#heweb13 quick take: on celebrating geek culture and education failing at it.

One of the most notable parts of this week’s HighEdWeb conference, #heweb13 in Buffalo, was how loudly and proudly it celebrated geek culture. My friend Colleen Brennan-Berry, a key organizer from Monroe Community College, called it “geek Christmas” and “geek camp,” which seemed a propos.

And yet our educational institutions sometimes can do a poor job of letting us find and pursue passions, and of celebrating all things geek.

#heweb13’s two excellent keynoters — Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and Unmarketing‘s Scott Stratten — could not be prouder of being geeks. Wozniak happily said geeks have done more to change the world — through their curiosity, passion and commitment that leads to technological advancements — than anybody else.


The Woz captivating a geek-laden audience.

Not only did Stratten (more on him in a  later post) and the audience knowingly and acknowledgelly revel in their geekdom, but in discussing the viral video of the careless FedEx deliveryman that led to the company’s remarkable Absolutely, Positively Unacceptable apology blog entry, he mentioned: “Two groups of people you don’t want to tick off in this world: geeks and moms. If they’re geek moms, run!”

Consider the giveaway item I and many others most coveted — the Doctor Who Tardis lunchbox — combined two things that were massively uncool when I was a kid:

  • Doctor Who. While Tom Baker didn’t make people swoon like David Tennant did, at its core the show has long made Doctor Who a kind of geek who wanted to learn everything but also put his massive knowledge to work for good.
  • Lunchboxes. OK, they were cool at youngest ages, but after a while anybody using a lunchbox instead of a paper bag would get picked on in my school. I remember begging my mom to start putting my lunches in paper bags instead of lunchboxes as a result.

And yet in education, including the college level, we get this wrong so often. Not only that we don’t celebrate the tenants of geek culture as well as we could, but that some schools do some things that try to dissuade these traits and box young people in from the exploration and curiosity at the heart of geek culture. Consider:

That “Millennials” crap: First, the original Howe-Strauss stereotype of the Millennials was unscientific garbage involving skewing sample sizes and knowingly disregarding data that didn’t fit the picture they already wanted to paint. But I still see student affairs pros tweeting links to stories about Millennials (which generally contradict each other). You can’t stereotype a group of people by when they were born, unless you somehow believe that an outcast geek who spends his time designing video games is just like the captain of the football team or the student who only wants to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

StrengthQuest: How many colleges say: Let’s find your strengths so we can tell you what you can’t/shouldn’t do. Sure, the process can have some validity and utility, but if I pursued my alleged strengths, there’s no way I’d be in the higher ed web field. I am technologically inept in some ways (my DVD player is flashing “12:00” as I write) and would have been steered far away from doing what I love.

Briggs-Myers: Can we fit whole lives down into four letters? Of course not. Fun fact: I took the Briggs-Myers on two different days in two different moods with two different results. And yet I see student affairs professionals bragging about/continuously referencing their Briggs-Myers types. But how do you celebrate pigeonholing while helping young people fully explore every side of themselves?

Putting professional success over pursuing passion: The twin goals of education sometimes stand at cross-purposes — we want our students to become marketable, yet we want them to explore and discover who they are. It’s a tough balance. But if we turn our students into careerists, using their StrengthQuests and Briggs-Myers results to send them toward what we want them to do, we risk turning them away from what they love. The strength of geek culture is celebrating the pursuit of what we love, no matter how trivial or strange others my find it, and college is the best time to instill this sense. (Note: I’m not saying to stop using StrengthQuest or M-B, just to realize they are just tools in a bigger picture.)

That’s why I love Oswego student blogger Tom Kline’s post “On Doing Stupid Things (And Why That’s OK Sometimes).” Tom talks about doing the “Thriller” dance once in high school, where it was uploaded to YouTube and earned him ridicule. Yet in college he attended the massive Otakon anime conference and entered the Masquerade Contest where he danced to “Thriller” and “Beat It,” as he puts it, “in front of around 7500 raging nerds in a huge arena in Baltimore.” And he later started doing Michael Jackson performances at karaoke nights in Oswego bars that got him recognized around campus.

The moral of the story, as Tom posted it, made me choke up a bit and perfectly encapsulates why our celebration of geek culture at #heweb13 is a beautiful thing:

Never be afraid to do something stupid (as long as it’s legal and won’t put you or anyone else in danger, of course). Don’t worry about looking dumb or about being made fun of. If you’ve got a crazy skill or talent, show it off! One of the saddest tragedies in life is that so many people refuse to stand out and be different, for fear of ridicule. So don’t fall into that trap!

So true. As professionals who work in higher ed, we SHOULD encourage our students and others to let their geek flags fly. We should never put people in boxes because, much like Doctor Who’s Tardis, we are all much bigger on the inside than we appear.



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6 responses to “#heweb13 quick take: on celebrating geek culture and education failing at it.

  1. Well said, Tim! Great to meet you at the conference – it was quite the experience for me as a first-timer!

  2. Tim

    Great meeting you too, Eryn! And even for those of us with a few conferences under our belts, #heweb13 is always an awe-inspiring and awesome experience.

  3. We humans tend to love to label and categorize stuff, whether it has to do with our top five StrengthsQuest strengths, the Strauss-Howe generation into which we were born, our Myers-Briggs type (INTP here, consistently each time I’ve taken it) or whether or not we are geek or non-geek. (Or for that matter, which kind of geek we are: math geek, tech geek, computer geek, history geek, grammar geek, trivia geek, chess geek, movie geek, etc.) Your post contains a lot of great insight. It also reminds me of the saying, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who categorize and those who don’t.”

    The Myers-Briggs and StrengthsQuest tools, if used property, can be enlightening (even if the M-B has come under scrutiny from many psychologists lately). But as you say, they are simply tools that should be used to help individuals become more aware of their preferences and those of others on a team, and not to pigeonhole.

    A great danger of relying too heavily on these personality tests, if taken to the extreme, is that it could instill in people a sense that they can let go of certain responsibilities. “I’m an introvert so I can’t deliver that presentation to the faculty, Let the extrovert do it.” or “I’m an extrovert so I can’t write that report. Let the introvert do it.” From the StrengthsQuest angle: All of my top five strengths fall under the “strategy” domain. Yet I realize that at times it falls to me to sell our team’s ideas to higher-ups, even though none of the “influencing” strengths are in my top five. But I know when it’s time to get my woo on, and I use my strategy strengths to prepare accordingly.

    And now for the baseball analogy*:

    In baseball, the nine players each have particular roles to play when they are in the field. (I’m left-handed, so back in my baseball-playing days my defensive roles were limited to outfield, pitching or first base. Because my glove was better than my arm, I ended up at first base most of the time. I played to my [very limited] strengths.) But at the plate, every player is on more or less equal footing. Every player gets an at-bat. (Of course, I’m talking about National League baseball. No designated hitter. And batting order does play a role in terms of strengths. But in theory, all players get a chance to step up.)

    As it is in baseball, so it should be in life. We all have things we’re good at, or should be good at. We should discover and embrace those things. But we should also be willing to look beyond. Otherwise, we are limiting our opportunities.

    * What can I say? I’m a baseball geek.

  4. Tim

    Donna: Thanks! Another great conference!

    Andrew: Terrific response! As you note, all the tools that measure aspects of our character do not measure our whole character, and you nailed exactly the part that especially gives me pause — telling (or implying to) people things they shouldn’t do. We are living, breathing, evolving human beings … I’m different than I was at 18, 28 or 38, and have evolved even since last week. And I loved the baseball analogy.

  5. Pingback: Geek apparel | GeekOut South-West

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