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The Patronus Paradox

Dispelling the Dementors of Grad School

Published onJul 03, 2022
The Patronus Paradox

Photo by Tim van Cleef on Unsplash

A time-traveler named Harry Potter awaits the appearance of his dead father on the edge of a vast lake bordered by forest. It’s nighttime, and the castle of Hogwarts looms in all its might and mystery over the water. Harry watches impatiently as, across the lake, cloaked creatures called dementors swarm his friend Hermione and godfather Sirius, hungry for their souls. There, beside them, weakly attempting to cast a Patronus Charm to repel the dementors, is another Harry Potter, Harry’s past self. The watching Harry knows, because he has seen it already through prior-Harry’s eyes, that someone across the lake from the dementors is about to produce a powerful Patronus that will save all of their lives. He is certain it’s his father. And so he waits. 

Muggles well-acquainted with the third installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, will know who ends up conjuring the Patronus. But even Harry himself doesn’t fully understand what happens in that moment. 

So what truly rescues Harry?

For us — three former humanities graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin who also happen to be lifelong Harry Potter fans — the world of Harry Potter, and especially Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, has always offered irresistible parallels to academia. (We’re not the first to mine these similarities.) The shame and impostor syndrome Harry experiences in school resonate surprisingly well with the psychological and institutional obstacles grad students so often face. For us, these challenges are the dementors of grad school. 

But Harry’s story illuminates more than just the struggles of student life within academic institutions: it’s relentless in the belief that these struggles can be overcome. While J.K. Rowling has, crushingly, allied herself with oppressive power structures through her repeated transphobic comments, here we reclaim the Harry Potter novels themselves as spaces of inspiration, resistance, and empowerment for the vulnerable. 

Prisoner of Azkaban insists, after all, that there’s a magical pathway to defeat the dementors: the “very, very advanced spell” known as the Patronus Charm. In this piece, we search for the Patronuses of grad school — and how we might possibly conjure them. First, we uncloak the dementors of academia: what do they look like? Where do their clammy hands reach? Then, just like Harry, we will visit the moment on the edge of the lake twice, from two different perspectives. And, just like for Harry, the first visit will provide an incomplete picture of what truly happened. It’s only when we return, like time-traveling Harry, that we can figure out what it really takes to produce a Patronus.  

Dementors. Among the most terrifying creations in the Harry Potter universe, these creatures physically suck out your hope and joy and crush your will to live, turning you into a shell of a person. As such, they simulate depression, and even force you to revisit your most traumatic memories. But they’re so much more than that. In the larger wizarding world, the Ministry of Magic employs dementors as guards at the maximum-security wizard prison, Azkaban, where they become instruments of individualized psychological torture. When notorious (and wrongfully convicted) inmate Sirius Black escapes to allegedly kill Harry Potter at Hogwarts, the Ministry unleashes the dementors from Azkaban. Suddenly, they are ordered to roam the grounds of Hogwarts, policing the schoolchildren like prisoners in order to keep them safe from Black. Remarkably, then, dementors become not only an embodiment of depression; they take on the additional role of systemic psychological oppressions wielded by the overarching institution. Dementors are both personal and structural forces, both internal and external. 

As Muggle graduate students, we may not be able to see dementors gliding through the halls of our department, but which of us hasn’t felt vague, cold despair wash over us when we feel inadequate, unbelonging, or unsuccessful? It’s impostor syndrome, we diagnose ourselves. Nearly every grad student has experienced it. Not even Harry Potter himself is immune, as someone who grew up outside the magical world and arrives at Hogwarts not feeling deep down like the extraordinary wizard everyone thinks he is. Impostor syndrome whispers, you got in by mistake, you’re just pretending to be accepted, you’ll soon be sent back on the Hogwarts Express. All the problems you’re experiencing: they’re fundamentally your own fault. We tend to speak of impostor syndrome as nothing more than a “complex” we must overcome. But when we identify the source of these debilitating feelings as our own internal inadequacies, we often can’t see that they are actually rooted in institutional structures. 

