Geek Writing Seminars at Penn

Fellow Annenberger Deb L. emailed me a scan from the catalog of freshman writing seminars happening this semester at Penn. I was able to scrounge up full descriptions from the Critical Writing course listing.

ENGL 009 314 TR 1:30pm-3:00pm Smith
Brains, Jocks, Burnouts, and Rebels

What is a nerd? A Jock? Have these identities always existed in school, or are they new? Do they exist across cultures, or are they a uniquely American phenomenon? How is it that unique individuals embrace these categories or are pushed into them? This course will explore identities as they exist in high schools, and students will engage in critical writing around the creation and definition of identity categories, both generally and in terms of personal experience.

“Brains, Jocks, Burnouts, and Rebels” is about high school hierarchies (with a description starting with the words “What is a nerd?”), and “Freaks and Geeks” is about fandom (“Most of us would admit to being a freak or a geek about something—in other words, a fan”).


ENGL 009 319 MW 3:30pm-5:00pm Cook
Freaks and Geeks

Most of us would admit to being a freak or geek about something — in other words, a fan. This is a class about fan culture, in which we will think critically about the idea of the fan and his or her relationship to literary and cultural production. Using critical essays, documentary films, novels and websites, we will study the theory and practice of fandom. We will examine the ways fans creatively demonstrate their enthusiasm for literary classics like Shakespeare and Austen, consider the communities created by contemporary phenomena like Star Trek and the Harry Potter books, and explore the idea of a cult classic and what it means to be part of a cult following. In short weekly assignments and several longer, formal essays, students will discuss their own experience as fans and reflect upon the ways in which fandom constitutes a unique mode of reading a text, whether it be a novel, television show, film, or piece of music.

I’m fascinated that in two pages you get such different takes on practically the same concepts. One conceptualizes nerdiness as part of a distinct social category, and the other assumes that we all have a certain amount of geekiness, our “own experience as fans.” It’s often quite intentional to refer in one case to “nerds” and in the other to “geeks,” although there’s little ambiguity about the oddity associated with the word “freak.”

If you’re a Penn student, note that the last day to add a writing class is September 14th!

More Research on Nerds and Race

At Media in Transition 5, I had the good fortune to be placed on a panel alongside Lori Kendall, associate professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She’s one of very few academics devoting significant attention to the cultural role of the nerd. Her MiT5 presentation was called “White and Nerdy: Current Meanings of the Nerd Stereotype” (conference abstract here). A version of that paper has recently been accepted to Journal of Popular Culture. The journal has a long backlog, though, so she’s given permission to link to a prepublication version now titled “White and Nerdy: Computers, Race, and the Nerd Stereotype” (which is pretty close to what you’ll see in the journal).

The Times article on Mary Bucholtz’s research seemed to get people pretty interested in talking about nerds and race (both here and elsewhere, including Journalista, Newsarama, Power Word: Blog, Angriest Rice Cooker—which has a comment thread worth checking out—and others), so I thought it might be worth reviving that conversation through another person’s take on the matter. Overall, I got the impression from the commentary on Mary’s research that people denied (maybe even resented) the implication that nerdity is a “hyperwhite” identity, as it implies an oversimplified black/white duality. People also seemed to think it hurt her credibility to claim that nerd identity is always actively chosen, as opposed to some combination between actively taking on a role and having a role assigned by school hierarchies or culture at large.

I’m interested to see how people respond to Lori’s paper, then, considering that she’s analyzing cultural forms created by nerds and geeks themselves, who quite clearly invoke a black/white duality—namely, nerdcore hip-hop and Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” rap video. You can argue that hip-hop is mainstream enough that it’s no longer a “Black” phenomenon, but let’s be honest with ourselves here: Nerdcore artists frequently rap in an affected “gangsta” persona, and the overwhelming majority are White. Why should nerdity be connected to whiteness in this way, and is this connection problematic? Please feel free to check out the the paper and let us know what you think.

Breaking Down Academia

I’m in the process of revising the categories on the site a bit. Before, I was lumping a bunch of things under the “Academia” category that really didn’t belong there. Now I’m dividing that category up into three different categories:

Research: For academic research and conferences related to geek culture and various traditionally geeky media. (I’ll also tag posts about my own research with this because I still can’t bring myself to make a category titled “Me me me,” though I admit I’m especially interested in getting feedback on my papers.)

School Culture: For items pertaining to school culture as lived by students, such as clubs and social hierarchies.

Education: For issues pertaining to teaching and education at all levels.

Honestly, this is mostly for my own convenience as I go back through old posts and collect thoughts for papers and such, but I figured I might as well let everyone know.

Update: Going through my bloated “Miscellaneous” category to categorize them more specifically, I noticed a definite thread of posts tallying up people’s ways of defining the boundaries of geekdom—geek vs. nerd, art geek vs. science geek, and so on. And so I figured I might as well go ahead and also add a category for Defining Geekdom. Sorry if this brings up a bunch of old posts on people’s RSS readers (the way I believe it does with mine).

