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Love Story: Taylor Swift Goes to Harvard

Colleges are ramping up courses focused on the pop star. As Harvard begins its first class focused on the biggest music star in the world today, here’s why catering to the Swifties - or at least the “Swift Curious” is a smart move for institutions.

By David WyldPublished 5 months ago 10 min read
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Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Taylor_Swift_%286966830273%29.jpg

As classes begin for the Spring Semester across the country, more and more college students are studying Taylor Swift for real college credit. This article details how the popularity of Taylor Swift might just be the ticket for colleges and universities to better cater to today’s students - and to drive enrollment and, yes, revenue!

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taylor_Swift_RED_Tour_(8642419792).jpg

Introduction

Shhhhhh! Can you hear it? Can you see it? Can you feel it? There’s big news on college campuses across America today. The Swifties are coming to a college near you - she’s even made it to Harvard now!

Rather than studying “Romeo and Juliet,” today’s college students are analyzing Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” Rather than reading “Catch 22,” today’s college students are looking at Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero.” Rather than investigating the themes in “Dante’s Inferno,” today’s college students are looking for the hidden - and not-so-hidden - messages in Taylor Swift’s "You Belong With Me." And rather than looking for hidden patterns in reams of arcane economic data, today’s college students are analyzing the data - and big numbers - generated by Taylor Swift’s The “Eras” Tour.

Welcome to the new college. No, not that New College of Florida that has been in the news for the past year for all the wrong reasons, but the new, new college of the 2020s. Colleges and universities of every type, of every size, and yes, of every endowment, are struggling with a common problem. In a word, that problem - which really is not just an idle issue but, in truth, an existential threat - is relevancy. In a fast-changing world, colleges and universities - from the largest state schools to especially small, private colleges - are facing the question of just how relevant college is for students today.

And the corollary to that is, of course, with college costs continuing to far outpace inflation and make higher education more and more expensive for families with each passing year, the ROI - the return on investment - equation is seemingly getting progressively worse. This makes the job of university leaders all the more difficult, as colleges and the programs within them struggle to market themselves to a new generation that does not want student debt and which has many opportunities (in skilled trades, in distribution work, on social media, in their own entrepreneurship, and more) to blaze a good path in life without first spending 4, 5, 6 or more years pursuing a college degree. In short, selling the “college proposition” is getting harder and harder, and young people - and their parents - are increasingly skeptical about the worth of the college experience in life today.

And so, just like in the entertainment industry, here comes Taylor Swift to the rescue! In this article, we will see how innovative colleges and universities - including now Harvard - are today offering entire courses focused on the world’s biggest pop star today, her music, and the burgeoning Taylor Swift industry. We will then analyze what this means for colleges and universities - and their students, looking ahead to see how the Swifties among us may well be reshaping what a college education means - and what it means to students - going forward. In short, it’s a brave new world, and Taylor Swift might - might - just be the key to reshaping the world of higher education and the value of the college experience - going forward.

By Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

Taylor Swift Goes to Harvard

Having college courses focused on iconic figures in pop culture is nothing new. Particularly in the humanities - and English and music in particular - such courses have not just been popular draws over the years, but they have also been seen as ways of better relating to and engaging with students with present-day material. From the music of Elvis Presley to James Brown to movie directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese to TV shows like Seinfeld and All in the Family and writers like J.K. Rowling to Stephen King, special topics courses have been seen as a great way to draw student interest, enrollment and engagement. And as a side benefit, these courses sometimes draw media interest and generate a certain amount of “buzz” for the universities, departments, and, yes, even the professors involved in offering them. And yes, as the age-old adage goes, there really isn’t such a thing as bad publicity, even when some may chide and deride the fact that people are actually paying to study pop culture in college.

There have already been a smattering of college courses focused on Taylor Swift’s music - and the literary qualities of it - appearing at high-level colleges and universities over the past few years, including the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Florida, the University of Missouri, and New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. However, the Taylor Swift-focused course took on a new level of prominence - and debate - when Harvard University announced that it would be offering an entire course focused on the pop star in the Spring 2024 Semester.