Structures such as the temporal paradox of grad school. 

As teachers, researchers, and writers, we grad students are routinely asked and expected to do things we’ve never done before. Of course, these are the challenges we come to grad school for in the first place. Yet, all too often, grad students are expected to pull off these tasks miraculously with the confidence and expertise of someone who’s done them several times already, like a time-traveler. It’s as though universities assume we all have Hermione’s Time-Turner, a time-travel device that (with typical Rowling humor) is sanctioned by the Ministry of Magic not for saving lives, not for undoing mistakes, but only so Hermione can take more coursework. As grad students, we painstakingly labor to teach undergraduates from various uneven secondary educational experiences how to put together the academic essay: how to find sources, generate a compelling thesis, organize body paragraphs. Yet the academic institution rarely recognizes that we too enter with uneven experiences and need classes on how to write a conference paper or structure a dissertation. 

Instead, such avenues are correctives, extra advice given on the sidelines for those of us who fail. This overly evaluative or even punitive mentorship —perhaps more aptly called dementorship — is a sadly common form of guidance that aims to “toughen up” apprentice scholars via comments like “you don’t know how to write” and “oh no, you’re really not ready for the job market.” And dementorship reflects other systemic flaws of academia. Among these are environments marked by competition over collaboration and universities’ tendencies to socially and economically reward their overworked professors’ research output far above teaching and mentorship. Hermione would remind you that numerous studies and personal accounts have shown that such forces disproportionately affect women, graduate students and faculty of color, and other marginalized groups in the academy. What Hogwarts: A History might not mention is that the racist structure of the university is nothing new, as activist-scholars have extensively mapped out. 

Structural forces like dementorship and the temporal paradox lead insidiously to imposter syndrome. How? Through a nearly universal “fake-it-till-you-make-it” mentality that emerges as a necessary survival mechanism. We have to “fake it” in response to the expectations that we’ve already “made it.” Each grad student looks around and believes that they’re the only odd one out: everyone else is a brilliant Prefect magically coasting through the halls and jumping through the hoops of academia. Because each grad student is faking it, no one realizes that most everyone is feeling just as insecure as they are on the inside. And when not constantly excelling is a secret you must hide, “fake-it-till-you-make-it” turns toxic. It stigmatizes mistakes and prevents people from seeking help for fear of admitting there’s something they don’t understand. At the same time, it creates an unhealthy awareness that you’re always pretending, so that even when you actually have “made it”— defended your thesis, gotten that elusive academic job — those moments of triumph remain linked to deep-seated insecurities. It was just a house-elf hire, they needed to fill their magical creatures quota. The entire learning process becomes infected with shame.

So there they are, swarming the campus. The invisible dementors of grad school, systemic forces that manifest for each of us as personal psychological oppressions. Now how can we dispel them without wands?

In Harry Potter, the only way to battle a dementor is with the Patronus Charm. This complex incantation creates a Patronus, a physical projection of happiness that takes the form of an animal unique to each individual. But the Patronus has a dual nature. In Prisoner of Azkaban, it is a powerful weapon that repels dementors and at the same time an extremely advanced spell Harry struggles and struggles to produce throughout the whole book — until the moment on the edge of the lake.  

To seek out our grad-school Patronus, let’s now take our first visit to that lake.

In the final, pivotal moments of the novel, time-traveling Harry waits anxiously to confirm his suspicions about the identity of the mysterious spell-caster who is about to save his prior self. When prior-Harry was rescued by a Patronus, he was too delirious with fear, grief, and despair to process who or what conjured it. Only later-Harry, the one who has now traveled back in time to this moment, has the impossible idea that it may have been his long-dead father, James Potter. 

