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Katherine Sciurba and Naim Martin at San Diego Comic-Con in 2021. (Photo: Lemuel Cabrera) Katherine Sciurba and Naim Martin at San Diego Comic-Con in 2021. (Photo: Lemuel Cabrera)
 


SDSUxCOMIC-CON: Harry Potter’s Academic Magic

An SDSU literacy expert and her former research participant bring powerful credentials to Comic-Con’s Potter Fandom panel.
By Michael Klitzing
 

Katherine Sciurba remembers feeling butterflies as devoted denizens of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin filed in by the hundreds. Seats disappeared quickly and soon the standing-room spaces began to vanish, too.

An academic conference this most certainly was not.

It was during last fall’s scaled-down special edition of Comic-Con International that Sciurba — an associate professor of literacy education at San Diego State University and director of the SDSU Literacy Center — first nervously graced the long-running Harry Potter Fandom panel.

She was invited to discuss her past research into the Harry Potter series and its significance to young boys of color. Joining her to add his perspective was Naim Martin, a Bronx native who participated in the study as a middle schooler more than a decade ago.

“I was so relieved when I saw Naim in the hallway,” Sciurba recalled. “I was like, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’ I was trying not to hyperventilate."

The two were a hit on the panel — so much so that this week Sciurba and Martin will reprise their appearance before “Potterheads”  at the San Diego Convention Center and experience Comic-Con in all its glory (details below).

"I expect to have 10 times as many people as last time,” said Martin, now a data analyst in Arlington, Virginia. “And I expect to be 10 times more nervous.”

Deeper themes

Thanks to Sciurba and Martin, the large audience of Harry Potter fans will explore issues that reach far beyond the walls of Hogwarts.

Sciurba found herself on Comic-Con’s radar because of research she conducted in the late 2000s while a Ph.D. student at New York University. She interviewed a group of middle school boys of color in an all-male New York City arts academy for their thoughts on two books, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first volume in the series.

Each Wednesday, more than a dozen 12- and 13-year-olds met with Sciurba before their school day to dissect what they were reading. What surprised Sciurba at the time was the way the boys found the disparate texts — one a memoir of an iconic Black civil rights leader, the other a fictitious tale about a young white wizard — similarly empowering.

"The main idea in both is that you can't be afraid of getting in trouble for standing up for what's right,” recalled Martin. “There are different ways they went about it, of course, but at the end of the day, the main character of the story is telling you that you've got to do something.”

Sciurba concluded that acknowledging the intersectionality of young readers is key to fostering youth empowerment and developing literacy practices that promote equity. The project proved to be a transformative experience that shaped her perspective on how to be a more effective literacy instructor. She is currently working on a book project based on follow-up interviews conducted with six participants — including Martin — a decade after the initial study.  

“For me, the foundation of my work is the idea that we can't always predict what a reader is going to take away from a story,” Sciurba said. “We can't predict how meaningful that story is going to be to a reader until we start asking them questions and having them articulate their ideas and perspective. I think that’s the message I bring to this panel.”

Sciurba draws a parallel between Harry Potter’s salience with young readers of color with the continued meaning the stories hold for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, despite remarks by author J. K. Rowling widely criticized as transphobic.

“We can't take away all of the magic that that story has created for young people — especially young people who have been marginalized,” Sciurba said. “The LGBTQIA+ community had a large presence in the room at the panel last fall. There were very hurtful remarks made by the author, but that shouldn't take the derivative meaning and significance that they’ve created from the work.”

Martin is eager to share not only his thoughts on Harry Potter, but also how his formative educational experiences show a better way forward for educating urban youth.

“I take this as an opportunity to talk about the fact that everything in my life that I am grateful for stems from education,” he said. “This is my chance to say ‘Do it the right way.’ Schools need to be able to cultivate — to sprinkle a little water so the seeds can grow.”

The “Are We Wizards? The Harry Potter Fandom in 2022” panel is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21, in Room 29CD.

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