x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pop culture sweeps into academia, on a broomstick

Wizards prepare: Durham University now offers a Harry Potter module in its curriculum.

Aspiring wizards may want to check out Durham University's course: Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion.
Aspiring wizards may want to check out Durham University's course: Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion.

Get your wands at the ready and your cauldrons nice and shiny, would-be witches and wizards, for Durham University has just announced the inclusion of a Harry Potter module in its curriculum. That's right. A whole course dedicated to that wonderful, yet wholly fictional, character, the young wizard Harry Potter. "Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion", which will be taught as part of the Education Studies BA degree at the prestigious university, will focus on "the relevance of Harry Potter to the educational system in the 21st century", as well as the social, cultural and educational ramifications of the series of books.

We're not sure you'll learn how to ride a broomstick - and we're pretty sure you can forget being taught the Unforgivable Curses - but the university has already seen 80 of its high-achieving students sign up for the module. The only course of its kind in the world, it seems rather apt that Durham would be the first educational institute to offer it, given that scenes from the first two film adaptations were shot at the nearby Durham Cathedral.

But though we might raise an eyebrow at the credibility of such a course, compare it with a number of other degrees that have been offered by British universities over the years, and "Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion" doesn't look quite so ridiculous. Dubbed "Mickey Mouse" degrees by British tabloids, there has been a rise in the number of undergraduate courses being taught that have been criticised for their so-called lack of merit.

But just because a degree isn't conventional, does that make it any less worthwhile? In 2007 the Taxpayers' Alliance released a report attacking 401 "non-courses", labelling them a drain on public spending. Among the degrees mentioned were "Outdoor Adventure with Philosophy", at Marjon, the University College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth; "Science: Fiction and Culture", at the University of Glamorgan; "Equestrian Psychology", at the Welsh College of Horticulture in Mold, Flintshire; "Fashion Buying", at Manchester Metropolitan University; and "Golf Management", at UHI Millennium Institute, based in Inverness.

It's easy to scoff, but given that more than 90 per cent of last year's Golf Management graduates at the University of Birmingham were employed within six months of completing their degrees, it would seem that the term "Mickey Mouse" might be undeserved, in some cases at least. Of course, that's not to say that some of the courses, which have been criticised (step forward, "David Beckham Studies" at Staffordshire University) are unworthy of such scorn.

We doubt Staffordshire's David Beckham module will improve over time, but feelings of animosity towards other degrees once considered "dumb" have been known to change. It was not so long ago, in 1858 to be precise, that the highly prestigious University College of London was criticised for "dumbing down" after the introduction of its English Literature degree. Professor Ellis Cashmore, who organised the David Beckham Studies module back in 2000, said in defence of the course: "We will be examining the rise of football from its folk origins in the 17th century to the central place it occupies in British culture.

"We do have to concede that Beckham occupies a lot of our attention today. He's the object of a great many fantasies." And while we agree with the professor that Beckham may indeed be the star of many a daydream, we're not sure that qualifies him as worthy of study. Regardless, Staffordshire University is not the only place to offer an entire class dedicated to a celebrity. That most hallowed of educational institutes, Harvard, offers up a Madonna module within its gender studies courses, while at Illinois University, Oprah Winfrey studies are available.

Other undergraduate degrees that have been labelled a "sham" include a three-year celebrity-journalism course (also at Staffordsshire), a Surf, Science and Technology course at the University of Plymouth and Hairdressing and Salon Management at the University of Derby. Sham or not, our favourite dubious course is Star Trek Studies, offered up by Georgetown University in Washington. Do you have to learn Klingon for that?