Classes on celebrities like Taylor Swift and Rick Ross are engaging a new generation of law students

Nov 11, 2023, 7:03 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A South Dakota law professor typically teaches about dense topics like torts and natural resources. But next semester, he and his fearless students are shaking 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 reconsider legal language and craft persuasive arguments. The self-described “Swiftie” thought a focus on the cultural icon was also a way to connect with his students.

Never in his wildest dreams did Kammer expect the attention that the announcement generated — the class filled up quickly and jealous alumni even reached out.

“The reaction from students has been exciting,” he said. “If we can have fun while we’re exploring some of these complex theoretical problems or issues, I believe 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 celebritydom — 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 school courses with fun and accessible experiences that professors say they often didn’t have themselves.

Students at the Georgia State University College of Law were hustlin’ everyday to get to class — especially on Tuesday when they got to hear directly from Ross for the final day of a course that chronicled the legal intricacies of the rapper, record executive and Wingstop franchise owner’s life.

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, television shows and movies they enjoy. She chooses a star each year and invites guest speakers from their world, along with the title character themselves, to bring legal deals, defenses and drama to life.

“We’re talking about critical legal principles, but we’re watching them as they happen and as they happened,” she said. “It really just turns that lightbulb on for law students.”

Ivory said she could’ve heard a pin drop in one class about mixtapes that featured guest DJ Drama.

“It was never 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, Kansas, said. “I just find that my attention is more easily grabbed 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 it may be.”

Frances Acevedo, a 25-year-old from Pembroke Pines, Florida, in her third year of law school, said she’s walked away from the class with an understanding of how important a team is to an artist’s success — a message Ross emphasized.

“I can sit at the table and talk money with multibillionaires,” Ross said to students, faculty and guests gathered for the course finale. “But when it’s time for me to move forward, I sit down with my team.”

Courses on A-list celebrities have captivated undergraduate and graduate students across the country for years, increasingly in courses analyzing race and gender. The attention on female artists and artists of color is a sign of growing respect for them and for different modes 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 that other professors can use. The pop culture material offers “immediate relatability,” which Brooks thinks makes students more likely to participate, allow their ideas to be challenged and be willing to challenge the artist, too.

Bella Andrade, a junior at Arizona State University, looks forward to her class on the psychology of Taylor Swift every week. The self-proclaimed “huge Swiftie” has been listening to her music for “forever and a day,” but the class includes a range of fans. There are “10 out of 10” Swifties, along with people who barely know her music, which “leads to some really great 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 topics that I’ve known about or heard about before but really applying them in a sense to something that I’m really invested in … really solidifies meaning.”

Courses that incorporate pop culture offer a different context for the fundamentals that students learn in their traditional courses, said Cathy Hwang, who co-taught a University of Virginia corporate law course last year inspired by Succession.

The class investigated the show’s prickly – and often duplicitous – legal matters, like hostile takeovers and securities law. Hwang said she was trying to engage and nurture a love of learning in students who “grew up with different interactions with technology and pop culture than what I did.”

“To me, it’s not so much what’s my teaching style, but what’s the students’ learning style?” Hwang said. “It’s important, I think, as a teacher to keep evolving and trying to meet students where they are.”


Associated Press video journalist Sharon Johnson contributed from Atlanta.

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Classes on celebrities like Taylor Swift and Rick Ross are engaging a new generation of law students