The (De)Merits of Pop Culture Conferences: Coyne and Tanner on the ‘Jersey Shore’ Academic Conference

by Tauriq Moosa

JerseyShore1The gods of irony are smiling. I recently attributed the existence of the TV-show Jersey Shore as the closest thing to an insult I could fathom for myself, when comparing myself to Christians who regularly want things banned. Then, thanks to Jerry Coyne, I discovered my old friend – my seriously old and now obviously senile friend – academia has cozied up to said show, in order to get them young folk interested in “bigger questions”.

Not so long ago, the University of Chicago had an academic conference on Jersey Shore, where the various sessions discussed important topics like: “The Monetization of Being: Reputational Labor, Brand Culture, and Why Jersey Shore Does, and Does Not, Matter”, “The Construction of Guido Identity” and “Foucault’s Going to the Jersey Shore, Bitch!”. What are the merits of having conferences on pop-culture, where questions are discussed on metaphysics, ethics and “identity” (I still don’t understand that topic)? Anchoring these questions to pop-culture topics, like Jersey Shore, is like putting scented oils on a corpse, serving little purpose other than to keep our breakfasts down before we bury the whole mess and carry on with our actual lives.

Coyne certainly thinks it’s largely useless:. He says: “(1) I’m not a huge fan of academic pop-culture studies, which seem shallow, too infested with postmodern obscurantism, and bad in that they replace more substantive material that can actually make students think deeply about things. (2) Pop-culture courses seem to me to be an easy way for professors to attract students by tapping into their t.v.-watching and music-listening habits.”

Now those are two distinct points. The first part argues that pop-culture conferences are largely useless, a waste time and resources, too indulging in obscurantism, and replace actual learning with the illusion of grappling with profound subjects because the titles indicate “big questions”. The second part points out why such conferences exist at all and how professors can be comfortable teaching this with a straight face: it gets them students, therefore maintains income because more students would come to a course on Jersey Shore than just vanilla ones on Plato, etc. The second is a description and seems to me obviously true: It is one way to keep education alive, one way to secure oneself a regular job, and so on, by affixing your learning toward what your audience actually cares about.

Whether it is a good or even the best way to do so is another question, which, by assessing Coyne’s first point, we should come closer to answering. In the end, I do think there is a better way and I think it’s in fact more damaging if we indulge in what “the kids” are focused on rather than what they should be focused on.

Larry Tanner, at his blog Textuality, has written something of a reply to Coyne (actually that’s the name of the post). Tanner notes that Coyne only went to two lectures (which is two more than I would). Coyne summarised his views at the end, which only maintained his view on pop culture conferences. Says Coyne:

Waste of time and the money used to fund it. I know readers will contest this, and I did go to only two talks, but both were dire, boring, and completely unenlightening. It was a deadly combination of postmodern theory and pop culture. It’s harmless to talk about this, I suppose, but it’s a question of how to prioritize academic funds—and scholarship.

Tanner, looking at the program, which Prof Coyne was kind enough to share, says “the broad topics seem worthwhile.” I want to look at what Tanner says and see whether he manages to offer good reasons for us to take the conference even a little seriously, and therefore disagree with Coyne on pop-culture conferences in general. Each topic I'm numbering here is on the program which you can see over at Prof. Coyne's website.

1. “The Construction of Guido Identity”

Tanner on the topic “The Construction of Guido Identity” says: “I don't know much about Jersey Shore in particular, but a session that looks at the show's representations of masculinity, race, sexuality, and identity seems pretty interesting. What makes someone manly in that world? What importance is place on identifying as an Italian American?”

Again, I’ve never understood what identity studies are about and what it means. I say this and I live in South Africa. Having engaged with it for many years, I’ve found identity studies to be nothing but nonsense posturing as deep, complex, psychological questions. In the end, who the hell cares? I’m an ex-Muslim who studies bioethics, to change public policy on matters on euthanasia and organ donation, and I read too many comics – I’ve never considered what my identity is or means in the context of a society that is largely unemployed and uneducated. What I have considered is what those factors of unemployment and no education will do when I attempt to engage in political change on matters of medicine (since the majority of the very population I want to benefit might not at first understand my reasons for wanting medical practioners to kill their patients, legally).

