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Taylor Swift is now a class at the University of Miami. What will the students learn?

By Howard Cohen, Miami Herald
Published: April 14, 2024, 5:32am

MIAMI — A University of Miami dean’s own homework assignment last year — learn all you can about Taylor Swift’s songs as fast as you can — has led to one of the coming fall semester’s hottest classes on the Coral Gables campus.

Students were more than ready for it. The UM’s “Mastermind Taylor Swift Brand” strategic communication class filled up at a pace almost as fast as tickets sold out last August for the superstar’s three South Florida concerts in October 2023. Those shows open the second U.S. leg of Swift’s Eras Tour at Miami Gardens’ Hard Rock Stadium.

When registration opened earlier this month at UM for the 150-capacity class that’s open to all majors and begins Aug. 20, all seats filled within four days. The school raised the cap to 175. There is now a waiting list for STC 290. UM may add more seats for the Tuesday-Thursday 75-minute class.

How a UM Swift class was born

For Alyse Lancaster, UM’s vice dean for academic affairs in the School of Communication, that “Mastermind Taylor Swift Brand” class she formulated and will teach is a family affair.

The class is happening because her daughter Gabi planted the idea. And her son Sydney, a sophomore at the University of Florida majoring in interior design, designed the class’s promotional poster that UM students have seen around campus since March.

“Taylor Swift has been a staple in my house since my now-17-year-old daughter was 4 years old,” Lancaster told the Miami Herald in an email interview. “But it wasn’t until we were able to purchase presale tickets for the Eras Tour concert that things changed on my end. My daughter told me that I needed to learn all of the songs on the Eras Tour set list, plus most of Taylor’s other songs — ‘because you never know what the two surprise songs she will perform at the concert’ and I need to be ready.”

Gabi made her mom a playlist. Lancaster listened intently.

“Don’t blame me, love made me crazy/ If it doesn’t, you ain’t doin’ it right” blasting on Lancaster’s exercise walks.

“And you call me up again just to break me like a promise/ So casually cruel in the name of being honest,” Taylor’s dig at ex-beau Jake Gyllenhaal, coming from Lancaster’s car stereo on those drives to and from campus in Miami’s infernal traffic jams.

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All this cramming of Swift’s music gave the educator plenty of contemplative and creative time.

“Then she and I went to see the Eras Tour movie and while watching this incredible woman perform for 3.5 hours straight, through nine eras of her music, interacting with her over-the-moon-excited, completely engaged audience, I finally understood what the big deal is,” Lancaster said.

On one of those walks, the idea for the class hit Lancaster like an immediate, enchanted revelation, much like words and music come to Swift. She knew she had to teach a communication strategy class at UM built around Swift’s brand.

Swift in academia from UF to Harvard

Other places of higher education have designed courses around the pop star.

Last fall, the University of Miami’s School of Law had an adjunct professor teach a seven-week intensive class called “Intellectual Property Law Through the Lens of Taylor Swift.”

The University of Florida’s one-credit discussion-based spring 2024 class, “ Musical Storytelling With Taylor Swift and Other Iconic Female Artists,” filled its 15 spots in 10 seconds when early registration opened last fall, the campus newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator reported.

In the last year, Stanford University has offered “All Too Well (Ten Week Version),” a course analyzing Swift’s 10-minute masterpiece, “All Too Well” and “The Last Great American Songwriter: Storytelling With Taylor Swift Through the Eras.”

Harvard’s Department of English opened its “ Taylor Swift and Her World “ course this spring, promising to cover “illicit affairs and hoaxes” and “champagne problems and incomplete closure.”

Berklee College of Music in Boston offers a “Songs of Taylor Swift” class with a focus on the performer’s music composition and lyrics, The Boston Globe reported.

In addition to Lancaster’s coming UM class, Arizona State University, Brigham Young University, Houston’s Rice University, the University of Delaware and the University of California, Berkeley all plan Swift-inspired courses in 2024, according to Best Colleges.

“I typically teach courses in advertising strategy development and social media strategies,” Lancaster said. “These classes focus on brand-building, identifying and communicating with the desired target audience, building brand loyalty, and using social media to build a long-lasting relationship between the brand and its loyal audience. And it occurred to me that Taylor Swift has successfully built a billion-dollar brand with a multicultural, multigenerational, global audience of millions of loyal fans.

“So why not use Taylor Swift’s success and business prowess as the foundation for teaching students about brand-building, audience-building, and the importance of communication in achieving those relationships? And just like that, the class was born,” Lancaster said.

What students will learn

Students who managed to secure a seat for UM’s STC 290 in the fall will learn about the marketing and communication strategies Swift has used to build her billion-dollar brand via “the most diverse and loyal group of fans many of us have ever seen,” Lancaster said.

Take Emma Craig, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering at UM. “It’s going to be a ‘Cruel Summer’ waiting until fall for the new Taylor Swift class coming to UM,” the student told The Miami Hurricane campus paper in anticipation of registration for the course.

“For “Mastermind,” the class title borrowed from one of Swift’s “Midnights” tracks, Lancaster’s lectures aim to teach students how to use promotional, persuasive and strategic communication to build a connection with a target audience, and how to get that audience invested in the brand, Lancaster said as she builds her syllabus. School of Communication issues like freedom of expression, the right to privacy for public figures, and the legal limits of using artificial intelligence to alter images are also on the course agenda.

“These are skills students can use not only in the industry, but also in building their own personal brands after graduation,” Lancaster said.

Swift’s own education path

For Swift, 34, that brand-building began inside a classroom in Hendersonville, Tennessee, when she was a high school freshman in a math class, she told the Miami Herald in an interview published in January 2008, just a month after she turned 18.

While her peers listened to the teacher lecture about algebra a few years earlier, Swift said she scribbled the lyrics to her first two hits, “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on My Guitar,” in her notebook and sneaked out of class to record voice memos into her telephone.

At 17, signed to her first label, Swift already directed nearly every aspect of her career, from the images on her album covers and press photos, to the songs’ sequencing on her albums. Swift said nothing was released to the marketplace that she hadn’t approved.

“When teachers conducted random notebook checks, they’d be freaked out — but they learned to deal with me,” Swift mused in that long-ago interview.

Knowledge retention

Taylor Swift, Lancaster says, is “in essence, a phenomenon who truly understands many of the important constructs we cover in higher education, including persuasive communication, branding, storytelling, intellectual property, and the power of music.”

One reason universities like UM and UF have taken to teaching Swift, aside from the Eras-like sellout registrations for classes, is they give professors an opportunity to teach concepts that students may actually remember after graduation.

“If students can connect the information they learn to something that’s of great interest to them, they will not only remember that information, but they will be reminded of it whenever the topic of interest comes up. Using Taylor Swift as the impetus for teaching important concepts increases attention, learning, and retention. And plus, it makes learning fun,” Lancaster said.

“I’ve never been more excited to teach a class than I am to teach this one!”