Magical education

Monday I’ll teach Magic 101. At stake: what is magic–what are its sources, what can it do, and how is it supposed to differ from science or religion? Does it work mechanically, through wands and staffs and rings and words, or supernaturally, by more-than-human assistance, or in some other fashion? Can anyone be trained to work magic or is the talent inborn? Can an aptitude for magic be inherited like, say, the wealth that gives a person lifelong access to good education, culminating in attendance at the highly selective and very expensive liberal arts college where I will soon teach Magic 101?

W&L’s academic schedule includes two twelve-week terms, Fall and Winter, and a four-week Spring term in which students take only one 3- or 4-credit course; that means they have to read and write at triple-time, with 9-12 classroom contact hours per week. That’s sleight of hand, for English, anyway. In twelve weeks, students can read 8-12 novels or poetry collections per course; in four weeks, no matter how many classroom hours there are, you’d be mad to assign more than half that. And creative writing is tough, too. The dailiness can be an asset–writing immersively can be good for poets–but I can’t keep up with commenting on 8+ poems each by 15 students over four weeks. I’ve tried, and hate the choice between shortchanging them and exhausting myself. (My questions about magic are relevant to creative writing teaching, though, aren’t they? Is talent for poetry/ magic inborn or a function of privilege? Can it be trained in a classroom setting? Poetry-wizards fight hard about this–and also make money trying.)

This spring, in a season of low department enrollments, I’m going for maximum fun–although “Magical Education” also opens up some big, gnarly questions, which is partly why I’m interested. After that introductory conversation calling on students to analyze what they think they know about magic, we’ll read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1997 novella “Dragonfly” about coeducation at Roke, a late entry in her Earthsea cycle. (Full credit here to Suzanne Keen, who taught a similar topic in first-year composition here years ago–she was also the person who suggested on FB last year that “Dragonfly” might be a good fit for my syllabus.) During session on Le Guin’s story, we’ll pivot to documents from the 1970s and 1980s about W&L’s coeducating much later than other schools (1985). In the latter decision, ethical reasoning (diversity helps people learn) wasn’t as persuasive in the end as finances (most young men no longer wanted single-sex education, so the number and quality of applications, and therefore the value of the degree, were declining fast). In every way, W&L’s controversial choice paid off; sharing access helped everybody (and the endowment). Le Guin highlights the money and prestige male wizards hoard, too, as they fiercely defend their bigoted premise that men and women are different and need different kinds of education. I’d say the argument behind her story, though, is, more idealistically, the importance of change: education can be transformational, so educational institutions have to keep transforming, too. (Ahem, W&L.)

The next book, Akata Witch, has a blurb from Le Guin: “There’s more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okorafor’s work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics.” As I reread Akata Witch this week, I thought about how much it gives my class to chew on. Like Le Guin, Okorafor addresses privilege: her main character is a sort of first-generation student; Okorafor’s nature vs. nurture explanations for magical gifts are interesting. Like Le Guin, she advances theories on how the art should be taught, and that’s central to my course: my students’ final project will be to co-create a magical liberal arts college, its general education program, and its website, so they’ll have to think through the whys and wherefores.

But I’d say the deep premise of Akata Witch is that learning is not only transformational but painful and dangerous. The characters attend real and magical schools in tandem, and both institutions use corporal punishment. Okorafor’s school of magic, further, blends book-learning with experiential education, and the latter puts its students in serious physical danger regularly. This will be a loaded question to ask my students, some of whose parents may be white conservatives who say their kids shouldn’t be made uncomfortable by lessons that racism is systemic and everyone is implicated. But Okorafor is right that life is not safe for children anywhere, in any sense. I hate that U.S. classrooms have become mortally dangerous in an era of school shootings, and in what world should a young person risk death by approaching the wrong front door? On the other hand, it’s an open question whether expanding one’s thinking and gaining skill should hurt. Intellectual and artistic stretches sometimes have been painful, for me.

I typically learn as much as my students do during the first iteration of a course, so I’m deeply curious about how these discussions will go–how they might change my mind, too. I’ll circle back in a few weeks and give you the link to the college website they create. Fingers crossed for some magic.

English 239 Syllabus: Magical Education, Spring 2023: M-W-Th 1:30-4:30

Magic is just another kind of power—no different from political or economic or social influence.

            –Leigh Bardugo, New York Times Book Review, January 8, 2023

In fantasy fiction, power and potential are sometimes represented by magic—but authors imagine magic’s sources differently, with implications for how it should be developed. Students in this course will read fiction about schools of magic, analyzing their curricula and missions. In addition to writing analytically, students will co-create a web site for a fictional liberal arts college of magic. 

4/24     Magic 101; an introduction to Earthsea

4/26     Le Guin, “Dragonfly” 184-247 plus 275-280 from the afterword; Canvas post due 12:30

4/27     Okorafor, Akata Witch 1-97Canvas post due 12:30

5/1       Finish Akata Witchfirst quiz; come in with an idea for the essay. If you may write on Le Guin, bring that book to class, too.

5/3       Draft due for in-class workshop; Grossman, The Magicians 1-47

5/4       The Magicians 48-133; Canvas post due 12:30

            *Friday 10 am: essay #1 due (1500 words, hard copy)

5/8       The Magicians 134-300; Canvas post due 12:30

5/10     Finish The Magicians; “The Big Picture” section from Hanstedt’s General Education Essentials (on Canvas, under Files); second quiz

5/11     Bardugo, Ninth House 1-92; discuss name, characteristics, and mission of our Magical Liberal Arts College; 3 pm WordPress orientation, 50 minutes, with Helen McDermott; Canvas post due 12:30

5/15     Ninth House 93-285; students choose areas of responsibility for the website; 3-4 pm visit from members of W&L’s General Education committees; Canvas post due 12:30

5/17     Finish Ninth House; last quiz; in-class work on website drafts  

5/18     Continue workshopping drafts and begin to upload; course evaluations

*Monday 5/22: final project complete; reflective essay due via Canvas

Beyond this syllabus, and Harry Potter:

Our major readings are from series, all of which I recommend. If we had all the time in the world, here are some other books I like about schools of magic (there are more!—I just haven’t read them all):

  • R. F. Kuang’s Babel and The Poppy Wars
  • Naomi Novik, Deadly Education and sequels
  • Ostertag, The Witch Boy (graphic novel)
  • Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky (partly)
  • Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind
  • Diana Wynne Jones, Year of the Griffin

Not quite on the money, but a great novel about an ordinary college permeated by magical happenings:

  • Pamela Dean, Tam Lin

3 responses to “Magical education”

  1. I so wish I could take this class!! I enrolled in a school for astrological magic two years ago; I’ll graduate and begin, with any luck, teaching magic in the school as TA in 2024.

    One of the interesting things, I’ve found, about studying magic as a “real” discipline—in the same way I once studied creative writing or literature—is that the best classes and teachers disrupt canonical ideas about what magic is, what it’s for (especially in the age of the Anthropocene), who gets access to it and how, and, as you mentioned above, who gets to call themselves a “talented” magician, or “good at magic.”

    Anyways! Best of luck with the class, and thanks for writing about it here!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. (Ahem, W&L). !! The best aside.
    This sounds like a fun and inventive class. I agree that transformative learning is often quite dangerous, one way or another. Most dangerous to authorities and the status quo, however.


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