Poetry, prose and now songwriting: Ghent University in Belgium is launching a new literature course dedicated to the literary merit of Taylor Swift’s discography. This fall, “Literature: Taylor’s Version” — a nod to the artist’s re-recorded album titles — will be available to students, curated by assistant professor Elly McCausland.
McCausland — author of the blog “Swifterature,” which compares the pop star’s themes, imagery and use of language to writers including Sylvia Plath, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare — will use Swift’s work to engage with literature “from the Medieval period to the Victorian,” including Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde,” Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette,” as well as the work of contemporary authors including Margaret Atwood and Simon Armitage.
“Highly prolific and autobiographical in her songwriting, Swift makes frequent allusions to canonical literary texts in her music,” the class syllabus explains. “Using Swift’s work as a springboard, we will explore, among other topics, literary feminism, ecocriticism, fan studies, and tropes such as the anti-hero. Swift’s enduring popularity stems, at least in part, from the heavily intertextual aspect of her work, and this course will dig deeper to explore its literary roots.”
Registration, “is open to all, including those who do not consider themselves fans of Taylor Swift (or may never have encountered her music),” the syllabus continues. “The purpose of the course is to think critically about Swift as an artist and writer, and to use the popularity of her music as a ‘way in’ to a corpus of literature that may have shaped her work.”
McCausland received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Oxford University, in English Literature and Medieval English Literature respectively, and also received a Ph.D from the University of York in the United Kingdom. She previously taught at the University of Oslo in Norway. Swift’s songwriting had been on her mind as a subject worthy of scholarly analysis for “a while,” she told CNN, but “really crystallized” with the release of Swift’s latest album “Midnights” last fall.
“There’s a song on there called ‘The Great War,’ which uses the First World War as an analogy for heartbreak… That made me think of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Daddy,’ in which she uses the Holocaust to discuss her troubled relationship with her father,” McCausland explained. “This appropriation of historical pain and war as a metaphor (for love and loss)— I started thinking about other literary parallels and that’s where the course came from.”
Enrolled students will, over the semester, be graded on a “reflection report” — which could even be presented as a song — and a 4,000 word essay assessing the significance of one of the class’s assigned texts in the literary canon. McCausland said she has no plans to offer extra credit for the best friendship bracelets produced, but added that, “on a more personal level, they will get huge amounts of appreciation from me.”
“I’ll be delighted with everything that happens during this course,” she continued. “I’m really excited to see what the students come up with.”
While it is believed to be the first course of its kind in Europe, Swift’s poetic refrains are already being taught by several colleges across the United States. Stanford’s module called the 12-time-Grammy-Award-winner, “The Last Great American Songwriter,” while New York University, Arizona State University, Berklee College of Music and Rice University in Houston all have dedicated classes to study Swift’s lyrical evolution, music composition and how her work relates to feminism, gender studies as well as American nationalism.
But Swift isn’t the first superstar whose work has attracted academic attention. In 2016, the University of Texas launched an English Literature course unpacking Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade” and its relationship to Black feminism. The following year, The University of Copenhagen began offering “Beyoncé, Gender and Race.”
“I imagined there would be some raised eyebrows, and there were. I still haven’t figured out if they were raised in condemnation or skepticism or approval,” McCausland said of the response from colleagues and, as the details of her class have since made headlines, the wider world. “I’m really pleased that so many people are enthusiastic about it, and I’m genuinely quite surprised. There’s been only a couple of outright critical voices, and that only really reaffirms what I’m trying to do — even the hate mail I find quite wonderful, to be honest! I mean, don’t print that quote as in ‘send more hate mail’ please,” she quickly clarified.
“But if anyone can teach you a lesson in how to respond to trolls, it’s Taylor Swift,” she concluded. “I mean, she literally says ‘haters gonna hate,’ and that she’s gonna shake it off.”