UChicago Shore

Reality TV and academics combine in UChicago's "Jersey Shore" Conference.
I think that it’s important for us to have more conversations like this—this sort of serious, thoughtful conversation about the pop culture we consume, especially culture that’s sort of dismissed as trash TV.

“Let’s have fun.”

With this note, David Showalter ended his opening remarks at the Jersey Shore Conference. In spite of the conference’s high academic aspirations — morality and ethics, labor and economics, and gendered relationships were among the topics discussed — the conference had the unpretentious spirit of a bunch of passionate people gathered together to discuss something they care about. At UChicago, that’s the definition of fun.

According to Showalter, the fourth year Tutorial Studies major who organized the event, the value of the Jersey Shore Conference lies precisely in this thoughtful, passionate conversation.

Jersey Shore deserves a lot more attention from scholars,” said Showalter. “It’s a massive, massive phenomenon. We needed to catch up. I think that it’s important for us to have more conversations like this — this sort of serious, thoughtful conversation about the pop culture we consume, especially culture that’s sort of dismissed as trash TV. I think that those forms of entertainment are clearly popular. We respond to them for particular reasons and so those reasons deserve to be analyzed more thoroughly. I’m hoping that the conference serves as a model for how to do that well.”

Running from 9:30 am to 8:00 pm, the conference was broken up into four sessions sandwiched by opening remarks and a reception. For each session, there was a keynote speaker as well as two panels running simultaneously to discuss particular overarching issues from the show. Attendees were encouraged to be active participants, and many took advantage of the opportunity to pose questions to presenters.

A truly global affair, the conference featured speakers from over two dozen institutions across the country from 14 states, three Canadian provinces, as well as Ottorino Cappelli and Letizia Airos — hailing all the way from Italy — attesting to the far-reaching influence of Jersey Shore. On the panels sat a surprising mix of professors, unaffiliated scholars, media figures, graduate students, and even undergraduates.

Airos is the Editor-in-Chief of i-Italy, while Cappelli is a professor at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” as well as a Visiting Scholar at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of City University of New York.  Cappelli served as keynote speaker for the fourth session, and was particularly impressed with the youth-driven character of the conference.

“I was impressed by the fact that David is an undergraduate student, not only because he was able to do [this conference], but also because the University let him do it,” said Cappelli. “They gave him all this space, and he’s managing the whole thing. And it went global and there was a great response from a lot of young people.”

One such representative of this youth response was UChicago undergraduate Nick Ramsey, a fourth-year who touched upon one of the major themes of the day with his discussion of “Reality and Reflexivity on Jersey Shore.”  Reflexivity found its way into conversation repeatedly throughout the course of the day. For Showalter, this came as no surprise.

On the one hand, Jersey Shore is emblematic of a much more pervasive phenomenon, a sort of self-branding and the transformation of one’s self into a brand of a commodity,” said Showalter. “On the other hand, I think one of the themes of the show that viewers clearly respond to is being real to one’s self. That’s an emotion that a lot of us would like to tap into, and maybe a part of us would like to behave like the cast members on Jersey Shore, but we aren’t able to because of the social structures we find ourselves in.”

It was this peculiar yet fruitful marriage of genuine scholarly insight and everyday relatability that Elizabeth Miller, a fourth-year at Northwestern, saw as the conference’s main appeal.

“I think there’s a lot of value in analyzing and engaging in academic discussion around things that aren’t necessarily viewed as intellectual objects,” said Miller. “You know, something that could be perceived as very lowbrow like Jersey Shore has a lot of cultural value. I think opening up the world of academia to something that is usually excluded from the conversation has a lot of value.”

There’s no doubt about it: only at UChicago could Snooki and The Situation toe the line with Foucault and Marx. 

Want more on the "Shore"? Click here for more interviews with the Conference's main organizer, attendees, and speakers.

Tagged: Jersey Shore, Uncommon Fund