Reflections on the UChicago Jersey Shore Conference, from a native

October 27, 2011

The television show Jersey Shore and the University of Chicago could be further apart from each other, but not much, at least conceptually speaking.

After all, the Jersey Shore has been lambasted by many for contributing to the downfall of modern American society, while the University has been celebrated for its academic contributions around the globe. (It was ranked this year as the 5th best university in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, if that means anything to you.)

So the thought of these two cultural pillars coming together in unity is a little surprising to some, terribly exciting to others, and downright disgraceful to a final few. Today, academics and cultural commentators will gather at the University for the simply titled UChicago Conference on Jersey Shore Studies. With nine panel discussions and four keynote addresses, including one person culturally famous in his own right -- Brian Moylan from Gawker Media -- this event is nothing if not thorough. 

But as a former UofC student, I couldn't help but wonder if the Jersey Shore conference is an indicator that things are changing over at my alma mater. The University has always prided itself on its uniqueness, its nerdiness, its "uncommon" qualities. But a reality show on MTV is probably anything but nerdy. Could the Jersey Shore conference mean that the UofC was becoming less, well, UofC-ish?

According to conference organizer David Showalter, a 4th year in the college, my worries were totally unfounded. "I think that the conference is exactly the kind of thing that we have in mind when we talk about how uncommon UChicago is," he told me on Thursday. "I think that this is very much a sort-of UofC thing."

"I personally can say that I'm a huge nerd, and a huge Jersey Shore nerd actually, if one can be such a thing," said Showalter, who conceived the conference last year, and applied for the funding to hold it.

I asked him if he thought the University environment was changing -- a topic of heated debate among students and alums these days due to recent moves like building a new athletic center and switching to the Common Application.

"Maybe more kids watch television on campus than they did a decade ago, or something like that, but I think this is still a very nerdy enterprise, even if the subject matter is like, trashy TV, rather than obscure Platonic dialogues, or something like that," Showalter continued.

But still: the Jersey Shore conference is no Zombie Preparedness Task Force, which the same Uncommon grant that partially funds the Jersey Shore conference funded in 2008. That $6,000 was used to bring Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide, to campus for a lecture on how to survive a real Zombie uprising. That, you have to admit, is pretty nerdy.

The rise of a legitimate culture in which to criticize pop culture is something Showalter wants to see more of. 

"I also hope that the work presented at the conference has a life beyond the conference," he said. "I hope it's sort of the beginning of a longer and broader conversation about Jersey Shore and about popular culture in general."

I asked the closest young person to me who might know, my sister, who is currently a sophomore at the UofC. She has had the benefit of perspective; she went to a larger, more traditional college (UC Berkeley) before she came to the UofC.

So, I asked her: Does putting resources towards discussing a television show Jersey Shore fit into a new and improved vision of the UofC, one where athletics and donations matters more than "the life of the mind"?

In a word, no.

"I'm not exactly sure of the tone of the conference yet, but regardless, if they're being ironically intellectual about it or if they're actually attempting to analyze it, it still comes to the same end," Emma told me. "They're literally reaching to the very bottom of the intellectual food chain and dragging a show, and culture, kicking and screaming to the top."

Nice visual, Emma.

She went on to say that, "I think that if they are attempting to be funny, it's going to suck. If they try to be serious about it, it'll be hilarious and probably relatively insightful."

And apparently I'm just an uptight alum who doesn't like change, because apparently even people my age don't think the Jersey Shore conference is a sign of changing tides. Alex Ruff, a friend of mine from school who's finishing up his degree, said, "It's really UChicago to be thinking about something so mundane. Well, not mundane, but in an academic sense."

And at the more I think about it, the more I realize that Jersey Shore is pretty nerdy, if nerdy means weird. The whole crew: Snooki with her bizarre dancing; Pauly D. with his hair that's seemingly unlimited by gravitational forces; the Situation, whose narcissism somehow doesn't manage to burn down every room he enters.

Maybe the Jersey Shore conference is perfect for the UofC -- they're both totally weird in different ways.

The UChicago Conference on Jersey Shore Studies is today from 9:30 am until 8:00 pm in Ida Noyes Hall at the University in Hyde Park. Follow the exploits on Twitter @JerseyShoreConf.