An unconventional anthropology/religion class draws an enthusiastic crowd of students.

For a generation of college students raised on the sacred texts of Harry Potter, a course entitled “Defense Against the Dark Arts” is nearly irresistible.

It was no surprise, then, when just such a class—joint listed in religious studies and anthropology and taught by a professor from each department—filled up instantly last spring. “We had serious enrollment pressure,” says religious studies professor Erik Davis, who co-taught the course with anthropology’s Ron Barrett. “The wait list was longer that the number of students we could accept in the class.”

Once the students—mostly seniors—convened, they found themselves in a truly diverse group, says economics and anthropology major Lauren Martinez ’12 (Redmond, Wash.), with biology, chemistry, history, and English majors sitting alongside the more predictable anthropology and religion majors. The diversity of backgrounds was an asset, she adds. “Having lots of different perspectives in class pushed me to think about the material in new ways.”

The significant number of hard science students enrolled in the class was a surprise to him, says Davis, though he speculates they were attracted at least in part by Barrett’s expertise in medical anthropology. Whatever their major, says Barrett, “the students were really engaged in the subject. They latched onto the material and really did something with it.”

Topics such as shamanism, mysticism, and Satanism were indeed met with great enthusiasm, says Tyler Martinson ’12 (Northfield, Minn.). Because it was a three-hour night class, he says, there was plenty of time for in-depth analysis of texts and presentations by students as well as by both faculty members. “Our opinions were taken as valuably as those of the professors and authors,” he says.

Some of the course material—which also included explorations of spirit possession, magical healing, witchcraft, voodoo, zombies, and séances—was unexpected, says Martinez. She was especially surprised by a section on psychoanalysis, which included psychoanalyzing the famous Mr. Potter after viewing parts of the final film in the noted series.

But even that week of the course—a favorite of several students—made sense, says Martinson. “The overlying theme of the class was the conflation of magic, religion, and science,” he says. “We were looking at explanations of human experience of the inexplicable.”

July 25 2012

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