Taylor Swift-inspired literature course introduced by university in Belgium

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Much of the syllabus for Elly McCausland’s course at Ghent University reads like a who’s who of English literature, dotted with works by Geoffrey Chaucer, Charlotte Brontë and William Shakespeare. But it’s the inclusion of another prolific writer that has got people talking: the singer-songwriter Taylor Swift.

“I’ve never had so many emails from excited students asking if they can take the course,” said McCausland, an assistant professor at the Belgian university. “And actually non-students as well, people who are not part of the university and who want to participate in some way.”

McCausland pitched the idea of a Swift-centered elective – believed to be the first of its kind in Europe – after she was repeatedly struck by the parallels between the singer’s lyrics and the English literature the academic had long studied.

In Swift’s The Great War she saw echoes of how Sylvia Plath jarringly spoke of war and battle to convey her pain in the poem Daddy, while Swift’s Mad Woman and the tale it tells of patriarchy and mental health harked back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. “I sort of thought, why is no one talking about this?”

Due to start in autumn, the course – titled Literature: Taylor’s Version – will capitalise on these links, using Swift’s work as a springboard to explore everything from 14th-century writings to Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest.

“What I want to do is show students that although these texts might seem inaccessible, they can be accessible if we look at them from a slightly different angle,” she said. “So, Shakespeare, in some way, is actually addressing a lot of the same questions as Taylor Swift is today, which seems crazy. But he is.”

McCausland said she had come up against some on social media who were sceptical of her approach. “But I think that’s actually a sign that this is needed,” she said, likening it to the reaction after Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize in literature in 2016. “It gets people talking about what is literature, what is the canon. Can any text be literature?”

She’s far from the first to bring Swift into a university classroom. In 2022 New York University’s Clive Davis Institute reportedly pioneered the pop queen’s path into academia, with a course examining the “appeal and aversions” of the musician. Since then, another half a dozen or so courses have sprung up across the US, investigating various aspects of the artist who recently became the first woman to have four albums in the Top 10 of the US album charts simultaneously.

McCausland was quick to acknowledge that similar courses could be fashioned from the work of other artists. However, for her – a self-described “longtime Swiftie” – it was evident that Swift’s lyrics, which are often threaded with literary references, deserved a deeper look.

In 2022 the singer detailed how her writing style varied with the tool she imagined herself to be using; a quill might yield a 19th-century sonnet, and a fountain pen could spark a modern personal story, while a glitter-gel pen turned out carefree, bouncy songs.

McCausland said this ability to switch between styles, all the while penning deeply personal lines that speak to the collective experience, made Swift the perfect writer to explore. “I want the students to realise that the media they consume on a daily basis, whether that is music, Netflix, podcast, TikTok or whatever, I want them to think about that in the same way that they might think about the topics they study,” she said. “Why is this so zeitgeisty? Why does it speak to so many people?”

She stressed that despite her passion for Swift’s work, the course would still be grounded in academics and designed to accommodate everyone from Swifties to those who disliked the artist. “There will be critics who think it’s sort of frivolous and silly,” she said. “The primary focus is literature, but also I want us to think critically about Swift. I’m absolutely not gathering all of the Swifties and we’re going to spend three hours every Monday fangirling.”

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