Geekery and the humanities

Cross posted at From Austin to A&M.

I was at ApolloCon in Houston this year, and am really glad I went. I was on a couple of panels, met some really nice people, and got to pontificate about geek culture and science fiction for a few days. A couple of things really got under my skin (I think this may be my fate at every con I go to), but the one that made me the saddest happened at the Geek Girls in Popular Culture panel, which I was a part of. During our closing remarks, I noted that we seem to only be including women in the science/tech/math fields when we talked about “geek girls” and this is, I think, a real problem. As a humanities-based geek myself, it made me feel like I was being left out, but also it seems to include the assumption that the STEM fields are simply better than the humanities, and everyone would be better off if all geeks were in those fields. I worded it carefully, because I didn’t want it to sound like an accusation, and so it came out much more “Dude, I’m a geek too, and it hurts my feelings when everyone acts like I should be a computer nerd to count as one.” The answer I got shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. One of the panelists, and at least two audience members chimed in with, “Well, the only reason you’re in the humanities is because you’ve been discouraged from being in STEM.”

I was kind of stunned by that answer, in part because I had just told this group of people that I am making the humanities my career, and their response was to basically argue that it’s worthless, or at least worth less. So I didn’t say anything for a second, trying to come up with an answer that wasn’t, “Fuck you. The majority of my work lately has been determining the values of this motherfucking subculture right here, and you are the subjects of that work. It doesn’t make any sense for you to tell me that that isn’t worthwhile.” I had told these people that I do fan studies, and as fans, their response is tell me that I only chose my field because I had been discouraged from doing more important work? Seriously.

Someone on the panel did backtrack a little, saying “well, we should be encouraging everyone to be in the fields they enjoy and are good at, whatever that may be,” but there’s still this…niggling. Because this is not the first place in geek culture I have seen a strong preference for STEM over the humanities, and it’s not the first place I’ve seen it outright said that the former is better than the latter, especially for women. And that’s precisely what that argument is; by saying that I’m only in the humanities because everyone knows girls are bad at STEM, they are arguing that all things being equal, every girl (or at least geek girl) would choose STEM. Because, you know, it’s better. Maybe the reason we like to think this is that geeks tend to buy hook, line, and sinker the idea that logic is better than emotion and objectivity is better than subjectivity. And we associate humanities with the latter and the sciences/math with the former. But subjectivity and emotion are not poison and they are not invalid. If you think an argument without emotion is the best kind of argument, go preach eating babies to the poor. If you think that subjective experiences don’t matter, then I guess we can all stop listening to the marginalized people of the world talking about discrimination in their lives. Because “objective” more often than not just means the words of white, hetero, cis men, whose experiences are figured as neutral and who we seem to think are unaffected by their sex, race, class, sexuality, etc.

I’m not claiming that every individual geek is consciously a logic-worshipping dude who hates gross lady feelings. But this logic worship is something that flutters just under the surface of geek culture, and manifests in seemingly harmless statements like those made at this panel. In this culture, masculinity is logic and science and femininity is emotion and feeling, and one is clearly superior to the other. Look at the show Big Bang Theory as an example. while Leonard is our hero, he is not the star of this show; Sheldon is. And Sheldon, let’s be honest, is kind of a dick. He has no regard for other people and doesn’t think anyone is as important as himself. But he’s smart, and super logical, and thus we like him. We’re supposed to like him, even as we roll our eyes at him, because he may be bad at social situations but at least he is objective! It doesn’t even seem to occur to most geek viewers that, by most measures, Sheldon is a terrible person. Because that doesn’t matter as much as his adherence to an objective, logical worldview. The comparison of him to Spock indicates, I think, another geek hero who represents this worship of logical thinking over emotional intelligence; while Spock’s character development mostly consists of him re-valuing emotion, most fans seem to see him as awesome because he appears to escape the emotion-ridden, subjectively experienced life that we must live through.

