Skip to the content

Penn State Berks Professor Discusses New Course on Taylor Swift Offered in Fall

Unique course explores Swift’s impact and her portrayal in the media.

Penn State Berks Professor Discusses New Course on Taylor Swift Offered in Fall

by Penn State Berks

Graphic courtesy of Jaine DelVecchio

Just like clockwork, the dominoes cascaded in a line. Penn State Berks will offer a new course titled “Taylor Swift, Gender, and Communication” starting in the fall 2024 semester. 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 the literary canon. 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.

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, social movement, and political rhetoric; and advocacy for the humanities. She is a frequent media contributor on issues concerning women’s studies and communication. She spoke with Penn State News about why she decided to develop this course.

Q: What motivated you to develop this course?

Ramsey: I was motivated once the videos of “The Eras Tour” started circulating on social media, and I started to see so many people making negative comments about Taylor Swift’s fans and the ways that they perform their fandom. They were mostly from men making fun of women for being so committed to her music and for communicating in public what it means to their lives. At the same time, I noticed the beginning of what has become a seismic shift in our culture, and that is people of all ages and from all walks of life coming together to appreciate the fun and, most importantly to me, the feminism of Taylor Swift’s music.

Q: What is it about Taylor Swift that is worthwhile to study?

Ramsey: Swift’s music tells the stories that so many people, especially those who identify as women, have experienced themselves. So, teaching the course allows me to provide students with the vocabulary to name those experiences and connect them to structural problems in our culture, like sexism, the double bind that women of color experience, and homophobia. One of the most powerful gifts I can give students in classes focused on gender is the gift of vocabulary, which is the gift of being able to see, name, and explain what they’ve experienced in their lives and to connect it to cultural ideas about sex and gender that are long overdue for change. They then have the power to work to fight against and change those problematic structures that disparage and marginalize certain groups of people.

This course also investigates how art can illuminate issues of gender, sexism, feminism, fandom, and other important elements of our identities and how these things are communicated through music and coinciding media, such as social media campaigns and other means of branding and engagement. Swift’s music and advocacy through her art and social media posts have created a multi-generational fanbase, with younger fans learning about issues like sexism, public image, and patriarchy much earlier than is typical in our culture. Similarly, older fans, including those in both the Generation X and Boomer generations, have bonded over Swift’s ability to use music to discuss, interrogate, critique, and celebrate the shared experiences of women at different stages of life.

In my view, no other musical artist has yet to create a fanbase as diverse and unwavering as Swift’s, and her impact on fans and culture is important to identify and understand. The current worldwide zeitgeist surrounding Swift is unprecedented and important.

Q: Are you a ‘Swiftie’?

Ramsey: I was not a Swiftie until this summer. I knew about her and her music, of course, but had not dug into her catalog, her performances, or the relationships she cultivates with fans. I was struck by her incredible ability to tell stories that resonate with her fans, her staggering business acumen, and her impact on younger generations. When Generation Alpha fans of Swift’s know the meaning of the word “patriarchy” in elementary school, that seems to me to be the beginning of some very big and much-needed changes.

Q: How will this course differ from other Taylor Swift courses offered by other institutions of higher education?

Ramsey: Other courses have done great work in terms of considering Swift’s music as poetry and literature, focusing on her entrepreneurial genius and her social media and marketing skills. This course is going to focus on cultural, political, and social issues that emerge in her stories and in the media’s representation of her and other women in music. We’ll use a rhetorical and gender/feminist lens to examine her music, her media presence, backlash against her popularity, and representations of her in the media. It will also focus on the intersections between music, popular culture, and politics.

Part of the course will also be about building community between students and helping students build relationships with one another. This is an especially important goal after COVID-19 cheated young people out of important chances to socialize and engage with one another. I want the class to help counter some of the feelings of isolation that are still with some students. Swift is an expert at encouraging relationships between her fans, and so it only makes sense that this course has a relational communication component as well.

Q: What can students expect to learn and experience in the course?

Ramsey: We will engage in critical assessment and discussions of Swift’s music and media presence to gain an understanding of how her art expresses, encourages, or discourages, and/or reflects cultural values and helps illuminate the human condition. In addition, we will learn about a variety of ways that identities, values and political expression are communicated through the arts and will learn how to critically assess and evaluate those messages. The course will use the career of Taylor Swift, as well as other artists with whom she has engaged — positively and negatively — to examine the ways that art can impact our sense of self, our identities, and even impact our political, social, and cultural values.

