When I was at school, geeks were social pariahs. They were clever, but not usually overburdened with social skills. Being a geek was pretty uncool, a fact only slightly ameliorated by the general loveliness of my final-year physics class.
But at some point over the last ten years or so, geek went mainstream. Sci-fi movies mostly stopped being referred to as sci-fi movies; they were just movies, and everyone went to see them. Superhero movies likewise flourished; it became socially acceptable to know who Peter Parker was. The Buffyverse demonstrated that geeks could not only be hot, they were also pretty adept at saving the world. (Yes, I know it’s not real. Hush.)
It has helped, I think, that the Internet makes it easier than in any previous time in history to find other people to geek out with, whatever your interest. If you want to find others with whom you can discuss the finer points of sculpting a model of your own cerebral cortex using only condensed milk, duct tape and that weird ash residue left over from setting fire to your entire manga collection after your girlfriend left you that fourth time, there has never been a better time to be alive.
Educators, who are themselves often pretty geeky, are starting to understand how to make the internet work for them, and there is phenomenal growth through platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn as people establish personal learning networks (PLNs) to connect with other educators, with the chief aim of sharing the challenges of communicating knowledge and keeping learners engaged — though naturally there is some socialising and social networking along the way. Hey, we’re humans too.
But, because a lot of educators have come relatively late to the internet, I think we’re doing this networking in often amateurish ways: fumbling around in the dark, trying to find people who can educate us.
Educators need role models, but there hasn’t been time to grow them organically, because as a sector we’re relatively new to the internet, and the idea of using it for our personal and professional development is similarly recent.
Consider the emergence of role-models in the technology sector, the spiritual and often actual home of bona fide geeks. What happened, roughly, was this:
● The internet was born
● Geeks (the only people using the internet at the time) started using it to talk to each other
● A shared culture was born around the technology industry and the internet
● A culture of commentary on that subculture emerged (which I’m sure happens with all subcultures, but geeks are particularly notorious for their analytical skills)
● Some high-profile commentators emerged
● Those high-profile commentators became role models within the technology subculture
● Geek went mainstream
● The same high-profile commentators are now role models to many people outside the technology subculture, because so many of us use technology.
Then consider educational subculture and its relationship with the internet:
● Education emerged several thousand years ago.
● An education subculture emerged and stayed largely unchanged for a very, very long time.
● The printing press was invented, so it became easier for people to get their hands on educational materials, but education subculture was largely unaffected.
● Literacy became more widespread, and seen as desirable; education started becoming less elitist, but still its subculture remained largely unchanged.
● The internet was invented. Most educators didn’t really notice, except for the additional demands placed on them by their email inboxes.
● As the proportion of educators with some degree of ‘net literacy increased, educators finally started using the internet to grow and modify their subculture.
● Now what?
I’m not saying there aren’t role-model educators out there, but they’re not there for me like technology role models are there for me. With rare exceptions, I can’t find them like I can the tech guys, because their stories aren’t woven into the fabric of my life and work.
Simon at Infinitely Orthogonal talks about the emerging culture of storytelling within the tech sector:
They write about coding – which I ‘get’ in the same patronising way that I ‘get’ Mondrian and Tarkovsky ie not in any real sense other than the purely personal, but I want to feel like I get it so I brush any misunderstanding under a mental carpet and bestow them with my attention.
But they also write stuff about work, recognisable human work. Which I totally get, grok and delight in.
These are people like Rands, Joel Spolsky, and Merlin Mann (the last better known for his work on productivity, but who still has one foot in tech culture). They got to where they are by being dedicated, hardcore geeks — but they are also, as Simon says, recognisably human. Learn why Rands is stalking your bookcase; watch Merlin Mann, dishevelled and unslept, explain that he’s writing a book. Read about how Joel Spolsky’s time in the Israeli armed forces informs his company’s product development strategy.
We — educators — don’t have role models like these guys*. Or if we do, I don’t know about them; they’re not part of my educational subculture. From where I am, I see:
● subject specialists who write about their specialism, often to the exclusion of the human element
● educators who were already famous and who are now using social networking software to grow their brands
● thousands, maybe millions, of small-time educators, each with their own tiny megaphone, all shouting “listen to me; my message is valuable.”
(I have no illusions; I’m firmly in that last category.)
We need to aspire to something; geeks already know this. It can be hard to honour your intellectual aspirations when you’re buried in admin and teaching preparation and grappling with the steep tech gradient between the stuff you’d like to use and what there is. But take a photo-tour of Joel Spolsky’s Fog Creek Software offices and tell me that’s not somewhere you’d want to work. And now transpose that to the educational setting: I want my Twitterstream to be flooded with examples of beautiful, well-thought-out university architecture, pictures that make me stop what I’m doing and think Wow, maybe one day. Sure, there’s a funding explosion waiting to happen in higher education, and it will never have money like technology has money, but a little bit of healthy jealousy can be motivational. I want to believe that one day, that will be me, because we are constantly bombarded by messages that education, along with the rest of the world, is going to hell in a handbasket, and that gets pretty tiring after a while.
We need storytellers to remind us, on those bad days, why we do what we do. We need passionate, articulate, geeky-as-hell educators who are funny and flawed and compelling to read. People we can point to and say “I want to be like her”.
Education needs heroes and leaders. Let’s grow some.
* I’m not wholly happy to realise that it is mostly guys; someone please point me towards geeky, funny, tech-literate women who write about science/technology/education and how they learn from their screw-ups. Thanks.