Scott McLeod sometimes shares blogs that “deserve a bigger audience.” I don’t presume to know how many people read Robin Bates’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf, but I find it consistently makes me think about the connections between everyday life and literature. Robin is an English professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He regularly shares his insights regarding literature’s and film’s connections to such wide-ranging topics as current events, sports, and spiritual matters. I often save his posts for last when I’m catching up on RSS feeds in my feed reader because I know I will want to read them slowly and think them over. There’s nothing I don’t love about his blog, from his interesting connections and engaging commentary all the way down to his layout. I think even if you don’t teach English, you can learn something from Professor Bates’s blog.
Severus Snape can be a nasty piece of work, can’t he? He happens to be my favorite character in the Harry Potter series, but I admit much of my affection for him may be down to Alan Rickman’s portrayal. As J. K. Rowling herself has said of Snape, he’s not a nice guy. My daughter Maggie and I are reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and we just finished the chapter in which Snape finds the Marauders’ Map and is subsequently insulted by it. Each time I re-read this series, I pick up on nuances I missed before. This time, I noticed Snape seems to know exactly who Messrs. Moony, Padfoot, Wormtail, and Prongs are, though Lupin plays dumb as though he assumes Snape couldn’t have known the nicknames he and his friends used in school. Lupin also seems to be using Occlumency on Snape—Harry notices Lupin’s face goes blank and guesses he must be doing some “quick thinking.” Of course, none of this is exactly the point of my post. With all the hubub surrounding the release of the final Harry Potter movie, and Snape’s vindication (as well as Alan Rickman’s performance) making news for those who hadn’t read the final book, I thought it might be interesting to examine his skills as a teacher.
Most people will read the title and wonder how it’s even in question. After all, Snape is sarcastic and bullies students who are afraid of him (Neville). He is disrespectful to his colleagues (Lupin) in front of their students. He favors students in his own house, Slytherin. He takes away points and gives detentions, sometimes for hardly any reason. Is there anything good about him?
As we learn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape has been protecting Harry out of love for Harry’s mother, and he has taken on the seriously dangerous role of double agent in defiance of the most dangerous dark wizard in recent memory. But what about his teaching? Does he do anything right?
Harry inherits Snape’s old Potions text in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It quickly becomes clear that the notes in the text teach Harry more than he has learned from Professor Slughorn, and he quickly becomes a star in Potions class. It occurred to me that though Harry buys a reference text for Snape’s class (1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi), any time students are brewing potions, he puts instructions on a chalkboard rather than having students read out of a text, as Professor Slughorn does. One can assume he is sharing his recipe refinements with the class, and perhaps if he didn’t scare them so badly as they worked, they might produce the same quality work as Harry does using Snape’s text in sixth year. Dolores Umbridge questions whether he might not be challenging his students too much—she mentions the Strengthening Solution students are preparing when she observes his lesson as being inappropriate for the students. Snape is also capable of brewing immensely complex potions, such as the Wolfsbane Potion he brews for Lupin during his tenure at Hogwarts. He also is able to brew some concoction that extends Dumbledore’s life after he tangles with the Horcrux made from the Resurrection Stone/Peverell ring belonging to Marvolo Gaunt. Sirius Black reports that Snape arrived at Hogwarts knowing more curses than many seventh-year students, and it is clear from his Potions text that even as a student, he was inventing spells and curses.
Hermione compares Snape’s teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts to Harry’s teaching of the DA. She mentions they both speak about the Dark Arts with reverence for the sort of power and harm it can cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Snape is the only Death Eater described as using a Patronus charm. In addition, as Snape is escaping Hogwarts after killing Dumbledore (by agreement with Dumbledore), and Harry is chasing him, Snape easily deflects all the curses Harry attempts to hit him with and leaves him with what I feel is extremely important advice: that Harry needs to work on nonverbal spells so that he will have an advantage as he gears up to face Voldemort. I don’t think Harry recognized it as such at the time—he wasn’t in any situation to take instruction from Snape at that moment—but it does become important later. In addition to attempting to teach Harry nonverbal spells, Snape also attempts to teach Harry Occlumency so that he can close his mind against Voldemort, one of the most accomplished Legilimens. Though Harry doesn’t master either nonverbal spells or Occlumency under Snape’s tutelage, he does learn the disarming spell, Expelliarmus, at the dueling club meeting run by Professors Lockhart and Snape. Harry uses this spell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Voldemort rises again and attacks Harry in the Little Hangleton graveyard. It later becomes his signature. Later, he uses it to defeat Voldemort utterly. A spell to disarm rather than attack—I’ve always found it interesting that Snape chose to demonstrate that particular spell at the dueling club. You can say what you like about his personality, but you can’t deny he knows his subject matter—both Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily make one a great teacher, however.
