Celebrity-Focused Courses Show College Isn’t The Same as It Was

Harry Styles, Nicki Minaj, and Taylor Swift are among the stars that will be in the academic spotlight this school year.
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  • Texas State University and the University of California, Berkeley, are among the schools offering celebrity-focused courses this spring.
  • Professors say focusing classes on well-known figures can create entry points to discussing issues such as racism, sexism, queerphobia, sustainability, and gun control.
  • Despite an overflow of positive responses to these kinds of classes, some commentators question the validity of celebrity courses.

A growing number of college classes focusing on celebrities shows college isn't the same as it was.

Harry Styles, Nicki Minaj, and Taylor Swift are among the artists that will be in the academic spotlight this school year as professors turn to pop stars to illuminate global cultural and social issues.

Focusing classes on well-known figures can create important conversational entry points to topics such as identity and celebrity, as well as social issues such as racism, sexism, queerphobia, sustainability, and gun control, said Louie Dean Valencia, an associate professor of digital history at Texas State University.

Next spring, Valencia will debut the class "Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity: Identity, the Internet, and European Pop Culture" at the Honors College at Texas State. It will focus on Styles to help students "understand the cultural and political development of the modern celebrity as related to questions of gender and sexuality, race, class, nation and globalism, media, fashion, fan culture, internet culture, and consumerism," according to the Texas State course catalog.

Registration for the 20-cap class officially opened on Oct. 3. Students taking the class can get credit toward the Honors College, history, international studies, European studies, popular culture studies, diversity studies, or gender and sexuality studies.

"The class is not just about looking at Harry Styles, but meant to be a way to learn about the world that we live in," Valencia told BestColleges.

More Than a Stan Class

Valencia went viral in July when he announced "Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity" on Twitter.

Styles is a Grammy-winning artist who started his career as one-fifth of the British boy band One Direction. Today, he regularly sells out arenas to sing his solo hits, including his recent sold-out 15-show residency at Madison Square Garden. Styles is also a social media star with nearly 48 million followers on Instagram.

While much of the reaction to Valencia's announcement was positive, he did get blowback from conservative commentators concerned about the role college plays in preparing students for the real world.

"In reality, this is what absurdity looks like. Point blank, this class is a waste of tuition," Christopher Tremoglie wrote in a Washington Examiner op-ed.

"When people wonder how college students in other countries like China are academically superior in nearly every way, nonsensical courses like this are partly to blame," Tremoglie continued. "They add nothing of value to a college curriculum."

While Valencia has not yet released the full syllabus, the class will be much more than just a Harry fan-fest, he told BestColleges. Like other celebrity courses before it, he's hoping the class will "describe one topic so thickly, so deeply, that a world expands out of it."

"Hopefully, this gives people an idea that there are people that want to be innovative in the ways that they want to approach students and teaching," Valencia said.

Catch Nicki Minaj on Campus?

Styles won't be the only celeb in the academic spotlight this year.

Among the class proposals making waves on social media is a University of California, Berkeley, spring 2023 course that would focus on rapper, singer, and songwriter Nicki Minaj.

"Nicki Minaj: The Black Barbie Femmecee & Hip Hop Feminisms" will be taught by Dr. Peace And Love El Henson, a lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at Berkeley.

In an email to BestColleges, Janet Gilmore, senior director of strategic communications wrote: "The instructor's course proposal is in the idea stage and is in the early process of departmental planning and review. Once developed and approved, the course would be part of an African American Studies Special Topics in Cultural Studies course the instructor is scheduled to teach this spring."

But while the academics do their due diligence, Minaj didn't wait to endorse the class. "I'd love to stop by," she wrote on Twitter after retweeting messages about the class from her fans.

Minaj will be in good company. This academic year, the list of celebs whose work and success are the subject of examination in classrooms across the country is growing.The University of Texas at Austin currently offers a class focused on Taylor Swift, New York University has a class on Lana Del Rey, and Emory University offers a course about Tyler Perry.

Valencia does not think every class examining culture and politics requires a celebrity lens, but he does recognize the value in focusing on pop culture figures.

"I don't want to be prescriptive about it, saying all classes need to do this," he told BestColleges, "but I have really enjoyed it, and I hope that more people have the space to do that in academia."