Harry’s curiosity soon turns into a yearning bordering on desperation that propels him right up to the edge of the lake, where he waits for a glimpse: 

A terrified excitement shot through him — any moment now —

“Come on!” he muttered, staring about. “Where are you? Dad, come on—” 

But no one came. Harry raised his head to look at the circle of dementors across the lake. One of them was lowering its hood. It was time for the rescuer to appear — but no one was coming to help this time—

And then it hit him — he understood. He hadn’t seen his father — he had seen himself — 

Harry flung himself out from behind the bush and pulled out his wand. 

“EXPECTO PATRONUM!” he yelled. (411)

This critical moment, which ends when Harry finally succeeds in producing the Patronus, is bound up in a classic time-travel paradox or loop: the younger Harry is circularly saved by the time-traveling Harry even as the younger Harry needs to survive for the time-traveling Harry to save him. Afterward, Harry declares to Hermione (who is shocked that he’s performed such a difficult spell), “I knew I could do it this time...because I’d already done it…Does that make sense?” (412).

Essentially, Harry realizes in the nick of time that the source of the Patronus, the rescuer that he had imagined to be external, to be his father, had actually been him all along. And so he rescues himself from the dementors — and at the same time produces remarkably sophisticated magic — out of the confidence that emerges from knowing he’d already done it. 

Likewise, we grad students are expected over and over again to produce extraordinarily advanced “magic” while surrounded by oppressive psychological forces. Like Harry, we are faced with challenges that we don’t feel prepared for, like conjuring up a Patronus — a spell students usually learn in their fifth year — and hope that something or someone will rescue us from the other side of the lake. But Harry realizes that no one but he can save himself, which could only happen through time-travel, through the confidence that he’s already done what he must do. Harry’s epiphany, then, aligns perfectly with the insidious grad-school sanctioned narrative. The temporal paradox of grad school says: Let go of your fantasies. Here, we’re all orphans. No mentor figure, no external force is going to equip you to write your dissertation. Ultimately, you have to rescue yourself...and you’re probably going to need a Time-Turner.  

As grad students, giving in to Harry’s reading can be seductive. Just believe you’ve already done it, and then you’ll be able to do it. No problem! But we know that in the context of grad school, this belief leads to “faking it,” and is tangled up with shame. So how can we imagine success without shame? How can we make it without faking it first?

For us, the answer begins with a realization: Harry is wrong.

Let’s cross back through the barrier of Platform 9¾ to encounter the deeper and more mysterious forces invisible to Harry that contribute to his conjuring the Patronus.

It is on the Hogwarts Express that Harry first glimpses the scabbed, decaying hand of a dementor. Harry feels himself drowning in a cold, “thick white fog” as he hears “terrified, pleading screams” inside his head; unconscious, he collapses to the floor as his anxious friends try to rouse him (83-84). When he comes to, “he felt weak and shivery…he also felt the beginnings of shame. Why had he gone to pieces like that, when no one else had?” (86). 
The answer, of course, is that dementors — in addition to draining happiness and hope out of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them — can force their victims to relive repressed traumatic memories. For Harry, who as an infant watched his parents being murdered by Lord Voldemort, facing a dementor means hearing once again his parents’ last screams and Voldemort’s laugh. Harry, unaware of the reasons for his magnified experience of the dementors, can only feel alone and ashamed. Indeed, when Professor Lupin later tries to teach him the Patronus Charm and Harry, facing down a dementor, hears his father’s voice distinctly for the first time, Harry is embarrassed yet again. He attempts to hide his tears from Lupin (240-241).  

Harry’s shame is rooted in both his inability to cast a Patronus and in how intensely the dementors torment him — and also in something deeper. Harry feels especially powerless because he feels he can only access memories of his parents through this forced traumatic reliving, and therefore twistedly welcomes the dementors: he “half wanted to hear his parents again” (243). When he realizes that this perverse desire might interfere with conjuring a Patronus, he becomes “angry with himself, guilty about his secret desire to hear his parents’ voices again” (246). Harry even berates himself for thinking he could revive them: “They’re dead and listening to echoes of them won’t bring them back. You’d better get a grip on yourself” (243).    

