More debased academics—at my school!

May 20, 2011 • 11:10 am

Yes, I know a fair number of my readers think that courses on vampires, Batman, and the like are perfectly valid things to have at a good university, and I’m not averse to academic studies of popular culture.  But there are limits.

This is one of them.  A student at the University of Chicago has organized a one-day academic conference on (Ceiling Cat help us) the television show “Jersey Shore.”  I have watched bits of it in hotel rooms, and it’s about as dire a show as it comes: an MTV “reality documentary” about a pack of drunken, sex-obsessed youngsters who booze, brawl, and bonk their way through various cities.   The student, who must have gotten university funding for this venture, explains:

“I think it’s very important for academics not to restrict their work to so-called “high culture,” but to seriously engage with popular culture as well,” Showalter said via email. “The images and sounds of pop culture surround us and entertain us, and for those reasons alone they are deserving of study. With regards to ‘Jersey Shore’ specifically, I believe the show is both a fascinating and innovative example of reality television, as well as a useful lens through which to examine many of the issues that animate contemporary life: problems around gender roles, ethnic identity, celebrity, the influence of mass media, the notion of ‘reality’ itself, and so on.”

The response on campus has been positive overall, according to Showalter, who said the conference part of the “uncommon” tradition U of C prides itself on. So far, the conference will include talks from University of Michigan Professor Candace Moore, University of Western Ontario Professor Alison Hearn and Gawker’s Brian Moylan. . .

. . . “I hope the conference attendees gain a new appreciation for Jersey Shore as a cultural document, realize that even shows that are derided as vulgar or lowbrow have important things to tell us, and learn to be more thoughtful consumers of pop culture themselves. I hope the conference inspires other students to fully pursue their academic interests, no matter how unusual they may seem to others.”

Oh, and for the record, Snooki is Showalter’s favorite cast member, though he said Pauly D. always has the best lines.

Where have we failed?  Is this a good way to spend university money (or students’ time) on broadening our academic horizons?  I don’t think so.

On the other hand, since I’m already here maybe I can give a paper, too.  How about this: “Gym, Tan, and Laplace: How The Situation uses science to attract women.”

The gang.  Right to left: Pauly D, Snooki, and The Situation (kneeling).

45 thoughts on “More debased academics—at my school!

  1. …realize that even shows that are derided as vulgar or lowbrow have important things to tell us…

    Has anyone demonstrated that this isn’t the case?

    If not, I say let the guy tell us these “important things.” If he fails to show their merit, all future opponents of this sort of thing will have this case study to point at and say “this is stupid, and here’s why.”

  2. Nope, you’re still wrong about this stuff. Pop culture is revealing, especially when used as a jumping off point “to examine many of the issues that animate contemporary life.” That’s totally valid. If it were a course that actually focused only on the facts and details of the show itself, as opposed to related issues, you might have a point.

  3. I’d be more interested in Batman, myself, Jerry, but like HH says – you’re wrong on this if you just say it can’t be done well. Because that’s the key point – is it GOOD academic study? How rich is the analysis and the contextualisation? You’d no doubt be happy about someone studying 17th century ephemera, or even flakes from stone tools – this is probably not much different. And might – CC forbid – come to be taken as a useful exemplar of early 21st century “culture”. Oh, and what’s really the difference between this and those funky Borromean rings those incomprehensible knot mathematicians study?

  4. I certainly think it’s worth understanding why such crap is so popular. It’s part of our world; do you think ignoring it makes it go away?

    Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

    1. Do you think studying vomitous pap makes it go away? Perhaps you’re right. The reason our culture is awash in anti-intellectualism is because we didn’t study its most bone-headed stupidities enough.

      1. No, how do you get that?

        Just because I don’t like it, is not a very good reason to impose my taste on everyone else.

        I still think it’s worth understanding why people enjoy vomitous pap, ID-Creationism and religion – but I repeat myself.

        1. Maybe it was when you said “It’s part of our world; do you think ignoring it makes it go away?”

          It seemed to imply either that the purpose of such study was to make said thingy go away, or/and that merely existing makes said thingy worthy of study.

          I agree that it can be worthwhile understanding why vomitous pap is so popular; I suppose I have trouble bridging the gap towards using scarce resources to effectively advertise or glorify vomitous pap.

          Perhaps a humanities course called “Vomitous Pap Through the Ages” could use this program as source material for the last 2 minutes of the last class on the subject of current pap, but I’m afraid I’d vote to axe that class offering entirely in favor of promoting things worthy of study.

          …and I’d reconsider your wariness of imposing your personal taste on others, especially if you happen to be faculty.

  5. “I believe the show is both a fascinating and innovative example of reality television.”

    So now reality television is both fascinating and innovative? I’m glad the rapture is tomorrow, because this is surely one of the signs of the pending apocalypse.

    1. Seriously. How is this show innovative?

      Have they never heard of “The Real World”?

      That started in 1992.

  6. You think that’s bad? Rutgers University here in New Jersey paid Snooki (the young … err .. lady on the right in the pic) $32,000 to speak to students earlier this year.

