Class Name: ENC 3375 — Rhetoric in Popular Culture

Program Director: Stephanie Wheeler, associate professor of writing and rhetoric, director of undergraduate studies for the College of Arts and Humanities

Instructor of the Taylor Swift class: Emily Proulx, associate instructor of writing and rhetoric

When is the class offered?
The class themed around Taylor Swift will be offered again in Fall 2024. Topics for future semesters are to be determined. Students may take this course twice with a different topic covered for the each class.

How many students are typically in a class?

Prerequisites: Composition II (ENC 1102)

From the Program Director

Stephanie Wheeler

How would you describe this course?
A lot of people have a limited understanding of the “theories of rhetoric” because, frankly, it doesn’t sound interesting. We learn from what we enjoy. So, every semester we offer an engaging topic as a gateway into rhetoric. We’ve themed this class around fantasy football, hip-hop, podcasting and Lady Gaga. People are talking about Taylor Swift and we thought it was time to make space for her. The conversations around her music and her life provide us a great runway to develop better written and oral persuasive skills.

What’s the coursework like?
The discussions might delve into Taylor Swift’s music, videos, interviews and what’s being said about her on social media. She’s at the center of public discourse almost daily — politics, social issues, even her visibility at football games. By digging into all of it, students learn concepts of rhetoric and how to apply them — and they enjoy it.

Do students need to be Taylor Swift fans?
It isn’t a requirement. Whether you’re a fan or not, you need to be open to different ideas and critiques, and you need to be willing confront uncomfortable truths. One student in my Lady Gaga class a few years ago was not a fan, but he came to understand what he’d been missing in Gaga’s work. He still sends me updates about her.

What should be the key takeaway(s) from the course?
If you want to make positive change in the world, you need to know how to move ideas effectively. You do that by understanding rhetorical strategies and appeals in everyday conversations. The takeaway, then, is being a better communicator.

How can a course like this prepare students for a variety of careers?
I tell students if you’re undecided about a major, give writing and rhetoric a closer look — or use it as part of a double major. Good rhetorical skills lend themselves to any profession. We’ve had graduates go into fields like law, psychology, entrepreneurship, Disney Imagineering, and the Peace Corps. They do well because they’ve learned how to think critically through different angles of messages and also shape their own. Think about it: Writing has a place in all parts of our lives, even our Taylor Swift lives.

From the Student

Emma Drauer, junior, writing and rhetoric major

Did you take this class because of your interest Rhetoric in Pop Culture or because of your interest in Taylor Swift?
It’s a mix for me. As a writing and rhetoric major, I’ve enjoyed learning in unique classes — disability rhetoric and marketing your writing have been among my favorites. But this is the first time I’ve taken a course with such personal appeal. I like Taylor Swift and her music, and because of that the class motivates me to think more deeply about her work, the conversations around her and the relevance in an academic sense.

What has surprised you about the class?
I expected to discuss Taylor’s speeches and interviews, and not her music so much. So, I was surprised when our first assignment focused on the visual rhetoric of her music videos and live performances. We even analyzed how her clothes help tell a story. That was a great way to introduce a few concepts of rhetoric alongside the assigned reading.

Describe a typical day in a rhetoric class that analyzes Taylor Swift.
Our instructor, Emily Proulx, usually starts the day by showing memes to spur thought. The memes summarize what people have posted on social media: “She sings too many songs about her exes” or “I want to watch football instead of Taylor Swift in a luxury box” or “Why did she have to announce her new album at the Grammys?” Comments like that help us recognize the difference between being persuasive and being opinionated.

Tell us a concept you’ve learned.
I’d heard about parasocial relationships, which is basically a one-sided relationship. It’s what we have with public figures. To Taylor Swift’s credit, she writes so authentically that we develop this strong sense of knowing her, when we don’t. People who criticize her are doing the same thing. Either way, the parasocial relationship can immediately weaken any rhetorical appeals.

What has been most challenging about the class?
Keeping my papers academic, with a meaningful thesis. I have to catch myself ranting or from falling into the parasocial mode in my writing. It’s easy to casually refer to “Taylor.” I’m learning to be better about properly citing sources.

Your most important takeaway?
If we want to influence people, then we need to articulate our thoughts carefully. Look at Taylor Swift. Nearly everything she does or says will be criticized by someone. How does she respond? I’m sure she’s mindful of her rhetorical strategies. We can learn a lot from her.