Why nerd culture must die: Not everyone can teach themselves, and we have to welcome diversity

November 13, 2014 at 8:32 am 23 comments

An interesting argument, with implications for computing education.

  • Many people in nerd culture are self-taught — there were few courses in the early days, and people just figured it out.  If we want computing to grow, broaden, and diversify, we have to start teaching this stuff, and not only value those who are self-taught.
  • We have to stop insulting our students’ learning.  I told the story in my CS Education Zoo interview of a teacher (at Georgia Tech, I’m sorry to say) who asked everyone who took Python as their first language to raise their hand.  He then told them, “Python is a terrible language.  You need to forget everything you learned if you’re going to learn Java.”  That’s classic nerd culture — dissing the languages and tools of others, of those not in your “in” group.All kinds of CS learning leads to developing expertise. That kind of insult says to women and under-represented minority students, who may already be wondering if they belong (see imposter syndrome), “And you know even less than you thought.”

If we went to get beyond “nerd culture,” then we have to take seriously the welcoming and education of new-comers to our field.

And that’s where the problem lies. We’re still behaving like the rebel alliance, but now we’re the Empire. We got where we are by ignoring outsiders and believing in ourselves even when nobody else would. The decades have proved that our way was largely right and the critics were wrong, so our habit of not listening has become deeply entrenched. It even became a bit of a bonding ritual to attack critics of the culture because they usually didn’t understand what we were doing beyond a surface level. It didn’t used to matter because nobody except a handful of forum readers would see the rants. The same reflex becomes a massive problem now that nerds wield real power. GamerGate made me ashamed to be a gamer, but the scary thing is that the underlying behavior of attacking critics felt like something I’d always seen in our culture, and tolerated. It only shocked me when it was scaled up so massively into rape and death threats, and I saw mainstream corporations like Intel folding in the face of the pressure we can bring to bear.

via Why nerd culture must die « Pete Warden’s blog.

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23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  November 13, 2014 at 9:17 am

    I enjoyed the comments to the piece. Many of the responders were offended by the same reductionist generalizing that I was.

    Question: is it more likely that “nerd” culture can be shaped to support CS learning and identity – or that it can be abolished to the benefit of CS?

    There’s been quite a bit of “nerd” discussion in CS. What can we agree on? That nerds exist? Beyond that, things get vague. Commonly, the argument is advanced that eliminating nerd culture will increase diversity in CS (e.g. Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009)- however, that may be a bit exaggerated (Varma, 2006, 2007).

    Nerd culture is far from being a homogenous, middle-class, white, asocial male culture.
    Nerds of all types – have a lot to offer, so why not support/shape nerd-identity to grow more diverse CS identity (Davis, Yuen, & Berland, 2014)?

    Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045–1060.

    Davis, D., Yuen, T., & Berland, M. (2014). Multiple case study of nerd identity in a CS1 class. In Proceedings of the 45th ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 325–330).

    Varma, R. (2006). Making computer science minority-friendly. Communications of the ACM, 49, 129–134.

    Varma, R. (2007). Women in computing: The role of geek culture. Science as Culture, 16(4), 359–376.

    • 2. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  November 14, 2014 at 12:05 pm

      You certainly raise some good points and I’m so happy you referenced the Ambient Belonging paper, which I really like. As to your question, I actually think the latter is more likely, but it is stated too strongly. We don’t have to abolish nerd culture from CS, because that’s never going to happen. Instead, we educators have to work to establish means of entry into the field that do not actively promote or reward “geek pride.” CS1 and high school CS courses should not allow an atmosphere that compels students to assert a nerd self-identification, either explicitly or implicitly.

      The reason I think the latter is a less formidable challenge is because it is easy to identify who can be an agent of change: educators. When you talk about shaping or bending culture of any sort, I simply do not see how this can be accomplished. Culture is an emergent property and no individual or collection of individuals can have direct control over it. However, professional educators–who have been trained to recognize the problem of stereotypes, have been provided with resources to mitigate the effects, and have made a conscious effort to reduce the value of geek pride assertions within their classrooms–can play an important role here.

      • 3. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  November 18, 2014 at 8:12 am

        What if we use ‘geek pride’ to broaden participation? Not the sort of hierarchical pecking that Barker and Garvin-Doxas (Barker & Garvin-Doxas, 2004) describe, but rather a more inclusive, more positive nerd identity. Consider the setbacks that Betz and Sekaquaptewa (2012) identified when researchers tried to eliminate ‘nerdiness’ in perceptions of STEM – female participants’ interest declined.

