When it comes to your typical English department, 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift has long been the Swift of note.
This fall, another Swift joins the program with the course: “Taylor Swift’s Literary Legacy (Taylor’s Version)”.
Each year, the subject of Queen’s University’s cultural studies course is instructor-dependent and “encompasses the fantastic variety of historical worlds and individual imaginations to which literature gives us access,” says Glenn Willmott, deputy director of the English Department, in an email. Undergraduates have immersed themselves in ‘The Tempest’, ‘Icelandic Sagas’ and indigenous science fiction, and now they’ll be browsing Swift’s works, searching for metaphors in the ‘Reputation’ album, the character development in his “Folklore” LP, the allusions to Shakespeare on the “Fearless” record.
“What Taylor Swift fans call easter eggs, literature scholars call literary devices and that’s what we’re trying to teach in these undergraduate English classes,” explains the instructor Meghan Burry. As a doctoral student at Kingston University in Ontario, Burry launched the course in January, just as Swift was defending her writing online. Blur frontman Damon Albarn told the Los Angeles Times that Swift doesn’t write her songs: “I’m just saying there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes.” , did he declare.
“I write ALL my own songs,” Swift replied online. “Your hot take is completely wrong and SO damaging.”
Albarn later apologized. Taylor Swift is the co-writer of all of her albums and the sole writer of “Speak Now” in 2010. Rolling Stone included Swift in its list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. (At 97, she was stuck between Abba’s men and the songwriting duo of Timbaland and Missy Elliott.)
“I think she struggled to be taken seriously,” Burry says, “and I think it’s time for a literary lesson on her.”
At Queen’s, upper-year doctoral students in the English department have the opportunity to create a course. Burry has been excited about it since she was a graduate student. The idea “almost started out as a joke,” with her family and friends calling her a Swift expert. Burry has been a fan since his college days in Prince Edward Island. His music has been the soundtrack to life’s pivotal moments, every rejection, acceptance, heartbreak and loss.
Burry’s own research focuses on perceptions of “fallen women” in 19th century literature, but she believes that even there she was influenced by Swift, “because of her lyrics and her career and the way she was portrayed as a transgressive woman in the media, and how she had to overcome that and navigate her public perception,” she says. Burry had to submit three course proposals to the department, and two were related to his doctoral research. She ranked her preferences and was thrilled they picked her top pick: Taylor Swift.
She is very aware of her fandom. “I never want my personal opinions and appreciation for Swift to get in the way of my focus on literary and cultural impact,” she says. As a fan, she has long called her “T. Swizz. As an academic, it’s Swift.
“We’re going to have a very important conversation at the start of class about separating our literary reviews from the text with our fandom,” she says. She hopes students who don’t know Swift or those who don’t like her music will also sign up. The more perspectives, the better.
Burry says there’s so much going on in a Swift story. On the pandemic album “Folklore,” for example, Swift penned a trio of songs — “August,” “Betty” and “Cardigan” — that tell the story of a love triangle from three different angles. “We could talk for days about these three songs and how they intersect and create a larger narrative,” she says.
Burry will firm up the course this summer. She wants it to be focused and consistent. There’s so much to cover — Swift’s battle for property rights, the sociopolitical impacts of music, the relationships that influenced her work, and the coverage of her music. “I think it’s important to make sure we do this in a constructive way that always comes back to the literary and cultural impact of the song, and ultimately the impact goes beyond just one relationship” , says Burry.
Grace Chen, an English and psychology student, hopes to land one of 75 places when registration opens this summer. She expects a waiting list as word of the class is already spreading, even among her friends in Vancouver who don’t attend Queen’s. The Swifties, as her fans are called, are thrilled. Some lamented the fact that they had already graduated. Others want to transfer to Queen’s.
“I feel like that’s how schools should be,” Chen said. “We should really be passionate about what we do.”
Chen is a founding member of the Queen’s University Taylor Swift Society, a campus group that organizes club nights, trivia nights, and other social events for Swifties. Chances are Swift knows Queen’s because of the band. Its marketing team sent merchandise to the company earlier this year with a note signed: “Sending merchandise from 22 22 as a thank you for all your support and also a big hug!” I love you, Taylor.
The course is believed to be the first in Canada on Swift’s literary impact. A course on Swift was offered at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute in January. There was a waiting list. Swift’s publicist did not answer the Star’s questions about the course.
Burry hopes Swift learns her course and knows someone has spent years pondering her writing and scholarly merit.
“His words, his work, his career have academic value,” she says, “and I’m really excited to explore that further.”
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