But will engaging with what it means to, say, be a man in today’s world really be an important topic? I’m always hesitant about such topics since sometimes people want to take what should be a discussion as a platform to advocate how men (or women) should be; which I think is unfounded, since gender roles don’t make sense anymore with, for example, increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships and artificial insemination. Who cares “how” a man should be in today’s world? I don’t think it’s a relevant topic, but then that’s just me.

Furthermore, what does it matter what such ideas mean to Italian-Americans? Unless you want to discuss culture and politics, I’m not sure gender discussions are relevant. What conclusion could one possibly reach from this kind of discussion that is so important it would change our view on Italian-American men or vice versa?

Notice, all we’ve done here is focus on the topic and not its relation to Jersey Shore. If the actual topic is pointless and a waste of time, what advantage is there to adding the characters and interactions of this very stupid show? It seems to make it even worse.

2. “Morality and Ethics”

I know Prof. Coyne thinks this an important topic. Naturally, I do too given I’m doing a postgrad degree in it. Coyne would not say the topic of morality and ethics is pointless, but how it is discussed can be. And given that Jersey Shore and morality are as incompatible as science and monotheistic religion, we should not be surprised Coyne thinks this. Consider: The topic of whether euthanasia should be legalised is an important one. But this debate could be held by two over-emotional, first-year students and lead nowhere (I’ve even seen futile moral discussions with medical students I’ve taught and my colleagues who are medical practitioners). This, it seems to me, is what Coyne means: the discussion is futile even if the topic is legitmately important.

Tanner asks: “Again, the general topic [of morality and ethics] seems worthy of the humanities. Why not use a popular TV show to explore moral behavior and ethical dilemmas faced by the characters (albeit as edited by the show's producers)?”

Firstly, we disagreed that the first topic was worth investigating at all. The fact that it was discussed within a Jersey Shore context only highlighted how pointless the discussion was.

Secondly, as I’ve said, the way the conversation is conducted could make a legitimately important topic, like morality and ethics, inundated with myopic views and lead nowhere. A glance through that section (on Coyne’s website) shows that in fact two out of three discussions deal with Foucault. So there isn’t much diversity in the topic itself, let alone aspects that would appeal to those who know little or nothing about Foucault. Note that Foucault discussions tend to be often quite narrowly focused anyway, so it wouldn't even fit the criteria Tanner discusses.

Now to be clear, I can understand using certain examples from pop-culture to highlight important topics. I’ve just completed a chapter on The Walking Dead and philosophy (about why having babies is immoral), which should be coming out soon. Using familiar subjects can make discussing the overall topic enlightening to new people. My favourite modern philosopher, James Rachels, used various examples from literature and television to clarify his points. It’s simply a way, which, depending on your ability as a teacher, can either work or bomb. However, as I’ve highlighted, the very topic themselves in this conference seem poorly handled. As I was not there, I can’t say whether this is true but I find it hard to believe you could salvage a good discussion from these topics except to say why no one in academia should be wasting their time discussing them in the first place. Furthermore, staying within the bracket of “morality and ethics”, if the majority of your topics concerns Foucault, I’d hardly call the entire topic morality and ethics.

I won’t say more, since I do think it possible – if I imagine very hard – that one could have a fruitful discussion on morality and ethics, using Jersey Shore. But I’m not convinced, given the actual discussion topics and the nature of the whole conference from what I’ve read.

3. Affect, Honor and Desire

Tanner says of this topic:

This is one session I would have liked to attend, especially the paper involving medieval Iceland. Ultimately, this session appears to want to understand how the characters of the show view their world. This understanding is the bread and butter of the humanities. We want to know the world just as Hamlet did, or just as Beowulf did, or just as Guinevere did. We want to capture the cultural perspectives that audiences in the past brought to their lives and to the artworks presented to them.

I have a short response to this: Why?