Harvard’s Swift-focused course, an English class is entitled "Taylor Swift and Her World." It was developed by and is being taught by Professor Stephanie Burt, a self-acknowledged “Swiftie.” Professor Burt’s class is not just focused on studying Taylor Swift’s music per se, but putting her songs into a wider context as pieces of literature. The course will begin by delving into the Taylor Swift phenomenon, examining the musical and literary influences that helped form her outlook and perspective - and her music, from books to Dolly Parton. It will examine her transition from country music to pop superstardom. It will then compare the ideas and themes in Swift’s musical anthology to those found in classical and modern literature, drawing parallels and contrasts between what she has conveyed in her songs to great writers.

Now certainly, the fact that Harvard is the institution offering this latest Taylor Swift-focused course has made the story draw a great deal of media attention. And yes, in the politically charged era in which we live, the Harvard course has also drawn scrutiny and derision from some circles as it certainly hits upon some controversial topics. The course description states that:

"We will learn how to study fan culture, celebrity culture, adolescence, adulthood and appropriation; how to think about white texts, Southern texts, transatlantic texts, and queer subtexts."

And in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Professor Burt stated:

"Taylor Swift is someone who establishes complicated and changing relationships to the idea of Americanness and to the idea of white Americanness and of middle America"

Of course, this kind of rhetoric has drawn criticism and derision from sources such as Fox News and others in the conservative media, just serving to further draw more publicity for the course! All of this had led to the course being oversubscribed with hundreds of students seeking to be in it and Professor Burt even putting out a public call for qualified people in the region to serve as teaching assistants for her Taylor Swift-focused course.

And so the final chapters on this Taylor Swift-themed Harvard course have yet to be written, as it will be a work in progress here in the first part of 2024. However, the course cannot be judged as anything less than a Billboard-level hit in the academic world - and in generating a ton of publicity and buzz for Harvard and for Professor Burt! And finally yes, if you’re wondering, the course will cover her relationship with Kansas City Chiefs’ star tight end, Travis Kelce.

Analysis

Now, if one might presume that based on my demographics, being a cis white male professor “of a certain age” I find all of the Taylor Swift-focused classes a bit off the wall and below the dignity of higher education, well, you would be 110% wrong (you know what happens when you “assume!”). The truth is exactly the opposite: I think all of these classes - and the energy and spirit behind them - happening all across the country and the world of higher ed is fantastic! And yes, as a business strategy professor, I think they are extremely smart! This is because these classes - and the intrapreneurially-minded professors, instructors, and yes, students behind them - show us a path back to relevancy and a way to better address higher ed’s value proposition problem with our “customers” (i.e. prospective students and their parents).

Why do I say this when one can argue that having students study Taylor Swift today might be akin to studying the Beatles in the 1960s, Michael Jackson in the 1980s, Garth Brooks in the 1990s, or Usher in the 2000s - an artist who may well have a lasting impact and whose music will be played for decades to come, but not have the impact of say, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, or even Maya Angelou on the world over time? I would enthusiastically back studying Taylor Swift today - and likely for many years to come - because in today’s world of higher education, engagement is everything! And yes, studying the songs, the career, the entrepreneurship, and the data of the Taylor Swift phenomenon is a great way to get students highly engaged with learning, whatever the subject - far more than reading and discussing the writings of folks who are long dead and who lived and performed their art in a world very unlike our tech-focused and complex existence today! In a world of distractions, what better way to engage students in the process and the joy of learning than to present them with subject matter that they are really interested in and will enthusiastically engage with (when was the last time you saw anyone really enthusiastic about reading “The Odyssey?”).

