An academic conference on Jersey Shore

If you’ve been here a while, you’ll know that 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.  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.

At any rate, on Friday our university hosted an academic conference on Jersey Shore studies. (I posted about the upcoming conference last May.)  In case you’ve been in Ulan Bator for the past two years, Jersey Shore is an MTV series that follows the lives of eight Italian-Americans as they booze, copulate, and fight their way through vacation stints in various localities (I think they’ve recently taken their shenanigans to Italy).

The New York Times reported on the conference yesterday, and I went to two lectures myself.  Here are two pages of the four-page program:

My comments:

  • 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.
  • The titles of papers in this conference, as in many humanities talks, almost always included a colon.  They’re of this nature: “Attempted witty title: explanatory subtitle.”
  • Every paper I saw—and I looked in on several more talks than I heard in their entirety, involved the presenter reading their paper instead of talking to the audience. I’ve mentioned before how deeply this annoys me.  First of all, there’s a difference between written prose and spoken prose, and the former is often dull and deadly when given as a talk.  Why on earth don’t the speakers do what scientists do: either have some notes and talk more spontaneously to the audience, or use a Powerpoint presentation as notes.  It is stultifying to watch a speaker gaze intently at her paper, not looking at the audience, as she reads what she wrote.  And talks are, as we all know, not only interludes of edification, but interludes of entertainment. It should be engrossing and somewhat fun to hear a good talk.  One should have one’s eyes on the speaker as he or she emotes, not on a Powerpoint screen or a downward-pointing head reading pre-written lines.
I’m not sure why people in the humanities have evolved this habit of reading papers. (I’ve heard theories that the words are so terribly important that they must be read exactly as written, but I don’t believe that.) And some humanities scholars don’t do it.  But it’s the norm, and it’s simply stupid.  If you want colleagues to really pay attention  to your talk, you have to give nearly as much thought to your delivery as you do to your content.
Humanities scholars—arise and emote! You have nothing to lose but your dullness!
Guidos and guidetttes: many think they’re as educationally important as Shakespeare. They’re wrong.


  1. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    * You know what’s worse than listening to somebody read a lecture aloud?

    * Watching somebody read aloud a PowerPoint presentation.

    * Bullet point by bullet point.

    * I’m not kidding.



    • Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      An amen to Ben as well – this should be one of the first no-no’s of PP that we teach our students.

      • Scote
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        The first no no of power point is using power point.

        People get stuck with the idea that “professional” presentations have to have slides. They don’t. But if you must, stick primarily to illustrations, photos, graphs and things that add value, things that cant’ be easily described verbally. No one did powerpoint like Steve Jobs–his presentation slides were very, very discipline and minimal. Almost nobody has that level of discipline with powerpoint, so almost nobody should use it :-)

        • Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink


          I’d almost go so far as to state that there shouldn’t be a single word in any PowerPoint presentation, if it weren’t for the fact that graphs need labels for the axes. Then again, most graphs are waaaay too information-dense to fit in the tiny space available for presentation.

          (If you’re sitting in front of a large-screen monitor, you may think you’ve got a huge canvas to work with. You may even still think that if you’re doing your presentation in a movie theatre. But you’d be worng. Design your presentation for 3″ x 5″ cards held at arm’s length, and you’ll be about right. Same thing for highway billboards.)



          • Dominic
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

            The one time I did a proper talk, on my MA dissertation, Swedish runestones and the Christianisation of Sweden in the 11th century, I wittered on for a hour without slides but with an overhead projector (this was 10 years ago) for an hour without notes, no doubt to the agony of all involved, including the late Viking scholar Peter Foote, before they finally had had enough!

            • Occam
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

              So that was what did Peter in!

          • daveau
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

            And avoid those stupid transitions, like bullet-points flying in one at a time. And those ridiculous wipes between slides. I’m a pacifist, but transition abuse makes me want to kill.

            • Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

              See, this is why I didn’t go to business school. How on Earth would I have gotten the bloodstains out of my clothes?



