Inside Harvard’s Taylor Swift Class
An English course pairs the music with Willa Cather, William Wordsworth, and Dolly Parton.
If Loker professor of English Stephanie Burt had her way, record stores would sell copies of Alexander Pope’s 1735 poem “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” with a snake—the symbol of Taylor Swift’s album Reputation—embossed on the cover.
Swift released Reputation in 2017, following a series of personal controversies that left her public image battered. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” she sings in a track of the same name, apparently referencing a falling-out with Kanye West, who falsely claimed she had given him permission to write a derogatory lyric about her. “Because you break them, I had to take them away,” the song continues.
Whether she knew it or not, argues Burt—who’s teaching this semester’s “English 183TS: Taylor Swift and Her World”—Swift was drawing upon a long tradition of literature about deceitful adversaries. In his 1735 verse-letter to his friend John Arbuthnot, Pope also reacts to public disapproval and judgment. He criticizes one rival’s jealousy of other talented artists:
Peace to all such! but were there one whose fires
True genius kindles, and fair fame inspires,
Blest with each talent and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease:
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne,
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caus'd himself to rise?
“In my ideal world, when Reputation (Taylor’s Version) comes out,” says Burt, referring to a rerecording of the album likely to be released later this year, “five percent of the people who are talking about [it] will also become Alexander Pope fans. So that’s the not-so-secret goal of this class.” Burt pauses, sitting outside the Barker Center with a Taylor Swift tote bag and donning a newsboy cap—the same style of hat worn by Swift on the album cover of Red (Taylor’s Version). “But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love the music.”
Burt’s course has sparked a media frenzy and drawn a crowd of almost 300 students. (So many people signed up that Burt turned to X solicit applications for more teaching fellows. The final teaching staff includes graduate students from other universities, such as Northeastern and Brown, as well as a Harvard history of science Ph.D. candidate who runs a Taylor Swift TikTok account.) With the viral attention has come scrutiny. Critics on social media have raised concerns over a fan teaching about an artist she loves; others are skeptical that Swift’s work merits such deep attention and analysis.
Some of this criticism, Burt says, stems from a misunderstanding of what the course is. The semester is not solely devoted to analyzing Swift’s discography: “It’s ‘Taylor and,’” she says, “rather than ‘Taylor instead of.’” The syllabus includes novels by Willa Cather and James Weldon Johnson, poetry by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, songs by Prince and Dolly Parton, and music theory and criticism.
Pairing Swift’s music with these sources is about more than mixing candy with vitamins. Comparisons between different works with similar themes can help clarify the formal choices authors make to explore those themes, Burt argues. She returns to “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” to make her point, this time comparing it to “Nothing New,” another Swift song about facing public criticism. “Here are two ways,” Burt says, “to emotionally embody and share in words possible reactions to being unjustly accused.”
Pope’s sentiments find their form in eighteenth-century closed rhyming couplets, a structure that “lends itself to quotable maxims about how everyone should behave,” Burt says; Pope defends himself by “standing up for a generalized idea of goodness” that he wants others to repeat. “Nothing New,” on the other hand, uses a verse-chorus structure. The song “wants to be sung along, it wants you to feel for her,” Burt says. “It invites more sympathy and less direction.” Reading “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” on its own, one might struggle to discern the effect of the poem’s form. But pair it with another text that explores a similar theme, Burt says, and “seeing the overlap in sentiments can help you appreciate what Pope is doing.”
This isn’t the first time Burt has expanded the bounds of the English department. Since 2020, she has offered a course called “Superheroes and Power,” which examines Marvel and DC comics alongside texts by writers such as John Milton and Hannah Arendt. The syllabi of this and the Taylor Swift course are shaped not only by the possibilities that arise from comparison, but also by a belief that non-traditional literary forms can benefit from “close reading”—discerning how a text creates meaning through careful analysis of its details.
“If the only thing close reading is good for is Shakespeare, then that says pretty sad things about close reading,” says M.J. Cunniff, the head teaching fellow of the Taylor Swift course and a Ph.D. student at Brown studying poetics. Some observers have raised concerns about the seep of “cultural studies”—analysis of pop culture such as music and movies—into English departments. “Is a poem not a cultural object?” Cunniff asks in response. “Part of the value of an English department is that it teaches students to identify their own reactions to art, to literature, to culture, and to figure out why they’re having those reactions, and to be able to write intelligently about them.”