I think one of the reasons this logic worship is just under the surface of geek communities, rather than explicit, is because fan communities are actually all about personal experiences (with the text, with each other), even when they pretend not to be. This is a culture in which people dress up as characters, role-play as characters, write stories about characters, and thus relate the text to themselves and their lives. We get emotionally invested in our games, in our TV shows, in our movies, and in our books, because that’s what fans do. So perhaps this obsession with science and logic is more an anxiety than anything else; maybe fans overcompensate for what they know is their own deeply personal emotional engagement with a text.

Now, I’m not anti-logic or anti-science; I do think these things are valuable, but they can only be convincing and powerful when they take into account emotion and the humanities (for lack of a better term). None of these things work best on their own. Which brings me to my real argument: the idea that the humanities are less important than STEM is an idea that geeks need to drop, because the humanities are constitutive to geek culture, just as much as science, technology, and math are.

The idea that the humanities is not important to geek cultures is patently ridiculous; most of the time geek fan cultures are based on books or TV shows (you know, things written by writers and performed by actors, who are by definition in “the arts”); and game designers and writers are likely to have studied literature and the arts to prepare for their jobs, not just programming and computer science. The study of the King Arthur myth, Tolkien, fantasy, and history are not part of physics or chemistry; they are part of the humanities. Obviously, science and math and computers are all important parts of geek culture, but so is literature and history and the arts.

In fact, geek culture is one of those places that the STEM fields and the humanities have blended in a significant and sort of beautiful way; this is the culture in which scientists and philosophers can and do have meaningful conversations, in which literature and science come together in a novel, in which the engineer and the literary critic talk for hours on end at a convention, in which art and cyborgs are not at all at odds. This is the place where these two “opposites” meet and mingle and blend, and for our communities to really shine, we need to get rid of this underlying belief that one is better than the other.

So let’s stop ragging on the arts and humanities, and stop dismissing geeks who do them as limited or stifled. Some of us are drawn to the humanities and arts because of what they do in our culture and can do for our culture, because we recognize that they are important in geek culture and in our world. I am not a literary critic because I couldn’t think of anything more worthy to do. And I don’t think being one makes me less of a geek than anyone else.

31 thoughts on “Geekery and the humanities

  1. Amy

    I think you have some excellent points to make here, but I do have to quibble a little bit with your classification of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory as a character we are supposed to like. It seems fairly obvious to me that we are NOT supposed to like him… that even his friends dislike him tremendously and that he is severely illogical when it comes to dealing with human emotion and social mores. His character is very funny (because really, who hasn’t met someone a little like this, and doesn’t the actor do a fantastic job of portraying it?), and even pitiable at times, but I don’t know anyone who would argue that he’s likeable or that anyone should strive to imitate him.

    1. Courtney Stoker Post author

      Perhaps he is a bad example, but I have heard several of my friends comment that they’d like a friend like Sheldon. Now, they’re being funny, but I do think we’re supposed to think he’s pretty funny, even if we can’t relate to him.

      Certainly, however, our geek reverence for Spock is indicative of what I mean.

    2. Mary

      I think there’s some encouragement to aspire to be him, although I agree that it’s mixed. He’s smarter than all his friends, and the other characters spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him and trying to make him happy without him needing to do a lot of emotional or social work in return. He’s perhaps the most socially powerful character, not usually a position that someone with his temperament and personality would occupy. Moreover he’s there because of his skill as a physicist and general science prodigy, which is how some geeks wished that social hierarchies worked.

      It goes both ways: mainstream culture is very hostile to people with Sheldon’s personality and temperament, and shouldn’t be so. There’s fertile ground for ableism here: Sheldon’s writers don’t write him as a character with Aspergers, but the actor sounds like he considers himself to be playing a character with Aspergers. See Wikipedia. But the elevation of science and skilled scientists to the pinnacle of geek culture and to geek’s view of mainstream culture is problematic as in Courtney’s article.