        Changing ‘all of nerd culture’ is not the goal per se. but rather to change behaviors and perceptions of individuals who experience such a phenomenon. Being in CS, it is very difficult to envision not having to work with nerds of one vein or another. However, it is important that potential outsiders or newcomers realize that ‘nerds’ aren’t homogenically white, male, middle-class and asocial. Broadening the perception of ‘nerds’ is as important as broadening the perception of CS. Basically, the thought is related to Hewner and Knobelsdodrf’s (2008) call to broaden perceptions of CS identity.

        The focus is on the interaction of individual agents that constitute a system rather than monolithically changing a system. The ‘nerd’ culture that I’m surrounded by has great diversity (e.g. Latina and other represented student participation). Capitalizing on that, reinforcing the positive tendencies of associated identities, would be a more likely pathway to bolstering diverse CS participation than trying to eliminate all ‘nerds’ from the CS classroom. Expanding the definition of nerds and bolstering diverse nerd identities (and positive behaviors) is an easier more pragamatic task than eliminating ‘nerds’ from CS, which might not even be as much as a problem for diversity as many think (Varma, 2006, 2007).

        Barker, L. J., & Garvin-Doxas, K. (2004). Making visible the behaviors that influence learning environment: A qualitative exploration of computer science classrooms. Computer Science Education, 14, 119–145.
        Betz, D. E., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2012). My fair physicist? Feminine math and science role models demotivate young girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi:10.1177/1948550612440735
        Hewner, M., & Knobelsdorf, M. (2008). Understanding computing stereotypes with self-categorization theory. In Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Computing Education Research (pp. 72–75). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1595356.1595368
        Varma, R. (2006). Making computer science minority-friendly. Commun.ACM, 49(2), 129–134. doi:10.1145/1113034.1113041
        Varma, R. (2007). Women in computing: The role of geek culture. Science as Culture, 16(4), 359–376. doi:10.1080/09505430701706707

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  November 18, 2014 at 9:17 am

          I have a blog post coming out next week relating this thread to GamerGate. GamerGate supporters are saying, “Don’t try to change our games or our culture. We like them just as they are.” Mightn’t nerd culture react in the same way at any attempts to change them?

        • 5. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  November 24, 2014 at 10:55 am

          Again, I feel you’re misinterpreting statements and rephrasing them in too strong a manner. It’s not about “trying to eliminate all the nerds from the classroom” or “eliminating nerds from CS.” As I stated before, that’s never going to happen. What I was arguing for was the removal of social rewards and praise from educators solely for asserting a nerd/geek identity. Or, to put it another way, educators should make an effort to convey the message that nerd/geek identity is NOT a requirement for success.

          I guess I’m not actually arguing that nerd culture must die. Rather, what needs to die is its hegemony within computing, and particularly within CS classrooms. Yes, nerds and geeks will always be present within the field. But they should not be equated with the field.

          As I stated before, I think this is an actionable objective because there is a clear set of actors: CS educators. I am skeptical of efforts to change or expand a culture for that same reason: the lack of a clear actor to institute the change.

      • 6. Ben Goltz  |  November 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm

        I think that there is a misunderstanding of nerd culture, nerds are not necessarily better at computer science because they had opportunities that others did not. I am a computer science student that did not have any of the background that others did and am still at the top of my class and in my experience, the students who do not succeed in the cs classes that I am in are not willing to put time or effort into the class. They wait until the last minute to try assignments and do not practice fundamentals, such as programming. They are also unwilling to find answers for themselves whether that means going and asking the professor or looking up a solution on the internet. I think that the “nerd community” exists not only in computer science, but in any field. I also think that they arise because some people are willing to put more time and effort into learning.

  • 8. Alfred Thompson  |  November 13, 2014 at 9:59 am

    I think we sometimes over simplify things. To nerds, nerd culture is really broader than many non-nerds think it is. I think we have to look at specific behaviors such as the tendency to downplay the value of formal education that we see from autodidacts. This came up in my blog recently (http://blog.acthompson.net/2014/10/leave-school-now-while-you-still-know.html) with some stating that a degree in CS was a handicap not a value added.

