I taught the Taylor Swift class at Harvard. This is my thesis

Lautumn i told Harvard’s English Department that I planned to hold a class this spring Taylor Swift. No one objected; Harvard professors like me have a lot of latitude in choosing electives as long as we also provide the basic material our majors need. (Most of my work involves poetry; I also teach our regular undergraduate course on literary form, vocabulary Beowulf on.) I’m going to call my new class Taylor Swift and her worldas in: We read and listened to other artists and authors (part of her world). But also as in: It was her world; we just lived in it.

I’ve been living in it ever since. I thought I’d teach a quiet workshop: 20 Swifties around a big oak table, reviewing and appreciating her career, from her debut to her debut. Midnight, along with her influences, from Carole King (see her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame speech) to William Wordsworth (see “The Lakes” from Folk culture). We’ll follow her echoes and half-rhymes, her arrangements, her collaborations and allusions, her hooks and her choruses. We can sing along. We’ll find out why “You Belong With Me” is so heavily relied upon with (you don’t belong ARRIVE me, neither am I to you). We will learn how the unease in “Tolerate It” informs its time signature (4/5). Perhaps some English majors will participate in composing. Maybe some Swifties will leave with old poems in his head.

To be fair, almost all of that has now happened. We sang along. Some college students have learned to love the 18th-century poet and satirist Alexander Pope, or at least pretend so: Pope’s “Letter to Dr. Arbuthnot” describes his exasperation with rabid fans, false friends and haters in ways rarely equaled until Reputation. We cracked Easter eggs and studied her rhythm. But we couldn’t fit at one table. At one time, 300 students registered for the class; Nearly 200 people have used it. We met in the concert hall on campus, with a grand piano at center stage. I gave what I hoped were engaging lectures, with pauses for questions and stage props: a lilt or an adorable stuffed snake (to create a snake motif). above Reputation). We have theater lights, balcony seating, and the kind of big screen that few humanities classrooms need today.

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Harvard English professor Stephanie Burt teaches the course “Taylor Swift and Her World.”

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University.

And we kept an eye on us from outside the room. A user on Twitter (now officially X) “leak” our curriculum as if we were kept Hollywood secrets. Students post clips (with our consent) on TikTok. And we had reporters—every day, for weeks—asking to visit. We were finally invited Today program, in which camera-ready journalist Emilie Ikeda listened admirably to our undergraduates. My tutors, our students and I spoke to the BBC. And with TMZ. And with Australian public radio. And with television news broadcast in Boston, Boise, Sacramento, NPR and RTE (Irish public television), and with journalists from Brazil, Chile, People’s Republic of China, Ecuador, Finland, France , Germany, Greece, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Spain and Sweden.

In other words, we learned that Swift attracts attention: That attention amplifies everything about her, even without her. Teaching the class sometimes feels like one of Swift’s vaunted collaborations, another multimedia performance involving reporters, students and herself. Journalists asked if Swift was coming to visit. (She would be welcome, but she has a lot of work to do.) They asked me what I wanted the students to learn. (How to think about works of art.) And they asked if Harvard rejected a course on a famous person. (We also read people who are dead, like Pope, James Weldon Johnson and Willa Cather. These people, in their time, were famous people.)

If I had—and do have—a thesis about Swift’s work in general, it’s this: She excels as a songwriter and a performer by remaining aspirational and relatable. Swiftie fans and casual fans see parts of ourselves in her, but we also see someone we wish we could be. Her first few albums showed a clear fusion: Songs like “Fifteen” and “You Belong With Me” spoke to common high school crushes and heartbreaks. At the same time, they let listeners admire her. Not only did she say what so many fans felt but couldn’t articulate, she also appeared lucky, even envious, to do so. She sings about senior boys who can stop you in the hallway, “wink at you and say, ‘You know, I’ve never seen you around before’” and not about bullies who can can push you into the trash; she writes about feeling excluded by her classmates, but also about her caring, affectionate mother, who took her for a “drive until we found her.” saw a town far enough away / And we talked and shopped until I forgot all their names.” It’s no surprise that so many people – especially girls of that age and younger – consider her a peer and a role model.

As our class entered her pop period, she became a post-teen star. 1989 Moving on, my thesis hits a snag. We’ve seen how the woman who clearly loves the spotlight, who sings “we’re never out of date” and dates Harry Styles, remains aspirational. But what makes these versions of Swift so relatable? One answer: Like any great writer in any medium, she has a gift for framing universal emotions, crystallizing nostalgia, desire, and regret. If we feel them, she’ll let us feel them again.


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