A Swiftie’s ‘Wildest Dreams’ come true: Northeastern is offering a course on Taylor Swift

Head shot of Catherine Fairfield over Taylor Swift's album cover.
Northeastern postdoctoral teaching associate in English Catherine Fairfield will be teaching a class on Taylor Swift this winter semester. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“It’s been a long time coming.”

This is the line Taylor Swift greets fans with on her Eras tour.  It’s also what Catherine Fairfield says about the Swift-focused course she’s teaching this winter at Northeastern University. 

The intersession class, “Speak Now: Gender & Storytelling in Taylor Swift’s Eras,” will explore “how women’s literary and cultural influences on genre and narrative have shaped the artistry of Taylor Swift’s ten eras,” according to the course description. 

Students will examine not just Swift’s lyrics, but how they incorporate storytelling methods initiated by women and how that helps her music resonate with a global audience.

“If you have been a fan, especially before the ‘Folklore’/‘Evermore’ boom, you know what it’s like to see her career have a lot of ups and downs,” Fairfield says. “I’m not talking about the money side of it, but about the public image and what it felt like to be a fan and be told that you shouldn’t like this artist who’s singing about anger amidst the ‘Reputation’ era.

“It feels really good to be a Swiftie right now. And I think it’s delightful to be able to stand in the center of this and have really meaningful, deep, serious conversations around it. We have a chance to dig deeper now because we don’t have to navigate public image stuff that we used to.”

The idea of looking at Swift’s music through an academic lens isn’t new to Fairfield, a postdoctoral teaching associate who joined Northeastern’s writing program in 2022. She uses the Taylor Swift Ticketmaster fiasco as a case study in her business communications course and often has students choose to write academic essays on the star in other courses.

Fairfield herself is a “Swiftie” –– “I will not be even trying to deny it for any period of time while teaching,” she admits –– and has followed Swift’s rise since her second album, “Fearless,” which came out in late 2008. So when she got an email asking for faculty interested in pop culture and specifically Swift, she quickly volunteered to craft a course that combined her love of the star with Fairfield’s own background in English and women’s studies.

Fairfield knew she wanted a course that looked beyond the latest headlines about Swift’s dating life and business decisions. Instead, she focused on Swift’s biggest draw: her artistry.

“I’m really fascinated with any kind of literature and pop culture where we can kind of walk it back,” Fairfield says. “Every other person on the street will say that Taylor Swift’s music captures their experience and their feelings in a way that nobody else does. She speaks directly to what you’re feeling. (Her songs are) doing something different with themes that are quite common (like break-ups or falling in love). … They resonate with many, many listeners globally because of their universal ways of connecting with listeners and it’s the craft behind the emotion that is really the thing that’s pulling people in.”

The two-day course will “make sense of that craft,” says Fairfield, by examining the female-driven storytelling tools and themes Swift uses over two segments. The first will examine Swift’s first five albums up to 2014’s “1989,” while the second half will look at her more recent work from “reputation” to “Midnights,” which was released in 2022. 

Fairfield will walk students through the overarching themes in these albums and how they represent different chapters of both Swift’s career and her public perception.

It feels really good to be a Swiftie right now. And I think it’s delightful to be able to stand in the center of this and have really meaningful, deep, serious conversations around it.

Catherine Fairfield, a postdoctoral teaching associate in English at Northeastern

Students will also think about how Swift engages in women’s storytelling. Her songwriting employs everything from the diary-style confessional (“Dear Reader”) to fairy tale motifs present in some of her earlier work like “Love Story.” The course will also look at specific examples of where women’s literature has influenced Swift’s work, including Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Charlotte Bronte’s work.

“I’m focusing on traditions of women’s storytelling specifically, including things written by women (and) ways women tell stories throughout history, especially when they don’t have a platform like Taylor Swift,” Fairfield says. “We’re going to think about confessional writing, open letters, gossip…the ways that women have historically communicated with each other. Taylor plays around with all of these things. She plays around with cultural texts but she also plays around with how women speak to each other and convey messages to each other.”

This idea extends beyond just her lyricism. Fairfield says the course will look at how Swift presents her work, from the coded messages in the liner notes to her tendency to bury her more emotional songs deeper in her albums, and how this can be tied back to women’s storytelling.

The course will run for two days, two hours a day across the winter intersession. The course is at no cost to students and is entirely virtual. It’s held for no credit and is not graded. Students have until Dec. 15 to register. There’s no limit to how many students can enroll, Fairfield said.

Fairfield hopes the first round of this course will spark enough interest to generate a semester-long class on the topic. While some might dismiss the idea of studying a pop star’s work as silly, she says a course like this shows how students should value not only their own interest in Swift, but society’s fascination with her work.

“It’s really easy and common to say that your interest in a female artist or anything in pop culture is silly,” Fairfield says. “If I can give anything to students who are coming in already as fans, I would want to give them both the tools and confidence to articulate that’s not the case. This is a very valuable use of their energy and they don’t need to stay quiet about it.

“Pushing that argument aside, when we have a cultural figure like Taylor Swift who’s rising to this pinnacle of popularity and cultural resonance, that needs to be talked about,” she says. “We should be questioning it. We should be digging into it. She has such an incredible archive of music that she’s creating right in front of our eyes that’s just getting bigger. Those of us in the humanities might want to jump on that and have fun with it.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at e.kayata@northeastern.edu. Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.