This Nerdy Life

On this week’s This American Life (“The Spokesman”), Ira Glass denounces the rampant proliferation of the term ‘nerd’:

Adults don’t understand anymore what it means to be a nerd. Have you noticed this? ‘Nerd’ somehow has become a badge of honor. You meet all kinds of people who say proudly that they were nerds in high school. It’s like anybody who had anything that made them feel different now says that they were a nerd. And that population, the population that thinks that it was different, that’s, like, everybody who went to high school. You know? People who were chubby, people who were in band, people who liked comic books, people who just didn’t drink. I’ve met people who are actually popular, who actually had a social circle and boyfriends or girlfriends, who now claim they were nerds. That is just wrong. I believe that we have forgotten the sweaty, unsexy, cringe-inducing face of hardcore nerddom.

That’s a new take to me. I’ve talked to a lot of adults describing themselves as nerds now who acknowledge that they weren’t nerds as teens, and I’ve talked to some who acknowledge they were nerds as teens. I’ve never heard anyone say “I was a nerd in high school” who didn’t have a fairly plausible explanation for it—and I’m not sure why chubby kids, band geeks, and comics fans shouldn’t count, seeing as how plenty of these got picked on pretty badly and actually belonged to the “Nerd Crowd” in high school. Also, I think it’s funny that an NPR personality and known comic book reader would have a hard time understanding that being a popular adult with a social network is not mutually exclusive with being (or having been) considered something of an outcast in other contexts.

All of that said, the episode isn’t entirely about nerds, but those interested in one nerd’s personal history may find the whole prologue worth a listen. (Thanks to Lee S. for the link!)

How People Are Defining ‘Nerd’

Journalista links to a recent New York Times Magazine article by Benjamin Nugent, “Who’s a nerd, anyway?” The author has a book coming out next spring titled American Nerd: The Story of My People, though this piece focuses on the core thesis of Mary Bucholtz’s nerd research, who has a book of her own on this topic in progress. Bucholtz’s thesis is that nerd identity can be understood through linguistic practice, and it is a “hyperwhite” identity, rejecting the slang of Black culture.

Continue reading “How People Are Defining ‘Nerd’”

Geeks vs. Nerds

Update: Please also see the follow-up to this post, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.

When I tell people that I’m doing a dissertation on geek cultures, I think the question I get asked more than any other is: What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd? I’m never really sure if people actually want the full answer to this, but the short answer is that different people mean different things; most folks I’ve talked to either use them synonymously or think of one term as similar to but slightly more denigrating than the other (with ‘geek’ coming out on top somewhat more often). Here’s a short collection of links (in no particular order) directly addressing the distinctions people make between these terms, which I may update later rather than starting over again as a new post. Update: I’ve also started throwing in relevant examples explaining the difference between positive and negative uses of these terms.

  1. Jon Katz at Wired gets people riled up by suggesting that geeks are cool now, not nerds. I can’t find the original article that started the debate, but here are two articles written in response.
  2. Wikihow on how to tell the difference.
  3. OkCupid’s Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test.
  4. A conference paper (PDF) by Lars Konzack examining distinctions made by people on Wikipedia.
  5. The editors of She’s Such a Geek! note that contributors objected to the book being titled “Female Nerds,” believing ‘geek’ to have more positive connotations.
  6. In Embracing Insanity: Open Source Software Development, Russell Pavlicek devotes a whole chapter to discussing why you need to understand “geek culture” if you want to do business with open source developers. In a footnote, he explains that it’s important not to confuse geeks with nerds, as ‘nerd’ is still considered negative.
  7. An editorial comment in the Wired letters page reassures offended readers that ‘geek’ can have positive uses:

    Hang on a sec, wrote one reader, why do Wired editors “go out of their way to insult the technically savvy by calling them geeks.” That’s missing the point — where you hear an insult, we hear a term of endearment. A geek isn’t just someone who can articulately defend her opinion of who the best Babylon 5 commander was. (Sheridan.) It’s any dogged explorer or crazed inventor, anyone who fixates on a project and won’t let go, anyone who builds his own damn rocket! It’s a label to be proud of, in any star system.

    This comment clearly assigns positive meaning to scientific/technical pursuits and negative meaning to fannish pursuits, but by answering its own exemplar question, it humbly admits the author’s acceptance of membership in the negatively geeky group.

