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A new perspective: Professor uses Harry Potter series to teach sociology

Lady setting at her desk talking to her students
Bertena Varney, instructs her sociology class, which is based
on the Harry Potter series, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, at
Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College.
Photo by Miranda Pederson/Daily News
How do you relate death, hunger and mentally and physically disabled people to author J.K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter series?

Students do it with those and other topics each Tuesday and Thursday in Bertena Varney's "Inequality in Society" class at Southern Kentucky Community and Technological College, where Varney is an associate professor of sociology.

"We've incorporated pop culture in class," she said. "It's the first immersion class at this community college."

Students are sorted into houses, just as they are in the book at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The houses are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin.

"Each day a house has to lead the course and relate it to national and international issues," Varney said. "It's more of a laid-back class. We let the students do it because they're more invested."

The students are graded on quizzes, discussions and projects. They earn house points by coming dressed in Harry Potter attire, helping out in class and with social media, tutoring, attending campus events and doing community service, Varney said. The houses compete to see who can win the house cup and 50 bonus points.

"Once you get them thinking about other people besides themselves, they take off. It teaches them a lot of social skills and problem solving," she said.

It's easier for students to find out "how they can work together to make the world a better place," Varney said of her class.

On Thursday, students from Hufflepuff talked about "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" chapters 5-10. They discussed how Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost of Gryffindor tower, may have become a ghost because he feared death. They related that to how people celebrate death in events such as the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and the elaborate and expensive funerals in Ghana, West Africa.

For hunger, they discussed how there was always food available at Hogwarts, but when Harry was with his family, the Durselys, they withheld food from him, making him small and malnourished. This was related to how there are children in the United Kingdom who are hungry because parents in England may be too proud to ask for help.

In reference to the disabled and mentally challenged, the class discussed how people in the books who were born in the nonmagical or "muggle" world and squibs, who were born in the magical world but could not do magic, were looked down upon. Sometimes mentally and physically disabled people are looked at as less than normal.

The discussions were animated as Varney and the students asked questions and gave their opinions. Many thought the class didn't feel like one.

"I wasn't required to take this class," said Makayla Monday, a sophomore from Tomkinsville. "It fits in as an elective. It's my favorite class to come to."

Monday, who was sorted into the Gryffindor house, said she loves the Harry Potter aspect of the class and enjoys having Varney as a teacher.

"It's not hard to learn in her class," she said. "She puts it in terms that you really understand."

She has learned a lot in class.

"I wasn't aware that there were more cases of death from hunger than malaria and tuberculosis," she said. "I like being able to have that knowledge about the world I live in."

Kaylee Sturm, a sophomore sociology major from Bowling Green, likes how the Harry Potter series relates to inequalities in society and creating solutions.

"It's a fun way to learn," she said. "We do community service and campaign for the Harry Potter Alliance."

Sturm, who was sorted into Slytherin house, saw a lot of issues that might be overlooked.

"I never knew there were so many things going on," she said. "It gives you a new perspective on the books."
Follow features reporter Alyssa Harvey on Twitter @bgdnfeatures or visit bgdailynews.com.