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Taking "Jersey Shore" seriously . . . seriously

USA Today, November 3, 2011

By Samuel Levine

David Showalter thinks that all of the fist pumping on MTV's Jersey Shore belongs in a place other than the clubs of Seaside Heights: the classroom.

Showalter, a senior at the University of Chicago, brought the trademark dance move to academia last Friday, hosting the first UChicago Conference on Jersey Shore Studies. The daylong conference examined the social and cultural themes of the show through a serious academic lens.

Showalter, a self-described "nerd," believes that bridging the worlds of academic and popular culture can enrich the life and the minds of college students as well as place deep philosophical quandaries into more accessible context.

"Sometimes we encounter philosophical questions in an unfamiliar context, and it's difficult to wrap our heads around," Showalter said. "We can transport those things into an art form to connect with people our age."

Showalter received approximately 50 abstract submissions, and selected about 25 students and professors from around the country and Canada to present at the conference. Presentations last Friday ranged from discussions on Italian identity and 'guidosexuality,' to a comparison between honor culture in Seaside Heights and Medieval Iceland. Showalter said that he hopes to have the work from the conference published.

Several national news outlets and late-night talk show hosts picked up on the novelty of the conference and poked fun at the idea of analyzing the show. Showalter said that while he was glad to provide the talk show hosts with a punch line, it is a mistake to simply dismiss any serious thinking about the show.

"We often imagine that because something is low culture, that the art form doesn't retain value or a message," he said. "Just because it's unscripted doesn't mean that it doesn't have value."

Showalter secured over $2,000 in funding for the conference from the University of Chicago. While some might find that type of commitment surprising from an institution notoriously known as "where fun goes to die," Showalter said that the conference was "in the UChicago spirit."

Not everyone has responded positively to the conference.

In a letter to the New York Times today, Rosario A. Iaconis, the chairman of the Italic Institute of America, criticized the university saying that the conference "promotes ethnic intolerance and makes a mockery of education."

"Scholarship that expands the boundaries of the arts and sciences is the sine qua non of higher learning," Iaconis wrote in the letter. "But 'Guido' and 'Guidette' are no Romeo and Juliet."

Showalter said the reactions people had to the conference were consistent with the way they responded to the show. He said that the ultimate reward was bridging the gap between fandom and scholarship.

"I first connected with Jersey Shore as a fan," he said. "Being a fan is an activity not unlike being a scholar."

 
 
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