  8. In reply to a 2005 post titled “Have Geeks Gone Mainstream?”, Slashdot readers weigh in on whether it’s cool to be a geek, or whether it’s just cool to cop a geeky style. The original person who poses the question ties it in to computer science enrollment, but others bring in other geek interests, suggesting that even the readers of a site for “News for Nerds” don’t quite agree on what these terms mean.
  9. From geekculture.com forums: “Whats the difference between dork nerd and geek?” [sic]. The first answer sums up all the specific distinctions that follow: “everybody has a slightly different definition for each and most of the time, the definitions overlap enough to make it impossible to specify definitive differences between them.”
  10. From Slate: What’s the difference between a nerd and a nebbish? Suggests that nerds are targets of envy because they’re now respectable, whereas the nebbish is just a loveably pathetic loser with no particular connotations of media skill (but with a much clearer connotation of religious/ethnic/cultural membership).
  11. From Rocky Mountain News: According to this humorous piece (drawing, perhaps, on the wisdom of the author’s children), geeks are knowledgeable of technology, nerds are mostly just klutzy, and dorks remain undefined, but probably something worse than nerds.
  12. From Baylor University’s Lariat Online: This writer, a professional writing major, sugegsts that nerds are tech-job-oriented, whereas geeks are “not so productive” and have “eclectic interests—including elaborate, self-designed costuming and foam faux-weapons.” He goes on to suggest “five levels of geekdom,” describing himself as “moderate.”
  13. In an even earlier Slashdot post (2000), commenters respond to the question of what the difference is between geek and nerd, and which they prefer. The comments show a variety of opinions, though the “geek is a nerd with social skills” opinion ranks high. Another commenter points out that this thread revisits an even earlier post on the same topic (1999), which had been inspired by an article asking the same question from News and Observer (now offline, but available at Archive.org). That article starts out with the commonly-accepted notion that Bill Gates made geeks cool—”The richest man in America made his fortune by being obsessed with technology”—but goes on to question this assumption by attempting to make a hard distinction between geek and nerd, with some “spanning” the gap. Connie Eble, an English professor and slang specialist, states that “The definition changes all the time and it means different things to different people,” and so the article notes: “we’re stuck creating our own definitions based on what people tell us.”
  14. Militant Geek, a site that tracks geeky apparel, asserts: “Geeks are those that have technical aptitude, nerds are bright but socially awkward, and dorks are just inept excuses for protoplasm.” To clarify, it offers a humorous chart.
  15. Michael James Gratton compares the Jargon File definitions of geek (connoting someone who chooses “concentration rather than conformity”) and nerd (a “pejorative” for someone who is of “above-average IQ” and unskilled in “ordinary social rituals”).
  16. Primary0 finds the dictionary definitions lacking, noting that “A geek is said to be a more social nerd.” Suggests that geeks are more narrow in their obsessions than nerds.
  17. A number of links (1, 2, 3, via Church) discuss replacing ‘geek’ with some other, less “chic” term, arguing about what ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ really mean along the way. Readers/listeners seem to find ‘geek’ to be preferable to alternatives.
  18. A widely-circulated Venn diagram offers an intricate distinction between geeks, nerds, and dorks (though at least one writer I know of was dismayed to see this on the web; he had a very similar diagram of his own planned for inclusion in a book, albeit with some terms in different places). Webcomic xkcd offers a less detailed but no less accurate Venn diagram of its own.
  19. On CNN, The creators of Robot Chicken debate the difference between geeks and nerds. I add this even after officially closing this post because not only does it handily illustrate that even geek luminaries disagree on these terms’ meanings, but it also reveals that products like Wizard magazine use such distinctions as part of constructing their audience!

We are talking about the internet here, of course, so there’s a lot more where that came from (and, unsurprisingly, this comes up pretty frequently in my own interviews). I just figured I’d share some examples here to to help me keep track, and so I’d have a page to point back to next time someone asks.

This post is closed for future updates, but comments are still welcome. Please see the follow-up, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.

More Than Meets The Eye

Over at Gizmodo, reader Joachim Bengtsson pretty aptly sums up the comments thread following a video of people in homemade Transformers costumes (posted in the “Too Much Free Time” category):

It amazes me that nerds seem to be so ashamed of being nerds and of other nerds. Whenever we see anything wicked which happens to also be very nerdy, we always have to say, “What a nerd! But cool!”. I wonder what’s up with that.

Anyways. Very very cool.

Good to see I’m not the only one wondering about that kind of thing.

This kind of connects with something I’ve been thinking about lately: in 2005, the SciFi Geekforce Report (commissioned by the SciFi channel) suggested that 6.9 million people in the UK self-identified as geeks. (One of many summaries of the report can be found here.) That’s just over 10% of the UK’s current population, at least according to the first hit on Google for “UK Population.” If it’s roughly the same proportion in the US, we’re talking another 30 million geeks on this side of the pond alone.

Why is this related? Well, I feel like even if you add up everyone doing cosplay (like the Transformers people above), or machinima, or fan fiction, or any of the other things that fan studies scholars tend to celebrate in fan culture, you’re still not going to be anywhere close to the combined 37 million self-identified geeks in the US and UK. Consider, too, that only the most vocal minority of Gizmodo’s millions of readers actually bothers to leave a comment, and none of the comments left so far say anything to the effect of, “Good job! I like making costumes like this too.”