            • eric
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

              Incremental slide “builds” can (IMO) be an effective way of leading an audience through a complicated and unfamiliar graphic. If you splash it all up on the screen to begin with, they stop listening while they try to figure out the slide.

              Building is a sort of transition effect which I think can be valuable…though I agree with you that the unnecessary animation should be left to Warner Bros. cartoons.

              • daveau
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

                I appreciate adding the points one at a time for clarity. Don’t have them flying in from different corners along with whooshing sound effects. True story.

              • Scote
                Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

                @ daveau


                Builds and bullet builds are ok. But making the presentation about the animations is not. Content, not distraction. But clients don’t want to hear it. They think adding random animations to **everything** turns their presentations into Jerry Bruckheimer films which will wow the audience with their brilliant special effects, thus making their presentations wildly successful regardless of content or lack thereof. :-p

            • Diane G.
              Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

              And avoid those stupid transitions…


              • Dominic
                Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:48 am | Permalink

                I see the esses -SSSS- flying in from the right!

          • ChasCPeterson
            Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            I’d almost go so far as to state that there shouldn’t be a single word in any PowerPoint presentation

            You’d almost be going too far. Words–a few concise ones–are useful for the ‘tell em what you’re going to tell them” and “tell them what you just told them” parts of a presentation. I do agree that the actual telling should not involve simultaneous reading on the part of the audience.

            • Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

              The kinds of chapter headings you’re describing would be the least offensive use of words in a presentation, but I would argue that the presentation would be stronger still if it is designed in such a way as to render those slides superfluous.


        • Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

          Yeah I think powerpoints are good for presentations, but for the audience, not the presenter: they should therefore be visual and contain as little writing as possible, then the presenter has nothing to read

          But it’s not only many of my fellow students who read-off lecture slides word for word (or worse, cover them in writing and then say “well, i’ll let you read that” while they fall silent), even some lecturers do as well. And this is in sciences!

        • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          That is all good and well for non-visual people, but if I go to a lecture that is devoid of graphics I have a terrible time finding structure in it. And then I won’t remember anything at all except the hairdo, clothing and mannerism of the presenter. _Maybe_, just maybe, some extraordinary claim – but how often do you hear those?

          Sure, if it is supposed to be only entertainment, why not waste an hour on a fun presenter!? But sometimes there is science interspersed in the talks.

          [I know there is science, because some cater to visual thinkers and show supporting bullets and/or graphics. So I have a vivid memory of that.]

      • truthspeaker
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        Please teach it to business students as well. Please please please.

    • Scote
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Yup, that is annoying. You know what is worse than watching someone reading their Power Point bullet by bullet? Watching someone make a presentation that is a totally different narrative then their Power Point presentation. :-p

      There was a study that backs this up. (Is an uncited study the academic equivalent of “a friend of mine told me?”) The study found that power point presentations reduce recall because they split your attention rather than re-enforce the message.

    • TJR
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      In contrast to several posts above, IMHO the big problem with powerpoint-style presentations is precisely the fact that they have too *few* words. This forces the speaker to say everything, which takes far longer than us reading it.

      I’ve seen so many talks where the bullet-type presentation style forces the speaker to spend ages saying all the introductory stuff,
      so that they haven’t had enough time to properly explain the meat of the work.

      IMHO the best approach is:
      Introduction – a few slides of words which the audience can read quickly.
      Method/Results etc – the slides show the key points, graphics etc, and are a support to the verbal explanation by the speaker.

      • Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        What you describe is the materials that should be handed out well in advance of the presentation. It’s a waste of everybody’s time to put slides up for everybody to read together at the pace of the slowest reader in the group.

        Presentations should be reserved for cases where having a human present the information is the most effective means of conveying it. If it’s text that can just as well be read, unless you’re at a poetry slam, just mail everybody the text and be done with it.



        • Marella
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

          The only thing a human can do that the written word can’t do better is answer questions (unless they happen to be very theatrical and entertaining speakers, very rare). So perhaps a quick talk about the backbone of the research (papers handed out beforehand) and then just questions.

          • Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

            You leave out the Socratic method, of which I’m personally rather fond…but that’s often inappropriate and a waste of time, especially when imparting information to your peers.


        • TJR
          Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:08 am | Permalink

          Pre-reading is good if you can get it to work, in conferences where you get all the papers in the conference pack and people actually look at them. However, in my experience speakers will still put the introduction in the talk, and spend too much time over it, because they don’t trust anyone to do the pre-reading.

          My point is that in most cases the introductory/background material is best read (quickly) while the main talk itself is best spoken.

      • Joris M
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        No, this is still an example of too much text on the slide, bullet points should never be full sentences.
        The focus of the talk should always be on the presenter, with the slides supporting the spoken word.

        Although at times I have been happy with more text, but that was always with horrible speakers.

  2. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Amen, amen, and again I say amen. Keynote on Guidosexuality? I would be embarrassed to put that on my CV. A recent Chronicle article tried to analyze why we are failing at ‘scientific literacy’ and one point was very interesting – at a very fundamental level, science is not self-centered and in many ways reduces the significance of the individual. In our self-centered, self-indulgent [and intellectually shallow] culture, there may be some validity to this perspective.

  3. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    This is what PowerPoint does to lecturing…


    • nick bobick
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Thanks. I have not laughed so hard in ages. Don’t know if it was the humor of the presentation, or the infectiousness of the audience laughter.

      • Keith
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Wow, that was good. Point taken.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      I refer to my comment above – clearly this isn’t a problem of not having supporting graphics but having a bad topic. This would be better placed under the next article, about seeing what one want to see.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      Wow. And note: the title had a colon.

  4. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Attempted witty title: explanatory subtitle.

    This is the way it is in science, too (and probably in every discipline). In fact, I have the following comic up in my dish washing room:

    • ChasCPeterson
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Animal behavior journals are the very worst for stupid gimmick titles.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      This is exceedingly rare in microbiology, possibly because microbiologists pride themselves on being the very dullest of life scientists.

  5. Coel
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “Why on earth don’t the speakers do what scientists do … talk more spontaneously to the audience”.

    Because, as you also said, it is largely content-free postmodernist waffle. And humans can’t do that spontaneously, they have to write it!

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Exactly what I was thinking. If they spoke off the cuff, they might accidentally make sense!

    • Theron
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      It depends. I just got back from a history conference. History is easily the most theoretically conservative of the humanities — we learned all about the problems with empiricism back in grad school but soldier on anyway. Although I do tend to work from notes, I understand why most of my fellow historians read — because, as historians, they have stories to tell, with lots of real content, so reading from a text can make that a lot easier to handle.

  6. Joanna
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    And this is where the human race deteriorates…

  7. John Harshman
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    But I *like* “attempted witty title: explanatory subtitle”. There have been some really good ones over the years, though I remember the (successful) attempted wit better than the subtitles. My favorite immediate recollection is a talk about the difficulties of cricket systematics called “Gryllus in the mist”, from an Evolution meeting a long time ago.

  8. Dominic
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Even Mongolia has its soap operas!
    Though perhaps they will not be selling it in the US…

    More interesting – have you got snow?

  9. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Why WHY would a student even think of taking on such a project? I’m embarrassed for my generation.
    Such a waste of money.
    And then at my Uni, for example, some zoology courses get merged into one, plant science courses are slashed, … People’s priorities are worrying.

    • Aquaria
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      They take it on because they work with the crap they’re given to work with, and Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Tolstoy have been beaten to death.

      • Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        wait, are you saying that jersey shore is our generation’s Tolstoy?! excuse me, i’m going to put my head in the oven…

  10. Charlie Jones
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    It is easy to deliver an energetic and entertaining PowerPoint: Good figures, enough text to keep the logic flowing smoothly.

    I can’t imagine making a PPT on Jersey Shore boring: Nearly everything one could possibly say would inspire a joke. (I can never get through lectures that mention various marine invertebrates without short digressions into their (for humans) weird mating habits.)

