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This was my final project in the same language and gender class that spawned Pop Psychology is from Uranus. Originally written 12 December 2000, the revised version you see below dates to 7 February 2002

Nerds, Geeks, and Gender

Introduction

For my final project in my language and gender class, I decided to do a little fieldwork on a pet project of mine---features of nerd speech---and see what gender issues I could find. In particular, I created a set of interview/survey questions (list of discussion topics) designed to help me better define the terms nerd, geek, and whatever other semi-pejorative labels my discussion brought about. I asked my volunteers (recruits) about their personal definitions of words like "nerd" and "geek", whether they applied any of those labels to themselves, what it would mean to them if someone else used those words to describe them, and whether any of those words seemed to encode any kind of gender (i.e. are males or females more likely to be described as nerds? as geeks?) After a few interviews on these topics (the results of which are summarized here), I designed an improved survey designed to more quickly and efficiently address these issues. I present results of this preliminary survey and discuss where I could go from here in this research.

Background

Some terms, hereafter referred to as semi-pejorative, are often used as insults, but not always. Examples include words like "nerd" and "geek", which seem to have been reappropriated by the people they are most commonly used to describe insultingly, like "nigger", "bitch" and "queer". However, the concepts of nerdiness and geekiness are more ambiguous than race, gender or sexual orientation. Before I can address the linguistic and cultural aspects of being a nerd or geek, and any related gender issues, I need to better define these terms. My first attempts at doing so are based on personal definitions---my own and those of others, specifically students at Harvey Mudd College and their friends from other Claremont colleges.

I am a nerd, and a geek, and proud of it!

I think it will be useful to present my personal definitions of the semi-pejorative labels "nerd" and "geek" to offer readers an example of how such terms may be defined, as well as insight as to my approach to this problem, and how my perspective might affect my analysis. According to my personal definitions, these terms apply to me for the following reasons:

I consider myself a nerd because I am intersted in learning, including technical subjects ranging into the somewhat arcane (technical subjects are defined here as the set of academic disciplines with their own specialized vocabularies). In particular, I am a math nerd because I like math. I find mathematics a beautiful and often enlightening way of trying to understand the world, as well as a rewarding academic major; however I would argue that liking math is a necessary and sufficient condition for being a math nerd, and actually majoring in mathematics is just a manifestation of nerdiness. I am also a lingustics nerd, a biology nerd, a literature nerd, and many others. I think that all these are subsets of the larger category, nerd, which is used to describe people who are interested in academic or technical subjects (enthusiastically so). I know the word nerd is also often associated with intelligence, but as I subscribe to the idea that there are lots of different kinds of intelligence---i.e.~spatial, symbolic, verbal (written and spoken), musical, artistic, emotional, etc.---I am hesitant to associate nerdiness with intelligence. However, nerds are usually very knowledgeable about whatever subjects interest them, or on their way to becoming so.

I consider myself a geek because I am more competent with computers than the average human. Although I do not work with computers for a living, with the skills I have, I probably could; however, I have no intention of doing so. To me, a geek is a special kind of computer nerd. There are different kinds of geeks, including hardware and software geeks, as well as users and proponents of various computer operating systems (which makes me an anti-Microsoft geek, I guess), but all of these are subsets of the term "geek". The one exception to this rule that I know of is the phrase "band geek", which is used to describe all members of musical groups (usually school-run ensembles and especially marching bands) regardless of their academic interests or lack thereof. Band geeks, to me, are not a subset of the regular sort of computer-nerd geek.

I am a former high school marching band geek. Am I still a band geek, even if I haven't touched a saxophone in years? I don't know. My personal definitons of nerdiness and geekiness are fairly behavior-oriented; for the sake of brevity, I will not include any speculation as to whether these qualities are intrinsic or learned. Similarly, the focus of my interest in the language and gender aspects of the terms "nerd" and "geek", is how any gendered aspects of nerdiness are constructed through language, rather than whether either sex is predisposed towards any of the behavioral or intrinsic qualities associated with nerds and geeks.