    That’s ~$9,000 more than a years tuition at Rutgers and $2,000 more than Toni Morrison received for making the commencement speech this year. Though I guess that’s fair. Toni Morrison wasted her life writing novels, teaching and wining the Nobel prize for Literature in 1993.


    1. Probably the correct market value – I have no idea who Morrison is, but that cast I have seen shooting by on television somewhere.

      [I guess I found the show boring though, I couldn’t remember if it was along the description JC gives.]

    2. the young … err .. lady

      Not really necessary.

      a useful lens through which to examine many of the issues that animate contemporary life: problems around gender roles


  7. I’m with you, Jerry. I like Susan Jacoby’s take on the subject, in “The Age of American Unreason”:

    “The objective of higher education is not to instruct students in popular culture but to expose them to something better. Genuine intellectuals – some of whom still exist on college campuses – ought to make a crusade out of ridding their institutions of such rubbish. Courses in popular culture are extremely fashionable with students, and the faculty members who teach them argue that such classes enable students to “deconstruct” and think critically about mass entertainment. I’m sorry, but those faculty members are dead wrong. What classes in popular culture really do is allow students to continue focusing their minds on low brow hokum. Offer a course in which students are required to read Les Miserable, Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations, and they may come to understand why Friday the 13th and Stephen King’s novels are not worthy objects for deconstruction.”

      1. Not forgetting, of course, that Great Expectations and Dickens’s other books were the popular culture of their day.

        I don’t think it behoves academics to criticise the study of popular culture in principle. If you don’t properly investigate and evaluate the evidence for its social and artistic value you’re never going to know.

        That said, Jersey Shore?!??!!


        1. “If you don’t properly investigate and evaluate the evidence for its social and artistic value you’re never going to know.”

          Two words: “independent study”.

    1. My comment at #13 was meant as a reply to sasqwatch’s comment at #8. Still getting the hang of this commenting thing here.

    2. No, this is wrong. So so wrong.

      Where do you people get off judging one work of art as objectively better than another? Especially when using circular non-arguments like “Offer a course in which students are required to read Les Miserable, Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations, and they may come to understand why Friday the 13th and Stephen King’s novels are not worthy objects for deconstruction”.

      Jesus Hernandez Christ. What you’re doing is nothing more than claiming truth through revelation (in this case, revelation via a select group of literary critics).

      Define your notion of better, please. If you mean “things that intelligent people happen to read/watch on average”, then fine. But that’s a trivial point that I’m fairly sure none of you prescriptivist fuckers are making.

        1. I’m kind of surprised to see a tone comment from you, Jerry. But fair enough, it’s your website. Maybe I’m too used to the Pharyngula crowd.

          I hope someone will respond to the substance of my point though.

          1. If you were surprised to be called out for obscene name-calling, then indeed you must spend a lot more time with Pharyngula folks that at WEIT. Re the purported substance of your point – perhaps you should take it up with Susan Jacoby who is the principal “you people” to whom you refer. She can no doubt explain to you why some art and literature is considered superior to other.

            1. Wow, seriously? I understand calling someone a prescriptivist isn’t a compliment, but it hardly qualifies as obscene.

              If you quote someone approvingly, it usually means you agree with them. I’d love to hear an explanation from _anyone_ as to why one piece of art is actually superior to another. If it’s so obvious, it shouldn’t be that hard.

      1. bsk,

        Is there no middle ground between aesthetic nihilism and (forget “fuckers,” here comes the real epithet in your comment) “prescriptivism”? Really no difference between the Mona Lisa and testicle scratching? Sure, there’s plenty of room for relativism — aesthetics is an art not a science. But even here, science might be able (even without resort to “just so” stories) to illuminate aesthetics — descriptively, at least. Is the relationship between, for example, what is aesthetically pleasing and what is salubrious — the preference for, say, symmetry (or the conscious breaking of symmetry), the repetition of certain fundamental mathematical ratios — mere coincidence?

        1. To base aesthetics on what most people tend to find appealing, based on similarities in brain function, is a perfectly reasonable position.

          But then good art includes, by definition, pop culture. You can’t discriminate between the popular “low brow hokum” Jersey Shore/Stephen King/Harry Potter and the popular “high brow” Great Expectations/Shakespeare. There are good reasons why people watch Big Brother and American Idol, and they have to do with brain chemistry in the same way that a preference for symmetry does. Science can help us to understand why people enjoy these things (ironically, making pop culture the _ideal_ object for critical study), but it can’t tell us what is “better”.

          Taste in art does seem (to me) to be correlated (loosely) with certain personality and intelligence traits. Hence you can say something like “XYZ loves Britney Spears; therefore without knowing anything else about him/her, I would expect that he/she is of lower than average intelligence”. You may then meet XYZ and discover that he/she is actually pretty smart but has a quirky taste in music.

          You cannot say that one piece of art is better than another without making a judgement about the associated personality traits. And even then you have to keep in mind that the link is tenuous.