  • 9. alanone1  |  November 13, 2014 at 10:11 am

    I don’t understand “nerd” here, so I’ll leave this aside.

    I think the analogy I’ve used in the past — to the strengths and, especially weaknesses of pop cultures — obtains strongly here. “Self-taught” doesn’t always imply “understanding the subject matter”, and in pop cultures rarely does. (And I don’t think people “figured it out”, in part because I don’t think the best knowledge in the field as representing “have figured it out”.)

    I like to tell students that it hasn’t been figured out yet, and they will be important factors in making progress if they are willing to be critical of the field and their own knowledge while they are learning things (one always ultimately learns by oneself — but it’s good to get as much help as possible everywhere).

    Pop cultures deal with establishing identity, demanding participation (usually without reciprocal cooperation or getting above threshold), and because of other atavistic tendencies we carry with us, tend to be very tribal and competitive. What’s being discussed in computing is just one manifestation of a much larger set of processes gone wild.

    Every once in a while something needed and useful springs from pop culture roots. The trick I think is to avoid having the larger society be dominated by the pop culture. This is hard to pull off in an age of mass media etc. (We absolutely really don’t want either the “rebel alliance” here, and especially don’t want “The Empire” — these are really weak ways to gain identity and participation.)

    — snipping discourse on science and governance —

    It boils down to needing people to learn (and be taught in most cases) how to “argue to reveal and illuiminate” rather than “argue to win”. When people ask me about the ARPA-IPTO community and its outgrowth to Parc, this is why I try to explain (it ain’t easy these days!)

    • 10. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  November 14, 2014 at 12:15 pm

      “I don’t understand ‘nerd’ here, so I’ll leave this aside.” When I read posts like this and the original, I intentionally avoid trying to define “nerd” or “geek,” and instead focus on proclamations of such status (however one defines it). As Don said above, there is no consensus, and I don’t think having one would change things. I think what is important is the vocal declarations of oneself as a geek or a nerd.

      For instance, when we refer to ourselves as geeks in class, we are implicitly crafting a barrier between ourselves (computer scientists) and some of our students. These students may want to become computer scientists, but they feel their sense of identity does not match ours and they may feel a reduced sense of belonging in the field.

  • 11. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 13, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    You don’t point out that sometimes these comments are a frustrated reaction to perpetually being snubbed and insulted by the mainstream of computing. I’ve taught functional programming for twenty years now, and while the transition from pariah to no-longer-unspeakable has been nice to see, there is still a long way to go. College freshmen — who barely know their heads from their tails — routinely hold forth on what is “useful” and “useless”. I have to imagine you have seen the same thing yourself. I reference this post — https://computinged.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/how-important-is-a-useful-language-for-non-majors/ — which, while about what languages are “useful”, I am sure masks some deep-held prejudices from that advisory board, too (some of which would have been echoed by one of computer scientists as well).

    • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  November 14, 2014 at 9:13 am

      “Those comments”? Which ones? That Python is a terrible language? Why would being “snubbed and insulted by the mainstream of computing” make it justified to make new CS students feel unwelcome?

      • 13. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 14, 2014 at 10:01 am

        I’m not defending that Python remark. I’m asking you to consider that the remark may have come out of a larger context. You perceive the Python remark as “making new CS students feel unwelcome”. I’m hopeful the person who uttered it didn’t mean it to make them unwelcome, i.e., you have a difference of perception of the same words. I don’t disagree with your sense of what impact the words might have, either. But to fix this problem, it may help for you to understand where that other person is coming from, instead of just accusing them of wanting to “make new CS students feel unwelcome” — because if that isn’t their intent, they might just dismiss your concern.

        • 14. alanone1  |  November 14, 2014 at 10:14 am

          I think what Mark is driving at is that it doesn’t matter what the motives of the utterer might be. The point is “let’s try to avoid making students uncomfortable unless that is a good idea” (sometime it is!)



        • 15. Mark Guzdial  |  November 14, 2014 at 11:40 am

          Ahh, I see the point you’re making. Alan’s right — from the perspective of the students, the motive doesn’t matter. You’re also right — if I want to convince the instructor not to do that, I’d need to understand why he said what he did.