      1. Russell Coker

        I only watched half of one episode of BBT, I found it to be so horrible that I can’t imagine the rest of the series being something that I would ever enjoy. It’s a bit like the first series of Blackadder where the main character lost so often and so badly that I’d feel guilty for laughing. So I can’t comment on the series directly but on other’s perception of it.

        Mary: I think that there is plenty of evidence of social hierarchies in the FOSS community being based on technical skill. It seems to me that a large part of the reaction to various issues that make the Geek Feminism Incidents wiki page is based on the perception of technical skills of the parties involved. The discussions I’ve seen about the treatment of women on an Autism forum differ greatly from those in the FOSS community, I think that this is largely due to the fact that social status in the Autistic community is mostly based on the ability to understand other people.

        In terms of supposedly not writing characters as Aspies, that’s the same as with Vulcans. It’s not credible to believe that Vulcans were created just from the imagination of Star Trek writers. It’s more plausible that the Star Trek writers observed the geekiest people that they knew as inspiration. Star Trek was written before AS was known about in English speaking countries, presumably the BBT writers knew what they were doing but just wanted to avoid controversy.

        Good fiction has good and bad aspects to the major characters and friends aren’t always friendly. Fictional depictions of people who appear to be Aspies often involve them being treated in ways that could be considered as bullying by their friends, this IS realistic.

        In terms of describing Sheldon as a “terrible person”, I find that a bit surprising given all the posts on this site which give examples of men who really deserve such a description. I’ll resist the temptation to write an essay about ways that Aspies are misunderstood, but there are two points that I think are particularly noteworthy.

        Firstly most people assume that everyone else is like them, this can work reasonably well when 99% of the population thinks like you but can fail dramatically when only 1% of the population think like you. Of course there is NEVER a situation where 99% of the population really think the same way, a good example of this is the way that many men grossly misunderstand women because they start by thinking “if I was a woman” and then totally fail. The second point is that NTs are much better at convincing other people that they are being reasonable.

        1. Mary

          Russell, I’d have to sit down and count, but the incidents vary, with at least two major classifications and possibly more:

          (1) unjust evaluation of a woman’s skill, involvement etc based on her gender (note that the Geek Feminism wiki is not intended to be solely about technical geekery, so “technical skill” is the wrong term)

          (2) harassment/abuse of women, creation of hostile environments, or endorsement of same

          Some incidents contain both.

          Ignore (2) at your peril: I don’t want to make the most negative reading of your comment, in fact I’m almost positive you meant nothing of the kind but you may want to avoid any potential implication that (2) would be substantially mitigated if harassment etc were limited to newbie women. It would not be.

        2. Russell Coker

          Mary: Firstly I get the point that this site is about more than just computer geeks, but the FOSS community is what I know well and what I write about. I won’t claim that social power is based on subject knowledge in other geeky areas, but in FOSS it seems obvious to me.

          When reading the discussions about the FOSS related incidents (in blog comments, mailing lists, etc) there seems to be a trend of judging arguments based on the perceived technical skill of the people making them, and when disagreeing with someone the technique of disparaging their technical skills rather than addressing their points is common. Note that I am talking about the REACTION to the incidents not the specifics of the incidents themselves.

          If social power was not related to technical skill then there would be no point in denigrating the technical skill of an opponent in a debate about social issues. In fact debates about social issues would probably have a lot less input from people who are known for technical work if that was the case.

          In future I’ll try making equivalent comments on social issues under my own name and under a pseudonym that is unknown to determine the difference. I am confident in predicting that comments I make under my own name will be taken a lot more seriously.

  2. Weathering

    (Whoa, this response got kind of long. Apologies in advance!)

    This is a really interesting post, and it got me thinking. I’m very familiar with the nagging sense that the humanities and social sciences are considered less “serious” than STEM fields. And I myself was involved in humanities and STEM about equally until the end of high school — actually, I think more than half my classes were in science, math, and computer science.

