scorecardA college in Florida is offering a whole class on Dolly Parton
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A college in Florida is offering a whole class on Dolly Parton

Max Kalnitz   

A college in Florida is offering a whole class on Dolly Parton
EntertainmentEntertainment3 min read
  • Grace Lager, an instructor at Eckerd College, created a course about Dolly Parton.
  • It examines race, gender, and class through the lens of Parton's work.
  • After a successful semester, Lager said she can't envision teaching those subjects without Parton.

Throughout her six-decade career, Dolly Parton has been widely recognized for her musical bravura, her talent on the silver screen, and her philanthropic heart of gold.

Now Parton has another accolade: She's the subject of a college course.

Grace Lager, who teaches at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, used the country superstar as the case study for her course "Music, Icons, and Communication." Over four weeks during the winter term (which wrapped up February 4), she and her 18 students took a critical lens to current cultural issues through Parton's work.

On the surface, a class about Dolly Parton sounds amusing or even novel, perfect for seniors looking for an easy A. But according to Lager, "Dolly's music is essentially an entry point into so many relevant cultural issues such as race, class, gender."

Read more: Dolly Parton says she turned down Trump's offer of the Presidential Medal of Freedom - twice

Parton is the latest in a growing list of musicians to be canonized in American higher education by scholars who have deemed the message of their music and their impact on society important. The University of Copenhagen and Rutgers University offered classes about Beyoncé and her impact on gender, sexuality, and race in 2017 and 2014, respectively.

Lager first had the idea to use Parton's work in her 4-week class after listening to a podcast about the singer

She was inspired after listening to WNYC's "Dolly Parton's America" podcast last summer.

"There's something about her - the longevity of her career, the multifaceted three-dimensional nature of who she is, and the appeal that she has to so many different people from so many different walks of life with such different backgrounds, different political views, different gender identities, all of it," Lager said. "I think there is definitely a group of musical artists who are iconic. And then there's Dolly."

To tackle these topics, Lager and her students listened closely to Parton's songs, watched her movies, and completed experiential learning activities like rewriting her lyrics with insight from their own lives. The class also explored the African roots of the banjo and how Southern blues music, which originated in Africa and the Caribbean, came to be the foundation of contemporary country music.

'All these issues that she's addressing head-on in 1980 ... we're still talking about today'

Lager's main goal is making sure her students understand music can be a channel of communication for controversial ideas that might not be conveyed as well in other mediums.

One of the first songs Lager thought to use in her class was Parton's 1967 hit, "Dumb Blonde." The lyrics are an early example of Parton's progressive feminism, Lager said, especially considering she performed it live during her first appearance on "The Porter Wagoner Show."

Lager also showed the movie "9 to 5," which, she said campaigns for progressive ideas of workplace equality within its comedic framework.

["9 to 5" was] so progressive, so ahead of its time talking about workplace equality, equal pay, certainly dealing with issues of sexism and sexual assault in the workplace," Lager told Insider. "All these issues that she's addressing head-on, in 1980, that we're still talking about today."

Read more: Dolly Parton re-recorded her iconic '9 to 5' for a Squarespace Super Bowl commercial about side hustles

Lager knew the class would tackle big issues but said it - and her students' participation - exceeded her expectations

"They rejuvenated me," she told Insider. "We've all been through a lot in the last year, and this class and my students, definitely have rejuvenated me."

Lager thinks the four-week structure of the course is perfect and doesn't plan on making the class available during the regular semesters. As for Parton, Lager said she was the perfect inlet to exploring such important topics.

"I don't know how I would teach those subjects now without her," Lager told Insider.