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I sat in on a Taylor Swift class at Harvard. Here's what I learned

What happens when Swiftie lore meets academia? Not-so-tortured poets.
Photo collage of taylor swift and Harvard University
Tyler Essary / TODAY Illustration / Angela Weiss / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Donning my backpack and a colorful spread of friendship bracelets on my wrist, I walked through the storied streets of Harvard University to Lowell Lecture Hall, built in 1902. It’s just as you’d imagine: A step back in time through brick, limestone and ornate doorways.

As a child, I dreamed of attending the renowned Ivy League school. And now, more than a decade since graduating high school, here was my chance … in a subject I know all too well.

Harvard’s new English class “Taylor Swift and Her World” is the brainchild of Professor Stephanie Burt — a Harvard and Yale alum, literary critic, poet, writer … and massive Swiftie. It’s almost as if the self-proclaimed head of Harvard’s “Tortured Poets Department” was in Swift’s ear ahead of the pop star’s newly announced album (“The Tortured Poets Department”). Safe to say it will be required reading — or should I say listening? — for the class come April.

Monday mornings are quiet on most college campuses, even Harvard, as students slowly emerge from lively weekends spent with friends. But students arrived noticeably early to the noon class.

A photo from inside the lecture hall.
A photo from inside the lecture hall.

The twice-a-week, 75 minute-long lecture kicked off with some impromptu singing when one of the teaching assistants started playing Swift’s 2008 song “Love Story” on the piano.

The room of more than 200 people — from different years and majors — came to life in this bucket-list worthy class. Swifties have a reputation for being welcoming, and this class was no exception. Sitting front and center, I joined in, belting out, “I’ll be waiting, all there’s left to do is run” with my arms wrapped around neighboring students.

Already, this was proving to be a college class unlike any other. 

To those of you rolling your eyes, know that this class is far more than a dance party and series of clever puns. Now, look what you made me do. 

Rather, the class is a deep dive into Swift’s sweeping catalog and its cultural impact, closely examining themes and writing mechanisms that parallel literary greats from decades before. 

Willa Cather, James Weldon Johnson and William Wordsworth are all on the reading list, along with watching Swift’s documentary “Miss Americana” and her 2022 NYU commencement speech

“We will learn how to study fan culture, celebrity culture, adolescence, adulthood and appropriation; how to think about white texts, Southern texts, transatlantic texts, and queer subtexts,” according to the syllabus, which is riddled with lyric references. “We will learn how to think about illicit affairs, and hoaxes, champagne problems and incomplete closure.”

This week, the class was dissecting Swift’s second album, “Fearless,” before moving on to subsequent albums later.

As a songwriter, Swift is what poet and literary theorist Allen Grossman “calls a hermeneutic friend,” Burt said to the class.

Umm … a what?

As if she heard my thoughts, Burt quickly clarified the “special English professor word.” She explained that in the song “Fifteen,” Swift establishes herself as the listener’s friend, someone who knows what you’re going through and can help guide you, like a fairy godmother. “Only not a god, not a mother, and not a fairy,” Burt quipped, to which the class chuckled. 

Even through complicated topics, the class’s energy never dulled. 

Swift had their attention … and Burt’s occasional lyrical dancing also helped. While she sang the lines, “Marry me Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone,” she got down on one knee.

Burt says the class situates Swift within a broader literary tradition.

“It is to connect these things to other artists who are currently more popular and to say, ‘If you like this, try that, if you enjoy studying this, try that,’” she says. “And that is how works of art survive.”

It’s that energizing effect that’s made the history-making dynamo academia’s new favorite subject — from a Swift-inspired psychology class at Arizona State University to an entrepreneurship course at UC Berkeley. 

Harvard’s Taylor Swift class saw so much demand, Burt sought out more teaching assistants on X, prompting responses from hundreds of eager Swifties. 

The TAs, whose expertise ranges from performance studies to copyright law and American literature, help run break-out discussion groups once a week and occasionally are featured in a lecture.

Matthew Jordan replied to Burt’s viral tweet when he was visiting Boston and scored the job with the help of his social media videos breaking down music theory of Swift’s critically acclaimed discography.

He was met by applause as he revealed his “Junior Jewels” shirt beneath his button-up, a reference to Swift’s “You Belong With Me” music video, before diving into the timeless principles of songwriting … like the use of the word you.

Jordan proceeded to go through all 13 of Swift’s songs on “Fearless” to point out how quickly you emerges.

  • “Fifteen” — First line.
  • “Breathe” — Third word.
  • “You Belong With Me” — First word.

He explained Swift's use of “you” is all about getting the listener engaged and feeling part of the song. She’s singing about herself — and about the person hearing her song.

There are no exams in this course. But students do have to write evidence-based academic essays comparing Swift's discography to other literary works, as well as complete assignments that could take a creative form such as song or stage design.

A senior at Harvard told me she stayed up until 5 a.m. that day working on her thesis, but missing this class was out of the question. 

That is the power of Swift.  

Emilie Ikeda (center) and the Harvard Swifties.
Emilie Ikeda (center) and the Harvard Swifties.

And our trip to Harvard wouldn’t be complete without trading friendship bracelets, a Swiftie tradition popularized during the Eras Tour. 

I handed one student a bracelet spelling TODAY, and in return, she slipped a bracelet on my wrist that read “Fearless.”

In the words of Swift, I don’t know how it gets better than this.