Harvey Mudd College

Having set out my own personal definitions of what it means to be a nerd or a geek, I set out to find out more about the meaning of those terms from other people. At Harvey Mudd College, this is as easily said as done. After all, this is the school I once described to a friend as "the highest concentration of geeks and freaks in the Western Hemisphere". As I have written so many times before, Mudd is a small, select private college of math, science, and engineering. It is the most technologically-oriented school of the Claremont Colleges consortium, a group of small private colleges that pool their resources to allow students to cross-register and pursue academic opportunities more like those of a university than a small liberal arts school. The student body reflects the fact that math, the sciences, and engineering are still male-dominated fields: although the percentage of females in the latest HMC freshman class is nearly twice that of my own entering class, the overall male-to-female ratio of the student body is still just slightly less than three to one. I seize opportunities to study the effects of the unusual campus demographics and social climate whenever they present themselves, and this paper is no exception.

Language and Gender at Technology Schools

Engineering and other technologically-oriented schools are traditionally a hotbed of nerd and geek activity, and Harvey Mudd shatters no stereotypes in that regard. I think the reason there are so many nerds and geeks at technology schools is that these fields are traditionally less accessible than the liberal arts, and so the people who study them are generally more nerdy in the "enthusiastically studious and interested in academic subjects" sense described earlier. However, as I mentioned before, these subjects are also traditionally considered very inaccessible to women, and so many engineering schools, like Mudd, are quite male-dominated, even though in recent years male undergraduate students in the U.S.~have been surpassed in number by their female colleagues. I believe that the male-dominated campuses of engineering schools present unusual challenges to female students, and that this should be reflected in the women's language use.

Victoria Bergvall's article "Constructing and enacting gender through discourse: negotiating multiple roles as female engineering students" suggests that this is indeed the case. According to her observations, the female students at Michigan Technological University, like all women, must balance the goal of educational and thus career success with the heterosexual imperative of finding a mate, which governs much of campus life at many undergraduate institutions. The academic aspects of campus life enforce androgyny or even androcentricity, but social pressure reinforces traditional (stereotypical) gender-dichotomous behavior. For men accustomed to behaving like stereotypical males, this does not pose a problem---they are expected to act in a manner "natural" to them---but for women accustomed to behaving like stereotypical females, these expectations are conflicting, especially since there is pressure not to be seen as excessively male.

The situation is similar at Harvey Mudd College, though arguably less severe---perhaps because of its smaller size (about 700 students to MTU's 7,000), somewhat better (and improving) gender ratio, recent efforts by admissions and administration attract and retain female students, or because the college, since its founding in 1955, has simply always been more welcoming to women than most technology schools. According to former college president Professor Joseph Platt's history of Mudd, the college's founding Board of Trustees gave considerable thought as to whether to admit women before voting to do so. (At the time, unofficial comments from Caltech suggested that this other small, select technology-oriented institution would admit women over the dead bodies of some of its faculty.) After the decision was made, one Trustee admitted to Platt that he had voted to admit women but still had his doubts. "Who would marry a math major?" he asked. "Well," Platt replied, "I did."

Harvey Mudd College and its female students have come a long way since certain Trustees argued that technological education would be wasted on women who would retire from the workforce once they married and had families. However, it is still far from its longterm goal of full gender parity. In the meantime, what does it mean to be a woman (and a nerd or geek) in a male-dominated environment like Harvey Mudd? Language use may help us address questions such as these.

Methods

After making a list of survey questions/discussion topics shown in Figure 1 below, I headed out to apply these to the Harvey Mudd College student community. Although I received many interesting and potentially useful responses, questions 2, 5, 7, and 9 seem to me the ones that will be easiest to summarize and discuss in with respect to gender issues in this paper. I will discuss responses to the other questions when appropriate.


