The Might of Magic

Now that the hype has died down and I had some time to recover, it’s about time I write something about the mind-blowing experience that has been “Magic Is Might 2012”, the conference that Gráinne O’Brien of the Department of Sociology and myself organised here at UL a couple of weeks ago.
I say mind-blowing because this event has provided me with many surprises, challenges, opportunities and, generally, plenty of food for thought – to the point that I am still trying to process it all.

But first things first: about 2 years ago I met Gráinne through a UL colleague who knew we were both Potterheads and thought we’d have a lot to talk about. She was right: Gráinne and I know the books deeply, and are very interested in the themes and characters of the story, as well as the cultural impact that it has had on fans. I use Harry Potter in my Information Society module as a case study of how online communities can develop, and Gráinne has written her MA thesis in Gender, Culture and Society on the character of Lord Voldemort.

The day that Dragons came to UL (artwork by Lette Moloney from a photo by Neville Gawley)

So about 14 months ago Gráinne suggested that we hold an academic event on Harry Potter at UL, issuing a call for papers, reviewing submissions and selecting a program of good quality presentations for the event. Nothing too strange nor different from countless other academic conferences on whatever topic held at universities around the globe, including some that I have myself organised in the past.
However, it was a very new experience for me to review papers that were inspired by the same source material I know so well, but coming from so many disparate disciplinary areas: from education, to design, business, technology and cultural theory. The submissions showed us right away that we could select an interesting and challenging program.

Then things started becoming even more more unusual. We wanted our conference to be a venue for presenting good academic work, but we also wanted it to be something that the (presumably) Potter-loving attendees would find memorable. As the conference was not affiliated nor authorised in any way by JK Rowling and her publishers, nor by Warner Bros., we were careful to respect the intellectual property of the author and filmmakers. It meant, however, that we put together a wonderful team of people to create original content to make our event truly unique. For example, the idea of a trial emerged, where an episode from the books, the “infamous” moment when Dolores Umbridge is abducted by a herd of angry centaurs into Hogwarts’ Forbidden Forest, would be scrutinized from a legal point of view, and participants would be asked to debate on whether the character’s obvious unpleasantness was enough to justify her punishment. A colleague from the School of Law at UL scripted the entire trial, including witness statements which were shot by the talented crowd at MoCinema in Limerick. As we kept the subject of the trial secret until the last moment, we also got some “teaser” photos created by another local company, Moloney Media, and shot in the UL Moot Courtroom (where the trial was actually held during the conference). The amount and quality of work that was kindly donated by these local businesses to the conference is incredible.

Dementors in the UL Moot Court! (Copyright: Keith Moloney)

Lette at Moloney Media also created wonderful original graphics for our blog and social media pages, and fabulous original crests for the four Hogwarts Houses to be displayed on decorative banners at the conference venue. If this wasn’t enough, the volunteers who agreed to come and help us run the event smoothly also created excellent artwork to transform the C1 corridor in the UL Main Building into a “mini-Hogwarts” with club posters, class noticeboards and so on. The place looked fantastic!

True to my colours: posing with the Ravenclaw Banner (Banner design: Lette Moloney; Photo: Hannah Deacon)

When, finally, the presenters (coming from three continents!) arrived and the talks started, I was thrilled to hear so many interesting papers: for example, Jennifer Trieu‘s wonderful discussion of how food is used in the books to define British national identity; Berry and Daan Eggen‘s reflections on how novel interaction technologies can realise some of the visions of magic in the books; and Cathy Leogrande‘s analysis of how the books have produced impressive examples of transmedia storytelling – to mention but a few. I was even more thrilled by how easily the group debated all the contributions, often offering the authors a uniquely novel perspective on their work. For my paper, I -and interaction designer- talked about the characterisation of home places in the books, and received questions from sociologists, cultural theorists and educators. It doesn’t happen every day!

Muggle Studies Class perhaps? (Photo by Hannah Deacon)

I think that for everyone a definite highlight was the invited keynote presentation that Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey delivered on the second day of the conference. Abbot Hederman, who has a PhD in education and has written widely on the subject, sharply addressed the dismissing opinions on the books expressed by some critics, arguing how it is impossible to ignore the influence of Harry Potter when so many millions of people have read, appropriated and become involved with the story.

(L-R) Me, Gráinne and Mark Patrick Hederman during the photoshoot by the Whomping Willow (Photo by Alan Ryan)

Overall, I think the conference was an academic and knowledge transfer success: we received only positive feedback from the attendees and presenters.

My own account of the experience, however, would not be complete if I didn’t mention the totally unexpected and completely overwhelming media frenzy that “Magic Is Might” generated in Ireland. While working with the UL Press Office on the press release for the event, I would never have thought  that such a reaction was to be expected.

The madness began when a certain radio broadcaster with huge following broke the embargo on the press release and mentioned the conference on his radio show as, more or less, nonsense (e.g. “Why should taxpayers’ money be spent on people discussing a kids book???”). The following day, I had the opportunity to answer his questions on air gaining some good feedback from listeners and critics. After the interview, almost every media outlet in the country wanted to talk to us. The result was a mad day of interviews, photo shoots and phone calls, all on top of the normal conference activities, and media coverage including all the national newspapers (Times, Independent and Examiner), Limerick and Clare newspapers, local and national radio, and the evening prime time TV news! (Gulp!)

I found it incredible that you had to explain why something that has inspired so many people in so many ways is worth studying, and that I had to argue for people’s freedom to examine and reflect on what shapes contemporary culture and leads to new knowledge in so many fields. As my “everyday” research is pretty easily applicable to solving everyday problems or to supporting work and leisure activities, I never realised how difficult it might be for people in less immediately translated areas of research to communicate the worth of what they do to the general public. While reading some articles online on this issue after the “radio interview experience”, I even came across criticism to CERN’s research on subatomic particles (e.g. “What do we need Higgs’ Boson for when we cannot even see it?” O/), so imagine what we could have got back for debating a fictional boy wizard with an anger management problem!

A new student society for UL? (Artwork by Hannah Deacon)

I must say that, however, except for a few bemused comments on Twitter, the feedback to “Magic is Might” has been fantastically positive. Receiving emails from people in mental health, education and psychology in the wake of the news coverage, explaining how Harry Potter has helped them in their work was absolutely inspiring.

So, even at our little conference, the might of magic prevailed in the end.

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