George Mason University

News at Mason

Study-abroad trip uses Harry Potter series as a cultural lens

March 16, 2020   /   by Colleen Kearney Rich

Students on Mason's applied cross-cultural psychology study-abroad trip over winter break traveled to Bath, England, to observe some of the Roman influences on British culture. Photo provided.

George Mason University’s PSYC 379 Applied Cross-Cultural Psychology is a favorite for study-abroad trips. Experiencing another culture while examining how culture influences the way people view themselves, others, and the world around them makes it a perfect fit.

Over winter break, students in one section of PSYC 379 took a trip with a twist, to the United Kingdom to immerse themselves in the magical world of Harry Potter.

“The cross-cultural psychology course abroad has been led by several academic directors, including other graduate students, in the past,” said Mason clinical psychology PhD student Emma Whitmyre. “Anna and I chose to put a pop-culture Harry Potter spin on the class and set the itinerary across England and Scotland.”

The course, which had the subtitle “Through the Lens of Harry Potter,” was led by Whitmyre and fellow clinical psychology PhD student Anna Defayette. Whitmyre and Defayette are part of Mason’s Lab for Adolescent Mental Health Promotion, which focuses on adolescent mental health, specifically risk behaviors and suicide awareness, and they have both taught adolescent development. It was for these reasons that they said they were interested in exploring the world British author J. K. Rowling created with her series of fantasy novels and the subsequent film franchise.

PSYC 379 students at Stonehenge. Photo provided.

“Themes of maltreatment and trauma underlie the Harry Potter series,” said Defayette. “[My] interest in the relationship between Harry Potter and psychology started toward the end of undergrad after taking a post-grad job working with kids with histories of maltreatment. This job led me to view the series in a new way.”

The group of 18 undergraduates spent 14 days exploring sights in England and Scotland, including Stonehenge, the Roman Baths, Gloucester Cathedral and the Harry Potter Experience at Leavesden Studios. Psychology majors made up half the group, which also included a few government and politics, criminology, English, and human development and family science majors.

There were also the Gryffindors, Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs and Slytherins. Yes, Defayette and Whitmyre actually sorted their students into the Hogwarts houses. But instead of using the talking hat from the fictional British boarding school, they used a quiz on Buzzfeed.

“[Sorting] seemed to go over well. We often asked students to group by houses—or ‘house up’ if you will—rather than asking them to count off individually,” said Defayette. “We also used the quiz to generate discussions around personality characteristics, psychological testing and measurement error, and cultural factors that might impact the sorting results.”

In their readings and discussions, the class also explored issues and practices in socialized medicine and mental health services, and compared pressing psychological and sociological issues in the United States and the U.K. One of the side trips included a visit with the University of Glasgow’s psychology department and a discussion of mental health issues.

The trip even included some magical moments.

“We saw students’ faces light up at our first Harry Potter stop—Gloucester Cathedral—where they filmed many of the Hogwarts hallway scenes,” Whitmyre said as she listed her favorite moments of the trip. “It was as if we were all standing in Hogwarts together as a class.”