If You’re Reading This, You Might Be a Geek

Review of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers by Jessamyn Neuhaus, WVUP 2019

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I set out at the beginning of this academic year with a new professional goal: read more scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). But where to start? A couple of resources have been really helpful for me in identify books and articles to read in this area. One is HASTAC’s Progressive Pedagogy reading list, a crowd-sourced bibliography you can access here. Another great resource has been the higher education and pedagogy communities on Twitter. These resources embody the best in collegiality and collaboration: teaching is a social activity, and becoming better teachers should be too. So, in that spirit, I’m also going to be sharing my take on some of that work here, hopefully to continue the conversation. We at PALS would love to hear what you think if you read any of these books or try out their approaches in your classes, so let us know via social media or, even better, a guest post!

One of the books I’ve recently read is Jessamyn Neuhaus’s Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, published in 2019 by West Virginia University Press. Initially, I bristled at the title. I’m not a geek! You’re not going to find me reading Kant or Clarissa at the beach, and instead of watching PBS, I’ll be tuned into whatever football or soccer game is on, beer in hand. And despite my interests in early American culture, I’m not listening to the Hamilton soundtrack before class, I’m listening to Lizzo or Cardi B.

I. Am. Not. A. Geek.

nerdsBut, even though Neuhaus takes advantage of recent trends to reclaim terms like “geek” and “nerd,” the image of the spectacled, socially awkward bookworm isn’t what she’s actually invoking. Neuhaus’s basic premise is this: our interest in what we study can get in the way of good teaching. What she does differently from other teachers and scholars is to frame that as a product of scholars’ inherent geekiness. Referring to “geeks,” “nerds,” and “introverts” as “GINs,” Neuhaus explains how the traits associated with these personality types can impact our teaching—both negatively and positively.

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Though Neuhaus never outright says it this way, my takeaway from the book after reading was that being a “geek” or a “nerd” simply means being so invested and immersed in the things that you enjoy the most and that matter to you most that you forget how to interact with other humans who don’t share that same level of interest. Do you have strong opinions about VAR? Do you have a favorite symphony conductor? Can you name all of the pandas born at Zoo Atlanta, in birth order? Congrats, you’re a geek. I am a geek. Apparently.

nerdzoneGeeky Pedagogyis as much about communication and introspection as it is about teaching, and this is what really appealed to me. As Neuhaus points out, all of the qualities of GINs benefit academics as we move through graduate school and then in our research as faculty—but then those same characteristics work against us in the classroom. Smart as we are, we often can’t read the room (or don’t think we need to), and that’s a communication problem. While I’ve seen this over and over, I had never really thought about it in these terms. As I’ve mentioned before in my writing here, my current position has a significant pedagogical support element: in various collaborative models, I work with faculty from disciplines as diverse as chemistry, music, economics, art history, and engineering in the first- and second-year writing and research courses that they teach. I’m both an embedded writing instructor and resource for the students and a pedagogical resource for the lead instructor. So, I’ve sat through my share of awkwardly silent classes and read my share of papers from students who struggle to find purpose and meaning in the assigned tasks. What Neuhaus reveals to her readers is that this isn’t a result of negligence or lack of care. Rather, it’s a case of an expert in a field projecting their own geeky interest in their subject onto their students.

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While I struggle with my share of these moments in my classes too, over a decade of experience teaching general education courses has gifted me with an extensive set of strategies and tools for responding to these moments. For those who haven’t had that experience, Neuhaus provides a great resource. The book is also great for a “tune up” when you find yourself teaching a new class, as I’m finding out now. This semester I’m teaching a new sophomore-level writing and research seminar and an upper-division literature survey, and in both cases I find myself making use of the lessons from Geeky Pedagogy. Week in and week out, I’m having to relearn how to communicate what I love about these new topics and texts; Geeky Pedagogy provides a structured approach for doing that.

Geeky Pedagogy is organized by chapters focused on Awareness, Preparation, Reflection, Support, and Practice. The chapter on Awareness is a personal favorite of mine. I identify deeply with this particular bit from that chapter:

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“As a highly cerebral person and as an introvert, I love my thoughts. Like many professional intellectuals, my brain is constantly teeming with ideas scurrying, burrowing, and rushing to and fro like brainy little hamsters.  We scholarly geeks, introverts, and nerds…frequently cope with college teaching stress by retreating into our minds and staying well out of the present moment.” (21)

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Especially in teaching new courses and new texts, it’s easy to “retreat” and avoid the hard work of communication. Neuhaus argues in her chapter on awareness though that the key to good teaching—to connecting and communicating with students—is to be in the moment. That awareness is, she says, what will allow us to adapt to the situation we are in because it plays to our strengths as GINs. Neuhaus sees teaching as an intellectual endeavor just like research, and urges us to approach our teaching like we do our research, turning our weakness into our strength: awareness allows us to see the situation, identify the problem, and then work to address that problem.

In the chapters that follow, Neuhaus helps us to rethink what it means to prepare for class, to reconsider how we process and use critique and failure to become better teachers, how we can find support, and how to put what we learn into practice. Throughout, she stresses that all of this is unique to our individual teaching contexts—and that might be the greatest strength of Geeky Pedagogy. As our contexts change, so should how we approach our teaching, and Geeky Pedagogy is a great resource to have when that happens.

Geeky Pedagogy is part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series edited by James M. Lang and published by the West Virginia University Press. Be sure to check out the other books in the series!

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