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Thursday, September 28, 2023 — Houston, TX

‘Life is just a classroom’


Guillian Paguila / Thresher

By Sejal Gupta     8/29/23 11:44pm

With a Rice Swifties GroupMe exceeding 500 students and a dedicated Instagram page to boot, it makes sense that when COLL 167 ‘Miss Americana: The Evolution and Lyrics of Taylor Swift’ opened on Esther, the first section filled up within the hour. 

Katherine Jeng, the instructor of COLL 167, said she has been analyzing Swift’s lyrics since childhood. 

“I would load up her lyrics onto my little iPad and just write all my favorite lines and what they meant,” Jeng, a Hanszen College junior, said. “That’s kind of how I started. I knew I wanted to be an English major back then. I just love analyzing poetry and analyzing music.”

After hearing about other universities’ courses on Swift (see University of Texas’ “Taylor Swift Songbook” or Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos’ course at New York University), Jeng sought to destigmatize pop culture as a topic in English academia when creating the course.

“I think I was just really jealous of other universities having these really cool classes and not having it here,” Jeng said. “My kind of thinking was, ‘If I want that, why don’t I just do it myself?’ It’s been a long time coming that we need to validate music and lyrics in the English language as a subject of analysis.” 

Nikhita Mummaneni, a student enrolled in COLL 167, shared Jeng’s philosophy of viewing music as literary analysis. Mummaneni, a self-proclaimed Swift fan, said she wanted to analyze the lyrics she often listened to on a deeper, poetic level.  

“Sometimes when you’re just passively listening to music, you don’t really pay attention to what the words are or what it means. Even if I know all the words to a song, if you ask me what it meant or what it’s really about, I don’t really know,” Mummaneni, a McMurtry College senior, said. “‘folklore’ feels like that to me. I hope that we really get into the nitty gritty of the lyrics in ‘folklore’ because those are her most complex lyrics.”

After the initial section filled, Jeng opened a second section to accommodate more students. The course is intended to be a student-led discussion that closely analyzes Swift’s lyrics alongside her personal life, public impact and relevance in academia. 

“Her political and social discourse is definitely something I wanted to mention as well … I also knew I wanted to be critical of her because, although I am a Swiftie, I think there is a lot that I don’t agree with,” Jeng said. “I wanted to talk about her white feminism and rainbow capitalism. Not only her lyrics, but tackling a lot of real world issues …  girlhood, femininity, politics and social justice. I wanted to cover such a broad range of topics I thought it made sense to organize them by album. Each week we do one album, starting with [‘Taylor Swift’] and ending with ‘Midnights.’”

Sarah Bartos cited the course as a friendly environment for everyone, whether they’re a fan of Swift’s music or someone simply wanting to learn more about lyrical analysis. 

“I instantly felt like I had a connection with a lot of people in the class,” Bartos, a Lovett College senior, said. “During the first class, we went around the room and all said our favorite Taylor Swift song. Everyone has a different one and it’s really cool to think about why they love that song … and what that song means to them.”

The students of COLL 167 range from casual listeners to die-hard fans – no matter a student’s level of interest, Jeng said COLL 167 and the Rice Swiftie community are always open. 

“Even if you don’t want to take the course for credit, you can swing by. I would love to see people who weren’t able to get off the waitlist,” Jeng said. “I hope my students take away a sense of community. I really hope they build friendships throughout the course.”

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