This post was written by a student in Susan Schuyler’s Narrative, Rhetoric, and Identity class at Stanford University. Each student in this class will complete a research-based argument related to the course topic.
Surprisingly, “From Nerds to Normals” is not the name a reality TV show in which computer programmers and Star Trek fans are forced to play sports and have conversations with “normal” people. It is in fact the name of a 1993 article in the Journal Sociology of Education by David A. Kinney. In this article, Kinney describes the ways in which (necessarily miserable) “nerds” gain the social skills and confidence necessary to happily assimilate into the general population. It quickly becomes clear to us that in academia and popular culture, both the connotations of the word “nerd” and the general perception of nerd culture have evolved significantly in the last few decades—today, it would be difficult to publish an article that takes for granted the fact that nerds are miserable and abnormal.
Yet at the same time, the belief that being a nerd is a misfortune—and not a choice—seems to persist. Popular culture still tends to view nerdiness as a hurdle to development, especially of the sexual nature. In particular, television producers have concocted nerd television shows that seem to target nerds bummed out about their failure to have a girlfriend. According to our culture, it seems, nerds can only be happy by becoming less nerdy. When Bill Gates—the richest and arguably most famous nerd in history—quotes Charles J. Sykes in saying, “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one,” he is at once asserting nerd pride—a growing phenomenon perhaps less present in Kinney’s 1993—and acknowledging that our current society still devalues and demeans the figure of the obsessive techie.
Edit: OK, so as it turns out, Bill Gates never actually said that…but the fact that so many people attribute that quote to him still says something about how nerds are attempting to craft a sense of nerd pride.
Robin Jia/Stanford University