Call it what you want, but the Taylor Swift class at BYU is different from what you might think

Professor Ryan Davis is an expert on ethics and a big fan of Swift. He fearlessly combines the two in a new way for the college course at the private Provo school.

It’s the latest college course about Taylor Swift (Brigham Young University’s Version).

The private Provo school’s approach, though, is not quite the same as the other popular Swift seminars that have popped up at universities in other states across the country.

The new class at BYU was created by Ryan Davis, an associate professor of political science and a self-avowed “Swiftie” who’s impossible to stump and has three Eras Tour attendances to boot on his musical curriculum vitae. He’s also an expert in the study of morality and ethics with a list of publications on the topic rivaling a Ticketmaster queue.

“Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Ethics and Political Society” combines his two passions into a philosophy-focused, upper-division course that looks to the singer-songwriter’s lyrics for dilemmas, questions about revenge, an examination into relationships, loyalty, justice and fairness, and conversations about the way people are treated. He calls the concept “philoswiftie” (and runs a website under the same name).

“We use the catalog of Taylor Swift as an entry point to the kind of moral or ethical questions that philosophers care about,” Davis said. “Because Taylor Swift cares so much about morality and her work is so infused with that, it provides an easy entry point.”

And, he admits with a laugh: “It’s something the students really care about, so I can definitely catch their attention.”

There’s 30 lucky ones who nabbed seats in the class this semester, which was first reported on by BYU’s student newspaper The Daily Universe.

One of their first lessons in the course looked at how philosophers define tragedy, starting with Greek mythology and philosophy. Typically, Davis said, for something to be a tragedy, it’s not just a misfortune but also a subversion of expectations.

In “Oedipus,” for instance, a man discovers he’ll finally become king — but only because he killed his father. The class read an essay comparing that idea to the Swift song “All Too Well.”

The song starts by setting up what seems like a picture-perfect relationship, driving around in autumn, meeting family, flipping through photo albums. But then Davis said it’s subverted, the expectations are undermined and the rosy image unravels.

“The fans wouldn’t connect with it in the way that they do if it didn’t have a story arc that set up and then deprived us of the expectations, the details that we connected to,” Davis said.

Another paper in the class looks at the concept of self — and it uses Swift’s songs “Snow on the Beach” and “Dear Reader” to show how she creates an image of herself. “Anti-Hero” does the same, with lyrics, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” The course doesn’t go chronologically through her albums, but rather uses what fits each philosophical perspective.

Even before the class, Davis had already developed a reputation around campus for his love of Swift. He hosted an event last spring with the BYU Political Affairs Society delving into the secret messages Swift leaves for fans — and found many students shared his fandom.

He commented then: “I wonder if there’s something about BYU that makes Taylor Swift and politics, a kind of thing that people are into here in a way that it might hit different than in other places,” according to coverage from The Daily Universe.

Love for Swift is fairly universal, but there are some invisible strings that might contribute to her popularity specifically at BYU, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Swift was raised Christian, and her lyrics, particularly her earlier music, are largely without cursing (or, she provides “clean” versions when they are not). For many in the LDS Church, avoiding foul language is important.

And there are plenty of online message boards connecting the faith’s teachings to messages in Swift’s music. LDS Living ran this headline last year: “I gave 17 Taylor Swift lyrics a gospel twist for when life isn’t a ‘Love Story.’”

Plus, members of the church proudly boast of having their own Taylor Swift look-a-like, Keitra Jane Calaway, who is also an LDS adherent and graduate of BYU-Idaho.

Even Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who is a Latter-day Saint, has said he enjoys Swift’s music and listened to her latest album, “Midnights,” with his daughter.

Whatever the draw, Davis said he appreciates “my department’s indulgence” in letting him teach the class.

Jay Goodliffe, department chair over political science, said it wasn’t a hard choice.

“Professor Davis is one of our most popular instructors,” Goodliffe noted. “He has found yet another way to make the important subjects of ethics and political philosophy appealing to our students.”

Earlier this week, Davis carried a life-size cutout of Swift across campus and back into his office inside Spencer W. Kimball Tower. He first found it there, thinking back to December, at the end of the previous term.

He was holding office hours, and student after student had come in to discuss grades and papers. When he thought he’d reached the last one, he had asked: “Is there anyone else out in the hall?”

The student laughed and opened the door to leave, pointing outside, “Just her.”

Outside was the cardboard image of Swift in a purple fluttery dress, like she was waiting in line to talk to the professor about her exam. The son of one of Davis’ colleagues had found the cutout at a flea market, and they gifted it to him as a surprise.

Davis also has a sign in his office, gifted by a teaching assistant, with lyrics from “All Too Well.” The fan gear sits, as casual as ever, next to books from Plato and titles like “Meaning in Life” and “Evidence and Agency.” Which, for Davis, is the point.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ryan Davis, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University, is teaching a philosophy course this term that incorporates the lyrics of Taylor Swift. Pictured on the wall in his office are some of the lyrics gifted to him by a favorite teaching assistant on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

He doesn’t see the two things as at odds. Swift’s music, he said, is packed with what philosophy is also concerned about: longing (“Right Where You Left Me”), melancholy (“We Were Happy”) and memory (“Dorothea,” which is Davis’ favorite song).

“The thing that has afflicted Taylor Swift in her own narration, since the earliest album, is this idea of being constrained by the vividness of your own memories of the past,” he said. And he’s been a fan since that first self-titled album came out in 2006.

He heard the song “Teardrops on My Guitar” in the parking lot of a Walmart. He was immediately hooked.

He’s now studying the overlaps along with masterminds Jessica Flanigan at the University of Richmond and Lindsay Brainard at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the latter of whom Davis wrote a national piece with titled “How Taylor Swift’s friendship bracelets closed the liking gap.”

Brainard will also be visiting Davis’ class this semester to give a guest lecture. And the three are working on a book together.

Davis said he’d be interested in continuing to teach different courses tying Swift, with style, into the syllabus.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I think that I could make a case that it’s a respectable way of approaching the discipline.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ryan Davis, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University, is teaching a philosophy course this term that incorporates the lyrics of Taylor Swift. Once word got out, the son of a colleague gifted a life-size cutout of Swift to Davis as a joke. Davis is pictured in his office on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.