When Hannah McGregor and Marcelle Kosman first sat down in their kitchen to talk Harry Potter, they thought they would be speaking to a few close friends.
Their podcast Witch, Please now has over 500 bi-weekly listeners, who tune in across Canada, the United States, and Europe. Described as “a fortnightly podcast by two lady scholars,” Witch, Please brings a fresh perspective to J.K. Rowling’s beloved books and their accompanying films.
So, I guess we should start off with some introductions.
MK: I am a PhD candidate in the department of English and Film studies, I’m also on mat leave, but I’m still here and doing work.
HM: You’re really bad at mat leave, I’m Hannah McGregor and I just finished my postdoctoral fellowship here, and just transitioned into a full-time teaching contract.
How do you define Witch, Please?
MK: We had a really helpful Youtube commenter refer to it as ‘two ladies chit-chatting.’ Which is not incorrect, we just happen to be particularly smart and the “chat” we have is based on a close reading of a vast amount of text.
HM: I think what we understand ourselves to be doing has shifted as our public has shifted. So the project as something to do with a friend, to reread the whole Harry Potter series and make a podcast about it. It started out as something for us, and turned into something that the Harry Potter community got a hold of. It quickly became a public pedagogy, doing our work as scholars and teachers in the public sphere.
Do you feel like the podcast format allows you to have different kinds of discussions than traditional academic writing?
MK: As much as it’s based on critical analysis, it’s still a whimsical and fun-based project. There aren’t so many opportunities as an academic to throw in jokes or sound effects, that being said, I don’t think it delegitimizes anything to do that. Our conversations can get pretty heavy and keeping it light is something I always think about when I edit the podcast.
Unlike actual grownup academic work, we don’t actually do any research, so sometimes we call on our listeners to help us out when we have something we don’t know what to do with. That’s something else that’s different from traditional academia
HM: It allows us to get a bigger audience, and break down the power structures of the classroom. Using Harry Potter as an object of study gives you that built-in engagement from the start. That and an ongoing twitter feed means we can have real conversations with people, and get them engaged more than I have in any other project.
Like one online commenter, who said we couldn’t be intersectional feminists, because that is a movement of black women. Stuff like that is really interesting, and that kind of response you just don’t get with formal academic venues.
What do you think of the fandom, did having a knowledge group that big impact the podcast at all?
HM: I think we started with Harry Potter because we just wanted to reread it, and I’m much better at doing things when I have someone to be accountable to. We knew there was a huge number of people who knew what the books were, but we had no idea the number of people that would unveil themselves as deep Harry Potter fans. Academia tends to make you feel like you have to have tastes that are more highbrow than they might actually be, so I think in some ways it just liberated a lot of people we knew to tell us how huge fans they were. We also tapped into the tiniest corner of the fandom, which is enough people to give us 500 listeners a month.
The community responded positively to how critical frameworks reveal unexpected complexity to the things they love, it takes this thing we already knew and unfolds it. Even if they disagree, they tell us why. One fan tweeted that ‘you’ve ruined Harry Potter for me, but also made it so much better.”
MK: It never occurred to us that we would have this enormous, international listenership. We’ve also had a distinct lack of trolling, which I’m not sure we expected being women talking about critical feminist issues. We chalk that up to the Harry Potter fandom being a pretty loving one.
Has this podcast changed the way you look at books that might not be perceived as strictly academic works?
MK: I’ve reread the books numerous times, and yet going back to it with a critical eye, it’s the first time I’ve read them as someone who would call myself a literary critic. It’s like the first time reading them, even though I’ve done it so many times. I’m reading for connections and these things are bigger than plot, like the idea that Harry isn’t a dependable narrator. It’s been a really exciting rereading experience.
HM: because it had been so long since I’d read them, it feels like reading them for the first time. I’ve never read anything like this before, in this close, academic, book-club way. Reading a text and discussing it with other invested people is essentially a fun book club. I want to read all books like this, with this dialogue and public attention. Having these “oh my god” moments in the text was really cool
How important was it to include the movies in the study?
MK: We didn’t begin thinking that it would be an important thing to talk about, it was more a matter of including movies meant more episodes. It was really just practical, but now we have Neale Barnholden (our actual man with a film degree) helping us out, movie episodes are just a joy.
HM: We’ll be talking out our asses about how something is different from the book, and Neil will say something about average shot length being different in that movie, and we’re just like “yes”. Adding someone who understands how film works suddenly makes everything more exciting. Neil, who is one of the few men in the world I will allow to explain things to me.
Anything else you want to say?
HM: This is something particular to the U of A. We have an incredible English and Film Studies Department here. Not only is it the best in the country, it’s also a really political department in a fantastic way. I think if we were housed in a different, more conservative university, it might have been scarier for us as two young woman academics to talk to our colleagues about our very silly podcast about Harry Potter, in which we talk openly about stuff that makes you look less professional like having a body and feelings and drinking alcohol. Our department has been so supportive and positive and encouraging this as a legitimate and exciting form of scholarship. It’s great to have this be something that we’re excited to share with our colleagues every week. There’s a reason why this came out of the U of A.