Thursday, September 11, 2008

On being a geek

Tim Burke writes about his personal experience of growing up as an intellectual, interested in reading and knowledge over other "mainstream" interests. I've been thinking about this a lot myself, and writing about it elsewhere. My life took a kind of weird turn late in middle school into high school where I abandoned much of my geekdom (except reading a lot) and opted to attempt to hang with the popular crowd. By my senior year, I'd become much more jaded about what it meant to be popular and tried to be my own person. Honestly, I think I didn't really become comfortable with who I am until about 10 years ago.

I was struck by a story Tim related in his post, not about my own experience as a geek, but about my experience as a staff member. He talks about hearing a story from an uncle who served in the military about the way soldiers were treated by officers. Ten-year-old Tim offers up the suggestion that this has always been the case, back to Sargon the Great (I had to look it up myself). Tim was trying to make a connection, trying to show he knew something about the topic and that he could relate to the story in some way. The uncle, of course, didn't see it that way. And Tim recognizes what may have been the key issue:
Still, there’s a fundamental asymmetry. I could take what he said and add it to my knowledge, make use of it. He couldn’t take what I said unless he followed me into formal knowledge, or trusted me so much that what I said was in the books was as good as truth.
Had I been there, had I even been the uncle, I would have said, "Really? I didn't know that. Who's Sargon the Great?" But I am always hungry for more knowledge and never afraid to admit that I don't know something. To me, that's not a sign of weakness. But what that made me think of was the way that a lot of staff would respond the way I might. I'm not talking just the "academic" staff (librarians and the like), but also administrative assistants, housekeepers, and others. After being around faculty and students, they often take a genuine interest in their work and see that as being a benefit, getting to talk to people about intellectual things, learning something new.

The asymmetry I often see goes the other way. Faculty often take no genuine interest in the thoughts or ideas of the staff. We have among our staff talented musicians, artists, woodworkers, writers, amateur historians, athletes, and more. We have people who've done interesting things in their lives and who've been to interesting places. And while I've seen some faculty take real interest in what staff have to offer, I've seen that when staff speak at discussion groups about these issues, fewer faculty attend than when it's a faculty member speaking about their research. I've seen one-sided conversations where staff ask about research or classes and the faculty member asks nothing about what someone might have done over the summer or what books they've read or movies they've seen. I tend to have the confidence to assert myself in such conversations, but many staff may not, may not see that what they know is of value.

I'm not saying this to say, "Hey you faculty jerks, take some interest." I don't think the lack of interest is intentional or malicious. Many faculty must and do spend a lot of time focused on their subject matter and that's certain to affect what they talk about and how. But it might be another explanation for the distaste "regular" people have toward intellectuals. It may not be just insecurities, but also a feeling of being slighted.