How Taylor Swift is changing the way UF professors are teaching
In Nov. 2021, English Professor Elizabeth Scala at the University of Texas at Austin was tasked with updating her class content for the spring semester.
Having taught "Literary Contests and Contexts: Harry Potter, A Secret Language" three times already, she craved something new.
Locked down for months at home with her daughter Claire blasting Taylor Swift's rerecorded "Red" album on repeat, Scala reworked something of her own – the course description.
"I had the course already scheduled, but because the course had this boring name – Literary Contests and Contexts – I could pour any content into it that I wanted," Scala said. "I just took the subtitle and changed it to 'Taylor Swift Songbook.'"
And just like that, the first college class dedicated to comparing Swift's music to classic literature was born.
Nearly a year after she changed the course, Scala was met with a trend so timely she couldn't have planned it even if she tried.
"[Swift] comes out of the pandemic and shows up at the Toronto Film Festival, right, her first public appearance in a very long time," Scala said, "and then she announces she's going to the VMAs, and she announces Midnights, and then she announces she's going on tour."
"There was no way I could have planned that little harmonic convergence," she said.
When class registration at UT rolled around, Scala was met with eager Swifties, anxious to get a seat in the classroom. But she quickly came face to face with a teacher’s toughest reality: the inability to accommodate all the interested students.
"It's really clear to me that the kind of demand and interest in this course, it's too big for me to do myself," Scala said.
And she wouldn't have to.
Not long after the class was added to UT's course catalog and Scala received national attention, other professors began to follow Scala's lead, dreaming up ways to use Swift as an academic tool.
Within just a couple of years, classes spanning from analyzing Swift's role as a storyteller to her involvement in public policy popped up at Stanford, New York University, Berklee and more.
While college campuses with Swift-themed courses are growing quickly, some professors cannot adapt their courses entirely.
But if anyone thinks that means Swift will be kept out of the classroom, they haven't met University of Florida professors.
Despite UF Law Professor Thomas Haley's admittance that he's "not a huge fan," he has referenced Swift's rerecording of her albums in class to explain the idea of reclaiming property rights.
Like his peers, Haley has also chosen to use Swift in the topic of conversation due to her relevancy and relatability.
"A lot of the case law on these things is from even before my time," Haley said, "so I think it helps [students] in kind of having a leg up in understanding the facts of the situation.
"They have a much better understanding of what we're applying the law to than if we were talking about half-remembered artists from the 1950s, and we can't hear the songs in our heads at all."
Swift's conversations in the classroom don't stop at UF’s law school; Swift has even made her way into the chemistry department.
Questioning her relevance to the course topic? Here's what UF Chemistry Professor Ashlyn Hale has to say: "Doesn't everyone know Taylor Swift can be used to help explain anything?"
Hale recognizes the stigma around chemistry and knows some may even find the subject "scary."
To combat that, she combines her musical personality with her love for chemistry.
"One of my missions in life is to spread my passion for chemistry and make everyone in my classroom think that they can be a chemist," but "I don't want lecture to be, 'Here's a bunch of chemistry. Now understand it,'" Hale said. "I want it to be approachable."
Most of Hale's Swift references in class aren't planned, and often, she just sings her songs on the spot.
But one of her performances had been thought out, she said.
"I was driving home from work, and I knew lecture the next day was on redox chemistry," she said. "'Shake it Off' came up on my playlist, so I came up on the spot with a parody defining the terms."
When she stood at the front of her class the next day, she gave the performance of a lifetime.
As Swift continues to grow in popularity with the "The Eras Tour" movie released on Oct. 13, she has Hale racking her brain trying to name her favorite Swift song. "I have a Ph.D., and this could be the hardest question I've ever been asked," Hale said.
Brittany Spanos, Rolling Stone senior staff writer and NYU graduate, returned to her alma mater in Jan. 2022 to teach a seven-week course centered around Swift geared toward people who want to work in the music industry.
The class touches on topics from "contextualizing Taylor's own music taste" to "teens who were popping up at the same time as Taylor like the Jonas Brothers, Miley [Cyrus] and Debbie [Ryan], and the way, for example, the Jonas Brothers' purity rings affected a lot of our perception of teen idols at that time" Spanos said.
When deciding which artist to build her class around, Spanos also considered Janet Jackson, Tina Turner and Britney Spears but ultimately decided Swift was the most obvious choice.
"I think a lot of perspective on her music had shifted for a lot of people at that time, so it just felt like the right moment," Spanos said, referencing Swift's rerelease of one of her first albums, Fearless, after deciding to take back ownership of her songs that were previously owned by her record label.
In recent weeks, Swift has gone public with her new beau, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and has stirred up nothing short of national craze.
Dubbed the "Taylor Swift effect" by ESPN, Kelce's jersey sales spiked nearly 400% since Swift cheered him on at the Sept. 24 game.
Television viewership also soared, with the broadcast racking up 24.3 million viewers and earning the title of the most watched telecast of the week on any network, according to Fox Sports.
Anything but coincidental, the game ranked first that week among women of all ages, especially those in their college prime.
Arizona State University also jumped at the opportunity to bring Swift off the stage – and now field – and into the classroom this year.
This fall semester, ASU offers “Psychology of Taylor Swift – Advanced Topics of Social Psychology,” and in the spring, Clinical Assistant Professor Margaretha Bentley will "make government interesting to young people" through her course, Taylor Swift (Public Policy Version).
The course description reads:
"This course will investigate Taylor Swift's Folklore (Public Policy Version) by examining the public impact of the Eras tour, the issues with Ticketmaster that drove political debates in Congress and caused many of her fans to see Red, and the intellectual property laws that led her to be Fearless and rerecord her albums. Additionally, we will look at Taylor's Reputation for being willing to Speak Now about her political views and engage in public policy debates. Whether you are a Lover of Taylor Swift or if she will Evermore haunt your Midnights, this course offers insight into how Taylor has practiced civic engagement and influenced public policy since 1989 and will also demonstrate how the public sector shapes the careers of artists like her."
While Bentley has been a Swiftie for a decade, her class was inspired, as was Scala's, at the height of the pandemic.
"I'm a professor in the field of government, and so I read a lot of news stories," she said. "It's not always fun to read about the things that are happening in the government.
"Reading about Taylor Swift," Bentley said, "that has kind of been my palate cleanser."
While Bentley patiently waits for the first day of class, her 9-year-old son's favorite songs right now could not parallel more with her plans in the classroom.
"He's singing, 'Ready for It,’ and 'Look What You Made Me Do,'" Bentley said. "And you know what, those are pretty perfect song titles when you think about me creating a class about Taylor Swift."