    I went into Arts in university, though, and despite a brief flirtation with a computer science minor, I decided that the required math courses would be too much work. In retrospect I regret that decision — I would like to have taken more math classes, even if my 18-year-old total slacker self wasn’t interested in studying — but I don’t really regret having majored in Arts (philosophy and linguistics), because I learned exactly a kind of rigorous, critical, dare I say logical thinking that I actually don’t see much of among my technically-oriented friends. A degree in humanities taught me to approach social, moral, and cognitive topics rigorously, and not to accept my own world-view assumptions at face value.

    That’s not actually my point, though. My point is that despite the fact that I’m extremely happy having studied Arts (and having gone on to get an advanced degree in formal linguistics), there’s a part of me that wonders if my decision was influenced by social factors. It was definitely influenced by the fact that the people in my high school who did go into the sciences were serious study-all-the-time unimaginative types, but I wonder if the social idea that women don’t become research scientists (which is what I knew I wanted to do) contributed to my decision.

    And as long as that social pressure exists, we know that a woman who did go into a STEM field was not dissuaded by that pressure, but we have no way of knowing whether a woman who didn’t go into a STEM field did that because her passion lay elsewhere, or because her 18-year-old self thought (subconsciously) that women don’t do science.

    I think that a lot of people reason that far, and then get caught up in the fallacy that because some women who go into humanities are caving to social pressure, all women in the humanities secretly wanted to go into STEM fields — especially since the people who fall into this fallacy are generally people who themselves enjoyed STEM subjects. It’s still a fallacy, though, and I certainly don’t think that anyone should imply that STEM fields are just better, or that all women who aren’t computer programmers are mindless sheep who have succumbed to social pressure, but I can sort of see where people’s reasoning might have gone wrong.

  3. Amber Largo

    Well said!

    I stopped following this blog some time ago, because of this very feeling that “lady geek” was being defined in a very limited way to mean “lady in STEM,” which I am not. Like you, I went into the humanities (my degree is in English Literature and Gender Studies) because it *interested* me, and I resent feeling like I’m shut out of geek culture because I can’t program and I don’t use a Linux machine. I am a geek, I am a feminist, I am not a rocket scientist, and that should be okay.

  4. mercury

    Thanks for this post! I sometimes feel like I’m not a real geek because I’m not firmly in the STEM camp–I love math, and I’d even love to write about math, but my university major is creative writing. I feel a little bit second-best, you know?

    I wouldn’t say that the show asks us to admire Sheldon. I like him as a character, but if he were a real person, he would be incredibly obnoxious, and I think the show acknowledges that. It’s sort of an uncomfortable humor, like with Michael Scott on The Office. But yes, Spock is definitely admired for being logical. I think another interesting character in this respect is Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think he’s idolized less, and his journey is a lot more explicitly about becoming human, especially learning to feel. He gets more at the tension between technical knowledge and subjective understanding.

  5. Emily

    Not sure if it’s strictly relevant but this seems to me like it could be easily part and parcel of the tendency to view any field women have become successful is as somehow “lesser”. There is (to my admittedly fuzzy knowledge) a higher proportion of women in the humanities than STEM fields. So humanities are subsequently seen as “soft” or “easy” compared to STEM. This seems to be true of a lot of professions, once women get in the whole profession is devalued in some way. Even within the sciences, biology (which has a pretty high proportion of women), is often viewed as a “soft” science. Especially when compared to the more male-dominated physics and maths.

    Of course cause and effect are all mixed up here so it’s hard to prove that this is the case, but to my mind it seems to have at least some truth to it.

    1. Courtney Stoker Post author

      I absolutely agree that this is part of what’s going on. There is a big gender split, and that leads to some subject getting less prestige, even within the academy.

  6. Meredith L.


    I’ve always been very bad at math, and if I hadn’t gone to school in the 80s and early 90s maybe I would have been tested for a learning disability. I wasn’t bad at math because I’m a girl, or I was told to be bad at math, or because that was what was expected of me. All my math teachers were women, and my mother and bestest girlfriend are math nerds. My parents hired a private tutor for me, but I still failed 11th grade Algebra II. I’m just bad at it, OK? And, like you, I get tired of this underlying feeling that if I only tried harder, or broke free the shackles of the patriarchy, I’d somehow be a big giant math nerd.