We will also focus on academic analysis of her impact, analyses of her lyrics and the visual communication/rhetoric of her music videos and social media posts, and the significant relationship Swift has created with her worldwide fanbase.

In terms of using the course to build relationships between students, we will talk about — and do — friendship bracelet-making as a consciousness-raising exercise, and we will plan an event open to the community to celebrate one of our hometown heroes, the positive impact she’s had on people’s worlds, and her unprecedented success. And I’m not going to lie — we’re going to dance and sing, too.

Q: Why did you decide to frame this course around women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in addition to focusing on communication?

Ramsey: Back in 2012, Taylor Swift, like most women, initially eschewed the label of “feminist.” because of the negative connotation it has in our culture. But it’s the fundamental guiding philosophy is that everyone should have an equal opportunity to be who they want to be and to do what they want to do. That’s it.

Fast forward a decade or so, and Taylor, like many people, went into the world as an adult and probably realized how gender and sex role expectations and stereotypes impact our lives. She now understands the importance of claiming that label, which is important for many reasons, but I’ll just talk about two of them.

First, it is important because she embodies feminism. While she often fits into a more traditional gender role stereotype of womanhood, she simultaneously busts through many of those stereotypes by being one of the most, if not the most, successful musicians in history. Her immense talent is bolstered by her incredible business and social media acumen and entrepreneurial spirit. She sings about fairytales and princesses in flowing, pretty dresses — and sometimes in more traditionally masculine styles, too — while dominating and disrupting the music and movie industries. She is the embodiment of a lot of what feminism stands for — the ability to make choices about how you present yourself, what you want to do in the world, and how you want to do it, regardless of how one identifies in terms of sex and gender.

It’s also important to talk about her self-designation as a feminist because, as is often the case with female celebrities, she has become what we call a “site of struggle” in our culture. What that means is that celebrities and other famous people sometimes become spaces/conversations where we engage in ideological battles about things like sex and gender expectations and stereotypes. The comparison of the fan behavior of her fans on her “Eras Tour” and fan behavior at NFL games is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

This summer, people made fun of fans singing along to her songs and exchanging friendship bracelets, engaging in shared choreography and chants, all while dressed in sequins, bright colors, or outfits reminiscent of one of Swift’s “eras.” Many naysayers labeled these fans “a cult.” But let’s think about what a typical NFL football game looks like: Many people men come dressed up in jerseys with other peoples’ men’s names on them, they paint their faces and their bodies in team colors with team names and player numbers and engage in choreographed team chants and songs. So, that’s one way that Taylor Swift has become a means by which we talk about gender and sex role expectations. By claiming herself a feminist, she can put a heavy finger on that scale and can help encourage positive social, political, and cultural change. We have these conversations because of her, and these conversations matter for the future of the youth in our country and our own futures as adults.

Q: What would you say to critics who don’t understand why students would pay tuition to take a course about Taylor Swift?

Ramsey: There are a few primary reasons why I think popular culture is worthy of study. First and foremost, I want students to understand that ideology is most powerful when it’s least visible. What I mean by that is that when we are being entertained, we are often less likely to critically assess the ideologies about things like race, class, and sex/gender because it’s “just entertainment.” As a result, we can be more easily influenced by a popular song or film narrative than, say, a political advertisement where ideologies are more clearly communicated and expected. Courses that focus on popular culture help students understand the ideological power of the media to influence our ideas about who we are, who we want to be, and how we see the world.

People who devalue courses on popular culture, especially those grounded in the humanities and arts, may not realize that courses like these teach the core skills and knowledge that research shows employers want. In this course, students will practice skills in critical thinking, written and public communication, collaboration, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, and media and digital literacy. They will also consider issues of ethics; globalization; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. These are the top skills that research says employers want but are not getting enough of from college graduates. For example, the research papers and presentations we do in the humanities teach students how to do excellent research in an environment filled with misinformation, to synthesize and organize that research, to apply it, and then to communicate succinctly and persuasively what they’ve found. There isn’t a business or organization that doesn’t need college graduates with those skills. These are transferrable skills and knowledge that students can take with them to their first job. These skills also give them the agility, adaptability, and flexibility to be prepared for all the jobs of the future that don’t even exist yet.

The best part is that students can learn all these core skills and knowledge while also learning about themselves, learning how to better relate to their classmates, and through something that they want to pay attention to — Taylor Swift! It is the academic equivalent to hiding vegetables in foods kids love, and it makes learning fun and engaging. Being able to do this kind of work is the best part of being a rhetorical scholar in my discipline of communication arts and sciences.