Several students from the class said they loved Swift’s music because she verbalized, at various moments of their lives, sentiments they felt they couldn’t express themselves. “She put into words exactly how I was feeling when I didn’t know how to say it,” says Chelsea Bohn-Pozniak ’27 about listening to “My Tears Ricochet” during a breakup. Describing a favorite lyric, Olivia Ma ’26 says, “I just—like, I can’t—that’s—I can’t think of a better way to say it.”
The class encourages students to go beyond recognizing their own emotions in Swift’s words, to ask how the lyrics, structure, and melody contribute to a song’s meaning: why a particular song elicits a particular emotional response. The chorus of “Is It Over Now?”, from 1989 (Taylor’s Version), appears simple on its surface: “Baby, was it over / When she laid down on your couch? / Was it over / When he unbuttoned my blouse?” But why do these lines work? First, Burt says, the music: “Like everything Taylor does, it needs the music behind it to be effective and memorable. Those words don’t work unless you’re singing them.” The symmetry of the chorus—two parallel scenes, each using the same notes and introductory words, separated by a “jump cut” with no transition—also indicate a symmetry in the relationship, marking a departure from Swift’s earlier music about love affairs where the man held more power.
Burt also points to the diction of the chorus as a sign of Swift’s ear for putting together words in surprising ways—specifically the use of “blouse” and “couch,” both quotidian objects outside of pop music’s traditional vocabulary. These two words allow students to examine how rhyme functions in music as opposed to poetry: “That’s not a full rhyme on the page, but it’s absolutely a full rhyme in a modern pop song,” Burt says, because the ending consonants are not plosive—they do not create a sudden stop in sound, as opposed to a word ending in a consonant like “t” or “p.”
One criticism of the course bothers Burt more than the others: “that this course is too popular, or that it’s for girls and not for adults”—in other words, that Swift’s wild popularity among young women (and subsequent popularity among that demographic at Harvard) signifies a lack of depth in her work. People who level such arguments “are not taking young people seriously,” Burt says. “They are treating young girls and teenagers as people not to be listened to and not to be trusted.”
Toward the end of the class’s syllabus is a New York Times Magazine article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, “My Delirious Trip to the Heart of Swiftiedom.” In it, Brodesser-Akner argues that Swift’s music—often about people who want to control her, who want her to change, who want her to be ashamed of her past—offers women a path toward adulthood that doesn’t require repudiating their younger selves. “Taylor Swift frees women to celebrate their girlhood,” Brodesser-Akner writes, “to understand that their womanhood is made up of these microchapters of change, that we’re not different people than we were then, that we shouldn’t disavow the earlier versions of ourselves.”
In a way, the Swift course seeks to do something similar: to tell students—some of whose love of words and storytelling was first kindled by her music—that they don’t have to leave her work behind, find it facile or immature, to engage with more challenging texts now.
The first week of the class focused on Swift’s self-titled debut album, released in 2006 when she was 16. Students studied the song “Tim McGraw,” a country ballad in which Swift implores an ex-boyfriend to remember her whenever he hears her favorite song by the (at the time) more famous country singer. The students examined the ways that Swift—originally from suburban Pennsylvania—constructed an identity as a rural, white, southern teenage girl. In class, Burt drew a comparison between “Tim McGraw” and pastoral poetry, a tradition that idealizes the imagined virtues of life in the countryside and spans from ancient Greece to sixteenth-century England.
“Professor Burt talked about how [Swift] combines that pastoral imagery with an authenticity that’s related to her own feelings as a teenage woman,” says Ma, a student in the class who studies classics and comparative literature. The comparison to the pastoral tradition reminded Ma of Virgil’s Georgics, another work about the countryside written for an urban audience, and classical Chinese poetry. Burt went on to argue, Ma says, that Swift “makes this fantasy seem a little more real by injecting her own emotions into it.” In a piece of writing where almost every detail is a fantasy, wobbly and unstable, the emotions of a teenage girl—so often dismissed as frivolous or unimportant—stand as the grounding element.