  11. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    C’mon. This conference was set up by The Onion, right?

    • Sean Boyd
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Probably…someone should have told the presenters, though.

    • Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      No, but you might notice that panel 3C is titled “Perspectives from the Onion AV Club.” If I were in Chicago, I would have shown up to see that one. If anything, I could accost Nathan Rabin and get him to sign the two copies of his books I own.

      Prof. Coyne seems to have only seen the academic talks, though.

  12. Tim
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    What I find amusing is when Hollywood moviemakers don’t realize the difference between how scientific and humanities presentations are delivered and they show a “scientific seminar” where the scientists give talks and they literally read their papers.

    I’ve never been to a medical conference. Does anyone know which model they adopt?

    • eric
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      My guess is that Hollywood is largely uncaring about how actual scientists give talks, and is more concerned with how their scientist character(s) appear on the screen. If a story requires a scientist to appear boring, they’ll make the talk look boring. If a story requires a scientist to look witty and engaging, they’ll make the talk look witty and engaging. Etc.

  13. Matthew Cobb
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Sadly low on the critical content, Jerry. You give the impression that your complaint is a) the whole title/colon/subtitle thing, b) the fact they read out their papers. These are, you will admit, somewhat trivial side-issues and really don’t bear a bullet point each (even though I share your opinion on them and have caused incidents by presenting to humanities departments/conferences in a scientist’s manner).

    Surely the key point is your first one – that you thought the intellectual content of the two presentations you saw was vacuous. You could well be right about this – I have no idea. Give us some *evidence*! Then we can judge.

    • dieter
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      The burden of proof lies with the postmodernists.

      Jonathan Gottschall gave an interesting talk in relation to this subject at the 2007 Beyond Belief conference.

      “Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. His work seeks to bridge the humanities-sciences divide. He is co-editor of The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, and the author of The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer. His next book will be Literature, Science, and a New Humanities.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      “Situating the Situation: Psychogeography, Mimetic Desire, and the Resurgent Indo-European Trifunctional Paradigm in Seaside.”

      How much more evidence do you need?

      • sasqwatch
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink


      • Dominic
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:50 am | Permalink

        I think I left my Trifunctional Paradigm on the beach…

      • InfiniteImprobabilit
        Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink


        It couldn’t be that someone was playing a Sokal hoax, could it?

        And, if it was, how could anyone tell?

  14. KP
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure why people in the humanities have evolved this habit of reading papers.

    When I was a graduate student, I had a GF in the humanities (art history). I was shocked the first time I saw her read her paper at a meeting. As she understood it, and as I came to understand it, everyone in the humanities did this, and had done it historically. I’m surprised you’ve mentioned a few exceptions.

    • Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I think, speaking as someone with philosophy degrees, that the reason humanities papers get literally read more is also partially due to the fact that they are sometimes full of quotations, which one should get right, at least by tradition.

      As for the Jersey Shore thing, I see some “cultural studies” people involved – the academic standards in that field have never impressed me (and often horrified me). It is, to a first approximation (as far as I can tell) a bunch of English literature people bored with “dead white males” who want to do something more “contemporary” and hence become arm chair sociologists (and are quickly joined by the squishy arm of that field). Shame, because there are really interesting questions about diffusion of media, “alternative” social systems, etc. But we won’t learn about them by blathering about Guido or taking the already sometimes dubious Foucault and going nuts with his more crazy stuff.

  15. christopher
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    why don’t those speakers do what scientists do? aw, come on Prof. Coyne. you know why. because science is hard. pop-culture post-modernism, on the otherhand, is easier, especially when you get to just make crap up. not that i went to (or would ever go to) this meeting of intellecual giants, so maybe someone there did have something intelligent to say, but honestly, i would much rather go to Ulan Bator.

