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How one English professor 'Enchanted' students with a course about Taylor Swift songs

Taylor Swift attends a premiere for the short film "All Too Well." (Evan Agostini/AP)
Taylor Swift attends a premiere for the short film "All Too Well." (Evan Agostini/AP)

“’Tis the Damn Season” to listen to Taylor Swift. At least that’s the case for the students enrolled in professor Elizabeth Scala‘s course, The Taylor Swift Songbook.

Scala is an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This semester she began teaching a course connecting Swift’s songwriting to the works of William Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath and other literary greats.

She first got the idea for the course last year while listening to the ten minute version of “All Too Well” on the rerelease of Swift’s 2012 album “Red.”

Scala was taken by the way that Swift depicts memory in the song, moving from the past to the present with heightened emotion and beautiful music.

“Just the really concrete and vivid imagery and intense narrative moments punctuating that song really gripped me and made me realize that this was what my students would get really excited about reading and interpreting and thinking about,” Scala says.

On the syllabus, Scala pairs Swift songs with classic texts to help students learn how to read critically, write and research.

For example, she pairs “Love Story” with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“That was a really interesting unit, and it was one of the ones I was least excited about teaching, but it turned out to be a great two weeks,” she says. “I got to ask them a question that was rather surprising to them. I asked them, ‘is this a rewriting of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ or is this an allusion to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and just a reference and what is the difference?’”

Discussing “Love Story” along with “White Horse” and “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” other songs off of Swift’s album “Fearless,” also helped students see how Swift subverts expectations through her songwriting.

“We came back to some other songs on ‘Fearless’… that kind of reused those tropes of fairy tale young love that ‘Love Story’ uses and does so in a kind of much more knowing and jaded way,” Scala says. “We got to talk about Taylor Swift’s use of that fairy tale love story in a more sophisticated way than maybe ‘Love Story’ on its own might suggest.”

Students also spent time unpacking the song “August,” which is part of the “Folklore” love triangle explored throughout the album. The song is written from the perspective of the girl left behind when the boy in the love triangle chooses another.

Scala says that while “August” is a song rich with symbolism, her class found that it doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into the high school love triangle Swift lays out on the album.

“It, to me, sounds like a much more mature woman than the other songs do,” Scala says. “Talking about August slipping away like a bottle of wine. We’re tangled up in bed sheets. I mean … this wasn’t my high school experience, and [the students] all laughed and they said it wasn’t theirs.”

This discovery fueled the class.

“They said some really interesting things about … wine being something that matures in bottles and it lets you mark time in a certain kind of way. That wine bottle became something way more symbolic, thinking about loss and regret and looking back on the past,” Scala says. “It kind of was an enlightening moment for them because they realized that sometimes the poem or the work can mean something in excess of what the author intends and maybe even makes more sense outside of the way that they originally wrote it themselves.”

Scala says the course has already had a meaningful impact on her students’ lives, making them better readers and more thoughtful analysts.

“The mantra that they now have from this course is that you must say something about the work that the work cannot say about itself,” she says. “That’s kind of giving them the ability, not merely to paraphrase. … And they’ve told me that they’re all walking around chanting that mantra in their other classes.”

The Here & Now Swift songbook

These are the songs Here & Now staff would love to study

  • Associate producer Kalyani Saxena could spend years unpacking the gutting imagery and use of repetition in “Right Where You Left Me.”
  • Associate producer Hafsa Quraishi would write countless essays about “Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve.”
  • Associate producer and secret Swiftie Thomas Danielian thinks “Style” is brilliant.
  • Digital producer Grace Griffin yearns to dive into “Mirrorball” and “Cornelia Street.”

Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Saxena also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.