Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of US history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh, a scholar of teaching and learning, and a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her book Geeky Pedagogy is new in WVU Press’s series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
When I first began thinking about writing a book on teaching and learning in higher education, I knew who I most wanted to reach: geeks, introverts, and nerds (GINs) like me—the eggheads and experts who are fluent in studying, pondering, thinking, and researching but for whom teaching effectively doesn’t come naturally or easily. As I state in the introduction of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers: “Emulating other writers and commentators today who are proudly self-identifying as geeks and nerds, expanding the definition of geek culture, and challenging negative stereotypes about nerds, I use ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ as an occasionally self-deprecating, but also affirming and celebratory way of describing certain characteristics we in higher education often share and which have an impact on teaching” (3). Because I am a professor and lifelong consumer of popular culture, I leapt at the chance to pay homage in the book and chapter epigraphs to my favorite geeky books, movies, and entertainment franchises. In this post, I reflect on a few of these geek culture touchstones.
“Grade me. Look at me! Evaluate and rank me. Oh, I’m good, good, good, and ohso smart! Grade me!!!!” –Lisa Simpson, “The PTA Disbands,” The Simpsons
Lisa Simpson is one of the most widely viewed popular depictions of a nerd. In “The PTA Disbands,” a teacher’s strike cancels classes and soon brainy, straight-A student Lisa goes into academic withdrawal. I chose this quote for Geeky Pedagogy’s book epigraph in part because I love that one of pop culture’s most famous nerds of all time is a socially awkward little girl who (most of the time) finds enormous satisfaction in her intellectual prowess. Additionally, in the book I argue that many super-smart people teaching college classes started out as students like Lisa, which makes us great scholars but can hamper our teaching efficacy, since most people don’t especially love school and especially dislike being graded. In Geeky Pedagogy, I explore how awareness of and preparing to bridge this potential gulf between GIN professors and our students is essential for effective teaching, and it can start with acknowledging all the traits we may very well share with little bookworms and brainiacs like Lisa Simpson.
“You see but you do not observe.”—Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia”
Like Lisa Simpson, Sherlock Holmes can be an annoying smarty pants. Like so many of us in academia, he’s able to see that which escapes more pedestrian minds and he doesn’t hesitate to draw attention to his superior intellect. In Sherlock, the recent megahit BBC version set in contemporary London, he’s a neurodivergent genius who’s completely out of step with all social conventions but uses his fabulous Mind Palace to solve crimes. In short, Sherlock Holmes is the Original Geek, not to mention the first fictional creation to spawn a truly bonkers fandom which has been going strong for well over 100 years. In the above quote from “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891), he’s schooling Watson on the importance of careful, close, analytical awareness, which I argue is foundational to effective teaching. Fortunately, it’s also something we GINs are more than capable of, with a little effort and practice. In fact, we’re pretty darn good at it already, and do it readily in our scholarly fields. Applying it to our teaching as well? Elementary.
“I’m ready! I’m ready! I’m ready! I’m ready!” –SpongeBob, “Help Wanted,” SpongeBob SquarePants
I chose this quote for two reasons. First, SpongeBob is such a nerd. A nerd in the most hackneyed sense, as in failing to fulfill masculine ideals, childish to the point of arrested development, and subject to ridiculously overblown enthusiasms. As much as I advocate against such stereotypes in Geeky Pedagogy, SpongeBob is still one of my favorite pop culture nerds. He lives fully in the moment and he’s comfortable with who he is: not a bad role model for any of us. Second, this quote is more nuanced than it may first appear. “Help Wanted” begins with SpongeBob longing to become a fry cook at The Krusty Krab. He’s psyching himself up to go apply for the open position but he’s nervous and his “I’m ready!” chanting notwithstanding, he’s not actually fully prepared. He lets his self-doubts and his potential employer’s skepticism derail him. But then he proves his abilities, with easy, expert joy, during an anchovy-related customer service emergency. Turns out that SpongeBob was ready all along, just like you’ll be, I argue, with some careful advance preparation for effective teaching and a big helping of the same kind of passion for your subject that SpongeBob brings to Krabby Patties.
“I don’t think I can survive this place on my own.” –Michael Burnham, “The Wolf Inside,” Star Trek Discovery
Geeky Pedagogy quotes and references Star Trek (ST) more than any other pop culture source because it’s contemporary geek culture Ground Zero and a clear discursive and cultural shorthand for nerdiness. Moreover, ST exemplifies and illustrates a key part of my book’s premise. Effective teaching, I argue, means using our expertise and passion for our subjects to help students learn how to do things with that subject. It cannot be about “geek gatekeeping,” that is, lording our specialized knowledge over less learned people who don’t “get it” and aren’t “real experts/fans.” ST fandom has its share of hardliners who disparage the increasing mainstreaming of the franchise. But much like the franchise itself, millions of Trekkers actively embrace aspirational plurality and diversity. It was essential to me that nothing in my book reinforced the view of nerds and geeks solely as white boys and men—a view that occurs both within and from outside certain geek communities. ST references like the quote from Michael Burnham—played by Sonequa Martin-Green, the first African American lead in a ST series—allow me to demonstrate my nerd credentials and also my belief in a universe that celebrates and upholds what Spock in the original series called “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Geeky Pedagogy fully takes into account the diversity of teaching contexts, including employment status (tenure track, tenured, contingent) and how race, ethnicity, gender expression, speaking voice, and so on, shape our experiences in the classroom and interacting with students. ST references underscore my commitment to scholarship of teaching and learning that decenters assumed privilege.
I also chose this quote because here’s Michael Burnham, a fiercely smart and self-determined scientist, raised with Vulcan values (repression of emotions, prizing of logic above all), stating outright that she’s afraid and that she needs help navigating a baffling alternative universe where’s she’s just trying to complete her mission. Which sounds a lot like many faculty members I know who mistakenly thought their big logical brain and academic know-how was all they needed to succeed as an educator, only to become overwhelmed by the challenges and complexities of teaching and learning. Meeting those challenges and becoming an effective teacher requires new ideas and frequent support from others in a pedagogical community of practice. To boldly go forth into our classrooms and invite students into whatever subject it is we love with all our geeky hearts, we Lisas, Sherlocks, SpongeBobs, and Trekkers in academia need each other.
For resources and for further information on Geeky Pedagogy, please visit my website, https://geekypedagogy.com.