Harry Potter given trigger warning as university warns students of ‘difficult’ content

·4-min read
JK Rowling - Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
JK Rowling - Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

A university has added a trigger warning to its English course covering Harry Potter, telling students it could lead to “difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class and identity”.

The “Approaches to Literature” module at the University of Chester’s English department has also offered undergraduates the opportunity to “get in touch” if they have “any issues with the content” of the course.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is among the literary texts for the course, run by Dr Richard Leahy, a lecturer in English literature, alongside Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.

All three texts are considered either fantasy, dystopian or sci-fi young adult fiction, and feature either magical creatures or post-apocalyptic battles to the death between children.

The trigger warning tells students: “Although we are studying a selection of young adult texts on this module, the nature of the theories we apply to them can lead to some difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class, and identity.

Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games - Film Stills
Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games - Film Stills

“These topics will be treated objectively, critically, and most crucially, with respect. If anyone has any issues with the content, please get in touch with the Module Leader to make them aware.”

Responding to the trigger warning, Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, said: “Katniss Everdeen [The Hunger Games’ protagonist] may have lived in a dystopian world in the Hunger Games. Some may argue that our universities are creating one for our students too.”

A University of Chester spokesman declined to explain how these three texts could prompt “difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class and identity”, while Dr Leahy did not respond to a request for comment.

The warning at the bottom of his module is not featured on any other course’s reading lists in the information pack, entitled “Summer Reading for Students Commencing Studies in Single Honours English Language and Literature in September 2021”, which also include works by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan, Charlotte Bronte and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The trigger warning came after Rowling faced accusations of transphobia after she initially sparked controversy in June 2020 for posting tweets which took issue with the phrase “people who menstruate”, because she objected to the avoidance of the use of the word “women”.

The author was also criticised by some for disputing the idea that male and female sexes do not exist, and revealed that her interest in trans issues came about because she is a survivor of abuse and has concerns around single-sex spaces.

University of Chester’s English department is including Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in its ‘Approaches to Literature’ module for undergraduates - Jonny White/Alamy Stock Photo
University of Chester’s English department is including Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in its ‘Approaches to Literature’ module for undergraduates - Jonny White/Alamy Stock Photo

As a result of her views, she has since divided opinion, and actors from the Harry Potter film franchise – including its three stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson – are among those who have distanced themselves from her comments.

Earlier this month, it emerged that her name was dropped from a school house over her “viewpoints surrounding trans people”. The Boswells School in Chelmsford, Essex had honoured the Harry Potter author by naming one of its in-school houses, associated with the quality of “self-discipline”, after her.

However, last summer, she was replaced by Dame Kelly Holmes, the Olympic champion athlete, who said she was “honoured” by the move and that it is “nice for a school to have a more diverse range of people” as role models.

A University of Chester spokesman said: “Those studying literature should expect to encounter all the issues, challenges and complexity of humankind. As a university, we promote rather than avoid discussion on these.

“We do, of course, include a generic paragraph on our reading lists to draw attention to the opportunity for individual students to talk with tutors if anything is particularly difficult because of its personal relevance.”

They added: “Tutors know how to signpost students to specialist support which is occasionally needed, but often the tutorial or seminar discussion is sufficient for a student to put an issue in context.

“The example module picked out is generic – rather than specific to the three texts mentioned. For further clarification, the department agreed a standard form of words for Level 4 students (usually joining from school or college).

“The module picked out uses this generic text and an additional paragraph just to reiterate that young adult texts can also prompt important conversations.”

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