4. Guido Cultural Signifiers

Tanner says: “Another good session, if the paper titles are any indication. Surely, the people on the show have personalities and behaviors that appeal to viewers. Asking why this is so and looking for answers that go beyond pat stereotypes–well, these seem like good things to me.”

I don’t know what cultural signifiers are. I assume they are properties that indicate what constitutes a particular culture? Perhaps like the crescent moon and star signifies Muslim culture, red-white-and-blue signifies America, etc. Regardless, Tanner does have a point. It is good to know why millions of people would pay to watch mundane, untalented people go about getting drunk and acting idiotic. There are plenty of hypotheses: most people are comfortably bored with their lives and, lacking creative stimulus enjoy seeing “better” versions of themselves through the tanned, ripped abs of Italian-American people from New Jersey; the show is so unbelievably stupid, you watch it the same way you do a car-crash in slow motion, except the things breaking are people’s lives and what’s dissolving is time better spent elsewhere; and so on.

Whatever the reason, you could use that information to get those millions of viewers on to better, more important topics. For example, we can also ask why could Carl Sagan get the whole world fascinated with science? How does Richard Dawkins (and indeed, Jerry Coyne) do it?

These are legimate questions since here we actually have something the other topics appear to lack: data. Yes, information we can use. I’m not sure how many humanities students have heard about data and evidence – judging from my year of teaching them, not much – but here is a topic in which data and evidence could arise.

But um given that it’s about cultural studies and signifiers, I think it’s doubtful.

Conclusions

Tanner has raised at least one good point, but quite I think by accident. Coyne is right that these all seem rather boring or obscure, pointless and a waste; Coyne is not saying, for example, morality and ethics is useless but how it’s conducted surely matters. Similarly, if the topics in and of themselves are useless – as I’ve indicated – then its hard to see what use adding the Jersey Shore element could possibly add (make it more tanned, stupid, pointless, rough, dirty?)

Notice that despite my intense dislike for Jersey Shore, I’ve not said because the topics deal with Jersey Shore that that is why the conference was perhaps silly – I’ve even indicated I could imagine (because I have a wonderful, active imagination) using Jersey Shore to explain elements of ethics. All I’ve argued is that this conference seems to be just as Prof. Coyne has said. The topic could’ve been anything: the Darwin biopic Creation, The Dark Knight, Carnivale, LOST, etc., and my points would remain.

Tanner has said we discuss all manner of topics, like identity and sexuality and power in Shakespeare: we put it in the context of England at the time. This has historical importance, since we gain clarity of the time. By examining Jersey Shore, Tanner says, we can do the same.

But again: even if this conference was on Shakespeare, it still seems pointless. The danger with pop culture topics is that it allows more easily for nonsense topics to sift through. What could the lecture topic “Foucault’s Going to Jersey Shore, Bitch” possibly be about? You could put whatever you want there, perhaps qualifying it by mentioning Foucault in passing. (I find Foucault a fascinating writer about European history. I stop listening when he talks normative politics and ethics).

It is also good to see that Tanner agrees with Coyne that “most humanities scholars are taught, at least through imitation, to present the paper first and foremost, and worry very much less about connecting with an audience. This is unfortunate, especially since in our classrooms we are talking to our students and seeking to engage them as best we can.” Alison Gopnik has recently given an interview confirming this: that lecturing perhaps is not the best way to teach. Small groups, with active engagement, is better where it is possible to do so. This forces you, as the teacher, to be on your feet, asking questions and having a conversation. Of course there’s a place for lectures but even lectures should be, I think, tempered by trying to convey the information rather than as a display for your intellect. I would rather be thought dumb but coherent than smart but incomprehensible. Humanities, I’ve learnt, trains you to try be the latter – again the main problem is that it, like this conference, prevents the most important aspect of education – grappling with problems, failing, succeeding in arguments, discovering alternate views and so on – from arising.

In the end though, Coyne and Tanner’s view serve to engage us in this discussion on how education is best served. It seems to me, as does Coyne, that this is not a good way to do it. But then, what do I know?

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