  • 16. Garth  |  November 14, 2014 at 10:52 am

    I guess I would be a member of the “nerd” community. I am a self taught programming teacher. From years of experience teaching programming I have concluded this is a bad thing. Self taught for a teacher means too many holes in the knowledge, and being able to hack out a program is not the same as being able to teach programming. Self taught means hours spent learning the basics of a language when those hours would be better spent learning how to teach the language. As long as K-12 schools consider programming and CS to be a job skill and not an academic subject it will be the nerds that keep it alive. And as long as it is a job skill university education departments will not be training teachers to teach it. As long as CS and programming hang out in this weird limbo it will be the nerds that control it and as a result it will continue as part of the nerd culture.

  • 17. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 14, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    I would hope that the instructor who said “Python is a terrible language. You need to forget everything you learned if you’re going to learn Java.” was reprimanded—not for discouraging beginning students (though that might be another reason), but for being so ignorant of the enormous similarities between Python and Java. Or, knowing the similarities, lying to the students.

    In fact, most of what one learns programming in Python is transferable to Java—but there is a lot of Java staff that needs to be added. Telling students that Python is easier to learn because it is a smaller, cleaner language, would be fine, as would telling them that Java adds a lot of stuff to the language so that bigger projects can be built my multi-person teams by making interfaces more explicit. But telling that they have to forget Python to learn Java—that’s just incompetence as a teacher or computer scientist.

    • 18. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 14, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      There are also enormous differences between Java and Python, and while some of them are papered over in superficial examples, they do reveal themselves on deeper examination. Furthermore, this “deeper examination” can often be stumbled upon inadvertently, i.e., you don’t have to go looking. Indeed, as someone who has written canonical formal semantics of both languages (one of the first of each one), I see more difference than I see similarity. [Python: http://cs.brown.edu/~sk/Publications/Papers/Published/pmmwplck-python-full-monty/. Java: http://cs.brown.edu/~sk/Publications/Papers/Published/fkf-classes-mixins/.%5D

      Having also seen the enormous confusion that is sometimes created when students draw on superficially similar but actually different past experiences, asking students to temporarily suspend their knowledge does not strike me as a bad idea at all (to the extent that such suspension is possible), if there is no choice.

      That “choice” part is crucial. The real issue here may be the curricular context. If the Java course instructor knew that all their students were coming in from the Python course, then the Java course should have been designed to leverage and build on what the students already knew, not force them to pretend they didn’t know it at all. This a common problem I see in curricula, where group A gets to define course X, group B defines course Y, and the two don’t really communicate (indeed, may have riven over disagreements and thus aren’t willing to communicate), so Y views X as damage to route around rather than core knowledge to build upon. That may be the _real_ problem in this setting, and would also explain why the Y instructor denigrated X.

      • 19. Mark Guzdial  |  November 15, 2014 at 8:46 am

        There are two separable issues here for me.

        • The only differences between Java and Python that matter to me are those that students perceive. I interpret Allison Elliott Tew’s results to suggest that students see mostly similarities between Java and Python (and more dissimilarities with MATLAB).
        • Nobody can “temporarily suspend their knowledge,” and to suggest that to a student is demeaning and likely to generate a defensive and discouraging climate. Have you read “Unlocking the Clubhouse” or Garvin-Doxas and Barker’s “Defensive climate in the computer science classroom,” Shriram? I highly recommend them both.
        • 20. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 15, 2014 at 9:03 am

          Mark, I was responding to gasstationwithoutpumps’s assertions about the _languages_, not about perceptions of them. I can easily see how one could teach these languages in a way that students find them quite similar. However, this is heavily driven by curriculum, and also by the set of errors the students made and how they reacted to what they learned from them. Broad conclusions of this form are hard to reach.

          As for suspension of knowledge, I meant it as a figure of speech, not (obviously) as a literal. But embarking on something new does sometimes require a person to try to approach the new thing in its own right, not just as a delta from something they saw before. New language instruction very often has this flavor; otherwise you end up with the Blub paradox. I don’t think this is necessarily demeaning or discouraging if done in the right spirit; when it is, students seem perfectly willing to accept the viewpoint that they’re learning something new and should approach is natively. Not to mention, there is often not one but a dozen different backgrounds, and generating deltas from each of those to the new content is neither productive nor scalable. These are issues I wrestle with every single fall by teaching an introductory course for students with lots of prior CS.