Figure 1: Initial survey questions/discussion topics

  1. What's a nerd? (your personal definition)
  2. Do you consider yourself a nerd?
  3. If someone calls you a nerd, what does that mean (what are they saying about you)?
  4. Are there any contexts in which being called a nerd is definitely an insult? A compliment?
  5. Are males or females more likely to be called nerds? Is nerdiness male or female?
  6. How about geeks? (personal definition and what differentiates them from nerds)
  7. In what (social) context, if any, would you refer to yourself as a geek (or nerd, for that matter)?
  8. Are males or females more likely to be called geeks?

My preliminary results come from interviews with three male HMC students, two female HMC students and one Scripps College student, all between the ages of 18 and 22. Academic majors represented included physics, chemistry, biology (2), and mathematics. I interviewed one male and one female individually, and two male-female pairs. Based on my experiences asking these questions I have created an improved nerd survey, shown in Figure 2 and discussed in the section entitled "Improved Survey Questions".

Results

Definitions of all the terms I asked about varied, and so did responses to questions of self-descriptive usage. However, everyone I interviewed said that they were nerds and/or that they would describe themselves as such in some contexts. Unfortunately, I was not very consistent about my questioning, and so my results are difficult to tabulate. I do my best in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of Interview Responses

			females	   % females	males	   % males	% all
Q 2 "yes"		3	   100		3	   100		100
Q 5 "(slightly male)"	2	   67		1	   33		50
Q 7 "yes"		2	   67		0	   0		33
Q 8 "(slightly) male"	2	   67		1	   33		50

Generally speaking, "geek" was seen as more of an insult than "nerd". Most participants associated both terms with interest in academics, especially math, "the hard sciences", and technology, as well as intelligence and some degree of social ineptitude. Among the activities frequently mentioned as typical nerd and geek behaviors: reading, role-playing games, Magic: the Gathering (as explicitly different from role-playing games), video games, talking about these activities, and using terms from these activities or mathematical and other technical language to describe everyday occurrences. Besides behavioral traits, some people mentioned physical traits like glasses, lack of fashion sense, and generally unkempt appearances. Other descriptive categories mentioned included dork, jerk, dweeb, freak, and band geek (again, as distinct from geek). Some of these terms were strictly pejorative, and many were defined in terms of how others used them. One interviewee described "cool people" as the "diametric opposite" of nerds, and even said that "for a long time `cool' was an insult" to him. Finally, "big" and "bigger" are the appropriate "intensifiers for "nerd" and "geek", and "big nerd" and "big geek" can also be used in positive and negative ways.

Discussion

In one of the male-female pairs I interviewed, the female was more vocal, and the male repeatedly echoed her responses, whereas in the other the male was more verbose but the female spoke up quite a few times to offer specific disagreements with some of his statements. So much for male-dominated conversations and stereotypically quiet, demure, assenting females.

As far as the semi-quantitative data of Table 1 go, I could use statistical tests to show that there's a significant difference in the way members of both genders described themselves and interpreted the gender of the two semi-pejoratives. However, seeing as my sample size was only six people, it would be ridiculous to do so. I think what interests me the most about these responses is that the women I spoke to seemed much more sensitive to the gender issues involved. For example, the Scripps student I interviewed remembered being called "nerdette" and "geekette" in elementary school. The existence of a female diminutive form suggests that the regular form of the word, like pretty much all gender-neutral terms in male-dominated society, is interpreted as male unless specified otherwise. She also hypothesized that the reason "nerd" and "geek" are more likely to be applied to males is that men and boys are in general "more likely to throw insults affectionately". One of the males I interviewed also suggested that male geeks are more noticeable because "cool guys... enjoy calling guys nerds". On the other hand, the term "nerd-boy" suggests that "nerd" and "geek" may be becoming genuinely gender-neutral, since it seems to be used somewhat as a masculine equivalent of "nerdette" (i.e. a diminutive).

