Uncommon Interview: David Showalter

Showalter, organizer of next year’s Jersey Shore conference, talks about his big plan to bring Seaside Heights to Hyde Park.

By Harunobu Coryne

Move over, Greek Thought and Literature—there’s a new GTL in Chicago academia. David Showalter, a third-year Tutorial Studies major with a focus on criminal justice and a passion for pop culture, is determined to bring MTV’s raucous reality hit, Jersey Shore, out of the tanning bed and into the limelight. Central to that goal is an academic conference, possibly the first ever for the show, which Showalter is planning for this October. Having already garnered media attention around the web, he hopes the conference will bring together journalists, culture hounds, and media studies luminaries from universities all over the country. The Maroon sat down with Showalter to figure out the situation.

Chicago Maroon: How did you make the leap from Jersey Shore as an object of fascination to being an object of serious academic consideration?

David Showalter: I was a really big fan boy of Jersey Shore. I don’t know if there was a particular moment when I was like, ‘Wow, this show is really fascinating ethnographically,’ but the moment when I got the idea for the conference was over the summer, when I came across a blog post that advertised a Jersey Shore conference and actually turned out to be an April fools’ joke. I was like, “Well, this seems wrong”—I don’t know if it’s just me, but things just leap out of the show. A really great example is when Snooki says, “I’m not white, I’m tan.”

CM: To what extent, for you at least, is there a tongue-in-cheek element to the conference?

DS: The conference definitely has a humorous aspect to it, just because I don’t want to suck the life out of the show. But it’s not really satirical in almost any respect for me. It’s very much going to be a serious academic conference because the broader point I’m trying to make is that pop culture is really worth studying.

CM: The speaking list already contains writers from The Onion, Gawker, and various academics from around the country and Canada—how did you get some of these names?

DS: Over the past decade or so there’s been scholarly literature that’s developed around reality TV, and without that existing work that’s been done, the conference really wouldn’t be possible. So I contacted a lot of people who have done work on reality television and said, “You know, I think that different aspects of your work would be really fascinating for this conference,” and I got a few responses. In terms of the non-academics, that was mostly just dumb luck. The conference broke through last week when Gawker ran a piece on it. They just scooped up the funding application I wrote up for the Uncommon Fund.

CM: You’ve said that Snooki is your favorite cast member on the show, from both the perspective of a fan and of a scholar. Could you elaborate?

DS: First of all, I don’t think anyone could have written Snooki, could have written her character or the things that she says, so she’s a really singular literary achievement. And I’ve read her novel also, which is also a really fantastic piece of work for serious and not so serious reasons. On the show, she puts forward a really interesting portrayal of being a woman. Offscreen, she’s been incredibly savvy about building this branding empire for herself. She’s really realized the fact that she can’t go back to a normal life now, that she’s created this persona for herself that she has to perpetuate.

CM: October is just five months away. Are you nervous?

DS: I guess my biggest concern is that remains a serious scholarly enterprise. I don’t think this is a danger that’s unique to media studies in any way, but there is always the danger of people just taking Pop-Culture Phenomenon X and Obscure Author Y and trying to combine them together. I don’t really want to say any names because I’ve received abstracts that deal with this problem, but I think that there are useful ways to use Jersey Shore and then there are completely unuseful ways to use Jersey Shore.