The dementors, then, don’t only bring up Harry’s overwhelming grief. They actually infiltrate his connection to his dead parents. Not only does he long for them, but he’s now ashamed of longing for them, too. Harry’s failure to produce a Patronus is now deeply mired in shame.

If you’re a Muggle grad student, you probably received a folder during orientation containing a basic campus map. Now imagine a secret map only you and your friends have that tells you all the secret study spots (the campus Rooms of Requirement), the best bathrooms for stealing toilet paper, the risky moments when that mean mentor you want to avoid is right down the hallway, the most disruptive place to protest unequal wages, the most racist statues. Imagine this map handed down to you by the anonymous grad students of generations past.

Midway through Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is gifted just such a map of secret institutional knowledge, and, in remarkable but subtle ways, it begins to form a counterbalancing force to the shame-filled connection to his past embodied by dementors. The Marauder’s Map is an ever-changing map created decades ago by a mysterious quartet known only as Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs. Harry doesn’t know it for most of the book, but these four guides are actually his father, James, and James’ three best friends at Hogwarts: Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew. The magical scroll allows the map-reader to track in real-time the appearances, disappearances, and movements of all inhabitants of the castle and even access secret passageways to the nearby village of Hogsmeade. The subversive map — later confiscated by school authorities and locked away for years — helped Harry’s father and his crew, the four original Marauders, roam the Hogwarts grounds in pursuit of all sorts of mischief. 

Because of the map, throughout much of the book, Harry is unknowingly retracing the literal footsteps of his rebellious father as a schoolboy, crisscrossing passages, sneaking under the Whomping Willow, and encountering outcast fugitives in the Shrieking Shack. And he’s tracing James’s figurative footsteps as well. James and his crew’s countless rebellious acts — learning how to transform into animals, sneaking around the school grounds in animal form — were all geared toward helping protect and comfort Remus, a werewolf. They were breaking institutional rules for the sake of their isolated and misunderstood friend. Harry and his gang, too, transgress rules left and right to support their othered friends, from Hagrid to his hippogriff Buckbeak to Sirius Black himself.  

Again, Harry is unconscious of all of this — until he isn’t.  

And once he learns who his mischievous mentors are, he radically changes his relationship to his past on his second visit to the lake. So let’s wander back there for a second visit of our own.

Once Harry and Hermione time-travel back to the edge of the lake, Harry struggles to explain what his prior self saw: the mysterious figure whom he watched cast the Patronus that saved all of their lives.

“Yeah, I saw him,” said Harry slowly. “But… maybe I imagined it… I wasn’t thinking straight… I passed out right afterward…” 

Who did you think it was?” 

“I think —” Harry swallowed, knowing how strange this was going to sound. “I think it was my dad.” 

Harry glanced up at Hermione and saw that her mouth was fully open now. She was gazing at him with a mixture of alarm and pity….

He was thinking about his father and about his father’s three oldest friends… Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs… Had all four of them been out on the grounds tonight? Wormtail had reappeared this evening when everyone had thought he was dead… Was it so impossible his father had done the same?” (407)

Up until this moment, Harry’s desperate yearning for his parents could be satisfied only through encounters with dementors, and so this longing felt forbidden, isolating, and indelibly marked with shame. The simple wish for his parents to come back felt like something foolish he just needed to get over.  

But now, for once, Harry isn’t telling himself he’s a fool. By mustering the courage to declare both to himself and to Hermione that he saw his father, something in Harry seems to have transformed. What Harry has visibly overcome here is his inner voice, fueled by shame, that earlier in the novel would have told him to just “get a grip” if he believed he’d seen his father across a lake. By openly admitting a seemingly impossible conviction, Harry detaches his previous longing for his parents from a shameful desire and recasts it as something hopeful and revelatory. Even when faced with Hermione’s skepticism and judgment, Harry stands by his belief. This time, he “swallows” his shame instead of letting it swallow him.