    Thank you for standing up for we girl geeks who DON’T do physics for fun or build engines or design computer software or whatever. I’m perfectly happy in my geekiness watching Sci-Fi on TV, reading fantasy novels, and attending geek conventions.

  7. Restructure!

    If you think that subjective experiences don’t matter, then I guess we can all stop listening to the marginalized people of the world talking about discrimination in their lives. Because “objective” more often than not just means the words of white, hetero, cis men, whose experiences are figured as neutral and who we seem to think are unaffected by their sex, race, class, sexuality, etc.

    I don’t like the first sentence of this, which implies that the experiences of marginalized people, as well as discrimination, are not part of the real, objective world. From the next sentence, I know you mean the opposite, but it still reinforces the idea that only white hetero cis men are “objective” and everyone else (the majority of the world) is “subjective”.

    Logic and science are more important and fundamental than most people realize and appreciate, but logic and science are not “opposite” to emotion and the humanities. They are orthogonal, not opposite directions on a single axis. I really do agree with you that there is more to geekery than STEM fields (because I am not just a STEM geek, either), but I don’t like perpetuating the stereotype that marginalized people are more subjective, that emotion is the opposite of logic, that the humanities is the opposite of science, etc. You also criticize this dichotomy near the end of your post, but well … I’m a logic-worshipping, science-loving person who is suspicious of emotion and subjective evaluation, but I’m also a humanities-loving woman of colour who hates it when white hetero cis men ‘splain and assume that they must know more than me about objectivity, logic, and tech.

    1. Courtney Stoker Post author

      I don’t disagree with you. I think one of the problems with this whole conversation is that we make these things binary, and we tend to think of them as mutually exclusive. When I say “logic-worshipping,” I merely mean logic in that falsely binaristic way, in which logic and science are thought of as “factual” instead of alternative (and often overlapping) systems of knowledge.

      In my rantiness, I realize, I didn’t make that clear.

  8. Kirsty

    I’m a humanities graduate and an educator and I love science fiction,especially Star Trek and Firefly, because of its heart and its constant scrutiny of the human condition. I don’t get this argument that geekery and geek culture have to be grounded in STEM because a lot of our shows and films are set in space or based in science, it’s like saying that only people who study Roman History can enjoy Spartacus. The science and tech are vehicles by which the producers and writers of our media can relay stories about human beings, they’re not meant to further the cause of STEM, though that has been a pleasant accidental outcome.

    If anythingm, humanities should be the go to subjects for geeks of all genders because they have been the bedrock on which our cultural material has been founded, as you say. Gene Roddenberry planned Star Trek as ‘Wagon Train to the stars’, he wanted to follow human beings on a journey of discovery and show their response to this. What could be more of a humanities exercise?

  9. Nightsky

    First, I think it’s important to remember that old-school geekdom was accepting of the humanities. Comics nerds, SFF fen, D&D players: all these were unquestionably geeks, regardless of mathematical ability. Remember the “Geek Codes” everyone had in their .sig files fifteen years ago? Those explicitly included geeks in the humanities, law, etc.