For me, this raises a question: if as many of tens of millions of people aren’t doing these things, what is it that they are doing that’s so “geeky”? (My tentative answer: they’re checking out links of “geekier” people on blogs and reassuring themselves that they’re geeky enough to be in awe, but not so geeky that they’d do this stuff themselves.

Embrace Nerds, Reject Sports, Be Cool

I tend to think of skateboarders and starving artists as already pretty well established in terms of subcultural/countercultural cachet. Apparently, using terms like “nerd” and “dork” can signal them as even more eager to be known as outsiders. At the Art Dorks website, Chris Mostyn explains this artist collective’s name and approach (link via Boing Boing):

Dorks. Isn’t that derogatory? Not from where I’m standing. A dork, nerd, geek, weirdo, whatever, is someone who doesn’t fit into a cleanly defined mold of what a person should be in our culture. It is someone that is usually looked down on for not living up to a standard of normalcy. […] We all share a love of drawing and whether we make monsters or meat, robots or rabbits, it is work that revels in and celebrates growing up in a pop-culture, sci-fi, kung-fu cornucopia of a culture. We make what we know, and what we know is that life is not always normal. It doesn’t always wear name brand clothes, drink light beer and watch Monday night football. It’s just life.

Meanwhile, Skate Nerd similarly positions its subculture in opposition to sports, the archetypical pastime (I infer) of the conformist mainstream. As one t-shirt explains, “If I thought skateboarding was a sport, I never would have started.”

Both of these examples also suggest something that I haven’t really seen addressed yet in academic research on fan cultures and media subcultures (but if you have seen it, please let me know). That is, how do people actually get involved in their interests in the first place? Not just the “moment of epiphany” that I’ve read in some fans’ accounts, but what was going on in the skate nerds’ lives when they “started” skating (unaware that it would later come to be associated with mainstream sports—ironically, largely thanks to Tony Hawk, who also helped mainstream the video game)? What was so relevant to the Art Dorks about “growing up in a pop-culture, sci-fi, kung-fu cornucopia” that made them want to include this in their art?

Just thinking out loud today—no quick answers, but comments are welcome at any point. I’ll be checking out Rejuvenile from the library tomorrow (also brought to my attention by Boing Boing), which will probably offer some food for thought on kids’ culture continuing to engage adults.

Senators Battle, Geeks Leap to Action

Game Politics reports on Sen. Charles Bishop (R) slugging Sen. Lowell Baron (D) on the floor of the Alabama state senate. This comes as a follow-up to an earlier report, since clarified that U.S. senators nearly came to blows over video game legislation.

I was going to let it pass with a chuckle and no further mention, until I noticed that the Decatur Daily’s coverage notes that Bishop “not only exposed the state’s divided Senate to the world, he also provided fodder for pundits and computer geeks”:

YouTube.com carried the video footage, as did blogs all over the state. Early Friday, reporters who cover the Statehouse got e-mails with still images from the scene, including one mock video game cover entitled “ROCK ’EM, SOCK ’EM Battlin’ Senators.”

One nameless lawmaker who had his own verbal battles with Barron wondered if he could capture the video scenes as a computer screen saver.

All you need to do to be a geek these days is use YouTube or keep a blog. Our people are everywhere now. (Photoshopping video game covers has always counted, of course.)

Designers Are Geeky, Sort Of

I’m something of a a design geek, but I’m not including any discussion of graphic design in my dissertation. Why? Well, the people whom I talk to who most vocally and centrally identify themselves as geeks/nerds don’t ever refer to design when they talk about “geek culture.” It’s relatively safe to assume that a comic book reader has also watched some anime, that a person who can tell you what 2400 bps means can also quote a few lines from Star Wars, that a self-identified gamer isn’t just talking about video games, and that any of the above felt outside of “the popular crowd” in high school. When I saw video game designer Will Wright give a talk at South by Southwest Interactive, he asked how many of us had played Dungeons and Dragons, and nearly every hand in the room went up, prompting him to say in delight, “Great, you’re all geeks!” I’m not sure he would have had the same response from SXSW attendees at one of the more graphic-design-oriented panels.

Even so, the way people throw around the word ‘geek’ these days, just about anybody can qualify themselves as some sort of geek: design geek, knitting geek, Home and Garden Television geek, etc. This usage just implies some mild self-derision about one’s ability to gush about a topic of interest to only very few other people. It’s not necessarily the level or type of knowledge that make someone geeky nowadays, but the degree to which the knowledge is esoteric. Being excited about obscure stuff can make you feel awkward, but it can also make you feel special.

Continue reading “Designers Are Geeky, Sort Of”