The secret lives of our profs

Jamie Gajewski

If the Professor Kern who arrived at Lawrence University 17 years ago walked into the current Professor Kern’s office, he would initially be shocked to discover that the future Kern was researching a modern book series about a young wizard. However, after a few minutes spent discussing Kern’s thesis, and perhaps reminiscing about the purity of the progressive rock scene, both Kerns would agree that his interest in Harry Potter grew out of his interest in the history of magic and witchcraft.
“Seventeen years ago, I never would have thought that I would be researching a twentieth century work,” said Kern. “I’m usually more concerned with people who have been dead for four or five hundred years.”
Kern’s interest in Early Modern European History has taken him throughout Europe. Through the Fulbright program, he researched witchcraft trials in Styria, Austria, where around 300 cases of witchcraft were reported in a 200-year period.
During his grant year of 1989-90, many historical events were unfolding on his Austrian television set, such as the revolution in Romania. Kern’s one regret is not having enough money to catch a train to Berlin, for obvious reasons.
Based on his interests, Kern has been offering a course entitled “Religion, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” since his arrival at Lawrence. The course has remained a mostly-permanent part of the History Department’s offerings, due to its overwhelming popularity.
While parents might be shocked to discover “Servants of Satan” or other books with alarming names on their child’s reading list, Lawrentians continue to make room in their schedules each year to learn about witchcraft and witch-hunting in Europe between 1350 and 1750.
Last year was the first year that Professor Kern did not offer his course on witchcraft and magic. Instead, he taught a course called “Thinking about Harry Potter,” for which he required a written paragraph as a pre-requisite. Kern used the paragraphs as “evidence that the students had thoroughly read all seven books.”
Kern explained that the majority of the paragraphs were written about growing up with Harry Potter as part of a literary experience, or using the series as a springboard for other creative activity such as drawing or writing. During the term, students explored the themes embedded in Rowling’s books from a variety of viewpoints including religious, philosophical, psychological and historical. Both of the previously mentioned courses are being offered this year.
Currently, Professor Kern is revising his book “The Wisdom of Harry Potter.” Since the first edition was written on the first four books, with an afterward published about the fifth, the second edition will include material on books five through seven.
Kern is gratified that his original thesis still holds. The revision will also include more information about religious symbolism, especially in the last book, although Kern believes that the Harry Potter series is essentially secular.
Kern has been interviewed about his opinions on Harry Potter as well as on magical phenomena and superstitions. In the summer of 2007, he was contacted for information surrounding the number seven as couples traipsed down the aisle on the seventh day of the seventh month of 2007. He finds that he also becomes useful “whenever gambling becomes a new story. They sometime contact me when a new casino opens or there is a big lottery payout.”
In his free time, Kern enjoys mortal activities such as listening to music, playing with his children and woodworking. Kern makes “mostly simple things,” such as shelves and cabinets, recognizing that, unlike our favorite hero, he has limitations and lacks a phoenix feather wand.