Other interesting usage patterns arose depending on speakers' interpretation of how insulting the words "nerd" and "geek" seemed. For example, the two males who did not describe themselves as geeks considered that word more insulting, whereas one of the women who called herself a geek was the only person who considered that label more positive than "nerd". The one self-identified male geek said that label implied "a nerd who doesn't realize that they are" (I decided against asking how he could identify himself as one). Most participants agreed that it is more insulting to be called a nerd or a geek by people who do not consider themselves either nerds or geeks, and less insulting when the terms were used in the inclusive sense, as the following statement summarizes:

I think it's kind of like how people take derogatory terms, then they incorporate them into their society and then it's no longer derogatory to them? Like it can still be thrown at them from other people, but when used among themselves, it's kind of like an in-joke...

However, not everyone agreed that it was always a positive to be called "nerd" or "geek" in an inclusive sense: it was generally considered embarrassing to have such terms used inclusively by someone who is somehow, in a not-positive way, a "bigger" nerd or geek.

Improved Survey Questions

What these interviews made most apparent to me is that the semi-pejorative terms "nerd" and "geek" are used in complicated ways, depending on social context. Obviously, I need to collect a great deal more data on these terms before I can truly begin to address their usage, and individual interviews would be a very time-consuming way of doing so. In response to this, I have designed a new set of survey questions designed to elicit information about semi-pejorative terms like "nerd" and "geek" in as concise a manner as possible. The survey as I currently envision it is shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2: Improved Survey Questions.

  1. Name (optional):
  2. Age:
  3. Gender:
  4. School:
  5. Class Year:
  6. Major:
  7. Think of your own personal definition of what it means to be a nerd. Are you a nerd (i.e.~do you think you fit this definition/description)? (If so, skip to Question 9.)
  8. If not, would you ever use the word nerd to describe yourself? In what context?
  9. If someone else calls you a nerd, what does that usually mean? Is it always an insult? If not, describe or give an example of a context when/where it might not be.
  10. Are males or females more likely to be called nerds? Why?
  11. Think of your own personal definition of what it means to be a geek. Are you a geek (i.e. do you think you fit this definition/description)? (If so, skip to Question 12.)
  12. If not, would you ever use the word geek to describe yourself? If so, in what context?
  13. If someone else calls you a geek, what does that usually mean? Is it always an insult? If not, describe or give an example of a context when/where it might not be.
  14. Are males or females more likely to be called geeks? Why?
  15. What, if any, other words (especially labels that may or may not be insulting) do you use to describe yourself and others?

Preliminary Results

I have begun to informally implement this survey, asking people whether they consider themselves nerds or geeks or would ever use those words to describe themselves. The responses I have gotten to these questions so far, including similar sentiments expressed in the earlier interviews, are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2: Summary of responses to revised survey questions.

		    females	% females	males	   % males	% of all
Q 9 "yes"	    4		100		8	   100		100
Q 11 "not always"   4		100		8	   100		100
Q 13 "yes"	    3		75		3	   37.5		50
Q 15 "not always"   3		75		4	   50		58

Conclusion

I have begun to collect data based on what I learned from my preliminary interview. So far, these also reflect the fact that people are more likely to call themselves by semi-perjoratives like "nerd" and "geek" when they do not view these strictly as insults. Interestingly, so far females seem more likely to reinterpret insults as inclusives or symbols of solidarity. I have no idea why this is, but it might make for an interesting paper to follow up on this one. Furthermore, I feel more on my way to defining nerd speech than ever before, which is lots of fun. Hurray!


Works Cited

  1. Bergvall, Victoria L. Constructing and enacting gender through discourse: negotiating multiple roles as female engineering students. Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. New York: Longman, 1996.

  2. Platt, Joseph. Harvey Mudd College: The First Twenty Years. Santa Barbara, CA: Fithian Press, 1994.

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