As a teacher and a Shakespearean, I’m grateful for schools offering Taylor Swift classes

I find myself squarely on the side of the Swifties here.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ryan Davis, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, is teaching a philosophy course this term that incorporates the lyrics of Taylor Swift. Once word got out, the son of a colleague gifted a life-size cutout of Swift to Davis as a joke. Davis is pictured in his office on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

What do William Shakespeare and Taylor Swift have in common? They’re both enormously popular and can sell out huge venues. They’re both savvy business people who turned their art into profit. And now, they both have college courses devoted to their work.

This year, Weber State University joined other institutions, including Brigham Young University and Harvard, in offering a class on Taylor Swift. Associate Professor Emily January debuted the elective course through WSU’s English department to much fanfare. The class filled immediately and even led to the creation of a second class for graduate students. The popularity of the class prompted news coverage and lots of chatter on social media with the public debating the merits of such a course. Many expressed their wish to take the course; an equal number dismissed it as a waste of time.

I’m a Shakespearean, but I find myself squarely on the side of the Swifties here. It’s hard to argue with the many students who jumped at the opportunity to study something they love. Dr. January has shared that studying Swift has not only enticed people to enroll, but also to engage. Dropping by January’s class proves her point, as the energy and excitement in that space is palpable. One student shared how the course is important to her overall academic career, saying, “I want to go every single day to this class, and it encourages me to go to my other classes.”

What takes place in a class on Taylor Swift? It’s not that different from a class on Shakespeare. Students learn to analyze a text, to understand how a piece of art reflects and challenges beliefs of its time, and to articulate their ideas and support them with research and evidence. In other words, students learn critical thinking and communication — skills that are highly valued in just about every workplace.

Google the phrase “transferable skills” and “humanities” and you’ll find hundreds of articles explaining the value of studying the humanities for career preparation. Many of these articles are written by business executives who make clear they want to hire students with degrees in the humanities because these students are creative and flexible problem solvers.

Don Gale recently wrote an op-ed for The Tribune about the importance of an education in the humanities, pointing to the longstanding belief that humanistic study produces good citizens. While we often look to the sciences and technology to solve problems, Gale argues that training in humanities disciplines such as literature, art and philosophy is vital for solving the major challenges facing our communities and the planet.

Similarly, Gov. Spencer Cox spoke to the importance of Utah’s cultural institutions, declaring February as Utah Division of Arts and Museums Month. In reporting on this, The Tribune quoted Cox praising arts and museums for inspiring and connecting people, and fostering “skills necessary for solving 21st-century problems.” The same article notes that in 2022 the culture industry created nearly 70,000 jobs in Utah — businesses such as film, performing arts, museums and publishing. Taylor Swift isn’t the only artist doing well for herself.

While many today think of Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language, like Taylor Swift, he faced his fair share of criticism. During his lifetime, Shakespeare was popular, but his plays were not considered high art and many attacked theatrical performances for promoting immoral behavior. Indeed, the Globe and other public theaters were located on the outskirts of London in close proximity to the bear baiting and cockfighting arenas.

Few could have imagined that we would be studying Shakespeare’s plays more than 400 years later, or that a young woman would be singing about Romeo and Juliet in front of thousands of fans. Perhaps Swift got the idea for “Love Story” in her high school English class. Who knows what great things will come from the minds of students lucky enough to have landed a seat in Taylor Swift Studies?

Deborah Uman is dean of the Telitha E. Lindquist College of Arts & Humanities at Weber State University. A Renaissance scholar, she has taught classes on Shakespeare and British literature, as well as dystopian fiction and fairy tales. Her book “Liberating Shakespeare: Adaptation and Empowerment for Young Adult Audiences” was published by Arden in 2023.

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