So how does this transformation happen? Notice what Harry calls his dad and his dad’s friends. Harry refers to James and his Hogwarts crew not by their real names, but by their aliases: Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs. Why? Because right before Harry and Hermione time-travel, they discover that James and his pals were the inventors of his beloved Marauder’s Map. Harry has, in other words, just become aware for the first time of the luminous ways in which he has been retracing his father’s footsteps all year long.  

If dementors violently pry open memories for Harry, the Marauder’s Map creates a completely different sort of portal through which Harry can engage with his past. But the Map can only mean something new when Harry understands that his dad is behind it. Thanks to this discovery, Harry’s link to his parents is no longer a single traumatic rupture that can be bridged only by resurrected experiences of pain. Instead, his parents’ histories become magical and exquisite hauntings that inspire Harry to believe radically in the impossible: that his father is alive. Harry is able to overcome his shame because he has fundamentally transformed his relationship to his past.  

With his newfound certainty that he’s not alone and that his father’s really out there to save him, Harry rushes down to the lake with “terrified excitement” to seek him. No longer imprisoned by the shame of his desire, Harry is now free to thrillingly chase after it.

You already know what happens next. But now, for the first time, we can see the more nuanced truth invisible on our first visit to the lake. Yes, Harry’s father doesn’t arrive to save the day. Yes, Harry technically casts the Patronus Charm himself. But only with the hovering hidden influence of his marauding ancestors. Without them, Harry would not have overcome his shame, and without his transformation from shame to true conviction in what seems impossible, he would never have gone down to the lake in pursuit of his father. Without waiting there impatiently for his father, Harry wouldn’t have been able to realize that his father wasn’t coming and then produce the Patronus himself. So Harry’s ability to cast this advanced spell is not because of the conviction that he’s already cast it and saved himself. It’s not, ultimately, that Harry “makes it” in spite of his initial belief that his father would rescue him, but because of that belief. 

Once upon a time, Harry noticed that part of him actually wanted to hear his parents’ last screams over and over. Once, Harry was ashamed of longing for these echoes of his parents, because he thought it prevented him from conjuring a Patronus. But in a moment of beautiful irony, when he now finally produces a true Patronus at the lake, we’re shown the exact opposite. Perhaps it was his shame, not his longing, that was getting in the way all along. And his longing — liberated from shame — turns out to be an essential step in his creation of the Patronus. It is his desperation to see his father, and his radical belief against all logic that his father will protect him, that brings him to the edge of the lake in the first place. 

So the conjuror of the Patronus is both Harry and not-Harry. Both internal and external. And this paradox becomes even more entangled, even more luminous, when we are finally shown the animal form Harry’s Patronus takes. 

The Patronus turned. It was cantering back toward Harry across the still surface of the water. It wasn’t a horse. It wasn’t a unicorn, either. It was a stag. It was shining brightly as the moon above… it was coming back to him… 

“Prongs,” he whispered. (411-412)

In this revelatory moment, Harry makes a stunning inference. While Harry has been told that James’s Animagus nickname was Prongs, he hasn’t yet learned what animal James transformed into. (For hard-core fans: only after this moment does Harry learn from Lupin that James’s animal form was that of a stag.) Intuitively, almost mystically, Harry understands in this moment that the stag he’s just produced, the stag he now sees leaping forward and dispelling the dementors, is the presence of his father. As Dumbledore gently reassures Harry later, “Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him...Prongs rode again last night” (427-8). Harry has resurrected him. In this moment, Harry has been unorphaned. And so, in naming his Patronus Prongs, Harry unwittingly shows us that, in an even deeper paradox, it actually was his father who battled the dementors and rescued him after all, just not in the way that Harry had imagined. Instead, Harry conjures his father himself. Ultimately, Harry has to relinquish the impossible hope of his father’s arrival in order to cast the Patronus. Yet in so doing, he creates a physical echo of his father or an embodied connection to his parents: the support he’s been yearning for all along.  

