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In Defense of Geekdom

Why students and society should start embracing our stranger side

By Margaret M. Rossman

Sitting around with my friends watching our latest junk TV craving, “Beauty and the Geek,” I realized that maybe, just maybe, we weren’t the target audience for the Ashton Kutcher creation. Presumably, the average viewer watches to gape at the antics of the socially awkward geeks. But while we had our share of laughs, I soon heard more “awwing” than chuckling, and quite a few variations of “I love him.”

A case of Harvard goggles, perhaps? Maybe we were so infused with our day-to-day interactions with Harvard men that this geekiness was not out of the ordinary. Yet all was clarified when someone piped up, “Why don’t they do a version of the show where the women are the geeks?” Our enjoyment of the show sprung from the sight of a kindred spirit—a safe way to stay in touch with our inner geek.

Maybe your inner geek is hibernating until he’s allowed back out to shine, or maybe he has become a little dominant, popping up at inopportune moments. Either way he’s there. You can’t hide it—everyone at Harvard has a geeky side. For those in geeky denial, I’ll define the concept. The term “geek” is often thought of as simply synonymous with “nerd,” or “dork.” But my brand of geek is not an academic genius or a person lacking in social skills. Real geeks consume themselves with one particular area of interest. And at Harvard, geeks fall nicely into two categories.

The most obvious form is that of the “enthusiastic geeks.” They may try to keep the geek-love under the surface, but inevitably they cannot help but let it bubble up. Usually the geek in question is obsessed with a particular academic study—thus making his desire slightly more acceptable in Harvard interactions. The geek who knows everything about Russia is not going to be able to contain himself when someone mentions his favorite corner of the globe and he may often bring it up first. He is the go-to-geek, er, guy when you’ve got a particular question, but even he knows that he has to check himself to prevent the over-saturation of his companions.

There is also the more common case of geek-ocity—the hidden secret variety. You might never know it, but from the athletic-all-stars to the preppiest of preps, there is a tiny hiding hobby or “extracurricular” interest within that is out-of-the-mainstream and clawing to be let loose. This sets the stage for the inevitable slip-up. One day, you’ll be eating in the dining hall and between bites of Emerald Beef someone will allude to her high school science-fiction club. Before you know it, they will admit that they kind of, sort of, held the office of president. Because these geek-tendencies have less of an academic basis, often only close friends are privy to the geek’s “Star Wars” fascination.

Despite veritable geeky abundance at Harvard, we still have secrecy. We keep hiding these thoughts or at least think we should be suppressing them. Maybe we are worried that other students will forget their own geek-tivities when confronted and refuse to forgive ours. It’s a legitimate concern. But perhaps the bigger problem is that we are more focused on weaning ourselves out of our geekdom in order to get by—not at Harvard, but in greater society.

The career world has never had a problem with a certain type of geek. Computer geek? “Sure, we will pay you lots of money to redesign our website.” Sports geek? “Come and play in the office March Madness pool—and maybe pass me a few tips.” But Russia geek? “Um, thanks for the vodka but you might want to look elsewhere.” And it’s even worse for sci-fi geek. “Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s going out after work. We’re all really exhausted.”

It’s about time the U.S. appreciated geekdom in its entirety. The correlation between geekiness and intelligence is not the only reason that hiring or hanging out with a geek is beneficial. The sports geek might have more of a connection to Joe America with his strings of stats, but another extracurricular geek also has a lot to share. Anyone who is that into [insert random geeky thing here] will contribute some interesting conversations.

More importantly, employers should appreciate geekiness that doesn’t just relate to one highly technical expertise. You never know when a great deal of knowledge about one country might come in handy, and at the very least, all academic geeks have sharp memories. Even the Star Wars geek has a keen eye for minutiae—perfect for proofing the final presentation.

Yet we geeks cannot sit and mull the pains of geek discrimination. If we want society to love our geekdom, we must embrace it ourselves. No longer should we pause and think about whether we can reveal certain information to others. No more should we stop speaking when we realize our geekiness is on display. To help others, I’ll reveal one of my geek-tivities. I am…a Sherlock Holmes connoisseur. I have every Holmes tale as well as books dissecting these stories. But the pièce de résistance of my obsession is a small four-inch bronze bust of Holmes which gazes down from my shelf, reminding me to think critically about situations. Before you laugh, remember the weight that will be lifted when you finally embrace your geekdom. And until society is ready for it to be unleashed, I’ll be looking to Sherlock for my inspiration.

Margaret M. Rossman ’06 is a English concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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