In the university lecture hall, teaching is a performance. Experts with years of knowledge become, whether they like it or not, a kind of entertainer, selecting and arranging key points into a coherent and memorable lesson. This fall, I’m hoping to make my performance more like Taylor Swift’s.
Once upon a time I was a young college student and what I wanted most from a professor’s performance was a kind of collective exhilaration, where everyone around me was not so much escaping as flush with the moment. This feeling is what made the details I learned memorable. But now that it is me on the stage, have I created that feeling even once? Despite my best intentions to hook my indifferent, captive audience with enthusiasm and expertise, have my performances too often devolved into unjoyful ones of earnestness, resignation, and self-righteous erudition?
This summer, I took my tween daughter to a Taylor Swift concert and there was no comparison between Swift and me on the stage. I had envisioned basking in my daughter’s delight, there but aloof. She was the major, I was the general education student, taking a required course. But then, under the hot evening sun of a Kentucky heat wave, the music and my heart swelled when Swift came on the stage.
For the next couple hours, Swift gave a performance that was about spectacular pleasure. The lesson she gave us was about our capacity for joyful community, even among strangers. For a teacher, it was a master class in how to generate and sustain collective feeling that makes a lecture memorable. First, she demonstrated how to hook an audience from the beginning by giving them what they want. She predictably opened with her hit “. . . Ready for It?,” strutting out alone in a sparkly black hood and over the knee boots, geysers of fog erupting alongside the stage. We—by we, I mean all 50,000 of us—sang and danced along.
In her next songs, she elaborated on her opening point: that her new, more badass persona is fun, by amping up the extravagance of the spectacle. Towers of flames shot into the sky. A Benetton ad worthy cadre of backup dancers, musicians, and singers joined her on stage. Next, she built a connection between herself and the audience by becoming approachable. She did this by introducing the others on stage to us one by one so we’d know that they were her BFFs. She reiterated this point periodically for the remainder of the concert. During “Look What You Made Me Do,” she paused for a giant video of Tiffany Haddish announcing that the old, less badass Taylor Swift couldn’t come to the phone right then. Why? ‘Cuz she was on stage. She danced to “Shake It Off” with opening acts Charlie XCX and Camilla Cabello. She even walked through the crowd to the other side of the stadium, clasping hands and gushing over the little dog someone held up for her to kiss. Throughout, she balanced her acceptance that she was the star of the show with a reassuring friendliness. By making her audience feel connected to her even in the midst of the spectacle, she helped her audience also feel connected to each other through their shared pleasure.
The content further sustained this feeling of collective joy. By tacking between songs from the new album and past hits, Swift shifted between the delight of proficiency (I know all the words!), the thrill of discovery (I haven’t heard that one before!), and the comfort of nostalgia (I remember that one!). When a new song might be unknown to a good portion of the audience (not me and my daughter—we’d done our homework), she created mashups like her closing one where she married the 2012 breakout pop smash “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” while dancing around and in a (real!) water fountain with the other performers, now dressed in neon party clothes. By drawing connections and activating different kinds of pleasure, she made each song a standout.
In the midst of all this spectacle, Swift gave us moments of respite from the exhilaration. While she changed outfits, we returned to anticipation. She followed raucous and sexy group dance numbers with moments of intimacy during which she told us she loved us because Kentucky had supported her career from the beginning or admitted that it was unbelievably hot or simply caught her breath while offering a smile that said “I’m not actually naughty or tough, but wasn’t it great to pretend?” During “Delicate,” she travelled through the air to a smaller stage in a glowing golden ball. She sat alone on a stool and played acoustic guitar while singing “Dancing with Our Hands Tied” and “Mine,” touched that we still knew the lyrics to these old songs of hers. By shifting scales, she added textures to our collective joy and ensured we wouldn’t become glutted with one aspect of her performance and turn away.
And did I mention there was a giant inflatable snake with glowing red eyes? This wasn’t work. This wasn’t a requirement to be endured. This. Was. Fun. AF.
So, maybe I don’t have to be so mean. Instead, what would a classroom look like that was about delight as much as it was about learning? What would be the structure of a syllabus of spectacle? What would a pedagogy of joy do? I don’t have answers to these questions, but when it comes to the last one—the outcomes of joy—I think of a particular moment in Jill Dolan’s Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater (2005). She tells of attending a theater performance delayed due to the puddles and “cacophony” produced by a “torrential downpour” hammering a leaky tin roof. The rain seemed endless so Deb Margolin gave in and began her one woman O Wholly Night and Other Jewish Solecisms, a singular and intimate performance sealed off from the outside world by weather. Collectively, for performer and audience alike, it was a hope-giving interlude, during which a utopic present was experienced and a utopic future seemed possible.
Maybe a Taylor Swift pedagogy would have an end game of teaching students to delight in moments of collective experience and shared knowledge. No matter how insistent and erudite I am, no matter what readings I assign, no matter what questions I ask on the final exam, they are going to disagree with me and with each other about the meaning of the literatures and histories about which I have lectured. But that doesn’t mean there has to be bad blood. Their diverse relationships to the past doesn’t change that they are in this world together, both now and in their shared future. Perhaps if I assign favorite readings alongside new ones, bring my TAs on stage, be willing to laugh at my persona and admit my vulnerabilities, bring more spectacle and fun (though probably not a giant inflatable snake), tell them they’re my favorite class ever, and make clear that I know it’s a performance but that I want it to be a fun one, my students will have moments where they are flush with the moment. Singing together. Feeling together. Hoping together. Having fun together. Learning to be not always resigned or angry about their differences but generous in working through them.
Baby, let the dance begin.
Caroline Wigginton is on tour twice a week through the end of the semester.