Courses on A-list celebrities are captivating undergraduate and graduate students across the US and Europe.
Law studies are usually associated with stuffy classrooms and a shed load of exams.
However, a South Dakota law professor as about to change that. Next semester, he and his fearless students are going to shake it up, shake it up by turning their attention to Taylor Swift.
Sean Kammer wanted his legal writing course to draw on music and art to help his students reconsider legal language and craft persuasive arguments. The self-described “Swiftie” thought a focus on the cultural icon was also a way to connect with his students.
Never in his wildest dreams did Kammer expect the attention that the announcement generated — the class filled up quickly and jealous alumni even reached out.
“The reaction from students has been exciting,” he said. “If we can have fun while we’re exploring some of these complex theoretical problems or issues, I believe students will be inspired to think deeper and to push themselves further.”
Swifties at the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law aren’t the only ones having fun. Law professors across the country are increasingly drawing on popular culture and celebrities to engage a new generation of students and contextualize complicated concepts in the real world.
Rihanna was half of the subject matter in a class taught at US University of Texas called “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism”; New York University’s Clive Davis Institute have a course on Grammy nominee Lana Del Rey, titled “Topics in Recorded Music: Lana Del Rey”; and following Britney Spears’ legal conservatorship case last year, William Paterson University in New Jersey introduced an online course adventurously titled “#FreeBritney” – a class was designed to explore guardianship and conservatorship as a disability rights issue pertaining to the legal system.
Courses on A-list celebrities have captivated undergraduate and graduate students across the US for years, increasingly in courses analysing race and gender. The attention on female artists and artists of colour is a sign of growing respect for them and for different modes of artistic expression, said Kinitra Brooks, an English professor at Michigan State University.
Brooks’ course on Beyonce’s Lemonade album and Black feminism was so popular that she published a reader that other professors can use. The pop culture material offers “immediate relatability,” which Brooks thinks makes students more likely to participate, allow their ideas to be challenged and be willing to challenge the artist, too.
Bella Andrade, a junior at Arizona State University, looks forward to her class on the psychology of Taylor Swift every week. The self-proclaimed “huge Swiftie” has been listening to her music for “forever and a day,” but the class includes a range of fans. There are “10 out of 10” Swifties, along with people who barely know her music, which “leads to some really great conversations,” she said.
“I think I’ve developed a much deeper understanding of different topics in social psychology,” said Andrade, who is from Minneapolis. “Taking topics that I’ve known about or heard about before but really applying them in a sense to something that I’m really invested in … really solidifies meaning.”
Courses that incorporate pop culture offer a different context for the fundamentals that students learn in their traditional courses, said Cathy Hwang, who co-taught a University of Virginia corporate law course last year inspired by Succession.
The class investigated the show’s prickly – and often duplicitous – legal matters, like hostile takeovers and securities law. Hwang said she was trying to engage and nurture a love of learning in students who “grew up with different interactions with technology and pop culture than what I did.”
“To me, it’s not so much what’s my teaching style, but what’s the students’ learning style?” Hwang said. “It’s important, I think, as a teacher to keep evolving and trying to meet students where they are.”
And it’s not just the US which is getting in on the celeb courses…
Earlier this year, we reported that a Belgian university was launching what is believed to be Europe’s first Taylor Swift-inspired literature course. The elective course at the University of Ghent is said to highlight the themes, styles and techniques of famous historical literary writers from the US pop superstar’s perspective.
So, for example, since many of the 33-year-old’s songs are inspired by literature – lyrically and thematically – classics like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Jane Eyre’, and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ will be studied through the lens of the singer-songwriter’s plume.
France, for their part, embraced Beyoncé, with the prestigious and highly-selective French school École Normale Supérieure (ENS) announcing last year that it was getting its students in formation and organizing a series of irreplaceable seminars on Queen B. Titled “**Beyoncé: nuances of a cultural icon**,” the seminars aim to reflect on the notions of culture and representativeness.
Anyone keen on a course on Dua Lipa and embracing your self-worth? Get on it, universities.