    I think what we’re seeing here is the intersection of several trends.
    1. Geekdom is having something of an identity crisis. Geeks have traditionally defined themselves by mainstream opprobrium: they were the ones who liked what everyone else thought was frivolous (SF, D&D), for kids (comics, anime), or just plain not interesting (most hard sciences). But geekdom is cool now, and geeks are bewildered to find the people who used to make fun of them now claiming solidarity. The backlash (“remember when being a geek meant something?”) was inevitable.
    2. The backlash is taking shape as a widespread policing of geek cred.
    3. As Emily points out above, the influx of women into something means a lessening of status.
    4. A hierarchy is forming in geeky heads (and not just guys, either) that has hard sciences at the top and humanities at the bottom.
    5. Geeks have blinkered views of their own fields. Being good at what’s universally acknowledged to be “hard” gets them thinking that every other subject must be “easy”*. The “logic good and difficult, humanities soft and easy” thinking’s always been present in the hard sciences**; I knew geeks in college who, though they had trouble expressing themselves, thought they could totally rule any “soft” subject if they wanted to. Because it’s all “bullshitting”, you see–not like STEM, which is logical and has a clear set of skills to master. Which was part of the appeal of STEM in the first place to guys who weren’t academically gifted in the humanities.
    6. Putting it all together: Geeks trying to redefine geekdom back to its supposed roots have singled out a set of geeky fields as the be-all and end-all of geekdom. Thanks to cultural anthrocentrism, these are fields that are and have been male-dominated: STEM. Increased policing of geek cred leads to widespread denigration of non-STEM fields, even if they are geeky. (And, honestly, what could be geekier than the study of geekdom itself?)

    I have it easy, as a female geek: with a master’s in computer science, I have sterling geek cred. I try to use it to get geeks to stop with the policing. How successful I am, I don’t know.

    * My study buddies and I, in college, occasionally paused in our study sessions to heap derision on “soft” students, whom we assumed were always partying because–come on, how hard could it be? I am not proud of this, but the righteous indignation generated did keep us going through the end of the problem set.
    ** Science geeks’ self-image of themselves as logical and fair and the sciences as a pure meritocracy is one major reason they have such a hard time acknowledging sexism in their fields.

    1. Kim Curry


      Note: this reply is written from a U.S. perspective, because that’s what I am immersed in. I am interested in hearing comparisons and contrasts with other countries’ perspectives.

      I’m in STEM, but I also have an M.A. in Humanities. While I was studying it, my engineering colleagues wondered why I wasn’t going for an M.S. The school I was attending didn’t offer an M.S. in the field.

      I want to add, though, to point 4):

      a) There is growing recognition within the U.S. STEM community that the U.S. needs more people in STEM if it is going to remain a world leader. The numbers of students in China and India who are studying STEM are often cited as staggeringly more than the U.S. can or has done. This article is a case in point:

      b) However, within STEM education, there is also recognition that the Humanities and Social Sciences are important to operating in a Globalized world. A [U.S.] National Academy of Engineering publication, “The Engineer of 2020,” even proposes remaking the engineering curriculum to replace the various B.S.’s in Engineering with a less-specialized degree program that would be completed with the Engineering equivalent to an M.D. or J.D.

      c) There are socialization issues involved. Some Nightsky alluded to. I’m not sure whether it is tied to class, or family, or something else.
      Resorting to anecdote: in my family, the arts and humanities were NOT encouraged as a career field. This goes back at least two generations.
      — My grandparents were high-school educated farmers, who taught their children the importance of education.
      — Six of their eight children went on to college, and I think all six ended up in STEM fields. I think, for the second generation, there was an element of “we’re too poor to waste college on frivolous things.” Or perhaps it was, “You’re on your own for college, so you’d better be certain you can pay back your loans!”
      — For the third generation, my generation, it started to relax a little, in the better-off families. I actually have a cousin who majored in Graphic Design. My brother who started out as a Theater major, ended up switching to STEM. I think my family still wasn’t ready to support arts careers.

      I also saw this among the youth at my previous Church. Where the families were well-off, they could encourage their children to consider careers in the arts. I’m not sure which it was:
      1) they could afford to support a college-graduate until their art career took off, or
      2) the family had connections and/or know-how to make the arts career succeed

      d) The Great Recession has led to some rethinking of priorities on many sides.