          Thanks for the pointers; I had not read Garvin-Doxas/Barker. I don’t see “suspension” as inherently antagonistic to what they describe; clearly, there are better and worse ways of approaching it. Interestingly, I come at it from the opposite end: the issues they talk about in 4.2 are precisely why some degree of suspension of past experience is vital. In part, the mere acceptance into the course (it’s by an entrance test, not open to everyone) is our way of acknowledging their background and/or abilities. But the reality is that they are still wildly different in what they know and can do at that point, and setting a new baseline is important in keeping the later bloomers in the class from being utterly discouraged.

  • 21. Mark Miller  |  December 26, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    It’s interesting to hear people talk about “nerd culture,” even that it has positive connotations, like it’s something that people would want to join, or is somehow esteemed and exclusive. When I was growing up, and getting into computers, there was definitely identification as “nerd,” or “geek,” by those on the outside, not on the inside, but it was derogatory. Those of us who were self-taught didn’t talk about each other in these terms, I guess because it was almost considered insulting. I didn’t start using these terms to describe myself and others until I got into my twenties. As best we could tell, when I was a teenager, there was no such thing as “nerd culture,” except as a collection of outcasts, though I got my first experience that there was such a thing when I got my first job out of college in the mid-1990s. There was a sense that those who had latched onto computing as something very engrossing and interesting had also latched onto certain common pop culture artifacts, and this was a way that we could identify each other, and, in a sense, bond in a common experience. This was noticed by a female engineer at my place of work, and she admonished us not to do this, because it excluded others who hadn’t had that same identification and experience. This came as a bit of a disappointment to me and another employee at the time, because I don’t think we were consciously trying to exclude anybody. In fact, I would’ve been happy if she had joined in. She made it pretty clear she didn’t want to. I wasn’t there long, as the company was having financial difficulties, but as I recall, her admonishment paid off, as we didn’t engage in our “pleasantries” after that.

    Through my many years in the computer field, I saw in myself and many others strong prejudices towards particular companies, and associated technologies, programming languages, software development practices, etc. It just seemed normal to have them, and the rivalries that went along with them, because there were so many other people engaging in it. There is a strong tendency toward tribalism in the field. There came a point, though, for me, I’d guess about 4-5 years ago, where I realized that it was mostly pointless. If I were to sum up what caused that change, I’d call it simply POV. Perhaps to use Alan’s terminology, it would be called outlook. Whatever it is, I found it as a tremendous relief.

    I grew up in a technological world where what you did with computing was strongly tied to particular platforms, and you invested in them. You invested your hard-earned money, and your time. You also had particular goals, which is the reason you chose the platform you did. A problem was if your platform wasn’t widely supported by your colleagues, your investment was considered worthless. So there developed a need to gain adherents. Proselytizing ensued. Hardware and languages had specialized capabilities, and you either celebrated, or damned them, depending on what they did for what you wanted to accomplish. Likewise with operating systems. The best I can describe the change in POV was that I saw computers as means to different ends. Rather than seeing them as a means to build something practical that people will desire (and quickly), I see them as a means for interacting, exploring knowledge, and modeling. An important part of this is seeking to understand what computing is, and its cultural significance, not just how to use it to accomplish a short-term end goal. This change in POV has significant implications for my practice, and prejudices, because what I do now and what I did previously have very different imperatives, and there is less reason to be tribal with what I do now (though, honestly, it’s not totally eliminated for me in my endeavors). Platforms as tools, and all of their dependencies, used to be my currency, as it has been for many, many others. Now my currency is knowledge, and I can see tools as topics of study, not from a POV of need.

    • 22. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 26, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      > There is a strong tendency toward tribalism in the field.

      There’s a strong tendency toward tribalism in humans. What else can explain the intensity with which people side with, say, sports teams?

      • 23. Mark Miller  |  December 27, 2014 at 12:51 am

        Though I talked about industry experience, I was addressing Mark’s point about the academic environment, since industry norms have tended to cycle back into academia.

        Tribalism isn’t that conducive to a positive academic environment (college sports being another matter), since premises and the conclusions that flow from them will tend to be supported simply because they are advantageous to a particular group, with evidence being used merely as props, in a sophisticated form of circular reasoning. There’s no incentive toward higher aspirations in such an environment, which may show the premises supporting weak goals and conclusions, since group identity is tied to traditions and beliefs, whether they are supported by evidence or not. However, I think within human nature it’s very hard to avoid, as I readily admitted in my comment. I think it is possible for its influence to be diminished in human discourse, which was the point of my testimonial.


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