Let’s get out of the geek box – professional pride is what we’re after.

As a member of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) education community, I deal with a lot of students and, believe me, they come in all shapes, sizes and types. Could I pick one of my students out of a crowd by type alone? No. Could I pick a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) class from looking at who is sitting in the seats? Sadly, yes, but probably more from gender representation than anything else – and that is something that we’re very much trying to change.

Students walking

Can you spot the ICT student?

I’m not a big fan of ‘Geek pride’ or attempting to ‘reclaim’ pejorative terms such as dork or nerd. I don’t see why we have to try and turn these terms around, much less put up with them. I have lots of interests – if I paint in oil, I’m an artist, if I sketch on an iPad, I’m a nerd? What? If I can discuss David Foster Wallace or Margaret Atwood’s books at length I’m educated but if I do the same thing with Science Fiction, I’m a geek? Huh? I work a lot in information classification so you can understand that (a) this doesn’t make much sense to me and (b) highlights the problem that accepting the term, in any sense, might eventually give us ownership but it still allows people to put us in the geek box. Let’s get out of the geek box and reclaim a far more useful form of identify – professional pride in doing a job well, with a job that is worth doing.

Let me be more blunt – being good at my job and the interests I have outside of my job may have some relationship but it’s never going to be an ironclad correlation. Stereotypes aren’t useful in any area and, despite the popular stereotype of ICT and scientists on television and in other media, my community is made up many, many different kinds of people. Like any other community.

Forcing us to identify as geeks, dorks or nerds; requiring people to have an all-consuming love of certain TV shows; resorting to a ‘geek shibboleth’ of unpopular or obscure information to confirm membership? This are ways to create a fragmented set of sub-communities that are divided, diminished and able to be ignored. It also provides a barrier to entry because people assume that they must pass these membership tests to join the community when this is not true at all. I don’t want people to ignore our stream of education and the profession because of their incorrect perception of what is required to be a member.

(If you want to watch Buffy, watch Buffy! But don’t feel that you can’t be a programmer because you prefer Ginsberg to Giles.)

I am not a geek. Or a dork. Or a nerd. I am interested in everything – like so many of my students and like so many other people! I want to communicate to my students that they don’t need to be in a box to play in the world. And they shouldn’t put other people in there, either.

Here are my rather loose thoughts but I’d really like to get some dialogue going in the comments if possible, to help me get a handle on it so that I can communicate these things with my students.

  1. My interests and my job have some connection but one does not completely define the other.
    I am an educator, a computer scientist, a programmer, a systems designer – none of these need to be apologised for, tolerated by other people or somehow seen as beneath any other discipline. (This applies to all lines of work – a job done well is a matter of pride and should be respected, assuming that the job in question isn’t inherently unethical or evil.) I can do these jobs well. I also happen to be a painter, a writer, a singer, a guitar player and an amateur long distance runner. If I had listed these terms first, how would you have classed me? What are my job interests and what are my real interests? As it happens, I enjoy the works of Borges, Singer, and Stoppard – but I also enjoy le Guin, Banks, Dick, Moorcock, Tiptree and Steven King.
    If I take professional pride in doing my job well, and I then do perform it well, my interests, or the stereotypes associated with my interests, are irrelevant. Feel free to question my taste, but don’t use it to tell me who I am, what I can do and how my work should be appreciated.
  2. All professions have jargon or, more precisely, all professions have a specific set of terms that are used to precisely convey information between practitioners. This is not cause for mockery or derision.
    Watched “House” recently? When was the last time you went to the Doctor and called him or her a geek, even out of earshot, for referring to the abdomen instead of tummy? We’re all exposed to tech jargon because the tech is everywhere – when I use certain terms, I’m doing so to make sure that I’m referring to the right thing. We don’t want to turn tech talk into a shibboleth (a means of identifying the same religious group) but we want it to remain an accurate and concise way of discussing things in a professional sense. But, as a profession, this comes with an obligation…
  3.  As a profession, communication with other people is worthy of attention because it is important.
    When the pilots are flying your plane, they’ll try and communicate with you in a combination of pilot-specific language and normal human communication. ICT people have to do that all the time and, admittedly, sometimes we succeed more than others. Some people in my profession try to confound other people when speaking for a whole lot of reasons that aren’t really that important – please don’t do it. It’s divisive and it’s unnecessary. If people don’t know what you’re talking about, educate them. Use the right words to do your job and the right words to communicate with other people. We don’t want to turn ourselves into some kind of exclusive club because, ultimately, it’s going to work against us. And it is working against us.
  4.  It’s time to grow up
    Sometimes this all seems so… schoolyard. People called other people names and it caused group formation and division. Now, in an ongoing battle of “geek” versus “anti-geek” we revisit the playground and try and put people into boxes. It’s time to move away from that and accept that stereotypes are often untrue, although convenient, and that we don’t need to put people into these boxes. That applies to people outside the ICT community and to people inside the community. Every community has a range of people – you will always find people to support loose stereotypes but, look carefully, and you’ll always find people who don’t fit.
  5. We’re not smarter and our field isn’t so hard that only amazing people can do it
    When some people go and talk to students they say things like “It’s hard but you get so much out of it”. What students hear is “It’s hard.” That saying “It’s hard” is worn like a badge of honour – that you have to be worthy enough to do somethings because they’re difficult.Rubbish.There are as many degrees of work difficulty as there are pieces of work and challenges range from easy to impossible – like any other discipline. It’s nice to feel smart, it’s nice to think you’ve conquered something but, being honest, you don’t need to be really smart to do these things although you do need to dedicate some time and thought to most of the activities. Yes, at the top end, there are scarily smart people. I’m not one of them but I admire those who have those skills and use them well. The really bright people are often some of the nicest and most humble. It’s another division that we don’t need.

    I’m a great believer that we should tell students the truth, in the context of other professions. We have less memorisation than medicine but more freedom to create and innovate. In ICT we have fewer theorems than maths but more large programs where we try to string things together. We have fewer people pass out from fumes than Organic Chemistry but that’s a positive and a negative (Yes, I’m joking). We get to do amazing things but, like all amazing things, this requires study and work. It is completely achievable by the vast majority of students who qualify for University. We don’t need to be exclusive and divided – we want more people and we want our community to grow.

We have some seriously difficult challenges to solve in the coming decades. We’re not going to get anywhere by splintering communities, making false barriers to entry and trying to pretend that our schoolyard view is even vaguely indicative of reality.

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