      — I’ve read several career-building articles that suggest taking unpaid internships as a way to build skills and/or work the way into a job. The only place I ever heard of an *unpaid* internship was in my M.A. program. My engineering internships were paid positions.
      — Some of the first programs to be cut when schools have budget problems are Music, Theater, Art.
      — Student loan defaults became a big news item for a time. There’s more awareness that degrees don’t necessarily pay for themselves.
      — I have mostly anecdotal data to back this up: The impression I’ve been getting, is that some/many of the people who are struggling to find work in the Great Recession had degrees in Humanities and/or Social Sciences. Subjects where their skills are not in demand. That there are more graduates with Arts, Humanities, Theater, and even English or foreign language degrees than there are jobs (teaching or otherwise) demanding those skills.

      I hope this makes sense.

  10. Tony Mechelynck

    Another argument:
    If Science, Tech & Math are so much better than philosophy, psychology and sociology, how is it that, even to the sience people (and at least in Anglo-Saxon countries) a “Doctor of Philosophy” (who has studied some science) is a notch above a mere “Doctor of Science”?

    1. Courtney Stoker Post author

      I have never heard of a “Doctor of Science.” People with their doctorates in biology, chemistry, physics, what have you, are all PhDs. Though the “philosophy” part of that degree is merely a linguistic anachronism. Biologist PhDs don’t have to study philosophy, or normally take any humanities courses beyond undergrad.

      1. Mary

        At least in Australia a Doctor of Science is in fact a higher doctorate, pursued by (some few) academics well into their career, and awarded based on a career-wide body of work. The candidate for a Doctor of Science degree would already hold a PhD.

        Wikipedia suggests this is perhaps the usual way:

        And indeed, a PhD/Doctor of Philosophy is the term for pretty much any research doctorate in Australia. Per Wikipedia “The term ‘philosophy’ does not refer solely to the modern field of philosophy, but is used in a broader sense in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is ‘love of wisdom.'”

        So, Tony’s comment does not apply to Australia (which is, educationally, Anglo-Saxon) at all.

        1. Tony Mechelynck

          OK, So I was more ignorant than I thought. Change that to “university teachers of science call themselves Doctors of Philosophy” and remove thepart about ScD.
          And, the fact (which I don’t dispute) that PhD actually uses φιλοσοφια in its original meaning “love of wisdom, of learning” implies no lesser prestige for the humanities — a true φιλοσοφος is in love of all learning, like Diderot and the Encyclopaedists.

        2. Mary

          Tony, what’s your specific argument here? That the academy values humanities as much as science? Even if this were currently true, and I’m not sure it is (there have probably been times and places when this was reversed though, science hasn’t always been respectable), that doesn’t refute Courtney’s point about geek culture generally.

  11. Katie Zenke

    Thank you for writing such a well-articulated post on this topic. This is definitely something that has bothered me in recent years. Like many of the other people who have commented already I am also in the humanities and, to make it “worse”, I work with *children’s* books too! So I totally relate to the experience that my particular geekdom and specialty is seen as not as “hard” or “important” as… pretty much anything else (who really cares about what’s in a children’s book, right? how hard could that be to analyze?).

    I think it’s important that geeks of all stripes remember that whether they’re Star Trek geeks, Jane Austen geeks, Linux geeks, Eastern European textile geeks, LARPing geeks, dinosaur geeks, or even exotic mustard geeks, it doesn’t matter. Whatever you’re passionate about and interested in is worth the energy and time if it’s what gets you excited. None of them are inherently “better” than others.

    Should we be working towards a future where kids can choose whatever career they want without those pressures to go into or not go into one field or another based on just their sex or social standing or race or whatever? Of course. But judging someone now on what they studied because they *might* have chosen differently if the world was different is not only a waste of energy but it’s insulting – if the world was different, you might be in a different field too. They chose what they chose for their own reasons, likely not all of which (if any) related to whatever prejudices society had at the time.

  12. Daniel Martin

    First off, I am confused at the apparent conflation of humanities and social science. I had not thought the two so tightly connected.

    I clearly didn’t hang around in sufficiently geeky social circles as my sense of how the world works was forming, because I still have somewhere in my head the idea that knowledge of humanities (literature, poetry, art and, to some extent, history) are what make someone educated and able to have conversations with other seriously educated people, and the sciences are for tradesmen.

