Monday, October 31, 2011

Attempted Witty Title: A Reply To Jerry Coyne

Obligatory cat picture because this post mentions Jerry Coyne.
Jerry Coyne slams a recent academic conference that focused on the TV series Jersey Shore. He mentions that he popped in on two lectures and heard bits of other talks. The conference took place at the University of Chicago, where Coyne is a biologist.

His offers a scathing assessment of the event:
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
Wait a minute, Jerry. You posted the program of the event, and the broad topics seem worthwhile:
  • The Construction of Guido Identity: 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 placed on identifying as an Italian American?
  • Morality and Ethics: Again, the general topic 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)? 
  • Affect, Honor, and Desire: 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.
  • Guido Cultural Signifiers: 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 see why Coyne judges these topics to be "shallow." I have some sympathy with the rest of his complaint, that academic pop-culture studies are "too infested with postmodern obscurantism, and ... replace more substantive material that can actually make students think deeply about things"--but focusing on Jersey Shore and the like can indeed generate substantive material that helps students think deeply about lots of things, not least about the things all around them on campus, in the clubs, and on their computers.

Coyne's final comment (or is it a caption to the picture of the Jersey Shore cast?) registers as the most unfortunate:
Guidos and guidetttes: many think they’re as educationally important as Shakespeare. They’re wrong.
Jerry, you don't have to like the show or think it offers anything of importance. But the quality of the show is almost irrelevant because what these scholars are doing is not praising Jersey Shore. They are not comparing the show to any of Shakespeare's works.

Yet there is an education an American co-ed can gain from humanities scholarship on a show like Jersey Shore. Issues of identity come up in Shakespeare. So do issues of morality, sexuality, race, power, and history. When we talk about Shakespeare, we can talk about these issues in the context of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This discussion has immeasurable value for a twenty-first century reader.

When applied to culture as it is happening before our eyes, these discussions can also have an enormous impact on students. Their favorite show actually isn't a joke, even if its characters act like buffoons. That show they watch reinforces stereotypes, or changes them, or questions them. Humanities scholarship give students the tools to see that culture is everywhere, not just in England from 1564-1616.

Jerry's point on reading papers as opposed to giving talks is well-taken. I think 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.

The best parts of any conference happen when scholars receive questions and address challenges. It's an important skill, if frightening to acquire.

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