Swift or Shakespeare? How to reframe internet ephemera as a text in the literature classroom

Teaching Taylor Swift as literature required Clio Doyle and her students to engage with online media as an analytical text. Here, she offers advice on interpreting TikTok, Tumblr and the Buzzfeed quiz

Clio Doyle's avatar
Queen Mary University of London
20 Mar 2024
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"To Be or Not to Be" on a pastel-coloured website interface

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The internet can sometimes feel to students like a transparent pane that they can look through to access information. Here, I’ll outline some ways to encourage them to interpret it instead as a series of texts with their own arguments, inherent assumptions and rhetorical strategies, which can be analysed and (therefore) questioned.

I teach Taylor Swift as literature, and part of what I find exciting about this pursuit is that it forces me and my students to engage with the question of what we are reading and how we are reading it. Are we finding Swift’s lyrics on internet sites such as Genius and AZLyrics or listening to them in their sung forms? How much should we care about what Swift says about her own work in documentaries on platforms such as Netflix and Disney+, which we may or may not subscribe to? Are we turning to our own CD collections to check Swift’s liner notes and relying on our memories of her concerts we’ve attended when talking about her as a performer, or are we googling online images and YouTube videos?

The internet is currently the greatest and most complete archive of Swift studies. I encourage students to use their expertise as students of English to interpret the texts they find there. The examples below are specific to the material I teach, but I hope they show the sorts of things that can be done with online media.

Tabloids as literary analysis

I begin my module “Taylor Swift and Literature” by asking students to read a brief article from 2014 announcing that an “insider” has explained that a particular break-up inspired “every word” of Swift’s album Red. I pair this article with an influential work of literary theory, “The intentional fallacy” by W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. This text argues that an author’s intentions, or what they meant or were thinking of when they wrote their text, should not serve as the primary guide to interpretation. I ask students to think about both pieces as literary theory: what does the first article imply about what you need to know in order to understand a text? What might Wimsatt and Beardsley say about this? And what might we gain, or lose, from thinking that we know the author’s intentions, or even by taking into account what she says her intentions are in interviews and documentaries?

The internet quiz as intertextuality

A quiz going under some variation of the name “William Shakespeare or Taylor Swift?” has circulated for years, asking you to determine which writer wrote a selection of quotations. I find it really interesting to talk about why each quotation was chosen: what makes the quotations from Swift sound potentially Shakespearean and what about the Shakespeare quotes sound like Taylor Swift?

In many cases, asking students to identify where the quotations are coming from reveals that the Shakespeare quotations have been cut down to avoid early modern vocabulary. This provides an avenue into thinking about style – that is, what makes something sound like Swift or Shakespeare? What kind of argument is being made by a document that is deliberately selecting snippets of Shakespeare and Swift to make them sound similar to each other? And how does this intersect with the fact that we know that Swift is sometimes making reference to, or imitating, Shakespeare?

YouTube videos as reader response

I also show students videos of different people taking such quizzes, including the cast of a production of Romeo and Juliet at the National Theatre and a Shakespeare professor, and I ask them to think about how people determine whether Swift or Shakespeare wrote a particular line: what questions are they asking about tone, content, style and literary value?

TikTok as reception studies

I found that assigning scholarly articles about TikTok such as Melissa K. Avdeeff’s “TikTok, Twitter, and platform-specific technocultural discourse in response to Taylor Swift’s LGBTQ+ allyship in You Need to Calm Down surprised some students, who may not have realised that TikTok was an object of scholarly attention. TikTok is a platform on which many people discuss Swift and her work, including her connection to literature. Videos such as this one explain the literary references in Swift’s songs. These videos and the discussions they spark in the comments section offer an opportunity to think about the similarities and differences of talking about literary history in an academic and non-academic context – and perhaps to begin to blur the lines between scholarly discourse and other ways of engaging with texts and ideas.

Tumblr concordances

A lot of amazing work is being done in Taylor Swift studies by people not necessarily working under the aegis of a university or going through traditional methods of academic publishing. This concordance to Swift, or list of the words she uses, is a great example of a resource that has been created by and for fans, as an equivalent to the kind of tool that is produced by and for scholars. It can be a lead-in to a discussion about the tools of scholarship, as well as the work that goes into establishing a scholarly field.

Podcasting as public humanities

In the same vein, I assign an episode of my own podcast, on reading Taylor Swift as literature, as one example of a form of scholarship that differs from traditional academic publishing. This can provide a useful way in to thinking about the pros and cons of traditional academic writing. What kinds of authority are we performing, how do we show our work, is there anything that’s lost and gained in adhering to this kind of form?

I’m still learning how to teach contemporary popular culture. But as a trained medievalist and early modernist, I find that I am using a lot of the same skills I bring to teaching older literature. Awareness of the partiality of the record – and of the way in which the materiality, layout and state of what we are engaging with alters our engagement with it – is vital in teaching this material. But beyond this, studying social media and internet ephemera in the literature classroom is a way of helping students explore avenues for broadcasting their own research, in ways that are not necessarily limited to academic writing. By using TikTok or podcasting thoughtfully and deliberately, they’re engaging in a form of public humanities.

Clio Doyle is a lecturer in early modern literature at Queen Mary, University of London.

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