  16. vHF
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I don’t want to defend these “studies” in any way, but I don’t like this post. Sneering may be fun for a (short) while, but ultimately I would be more interested in a systematic solution to the problem of poor or irrelevant scholarship in the humanities. After all, we fund a lot of ostensibly irrelevant hard science and maths, calculating that every now and again we hit something groundbreaking, and we are right in doing so. I don’t think we should treat humanities differently, especially given that irrelevance in humanities comes considerably cheaper than, say, in genomics.

    So how exactly do Jerry et consortes imagine diverting funds away from Jersey Shore studies? Should there be a council of Real Scientists reviewing grants for humanities? Should we cut the funding for humanities even further, hoping that it will weed out the irrelevant or at least the plain stupid (it won’t)? Should we have a list of topics that can be studied on public money (Shakespeare: yes; Jersey Shore: no)? I can see no easy way short of abolishing humanities departments altogether, and I hope that Jerry and the other posters don’t want this.

    • Lotharloo
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I don’t think anyone is calling for the abolishment of humanities or the creation of list of acceptable topics to study in humanities. That would be absurd.

      This is just a criticism of one conference. I have heard that the greatest investment of a scientist is the reputation and I believe it is true. Criticisms like this are a blow to the reputation of the institutes that organize such studies. Ultimately, they have to either deliver reasons why their studies are useful and interesting or change their behavior if they don’t want to tarnish their reputation among other scientists.

  17. TJR
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Isn’t it great to have all your prejudices confirmed?

    I went to some archaeology conferences many years ago, and there were a few reading-the-paper talks at them, but it was mostly
    normal (science-style?) talks.

    BTW, I’ve never heard of this show before and I’ve never been to Ulan Bator either.

  18. Lotharloo
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Some pop culture studies are really worthwhile (Public Enemy for example) but some are clearly useless. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean that we have to study it.

  19. Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Honestly, I think the topics of the conference look interesting. Some of the papers seem interesting topics. Jersey Shore, no less than Shakespeare, can be criticized for its portrayal of gender roles, ethical behavior, and cultural priorities.

    Why not use the culture around us now to help students think about culture (including “art”) generally?

    Anyway, I think JAC has it wrong on this one.

  20. Hempenstein
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    When I saw the title, I expected to reply that FASEB meetings always used to be at Atlantic City (in the off season, for cheap rates, and probably also for the relative proximity to NYC to make it easier for European scientists to attend), before the casinos polluted the place and when one could stay at the Marlborough-Blenheim in its faded Victorian glory (sigh). But then I found that you meant a conference on Jersey Shore, not ON the Jersey Shore. (Cue the penguin sketch, “What’s on the telly?”)

  21. truthspeaker
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    You would have hated the title I considered (and rejected) for my final paper in AP English Literature: “Silly Babbit, Trips are for Kids: An examination of travel motifs in selected works of Sinclair Lewis”

    • JT
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      That’s great! I once wrote a paper in my university Shakespeare course entitled: “Coriole’s Anus: The Body Politic in Coriolanus.”

  22. truthspeaker
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    And thanks for posting the pic. I hate reality TV in general, I hate Jersey Shore specifically for contributing to stereotypes about Italian-Americans and New Jersey residents, but I’m a sucker for young women in bikinis.

    • ChasCPeterson
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      I’m given to understand that similar photos are available here on the internet.

  23. RFW
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I find it shocking that the University of Chicago, a known intellectual powerhouse, should put on such a doofus conference.

    As I’ve explained to friends anent our estimable blogger Coyne, “he’s at Chicago, and that’s on a par with being at Harvard.”

    [The virtues of the University of Chicago are not as widely appreciated as those of Harvard.]

  24. Ajh
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that reading your paper out loud from the print copy is how conference presentations used to be in *all* disciplines.

    And all disciplines are moving away from it, but at different rates in each, and at different rates in different countries.

    In my own (social science) discipline, only the very oldest professors – and a few others whose English is not strong enough to do anything else – still do the reading-out-the-paper thing. The rest of us do talks with slides.

