feminine. And across the pop cultural spectrum, the subjects that earn the most disdain — One Direction, “Twilight,” anime — are often the things primarily liked by women or children.
Cardin doesn’t know if more women or men have registered with Hogwarts Is Here, since the site doesn’t ask registrants for their gender. More than 67 percent of students are older than age 18. And after a few hours on the site, it’s easy to see why people of any age would get on board: The lessons are entertaining and imaginative, like the books themselves. The Web site, with its layers of forums and profiles and clever nods to the series, feels like a more productive — dare we say, creative? — sort of fan fiction or role-playing game.
And the fans, well — the fans are great. HIH is run entirely by a corps of roughly 90 volunteers, who write the textbooks, teach the classes and keep the Web site running when it’s swamped by gawkers. Cardin says a team of 80, led by 15-year-old Mallory Harris, wrote the class textbooks. Seven professors and 81 assistants teach classes. (Cardin himself does all the development and graphics — it’s taken three months so far.) Cleveland, the Nebraska high-schooler, says she already made friends. She has also started volunteering herself, as a professor’s assistant in Defense Against the Dark Arts, and she’s graded more than 100 papers.
“Some people put a lot of time and effort into them and that makes me really happy,” she wrote. “It is a lot of fun because I get to see the great ideas and creativity of the other students … I am planning on staying in this for all seven years.”
Maybe seven years seems like a long time. And 100 papers seems like a lot of reading. But why should someone else’s dedication make us uncomfortable?
“There’s a tendency to present people who are passionate as somehow damaged, but I think that should be celebrated,” Larsen said. After all: “What’s the alternative? To live with no passion at all?”