DES MOINES, Iowa — A law professor in South Dakota typically teaches dense topics like tort law and natural resources. But next semester, he and his intrepid students shake things up by turning their attention to Taylor Swift.
Sean Kammer wanted his legal writing course to draw on music and art to help his students rethink legal language and craft persuasive arguments. The self-described “Swiftie” believed that focusing on the cultural icon was also a way to connect with her students.
Never in his wildest dreams did Kammer expect the attention the announcement generated—the class quickly filled up, and jealous alumni even reached out.
“The response from the students has been exciting,” he said. “If we can have fun while exploring some of these complex theoretical problems or issues, I think students will be inspired to think deeper and to push themselves further.”
Swifties at the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law aren’t the only ones having fun. Law professors across the country are increasingly drawing on popular culture and celebrity — sometimes with the help of celebrities themselves — to engage a new generation of students and contextualize complicated concepts in the real world.
Courses on Swift, Rick Ross and Succession supplement traditional law courses with fun and accessible experiences that professors say they often didn’t have themselves.
Students at Georgia State University College of Law scrambled to get to class every day — especially Tuesday, when they heard directly from Ross for the final day of a course that chronicled the legal intricacies of the life of the rapper, recording artist and Wingstop franchise owner.
Moraima “Mo” Ivory, director of the school’s entertainment, sports and media law program, wants her students to see for themselves what goes into the albums, TV shows and movies they enjoy. She chooses a star each year and invites guest speakers from their world, along with the title character herself, to bring legal deals, defense and drama to life.
“We talk about critical legal principles, but we see them when they happen and as they happened,” she said. “It really just turns on the light bulb for law students.
Ivory said she could have heard a pin drop in one class about mixtapes that featured guest DJ Drama.
“It has never been my experience that I walked out of a law school classroom excited about what I had learned,” Ivory said.
For third-year law student Luke Padia, the experience makes concepts feel more tangible than reading a textbook or case law, he said.
“No knock on the other courses,” the 26-year-old from Lawrence, Kan., said. “I just find that my attention is more easily captured when I’m sitting in class listening to Steve Sadow talk about how he was able to get Rick Ross out of jail as opposed to sitting in constitutional law or torts or whatever had to be. “
Frances Acevedo, a 25-year-old from Pembroke Pines, Fla., in her third year of law school, said she walked away from the class with an understanding of how important a team is to an artist’s success — a message that Ross underlined.
“I can sit at the table and talk money with multi-billionaires,” Ross told students, faculty and guests gathered for the course’s conclusion. “But when it’s time for me to move on, I sit down with my team.”
Courses about A-list celebrities have captivated undergraduate and graduate students across the country for years, increasingly in courses that analyze race and gender. The attention to women artists and artists of color is a sign of growing respect for them and for different forms of artistic expression, said Kinitra Brooks, an English professor at Michigan State University.
Brooks’ course on Beyonce’s Lemonade album and Black feminism was so popular that she published a reader for other professors to use. The pop culture material offers “immediate relatability,” which Brooks believes makes students more likely to participate, allow their ideas to be challenged, and also be willing to challenge the artist.
Bella Andrade, a junior at Arizona State University, looks forward to her class on the psychology of Taylor Swift every week. The self-proclaimed “big Swiftie” has been listening to her music for “forever and a day”, but the class includes a number of fans. There are “10 out of 10” Swifties alongside people who barely know her music, which “leads to some really good conversations,” she said.
“I think I’ve developed a much deeper understanding of different topics in social psychology,” said Andrade, who is from Minneapolis. “Taking subjects that I’ve known about or heard about before, but really applying them in some sense to something that I’m really invested in … really reinforces meaning.”
Courses that incorporate pop culture offer a different context for the basics students learn in their traditional courses, said Cathy Hwang, who co-taught a University of Virginia law course last year inspired by Succession.
The class explored the show’s prickly — and often duplicitous — legal matters, such as hostile takeovers and securities law. Hwang said she tried to engage and nurture a love of learning in students who “grew up with different interactions with technology and pop culture than I did.”
“For me, it’s not so much about what my teaching style is, but what is the students’ learning style?” Hwang said. “It’s important, I think, as a teacher to keep evolving and try to meet students where they are.”