    Then again, I’m in the UK, and I know that reading-out-the-paper is still a strong tradition in continental Europe. I once went to a history conference in Germany and everyone, of all ages, did the read-out-the-paper thing.

  25. Hempenstein
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    If it takes “The Jersey Saga: Honor Culture in Medieval Iceland and Modern Seaside” to introduce the Icelandic Sagas to the youts of today, and if it works, maybe it’s worth it.

  26. Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    My sentiments, also, Dr. Coyne. Pop-culture studies are thinly disguised attempts to legitimize the superficial and vain interests of the mob (not the mob, mind you). As with most everything else that can be described as postmodern, this type of thing stems from the proponents’ inability or disinclination to think hard and do real work.

    P. S. Not a fan of WordPress’ new mobile format. The nested comments were much easier to navigate in the old format.

  27. Steve Smith
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    One 18 second South Park clip offers a lot more insight than this academic agenda. Snooki want smoosh smoosh!

  28. Kevin
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I count it as one of my prime achievements in life that I’ve never watched Jersey Shore — nor any other so-called “reality” TV program of that ilk.

    Snookie? Or is it Snoopy?

    Kim who? Who cares?

    Seriously, the ability of semi-attractive (if they were ugly, they couldn’t possibly get a show) nitwits to gain national prominence by allowing TV cameras to follow their every foible and folly is not my cuppa.

    Nor have I watched any more than 1/2 episode of Survivor (season 1, just because I was slightly curious as to what the hugga-mugga was about).

    It’s boring, dreadful, not even “watching a train wreck” interesting.

    TV executives who give green lights to such drek should be pithed. Although it’s beyond me to figure out how one might then be able to tell the difference in intellectual output.

    • Izzy
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      As an academic in the humanities and a supporter of science, I am disappointed by this post. I wasn’t at this conference, so I won’t defend its content, but Dr. Coyne (who I admire) makes objections that are largely content-free.

      I am neither a cultural studies scholar nor a postmodernist, but I think cultural studies done well (and I have seen them done well) can be very beneficial. If one wants to understand a culture, understanding its obsessions is valuable. I have, for example, done a significant amount of research into the ways popular nineteenth-century novels’ depictions of Native Americans formed and mirrored cultural understandings in the early years of the United States. I can certainly see the value of similar approaches to the most popular media in contemporary American culture.

      If nothing else, as some here have noted, Jersey Shore is a pretty terrible show, so it may be worthwhile to ask the question: why is it so popular? Surely that’s a reasonable subject for an academic to approach.

      I’d ask Dr. Coyne to consider that, just as I might not be able to fully judge the rigor or content of a scientific conference by attending a talk or two well outside my area, there may in fact be value in discussing topics like these that are not immediately apparent. At very least, talking about specific arguments is much more productive than generalities absent evidence.

      • Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know what bothers me more, that educated professionals have taken such a serious stance on a tv show and created a conference around it, or that the comments on here fail to remember that Prof. Coyne is human, entitled to his own thoughts and feelings, and as creator of the website, perfectly allowed to use it to express his views and opinions, professional and otherwise. for crap’s sake people, lighten up!

        now, be nice and go eat some pie, we’ll all feel better afterwards.

        • Izzy
          Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          Surely you would agree that, just as Dr. Coyne is free to express his views, I am free to express my disagreements?

          • Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

            yup. sure are. after all, if i wanted a one-sided conversation, i’d talk to myself…more than i already do…

  29. MadScientist
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    It never fails to infuriate me that people can waste resources on that sort of crap. Those conferences belong in religious institutions, not in universities.

  30. SimBri
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    While I can’t say anything about the content of these talks, some of the titles look to me like they could be interesting (the keynote and the sociolinguistic investigation). Pop culture may be a way to attract students but it can be an entirely valid way to introduce them to things that are genuinely worthwhile studying – I noticed the reference to Foucault in one of the titles. And the impact of things like Jersey Shore and other pop cultural phenomena on the real life behaviour of an awfully large number of young people should not be underestimated.

    I feel uncomfortable with something being dismissed as a waste of time and money without hearing a defence of it from somewhere.

