On the Syllabus: Lana, Taylor, Tyler Perry

Professors are teaching their Gen Z students literary analysis and critical thinking through courses on celebrities like Harry Styles and Taylor Swift. The music’s good, too.

October 6, 2022
Photos of Tyler Perry, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift, a Black man and two white women, respectively.
Tyler Perry, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift are just a handful of celebrities who have been subjects of academic courses.
(Leon Bennett via Getty Images, Frazer Harrison via Getty Images, Dimitrios Kambouris via Getty Images)

Elizabeth Scala knows that the best way to get burgeoning English majors interested in the British literary canon is by teaching the poetry of Shakespeare and Keats through a lens students care about: pop culture.

For several years, she used the Harry Potter series as the cornerstone of her freshman English class at the University of Texas at Austin, a course that aims to introduce students to writing, research and analysis. This fall, however, she decided to take a new approach and center the course around a pop idol beloved by Scala’s Gen Z students: Taylor Swift.

Scala herself is a massive Taylor Swift fan (or Swiftie, as they are known) and had been listening extensively to Swift’s music over the last year or so—easy to do, given that the singer has released four full-length albums since 2020. So, when it came time to figure out what the fall 2022 course would look like, she decided to use Swift’s songbook to teach students the basics of critical reading skills.

“To do that, I not only brought in her songs on their own and made [the students] think about the component parts of a pop song, in the same way you would think about, maybe, the formal parts of different forms of poetry, like sonnets,” she said. “But then I brought in some literary examples from mostly the British, sometimes American, canon in order to both show that what they were interested in in a Taylor Swift song and what made it go was something that you would see in these other forms of poetry and literature.”

Scala’s course, titled The Taylor Swift Songbook, is just one of a legion of courses that have garnered attention over the years for using pop culture and celebrities as conduits to teach students about everything from sociology to feminism. Other courses have centered on Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and even Judge Judy.

This fall, in addition to Swift, a number of new stars are on syllabi. Texas State University is offering a course focused on Harry Styles that looks at celebrity culture, a professor at New York University is using Lana Del Rey to teach students about cultivating a fanbase and developing an image as an artist, and freshmen at Emory University in Atlanta can study Tyler Perry’s works.

The course on Perry, offered by assistant professor of English Tameka Cage Conley, aims to teach the African American literary canon alongside Perry’s body of work—which, Conley noted, goes beyond his movies to include things like his award show acceptance speeches.

In fact, the first piece her class studied was Perry’s acceptance speech at the Black Entertainment Television Icon Awards, she said, which they analyzed alongside a work by poet Cornelius Eady.

“Just as Perry traces his own history and how his history informs his work, so does the poem ‘Gratitude’ by this prize-winning poet, Cornelius Eady,” she said. “It was very important to me from the onset to create a sense of continuity and community between Tyler Perry’s work and the broader African American literary canon.”

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Conley also wanted to teach a class on Perry because she felt that his personal story of overcoming childhood physical and sexual abuse to become an incredibly successful artist could inspire her students, all of whom are first-years.

“I wanted to use his life as an open book, if you will, as a portal, as a possibility for students to think about how they also can transform whatever challenges that they might have faced into the lives that they want,” she said. “It’s always very important to me that students know that they are not limited.”

The Business of Music

Instead of studying a celebrity’s work, the NYU course on Lana Del Rey will focus primarily on her career, image and impact. Offered as part of the program at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, which trains students to work in the music industry, the course will serve as a case study to help students understand the ascent of Del Rey, a pop artist with eight successful albums and six Grammy nominations, according to professor and author Kathy Iandoli.

“We’re building leaders in the music industry,” she said. “In order to do that, you have to take some of these archetypes of pop music and understand their history, their trends, their movements.”

The course, which is set to run from Oct. 20 to Dec. 8, is perhaps most interested in Del Rey’s influence on the music industry; other successful artists, including Billie Eilish and Halsey, have cited Del Rey as inspiration. Iandoli also plans to explore controversies that have emerged around the pop singer, such as accusations that her songs romanticize domestic abuse and gender normativity.

Some people have expressed surprise that students are studying celebrities that some deem too young or superficial to be analyzed in an academic setting.

“I can’t believe this is a real life thing. No wonder our [education] system is going down the toilet,” one Twitter user commented on a post about the NYU course.

Jason King, chair of the Davis Institute, said that critics often misunderstand the point of studying celebrities; such classes, whether focused on Lana Del Rey or Stevie Wonder, are less about studying the celebrity than about using them to understand pop music and, even more broadly, American society at the time the performer was popular. The institute’s Stevie Wonder class, for example, focused on how Black singer-songwriters in the ’60s and ’70s had more freedom to write and perform different kinds of music.

“It’s not so much about celebrity, though that’s an important aspect of it, of course,” King said. “It’s more about artists who have made a major impact through their music, and in studying those artists, students are learning to think in a more macrocosmic way about the role of these artists in society.”

Rob Wilson, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaches a celebrity course that is a little more within the bounds of traditional academia; it’s called Bob Dylan as Poet: From Folk Hero to Electric Messiah, an introductory literature class. As a musician well-known for his incisive lyrics since before most current college students were born—and the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature—Dylan may have more gravitas in the literary world than Swift.

Still, Wilson understands why it’s useful to use artists that students are more familiar with to teach them new concepts. It’s important for young readers to be able to feel creatively and politically empowered by the works they dissect, rather than looking at them through a purely critical lens. It’s a feeling Wilson himself experiences when writing about Dylan, whom he first began listening to in high school.

“[If] students can feel that with a celebrity figure, whoever it is, I’m OK with that,” he said.

According to Scala, using a well-known, contemporary figure as a teaching device is a double-edged sword. Her students (almost all of whom, she noted, came into the course as bona fide Swifties) are eager and willing to absorb concepts when they are related to their favorite artists’ work, she said; students have googled the definition of words like “indelible” and “vigilante” because they came up in Swift’s interviews or on her social media, for example.

But it can be hard to dissuade students from using biographical information about Swift—such as her past relationships and family life—as the lens for interpreting her lyrics.

“That’s the big thing for them: ‘She intended to …’” Scala said. “I have to undo a lot of that.”

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