  8. “a useful lens through which to examine many of the issues that animate contemporary life”

    WTF does that even mean? Were he using “animate” in the a cartoon caricature sense, well, then, yeah, ok — it would apply to the t.v. show and this academic conference alike. Instead, he seems to suggest that “Jersey Shore” and “contemporary life” share some élan vital subject to profitable study. There’s an idea that ought to be viewed as inanimate on arrival, one that’s not even wrong, like Lord Kelvin’s views on élan vital itself:

    “The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry … Its power of directing the motions of moving particles, in the demonstrated daily miracle of our human free-will … [is] infinitely different from any possible result of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms.”

  9. Having lived in Jersey all my life, I don’t think I’d sign up for this clas. I’ve got enough experience and real life observations to deserve the credits for it anyway…ceiling cat help me indeed.

  10. I’ve seen this show, and I have to say it can be fun when you view it through the kind of lens that a 19th Century anthropologist would view a “primitive” tribe. The “cast members” interact without the veneer of intelligence or shrewdness that obfuscate normal human motives – namely, the desires to mate and feel good. The show lays bare the kinship Homo sapiens has with the rest of life on Earth by presenting a group from which social and cultural taboos have been stripped, leaving only those behaviors which satisfy basic needs. In fact, I think there might be a Sociology thesis somewhere in there – MTV may indeed be performing a large-scale social experiment! Or, maybe I’m just being a Jersey Shore Accomodationist…

  11. There is certainly a place in the academy for the study of popular culture, but I question the value of a one-day seminar such as this. It is not clear who the target attendees are, but if undergraduates, such conferences may be offered for no better reason than that they’re popular, and they’re popular because they’re expected to be easy — familiarity with the subject a given, no heavy lifting required.

    Academia has already given us “garbology” — and there, as here, there is value in sifting through the refuse only if the student brings a substantial body of knowledge to the project, a familiarity with (non-popular) culture sufficient to know what to be looking for.

    1. Dude. I totally agree. Totally, dude.

      An analogous situation to me would be a Fine Arts student studying painting who graduates without knowing anything about perspective or the human form. Why would this be important, anyway, if the painter only wanted to be the next Jackson Pollock?

      Why would a Jazz piano performance major care to read music or know anything about historical forms in music if he wanted to leapfrog ahead to the arhythmic / atonal Cecil Taylor-esque wackiness he has his sights set on?

      Because neither Jackson nor Cecil leaped out of the playpen doing what they eventually ended up doing. Their knowledge and mastery of earlier forms make their later excursions more compelling, at least to me.

      Personal anecdote alert: a biochem major, I kept postponing my humanities electives until the bitter end, as I kept signing up for things I knew nothing about. I wanted my money’s worth. Finally, in my senior year, I piled on a bunch of English courses to clear the requirement (and prepare myself for the possibility of writing coherent papers). One class had “The Color Purple” on its reading list, and it was generally uncomfortable because of extremely low class participation. The class couldn’t get into it until the exasperated prof wheeled out the Steven Spielberg Whoopi Goldberg Danny Glover movie version. Only then did the kids start talking.

      I cringed a bit, as I anticipated having term papers due for all the English classes I was taking at the same time, but I shouldn’t have worried. One class had as its sole requirement turning in one’s spiral bound notebook, with a bunch of musings written in… no requirement that it be grammatically correct. Another had its daily quizzes be the sole component of the grade. Another had attendance be the sole requirement. This was at CU Boulder, in the mid 80s. It felt nice to raise that sagging GPA that I had accumulated by taking all that thermo and QM, but looking back on it, I was robbed. At today’s prices, I would have probably turned CU Boulder into Virginia Tech (where the perpetrator was taking courses in Friday the 13th and Stephen King novels). Sorry for the wall-o-text.

      1. sasqwatch – unfortunately the ‘tradition’ continues at CU-Boulder – a popular and oversubscribed course is “Zombies.” Since we are all apparently still around without any zombies unleashed during the Rapture-that-did-not-happen, the CU students will have to take their zombie skills to the on-line zombie killing game.

  12. I’ve never seen the show, so I could evaluate the class from a completely unbiased (ignorant) point of view. I’m available to consult for a reasonable fee and expenses.

  13. And folks wonder why China and a couple of dozen other countries are eating our lunch in science and math education. This is simply another example of the decline of segments of the academy. Hopefully Showalter is smart enough to learn how to say “Do you want fries with that?” in putonghua.

  14. Hmmm. Never seen the show as I’m from another country, but judging by the picture Jerry posted… isn’t this the kind of show guidos like? I thought university kids liked to pretend like they were super high brow intellectuals who enjoy Antonioni, Finnegans Wake and Styles of Radical Will. At least humanities students.

    1. You ARE from another country. 😉

      Even 25 years ago, I found undergraduate education brimming with entitled brats who were merely getting messed up while making connections with similarly-entitled rich kids. You graduate, than daddy gives you the keys to the Porsche.

      My colleagues that are professors have (without exception) said that the entitlement mentality has gotten worse over their careers — and that they fight a constant battle with their students about raising their grades for no reason at all. And they (the profs) worry about being the victims of violent acts from those same students.

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