by Mackenzie Cullen, Penn State Berks
Graphic courtesy of Jaine DelVecchio
Are you ready for it? Penn State Berks will offer a new course titled “Taylor Swift, Gender, and Communication” starting in the fall 2024 semester. The class will hold 100 seats, with 50 spots reserved for current Berks students and the other 50 spots available for incoming first-year students.
Cross-listed as both a communication arts and sciences and a women’s studies course, it will take the unique approach of examining Swift’s cultural and musical impact and her portrayal in the media rather than focusing on Swift’s marketing strategies or how her lyrics fit into literary canon like other universities’ courses on the singer.
The course was developed and will be taught by Michele Ramsey, associate professor of communication arts and sciences and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Ramsey’s research interests include representations of gender in the media, women’s rights rhetoric, social movement rhetoric, political rhetoric, and advocacy for the humanities.
A course that just ‘hits different’
The course will start with a three-week overview of the impact music has on personal identities, the historical intersections of music and politics, and gendered expectations of female performers. The course will also focus on the career and media treatment of Swift, including subjects such as changes in gendered expectations in shifting from country to pop music; challenges faced by young female musicians as they move from adolescence to adulthood; and the public battles Swift has faced with other celebrities and media representations of those battles that include a tendency to pit successful women against each other.
The class will meet as a whole one day each week to discuss the week’s content. Ramsey also wants to use class time to allow students to connect and build community by doing activities that encourage active learning. Students will break into smaller recitation sections to talk about the week’s readings. At the end of the semester, Ramsey and students will plan and hold a community-wide final project to celebrate Swift and what they’ve learned from the course.
Ramsey admittedly hasn’t been a longtime “Swiftie.” However, she took an interest in Swift when she noticed the amplified online criticism of Swift’s songwriting, accusations of her lip-synching, and Swifties dancing in movie theaters and at her performances — which inspired her to create this course.
“When you watch social media posts of the concerts or ‘Eras Tour’ movie screenings, you see so many important things happening,” Ramsey said. “You see legions of women — grandmothers, moms, young women, teens, tweens, younger girls, and those who don’t fit into our strict social constructions of gender and sex identity — daring to take up space to enjoy something they love together.”
‘Long story short…’
When asked why she wanted to teach the class, Ramsey narrowed it down to three reasons. First, she wants students to understand the ideological power of the media to influence our ideas about who we are and who we want to be. She already does this work in another one of her courses called “Identity, Citizenship, and the Rhetoric of American Horror Film.”
Secondly, Ramsey wants to teach the course because of how powerful the messages in Swift’s songs are and how they have evolved since she began her career at 16 years old.
“It’s wonderful that Taylor Swift’s music helps people feel empowered to be who they are, to take up space, and to not allow themselves to be minimized or ridiculed because of who they are,” Ramsey said. “But it’s also the case that it’s equally important to give students a vocabulary so that they can name the feelings and beliefs encouraged by her music.”
Finally, Ramsey is interested in how the messages of Swift’s songs can empower fans to “speak now” and reach fans from all age ranges and demographics, resonating with Gen Alpha to Baby Boomers.
“Taylor Swift is not only loved by younger generations, and there’s a good reason for that,” Ramsey said. “She shows vulnerability in her music by speaking honestly about her life, and many of those tribulations are linked to how we treat most women in our society. Taylor’s songs speak to generations of people whose stories have not been the center of civilization, movies, TV shows, or music.”
As Swift is a Wyomissing native, Ramsey knows that teaching this course in Swift’s hometown makes it a rare experience for students. The course encourages students to enter their “Berks era,” studying the importance of something they love and leave with a better understanding of the expectations and pressures placed on women in our culture. And, of course, she plans on making this an experience students will remember “all too well.”
For more information about the course, contact Ramsey at [email protected].