By Emily Karakis on Unsplash

And yes, from a practical, business-oriented perspective, these classes pay huge dividends for the colleges and universities - and the individuals who bring them about through their own efforts - who are brave enough to take what is still a pioneering, somewhat risky step in offering classes that are geared to pop culture. As this article shows, just the mere act of developing and offering these Taylor Swift courses - and those focused on other music and pop culture icons - generates a ton of publicity for the universities, the programs, and the professors, instructors, and students behind these classes. Positive PR (public relations) is a powerful thing, and it is one that is all too elusive for colleges and universities today, which seem to be in the news for all the wrong reasons all too often. The positive buzz surrounding these Taylor Swift-focused classes will, in the end, far outweigh the negatives (i.e. the concerns about the curriculum being watered down and, yes, being made “politically correct”). And as the Harvard case - along with the other innovative Taylor Swift and non-Taylor Swift-focused classes offered by other universities show - students will flock to these pop culture-oriented classes just as they work to avoid classes that they see as less interesting and less relevant to them. In short, these classes attract and draw interest and attention, and the bottom line is that, as such, they will help draw not just current students, but future students as well, to these institutions!

Now some may argue the relevancy of studying Taylor Swift, especially this relatively early in her life and career, as opposed to giants in their fields, whether that be in literature, in music, or even in business. However, I would argue just the opposite, as the true challenge in higher education is - and always will be - gaining student engagement. With Taylor Swift, you have almost universal buy-in to the “why are we studying her and her music” question among young people (and even us not-so-young people) today. It is easy to see her impact on the world of music, the world of business, and today, even the worlds of politics and sports, regardless of whether one might even like or know much about her music per se. Having interesting material and subject matter helps, and today, Swifties and Non-Swifties alike would have to agree that Taylor Swift is a phenomenon - and as such, makes for current, relevant “stuff.”

And so expect to see more courses - across the broad curriculum - focus not just on Taylor Swift, but on other current phenomena. Whether from a groundswell of individual initiatives (as these courses largely have been) or through a planned, strategic “march to relevancy,” we can expect to see a rise in such popular culture and popular topics courses in the months and years to come. The challenge will be how to expand these courses beyond the “obvious” focal areas, such as music and literature. As a business professor, I think that the Taylor Swift phenomenon could make for an interesting case study in - or indeed, an entire class in - the areas of business strategy, marketing, promotion, and, yes, social media. Other courses looking at the data and numbers of the Swift phenomenon - her Eras Tour, the economic impact of it, her record sales, etc. - also hold great promise. Why not take a popular subject for students to study, rather than something obscure? Why not give the students what they want, rather than giving them the same old, recycled dribble just because the material/data is easily accessible?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taylor_Swift_(6820749600).jpg

In the end, then, the rise of Taylor Swift on campus makes me more hopeful than ever before that colleges and universities can indeed better position themselves and their programs as not just more attractive and interesting to future students but make what they offer more relevant and meaningful to them. In a fast-changing world, where all universities are really competing with one another, regardless of their physical location, for the eyeballs and dollars of prospective students, being “that university” that offers classes - and maybe a whole program - focused on popular topics will make that college stand out and yes, make it more marketable! A wise man once said that “the answer to all your questions is money,” and yes, colleges and universities that not just embrace the Swifties, but the Taylor Swift idea for classes, will draw in more students - and with them, more tuition dollars! That is the bottom line in all of this!

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Professor David C. Wyld

About David Wyld

David C. Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld. You can subscribe to his Medium article feed at: https://davidwyld.medium.com/subscribe.

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About the Creator

David Wyld

Professor, Consultant, Doer. Founder/Publisher of The IDEA Publishing (http://www.theideapublishing.com/) & Modern Business Press (http://www.modernbusinesspress.com)

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  • Andrea Corwin 5 months ago

    David, right before the end of this piece I was thinking that Taylor is a great subject for business because she is a phenomenal business person, controlling her persona, music, artistic stage presence, all of it - and then you said the same thing in a summed up statement. I can see how the students would want to sign up for such a class - her popularity, her business acumen, not to mention someone wanting to become famous, so wishing to study her methods. Very in depth articles you are sharing!

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