The syllabus is much like what one might expect from an undergraduate English course, with texts by William Wordsworth, Willa Cather and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But there is one name on the list that might surprise budding scholars.
In the spring semester, Stephanie Burt, an English professor at Harvard University, will teach a new class, “Taylor Swift and Her World.” Nearly 300 students have enrolled.
The class is part of a wave at academic institutions around the country, including New York University and the University of Texas at Austin. Stanford has invoked the Swift song “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version)” with a course planned for next year titled “All Too Well (Ten Week Version),” and Arizona State University offered a psychology class on Ms. Swift’s work.
Next year, the University of California, Berkeley plans to offer “Artistry and Entrepreneurship: Taylor’s Version,” and the University of Florida will school undergraduates in Ms. Swift’s storytelling. The Florida course’s description begins with the words “ … Ready for it?” — an allusion to the song from the album “Reputation.”
In a conversation with The New York Times, Professor Burt, 52, discussed her love of Ms. Swift’s music and what exactly her students will be studying. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Let’s start with the big question. Are you a Swiftie?
Ten or 12 years ago, I noticed that of all of the songs that one would hear in, you know, drugstores and airports and bus stations and public places, there was one that was better than all the other songs. I wanted to know who wrote it. It was just a more compelling song lyrically and musically, just a perfect piece of construction. It was “You Belong With Me.”
“Fearless” got you!
It turned out she had a lot of other great songs. The thing that made me really think about her as an artist whose process and career I wanted to learn more about and thought about a lot was when I saw “Miss Americana,” the documentary.
What about it?
It really does such a great job of showing both how much support she’s had — she’s someone who’s come from a good deal of privilege and had parents who really wanted to help her realize her dreams, which, you know, honestly, I have, too — but also how she worked to become herself, and how she has become someone who makes her own decisions in a way that brings people along with her and doesn’t alienate people. I realize that she could probably take fewer private jet flights.
Do you have a favorite era?
It bounces between “Red” and “Folklore”-slash-“Evermore.”
Let’s talk a little bit about the coursework. What is on the syllabus?
Each week pairs some body of her work with some body of work by other people. We are reading two different Willa Cather novels. We’re reading a novel by James Weldon Johnson about a performing artist who’s got a very different relationship to his own career in his hands. We are reading a contemporary novel by Zan Romanoff about One Direction fandom.
We’re going to read some Wordsworth, Wordsworth being a Lake District poet. She sings about the poets of the Lake District in England. Wordsworth also writes about some of the same feelings that Taylor sings about: disappointment in retrospect, and looking back and realizing that you’re not the child you were, even though you might want to be.
What songs are going to be paired with those texts?
We are reading Coleridge’s “Work Without Hope.” “Work Without Hope,” of course, being Coleridge’s version of “You’re on Your Own, Kid.”
Of course. How about homework?
The written work will include a couple of conventionally argued academic essays, where the student needs to make a well-supported argument with clearly framed evidence in easy-to-follow prose. One of them has to be on a Taylor topic. One of them has to be about something else that we read for the course. So you can’t write about nothing but Taylor Swift and get a good grade.
Is there a final?
The third of the three papers is the final assignment. I have such mixed feelings about final exams because they stress people out. They’re a pain to give and they’re no fun. On the other hand, Harvard students are also often taking other classes that absolutely demand a lot of time from them, especially if they’re, for example, future doctors. Or they have other commitments that eat up a lot of the time. If you don’t do something to make sure they feel like they have to do the reading, they will sometimes, regretfully, blow off reading.
Any chance of a guest lecture by (the honorary) Dr. Swift?
I have tweeted at her, and I would welcome her presence if she would like to pop in, but she is quite busy.
A Harvard class about Taylor Swift feels ripe for detractors. What would you say to people who might criticize such a subject as unserious or not worthy of rigorous study?
This is a course that includes plenty of traditionally admired dead people who’ve been taught in English departments for a long time, who I not only admire but am teaching in this course. Taylor’s work is the spine. If you don’t appreciate this body of songwriting and of performance, that’s not my problem. But they should remember literally everything that takes up a lot of time in a modern English department was at one point a low-prestige popular art form that you wouldn’t bother to study, like Shakespeare’s sonnets and, in particular, the rise of the novel. Can I quote Wordsworth?
Others shall love what we have loved and we will teach them how. If you’re going to teach people to love something that they see as obscure or distant or difficult or unfamiliar, your best shot at doing that honestly and effectively is to connect it to something that people already like.