This is the Patronus Paradox: this never-ending spiral, this ethereal simultaneity of desire and reality, of self-reliance and ghostly magical rescue, of present and past, of internal and external.

How does this translate for us as grad students? Where is this paradox in the Muggle world of graduate school? 

Picture Hermione’s face when Harry tells her he saw his dad alive again out across the lake. Haven’t we all felt that stare from our advisors, our professors, ourselves? You know that’s not possible, right? You know you have to have a publication by now, right? You know you can’t do this because no one will hire you, right? Shame makes you look at yourself like you have become this crazy person. There you are, straining the seams of your relationships or forgetting to eat meals or letting your Gillyweed plants wither and die just to avoid seeking help or requesting an extension on that paper due at midnight; and there you are at five a.m., writing a cringe-worthy apology email to your advisor instead. Or you’re turning in a short story for workshop that you’ve secretly revised ten times rather than braving a blast of critique on a fragile first draft. Or you’re breaking down in tears at a mock job talk because you haven’t finished the slides, forgetting that this was only ever meant to be practice, not a performance.

Grad school makes us feel like we should have bought Time Turners in Diagon Alley. Since “time travel” is what is expected for us to survive grad school, our only option is to fake-it-till-you-make-it: to shamefully pretend we’re our own future selves. Like Harry in the moment when he produces his Patronus, we believe we have to save ourselves. No one else is coming. That would be impossible. 

But this belief is an illusion. Shame makes the possible feel impossible. Because once Harry stops being ashamed of wanting his dad to be alive, he not only produces a Patronus for the first time: he conjures Prongs, and his father “returns” to rescue him. It was in fact possible, in a way, all along.  

This is what we call radical imagination. A shame-free act of imagining that we can make seemingly impossible things happen. Getting the academic job in an increasingly doomed market. The acceptance of a manuscript rejected too many times. Your family finally understanding your research and recognizing that you have a real job. Feeling like you actually belong. Writing something that makes a difference to someone. Here, of course, the shame we get away from is not the shame around a perverse attachment to the past, necessarily, but all the shame we internalize when faced with the dementors of grad school. 

But radical imagination is not delusions of grandeur. It’s not believing in the impossible, either. It’s recognizing that often what feels impossible is actually within your reach, whether or not you end up succeeding in the way you first envisioned. Was Harry’s father really alive? Of course not. But did his father come back? He did. Radical imagination creates possibility, creates magic, even if it changes the parameters of success along the way. 

And remember, this magic can happen only through the Marauder’s Map: through Harry’s nascent awareness of his place within a supportive and intricate intergenerational lineage.  

Grad school, ultimately, is no different. Because here’s the truth we too often forget: we aren’t alone. No, we’re not ultimately protected by a mystical father figure or idealized boys’ club the way Harry is. But, hidden in the secret places of campus, there is a shadow network that offers us the same kinds of subversive knowledge that the Marauder’s Map offers Harry. This “map” is a spider-webbing palimpsest of past and present rebellious allies that roam the institution’s grounds: a non-patriarchal lineage of friends, grandmothers, activists, older cohorts, staff, and rare mentors who pass on institutional knowledge and resistance wisdom; the folks who create and organize Dumbledore’s Army with you on campus; the graduate students of previous generations who have skulked the corridors and whose secrets you inherit; the writers and thinkers whom you come to know so intimately through their archives; the ghosts of our scholarly predecessors who fought for the spaces we exist in. A network that you only catch sight of when you meet another grad student who has solemnly sworn they are up to no good. You look both ways to check for eavesdroppers and ask them: do you see the dementors too?