Snape has several faults that prevent him from being a good teacher. But it could be argued that he is certainly one of Harry’s most important and effective teachers, and perhaps one of the teachers Harry learns most from.
Image credit: You the doormat, then?
Notes on this post:
- I am kind of proud to say I didn’t look up anything except whether it was 1,000 or 1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi as I wrote this post. I have apparently read this series rather closely. I also Googled some links I share in note 4.
- I keep a Severus Snape action figure on my desk and have a Lego Snape keychain. I’m a big fan.
- I hope I didn’t annoy readers too much with this bit of Harry Potter indulgence.
- The chemistry teacher J. K. Rowling based Snape on died a few months ago of cancer. He had a good sense of humor about his influence on Snape.
Summer is a great time for teachers to catch up on all the reading they may not have time for during the year. I have to have a book going at all times, and I have to read something every day—it feeds my soul and keeps me sane. But I do hear a lot of people say they don’t have time to read (you have to make the time, but I digress). Reading is often viewed as a solitary activity, but the advent of book clubs and bookish websites like the ones I share in the post make it much more social. I don’t think a lot of people who read this blog also read my book blog. I mentioned some of these websites in a recent post over there. I also learned about a couple of other great sites to share since I wrote the post.
- Goodreads: Goodreads is an excellent social network for readers. If Goodreads been around before I started blogging, I might have just posted all my reviews there. As it is, I do use Goodreads to connect with other readers, read reviews (they tend to be more critical than Amazon), scout for giveaways, keep track of my to-read list and let my friends know what I’m reading and have read, and play trivia games. Goodreads also allows users to add as many books as they like, and it’s absolutely free. Feel free to friend me on Goodreads.
- Shelfari: Shelfari is a pretty site, but it has a way to go before it’s as good as Goodreads. I have spent some time writing up book pages, and I do like the wiki user-generated aspect of the site. Goodreads allows you to do this if you become a librarian (which I have done), and you must meet certain criteria. Shelfari does not allow HTML in its reviews, which I think stinks. Until recently, it was better than Goodreads at tracking reading goals, but Goodreads has added a feature that allows for that. I spend more time on Goodreads, but I like to have a Shelfari profile just to connect with readers who may not be on Goodreads. I also do like the pretty shelves, I admit. You can also friend me on Shelfari.
- DailyLit: I mostly interact with DailyLit through my email, as I am always subscribed to a book in my inbox. I love DailyLit. I have read several books I do not think I’d have ever read if not for DailyLit. You can choose to subscribe via email or RSS, whichever is more convenient for you. Public domain books and some Creative Commons licensed books are free, and others are fairly cheap.
- PaperBackSwap: I just heard about this one last week. PaperBackSwap allows you to cull the books you don’t want anymore and put them in the hands of people who do. Each time a book you sent arrives at its destination, you earn credits that you can trade to receive books. I have two Sarah Addison Allen books winging their way to me, and tomorrow I will go to the post office to send out some books I don’t want that others want to read. All you really pay for is packing materials and postage, which are cheaper than new paperback books (not cheaper probably than used bookstores or library sales). Anyway, it’s kind of fun, and I’ve been spending a lot of time on the site in the last week. You can be my friend over there if you’d like.
- NetGalley: NetGalley is another site I hadn’t heard of until last week. If you have an e-reader, you can request e-galleys of yet-to-be-released books, and if you are approved by the publisher, you can load the book onto your reader. I scored a copy of Jennifer Donnelly’s The Wild Rose, which won’t be released until August. I have to finish the second book in that series first. NetGalley not only enables you to read for free, but you also have the opportunity to be one of the first readers. Pretty good deal!