    Reflecting on this further, I wonder how much of my sense that this is how the world works comes from attending a small liberal arts school, where those of us in the natural sciences and mathematics had something of a bunker mentality.

    This sense that the world works this way has nothing to do with the present reality of my life or my current social circles. I work in nearly the geekiest place on the planet, and entirely too much of my social life takes place online with technologies too old for most 20-somethings to have heard of them. Nevertheless, I feel it as though it were a powerful cultural meme. Is what you’re seeing in geek circles perhaps a reaction to this; that is, could you be seeing the persistent echo of a reaction against the idea that STEM fields aren’t worth pursuing? (an echo that’s lasted long after it stopped being relevant)

    1. Nightsky

      First off, I am confused at the apparent conflation of humanities and social science. I had not thought the two so tightly connected.

      They aren’t. The distinction geeks are drawing is between STEM and everything else, with social sciences and the humanities in the “everything else” category.

  13. M

    Honestly, I’m in STEM and nothing makes me respect the humanities and social sciences more than talking about them with the Sheldons of the world. They’ll ignore or scoff at anything non-STEM four times out of five. The fifth time they’ll take a shot at addressing a related issue, then fail horribly because they lack the basic tools and knowledge required for an intelligent conversation on the subject. Not that I’m an expert either. For a group of people that pride ourselves on being smart, when it comes to the humanities and social sciences, we’re not any better off than the average person on the street. We might use bigger words, but it doesn’t really matter if we’re making the same flawed, uneducated arguments. So obviously it is not so easy as we like to pretend.

    I don’t think this attitude is helped by the fact that SS/humanities has a rep for being relatively writing-intense, and the writing done in STEM classes is given a LOT more leeway. There’s definitely lots of bullshit flying around, and it gets a pass because writing skills are not valued that highly (although they should be). I found it more difficult to write an A paper in a first-year anthro course than in my third and fourth year comp sci classes. I don’t think I’ve ever fretted over a comp sci paper the way I did with my anthro papers, because a wrong word here or there could completely change the tone and cast doubt on my essay. We laugh at classes like “physics for poets”, but one of my required courses was basically “philosophy for programmers” and it bore about as much resemblance to real philosophy as “physics for poets” does physics.

  14. Meg Thornton

    I’m in an interesting spot with this myself. I’m currently on my fourth effort (it’s a long story) on embarking on a degree. The first three times through, I was basically studying for a BA – first off in Politics, next run was Education, third time around it was Professional (Creative) Writing. This is the first degree attempt I’ve made at something in STEM – I’m now studying Computer Science, and wishing I was back on the Arts side of campus!

    For me, the things which made studying the various Arts-y subjects I was doing interesting were things like the diversity of knowledge they encouraged – you could bring in your examples from just about everywhere, and still be accepted, whereas over in the Comp Sci classes, if you speak of things outside the realm of computing, you get strange looks from the other students – ‘what is this “philology” you speak of, strange person?’. Also, I’m finding the STEM side of things is much more aimed at stuff which, in my opinion, really belongs in the technical colleges and TAFEs – if I’m going to have a BSc in Computer Science, I’d like to be able to speak knowledgeably about more than just the various ways to jiggle switches on a particular model of Cisco switch in order to get it to talk to another Cisco switch of the same vintage. I’d like to be able to talk about things like why I have to jiggle switches in this particular way, and why the switches I’m jiggling switches on are called switches, and why they don’t have some other name, and what that other name might possibly have been. I’d like to be able to explain why I’m programming in Java beyond just “that’s what we were taught” or “it’s popular these days”. As a former Arts type, I know on the Arts side of campus, those sorts of questions are acceptable, nay, encouraged. On the STEM side? Not so much.

    So maybe I’ll start thinking about broadening what I’m studying to pick up units in Psychology (because I’m interested in the reasons why there’s such a difference in emphasis) or maybe gender studies or something like that.

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