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For Taylor Swift, professors find a place in this world

College courses based on Swift and other pop stars grow quickly in US, promising academic value for instructors battling to maintain weakened attention spans

April 2, 2024
Taylor Swift fans in front of one of the many semi-trucks in Houston to illustrate For Taylor Swift, lecturers find a place in this world
Source: Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle/Getty Images

US universities are jumping and falling for Taylor Swift, with a dozen or so offering courses based on the pop star, part of a rising number of academic attempts to grab student attention with engaging and relevant entry points.

The Swift-themed courses can now be found at some of the nation’s most prominent institutions, including Harvard, Stanford, New York and Rice universities; the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin, and Arizona State University.

And while Ms Swift is riding the white horse these days in any celebrity syllabus competition, the 14-time Grammy winner is hardly alone: other big-name artists whose careers have formed the basis of recent US college courses include Beyoncé, Rihanna, Harry Styles, Nicki Minaj, Bad Bunny and Lady Gaga.

Demand for such offerings is often high, with long waitlists. “I hear from a lot of students who can’t get in the course,” said Elizabeth Scala, professor of medieval romance, historiography and culture who teaches?“Literary Contests and Contexts – The Taylor Swift Songbook”?at UT-Austin.

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In some cases, the connections to academic value are fairly evident. A course at the Berklee College of Music in Boston showcases Ms Swift for students as a leading example of how to be successful as a performance artist. Instructors in other fields serve up her and other celebrities as case studies for entrepreneurship, literary influences, social psychology, and more.


Campus?podcast: When pop culture meets academia


That hasn’t prevented some critics gathering on the other side of the door, where they complain of?privilege among students?spending time learning pop music at $50,000 (?40,000)-a-year universities, or just don’t like Ms Swift’s?left-leaning political orientation.

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Professor Scala admitted that she has a range of choices beyond Taylor Swift for getting her content into the minds of her students. But Ms Swift is undeniably part of a literary and creative tradition as time-honoured as Chaucer, Keats and Dickinson, she said – with the considerable added value of helping students put down their phones,?transcend their short attention spans and truly listen to their lessons.

“I’m at the point in my career where I don’t know how to get their attention – they don’t have much of it,” Professor Scala said. “And Taylor Swift gets their attention.”

It’s a common realisation for professors, especially after the Covid pandemic, when the behavioural isolation of technological abundance was compounded by the social estrangement of community-wide lockdowns.

The believers include Kinitra Brooks, professor of English at Michigan State University, who centres pop icon Beyoncé in her class on African history and future. “I use Beyoncé as sort of a hook,” Professor Brooks acknowledged. “It’s a really good way to get and catch the students’ attention – it’s a really good way for them to have something to hold on to, rather than just theory or ideas.”

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Those who criticise the humanities, or the use of popular figures as examples or enticements, are simply failing to consider the longer-term context, Professor Brooks said. “Classical music itself was, at one point, popular culture,” she noted.

And celebrity-themed courses go beyond just the sugar high, said Louie Dean Valencia, associate professor of digital history at Texas State University, whose course on celebrity and youth culture puts its headline focus on Mr Styles. In their final project for last year’s course, Dr Valencia’s students applied for funding for a film festival, some of which they won, and the project is now being brought to production by other students.

Along the way, Dr Valencia said, the students learned?a host of marketable skills, including grant-writing and project management. And through the subjects of the films, they studied topics that include misinformation and conspiracy theories. “These are all very relevant issues for the world that we live in today,” he said.

At Georgia State University, law professor Moraima Ivory takes it to another level, using her professional connections in the entertainment industry to fashion a course that looks at the legal life of a different celebrity each semester – complete with the cooperation of the subject, who agrees to attend the final class. Rap artists Ludacris and Rick Ross have participated so far.

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The class size is kept to 30 to 40, with a substantial waitlist – “my class fills up in five minutes”, Professor Ivory said. Yet it’s not for the starstruck, she makes clear. The semester is 14 weeks “and 13 of them are going to be hardcore substantive legal analysis” before the big end-of-class visit, she said. “Most of the students already know that I teach in this sort of way, and they know they’re going to get, in the end, the opportunity to meet the celebrity,” she said. “But they know they’re also going to have a midterm and a final, and so it matters for them to be absolutely paying attention.”

Professor Scala sees her Taylor Swift class much the same way. She was familiar with the pop star, but gained a new appreciation during the Covid lockdown when her college-aged daughter was stuck at home with her and constantly played Ms Swift’s songs. The point of the class is for students to make in-depth examinations of the language and stylistic choices of prominent writers throughout history, and Ms Swift was merely one more example to include alongside Shakespeare, Frost, Plath and others.

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“I started to listen to those lyrics,” she said, “and I was like, ‘This is a great way to think about the things that I’m trying to teach, and I think I can really get students to pay really close attention because they have all of this stuff memorised already.’”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Popular culture studies courses became popular in the 1960s, leading in part to the field and depts. of Cultural Studies. These courses have little to nothing to do with "short attention spans." That's demeaning to today's undergraduates and ignorant of the history of the curriculum

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