    • ChasCPeterson
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      things that are genuinely worthwhile studying – I noticed the reference to Foucault

      no comment

      • SimBri
        Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        It’s possible we may actually share an opinion about Foucault but it would be impossible to function effectively in large parts of academia without an understanding of his theories.

        • Lotharloo
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

          impossible to function effectively in large parts of academia without an understanding of his theories.

          Are you serious? Tries to read some of his stuff but Foucault for me equals pointless word salad. Maybe you can describe some of his important contributions.

          • SimBri
            Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

            Let me be clear – I am not a fan of his at all. In any way. I did a degree in social anthropology (it would be called cultural anthropology in the US) only a decade or so ago and Foucault came up A LOT – largely around structuralism. And no, I’m not going to describe it, partly because I’d rather swap dinner with my cat (and it’s steak tonight) than do so, but mainly because I don’t remember. But it wasn’t just my subject – everyone I know who did something in the social sciences spent a fair bit of time studying him.

            And I don’t think it’s a question of how well regarded his work is now, the important thing is knowing how it has been regarded in the past (most courses include a part on the history of ideas in that subject area) and knowing who someone is when they are referenced. And this from Wikipedia – “Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities in 2007 by the ISI Web of Science.” – would suggest that my comment was fair.

            I personally can’t (the lack of ability meaning of ‘can’t’) and won’t defend him, I was just trying to say that you would be lost in a lot of (arts/humanities) subjects if you didn’t know (not agree with or advocate) his work.

        • Lotharloo
          Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

          Sorry for the typo: “tries” should be “I tried”.

        • Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

          “it would be impossible to function effectively in large parts of academia without an understanding of his theories.”

          So much the worse for large parts of academia. I thought post-modernism was pretty much moribund, very much like Behaviourism….

  31. Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    It occurs to me that many “scholars” in the humanities (at least, those who would undertake something like what’s described in the OP) might well read their papers verbatim because there is no real state of things that they attempt to elucidate, nothing objective about what they’re saying. A scientist can speak off the cuff about a phenomenon because there is a demonstrable “right” and “wrong” about it.

    Humanities “scholars” have to stick to their pre-written verbal formulas in order to persuade. Without their script, I’d imagine they’d feel quite at sea – having to recreate their entire theory and argument on the spot.

  32. NelsonMuntz
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    It’s a Jersey thing.

  33. Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    as someone with a minor in anthro, i suppose i should look at jersey shore in a cultural relativism kind of way, or maybe some grad student from Papua New Guinea should study the cast to help explain American culture to his/her peers. i’m sure there is a quite fascinating and complex mating ritual, pair bonding, and group hierarchy to be studied. Imagine: “Snookie In Two Worlds, A Biography of the Last Wild Whore in New Jersey” or “Myths and Sacred Formulas of ‘The Situation’”*

    (*with apologies to Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, and James Mooney)

  34. James Walker
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a big fan of pop-culture studies either (and I’ve never watched Jersey Shore), but I think it’s a bit too easy to dismiss the entire conference on the basis of the ‘clever’ titles and the couple of talks you happened to hear. Going by the titles and knowing at least one of the authors and her other work, it seems to me that a range of approaches to the topic is represented here. And, like it or not, TV shows like this are culturally relevant to a substantial segment of the American population.

    As for the reading style, yeah it bothers me too, but it also bothers me when someone can’t get to the point of their talk in their 20 minutes because they wing it and haven’t timed themselves.

  35. Karen
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have never watched “Jersey Shore”. (I’ve had my head in an MS thesis since the age of the dinosaurs — or at least, that’s what it feels like.) I have absolutely NO criteria on which to judge conference topics. They might well be quite insightful. They might well be fecal material. I just am not in a position to judge.

