Re-post: Geekery and the humanities

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on July 13, 2011.

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.

12 thoughts on “Re-post: Geekery and the humanities

  1. Elizabeth

    So much yes. While I ended up in tech for a day job, this is a total one-eighty from most of my personal history; I remain convinced that I lost out on at least two academic awards in high school (an all-girls school that pushed us not to buy into the “girls suck at math” thing) because I focused on languages. I geek out about open source, sure, but I came to open source geekery through constitutional and IP law geekery, and frankly those fields are going to be the kind of things I go back to when economics is less of a burden. To disrespect the humanities (law, languages, history, writing) as geek fields is to disrespect my geekery.

  2. Sheila A

    Thanks so much for this! I have a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy and consider myself a tremendous geek about it. I don’t do quantitative research but I noodle over obscure points of theory, write articles and conference proposals that even people in my field don’t quite know what to make of, and inform people against their will about things that interest me but probably not them.

    (Perfect example: Trying to take down Jimmy Kimmel’s stupid “pranks” using child development and feminist/queer theory, basically. I also tried to have a go at zombies from a family therapy perspective around Halloween, with only modest success.)

    I submitted a contribution for Wednesday Geek Women about a pioneering woman in family therapy and felt tremendously embarrassed about it, worrying it wasn’t sufficiently geeky. I was really pleased to hear it will be run sometime early next year, but I still have a bit of an inferiority complex about the fact that it’s not about a women in a STEM field.

    Mental health, psychology, family therapy, etc. have been trying to prove they’re just as good as “hard sciences” for decades and the fact that 80-90% of the students in MA programs for MFT, counseling, and social work are women may make it seem like there’s no relevance to the interests of this site. (Psychology programs are majority women but not skewed as heavily. Only psychiatry is still majority male.)

    But in fact the “pink collar” transformation of the field has meant salaries have dropped drastically since the 70s and 80s, there’s an ever-bigger disconnect between researchers and practitioners, and the fact that the majority of researchers, faculty, journal editors, and national board members are male stands out in even more stark relief.

    I didn’t turn my super-geek talents toward STEM fields for a lot of reasons, some but not all of which were gender-related, but I’m still “on deck” 24/7 as a feminist critiquing my field, as a woman with a terminal degree (who has in no small part sacrificed personal life and family for career), as an outspoken and openly queer woman in academia, and as a woman who tries to keep up on tech and social media and etc. while knowing that no one is ever going to seek me out for a TED talk, a net-famous geek conference, an interview on a giant blog, etc. My last conference talk wasn’t even streamed (it was recorded to sell on DVD to the like three people who will ever pay money for it, probably for CEUs or something). I still consider myself a geek, trying to make the world better for geeks of all genders as well as everyone else. (And zombies.)

    1. Brat

      I definitely hear this. In school I was good at science, and I think my teachers were disappointed that I have ended up with a BA in psychology – a “soft” science. Along with writing.

      Plenty of geeks will tell me “Psychology isn’t a science” for entirely nebulous reasons; and somehow it’s lack of being a science means it is less worthwhile to study. Which irritates the shit out of me.

  3. xenu01

    Oh hai, fellow humanities geek!

    It comes down to institutionalized sexism, combined with which fields tend to be composed of men and which are women-driven. You see it all over: teachers who teach younger children, k-5, are less well-paid and less respected than those who teach high school or college. The majority of elementary school teachers are women- I believe that high school might be about 50/50 or 60/40ish (?), and college is definitely not just the purview of female professors. English majors tend to be women- therefore, English is both “impractical” and “easy”. Comp sci majors are largely men, therefore it is a “better” and “more practical”, regardless of actual economic data.

  4. Jacqueline

    While I have been a reader of sci-fi/fantasy/comics since my preteen years I’ve never gotten into the subculture you are talking about, but this could apply to our whole damned culture. Love this and have posted about it to my FB page!

  5. Otoki

    This was a fantastic read. I already posted it on FB and have gotten a couple guy friends who say they feel it’s alienating to cis white hetero men. I think it’s because these two may not be as familiar as women, POC, etc may be with the argument about objective=cis white hetero male experience. Maybe you could expand on that a bit for those who may read your piece and feel attacked? I personally think it’s obvious but I wouldn’t want to assume everyone has had my (dubious) privilege of being familiar with the concept.

    1. Courtney Stoker Post author

      Sure, I’ll try to rustle up some 101 reading on the phenomenon. The comment thread is closed, so I’ll either post a follow-up or just edit this one with the suggested reading. When I get the time. :)

  6. Smilebits

    Isn’t it strange how men are allowed to have humanities degrees and still pursue STEM?

    There are lots of men that have degrees in English Literature, Mass Communication, Psychology, or some other artsy major and still manage to land high-paying, full-time jobs as developers. I’ve run into such men as I network. I also see them mentioned as examples in online discussion threads that ask, “Does one necessarily need a CS degree to be a developer?” If these men are seen as “real geeks,” why can’t women with humanities degrees? Perhaps it’s because they can’t get hired applying for the same job with the same qualifications.

    I’ve always thought that the low number of women earning Computer Science degrees was a red herring when it came to the low number of women in the IT sector. If you can get a job as a developer without a CS degree, why should CS graduation rates matter? The red herring is there to imply that women are lacking in IT due to their own choice not to be there, not due to sexism. It also means that earning a CS degree is the only way a woman can be qualified for the job, where a man doesn’t need this formal piece of paper. As long as people put emphasis on the low CS graduation rates among women, people can ignore the challenges of self-taught female programmers or career-changers. When it comes to the low representation of women in IT, the question shouldn’t be, “Why are there so few women enrolled in Computer Science classes?” but “Why aren’t the self-taught female coders with humanities degrees getting hired when there are men with similar backgrounds working in IT?”

    1. Dorothea

      And also “why are self-taught female coders dipping their toes in IT waters and then leaving?” Which is my experience, and I know I’m not alone.

  7. Smilebits

    I’m sorry that’s been your experience. I know the situation all too well myself. You are definitely not alone.

    It takes a substantial amount of time and effort to learn how to code in a new programming language. Sometimes money too, if you buy some books on the subject. And since you don’t have a formal piece of paper proving that you can do it, you have to sustain your skills by practicing a lot – otherwise, like any language, you begin to forget. Not surprisingly, this requires the individual to have large reserves of self-motivation.

    Now, what happens when you try to network and are met with a lukewarm reception? Or are treated unfairly? Or when you see guys with just as little experience and formal education given more encouragement than what is given to you? You begin to wonder if all your efforts teaching yourself how to code will go forever unrewarded because it seems employers have absolutely no interest in hiring you. That’s a lot of time and energy wasted. It’s opportunity cost. It’s possibly a gap on your resume if you’re a career-changer. It’s obviously a very big risk you’re taking with your time. As a self-taught programmer, you’re aware how easily employers can say, “You just don’t have a CS degree,” and leave it at that, and it’s hard to prove that male self-taught developers got hired at the same company unless they outright tell you.

    But I do have a passion for technology and keep finding myself trying again and again after periods of disappointment. I’ve since learned that’s probably the best use of your time if you lead with networking first and follow with the actual learning. Find contacts. Know exactly what they want in an entry-level employee. Only then do you invest the time. It might sound counter-intuitive because you’ll be approaching the employer with zero experience in their technology and only a spoken interest in getting hired, but if they’ve hired self-taught programmers before and you discover that they’re not gender-biased, then that’s the green light to go and start learning.

    Then you apply for the job and hope for the best, because you might have dug yourself into a hole by then with a long gap on your resume. You really are taking a chance as a self-taught woman in IT.

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