The network whispers which professors to TA for and which to never challenge because of their dictatorial grading policies. It surfaces in the relatable stories of a curmudgeonly professor’s grad-school struggles drawn out over wine and cheese, and sometimes, also in the warnings by women’s collectives of the slimiest professors to steer clear of. It leaves invisible footprints to the best talks with free food that could save you on your sad TA stipend. It’s in the hushed confession of impostor syndrome from that sixth-year who just landed a tenure-track job before defending their diss. It winks from the forgotten manuscripts of your scholarly ancestors and the minutes from now-defunct underground commons for marginalized students. The network reminds you when you’re falling apart under the doom of a writing deadline that you’re not a grad student, you’re already a writer. And that success isn’t impressing your professor or publishing a paper but getting the writing itself done. The network is what showers you with powerful affirmations at your mock job talk and lights candles for you, forcing you to believe that whether you land the job or not your work is worth celebrating.

Once we unravel the scroll of this hidden Marauder’s Map and begin to trust, not pretend, that we can accomplish some crazy thing, we also trust in the thing that the institution discourages us from believing: the idea that something beyond ourselves, something in our network, can help us achieve what feels so impossible. We don’t have to feel like we’re alone.

The paradox is that, as we Harrys on the edge of the lake thrillingly chase after this network of imagined protectors, our deep certainty that they will deliver us makes it possible to pull through on our own. Because ultimately, yes, we must write that dissertation ourselves, sometimes in those quiet hours of solitude when the dementors feel so close we can sense their breath on our necks. In the end, Harry utters the Patronus Charm all by himself. Yet when we straighten our shoulders and brush their clammy hands away and keep writing, it’s only because we’ve dared to doubt the narrative of grad school: because we’ve refused to refuse help all this time, and found our own singular place within a vast web stretched wide across space and time that we once thought could never exist.

And it’s in moments like these that the Patronus Paradox reaches deepest. Harry conjures Prongs, the very protector who’d been protecting him the whole time. When viewed in this light, we as grad students can transcend the institution’s typical rubrics of success. The goal of grad school, perhaps, isn’t to defeat the dementors. It isn’t even just academic or professional success. It’s about conjuring, bringing to light, unearthing the very network that was invisibly supporting us all along.  What would grad school look like if we all decided not to just be Harry on the lake, but to be marauders? To spend our student years building the capacity for profound transformation, resisting and transgressing the narrative of isolation and self-sufficiency? To furtively pass this note* to a struggling first-year: 

  1. Smuggle a dragon into your library carrel for dissertation research.

  2. Invite a werewolf to teach your Critical Methods seminar.

  3. Sabotage the Umbridges and Karens of the institution with Extendable Ears, Puking Pastilles, and of course, the Portable Swamp.

  4. Organize your own S.P.E.W. to fight against wage theft and student worker exploitation.

  5. Secure a boggart and practice transforming your most terrifying professor into a flobberworm. 

  6. Seek out your campus’ Moaning Myrtle for secrets unknown to the living.

  7. Flourish a quill to pen a second dissertation, a secret dissertation, a Marauder’s Map for some unknown students of the future to follow one day when they’re absolutely convinced they’re alone.

*Found in an old spellbook in a dinky shop in Knockturn Alley.


Chienyn Chi is an Assistant Professor of English at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, OK, and the former editor of Not from Here, the digital publication of The Immigration and Ethnic History Society. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin. Chienyn specializes in modern and postcolonial Sinophone, Anglophone and Francophone literatures, and researches the mysterious connection between madness and race in literature. This semester, she is teaching a course entitled "Close Reading Harry Potter," in which students discuss all things magical. Her peer-reviewed work has appeared in Papers on Language and Literature and Free Associations

Amrita Mishra is an Assistant Professor of Global Anglophone Literatures at Berea College in Berea, KY. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin and focuses on postcolonial literatures of the Caribbean and South Asia. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Tabula Rasa, Women, Gender, and Families of Color, and The Global South.

A writer and teacher based in Paris, Noah Weisz holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from UT Austin's New Writers Project, where he received a fellowship from the Michener Center for Writers.  A three-time shortlistee for the international Bath Children's Novel Award and a past winner of the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award, the F(r)iction Short Story Contest, and the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing, his work can be found in F(r)iction, Hunger Mountain, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. 

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