    Re: powerpoint presentations, I am fortunate to have trained in a fairly illustrative field, geology. My powerpoint presentations have a few words as transitions, but in general they’re made up of maps and illustrations and most of my talks end up discussing the images. (Blessed be laser pointers.) I’m also very aware of what can and cannot be shown at projector resolutions and will preview with a projector to make sure all of my images have visible details. Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a presenter who says “Now, you can’t really see it in this image, but…”

  36. Posted November 1, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    “I’m not sure why people in the humanities have evolved this habit of reading papers. “

    I was once at a conference about Kapteyn which was jointly organised by astronomers and historians. The astronomers did the usual thing they do when they give a talk; the historians read their papers verbatim. There was some discussion of the pros and cons of each approach. One of the historians commented that they generally don’t have to wait very long for the contributions to the proceedings. :-)

  37. Black Parsons
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Humanities people read papers because the material is frequently a work in progress, given once, and eventually reworked somewhere into a future publication.

    The value of a conference like this is mostly for presenters getting feedback (and pushback) on their arguments, as well as meeting other people working in their subfields.

    Also, go to enough poorly funded humanities conferences where the promised overhead projector isn’t there, and it rarely seems worth the bother of making slides.

    This conference doesn’t seem incredibly useful to me either, but reading the above comments about postmodernist vacuity is like reading the popular press reports about wacky scientists blowing federal research dollars on, get this, WORM IMMUNE SYSTEMS!…the benefits of which are instantly recognizable to anyone actually in the field.

    Or, “started to read a book on astrochemistry, it just seemed like a bunch of word salad. If it can’t be said in plain English, then it’s probably bull!”

    Come on. Experts writing for experts generally sound like lunatics to outside audiences.

    And though I risk sounding like one of those philosophical theologians (I’m not, I work in linguistics and language acquisition where the supernatural claims are minimal), dismissing scholarship outside of your immediate discipline without making any serious effort to engage the material is myopic, anti-intellectual, and lazy.

    At this point in the humanities, beating up on “postmodernism” is akin to challenging a biologist to explain the current existence of monkeys.

    • Aquaria
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink




      Humanities majors everywhere thank you.

  38. Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    As an academic who presented at this conference, I have to say I’m a bit surprised to see so little substance to the critique presented here. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to attend the conference and, admittedly, my interest is more in the way that philosophical concepts play out in popular culture rather than in the television show itself, but I have to say that I was impressed with my co-panelists, with the audience, and with the general level of discourse at the event. The fact that one of the central complaints here is about presentation style, rather than substance, really speaks to what I regard as a serious problem, namely the rush to put down the work of others without actually interacting with the ideas themselves. If you don’t think the papers are interesting, let’s talk about that. If you have a reason why looking at “Jersey Shore” is a waste of time — even though millions of people are paying attention to it — let’s talk about that. But simply to dismiss it because someone read a paper or didn’t effectively use PowerPoint, or because you don’t think the two presentations you saw delved into sufficient detail (without specifying what you saw or what was missing) … well, that seems pretty dismissive. Just my two cents, as a presenter at what I regarded as a pretty interesting event. I’ve also written more about the conference and why I regard the subject as worth more time than you’ve given it here:

    • Posted November 3, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      Here’s an additional POV:
      - Pop culture is an expression of evolutionary principals in our world today. Mating and dominance seem to be the main interests on celebrity and pop culture — which make evolutionary sense.
      - Science needs to start studying and understanding how to communicate to broader audiences. Not a pop audience, but we need to learn the tricks and tools of communications.

      Sure sure, all conferences and ideas have weaknesses. But globally or off-hand disrespecting the humanities is silly and narrow minded.

  39. Posted November 3, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    We are anti-philosophy talking about evidence-based topics with equal predictive claims. But the humanities and philosophy speaking about contemporary or historical popular behaviors is very useful.

    Sorting out all sorts of natural language and not yet evidence-based things and ideas is the domain of the humanities. Science neither is useful in some of these dialogs or productive — in the initial stages. Neither do scientists want to spend their time doing this work.

    Best to leave the parsing out of these topics to the humanities, we include econ as a humanity, which will speed theory building for testing.

    Bravo on the conference.

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