October 25, 2006

Find us a dream that don’t ask no questions

Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 10:41 pm

Memo to graduate students: do not identify yourself as a “nerd” because you are a graduate student. Do not be self-deprecating about the specialized knowledge you’ve worked hard to attain, unless you genuinely don’t think it’s useful, in which case learn or do something else. Most of all, when your graduate student friends talk about their chosen specialty—literature, say—outside of class, do not scold them for being nerdy, talking shop, not having fun, or anything along those lines. They aren’t in this graduate program to make lots of money, they’re there because they love the discipline. And you’re not being paid enough to afford not to love the discipline.

Julie and I went to a reading in Iowa by a novelist who is also a Comparative Literature Ph.D. The reading was middling (good concept, cutesy execution), but what struck me about it was that people were hung up on the fact that she was (brace yourself) both a creative artist and a stuffy scholar! To her credit, she rejected the strict dichotomy between the two, pointing out that both a creative work and a scholarly one require research, planning, work, revision…but at the same time, she unwittingly added to this misconception by referring to herself as a nerd, and her knowledge of Yiddish literature as nerdy, four times. Probably this was just self-deprecation born of nerves. Nevertheless, I noted it because, in grad school, you run into a surprising amount of that kind of thing: people feel like they need to apologize for knowing what they have taken years, and god knows how much debt, to learn, and that they can and should make people feel like eggheads and pedants for sharing their discoveries and opinions with others. Given that one doesn’t end up in grad school by accident, I can only assume that this is an internalization of the old playground equation of intelligence with weakness, reclusiveness, and general scorn. The worst thing scholars could do is to tacitly acknowledge that America’s ever-popular contempt for intellectuals is probably correct, and that they aren’t really entitled to all this money and status they get. (This, by the way, is further proof that George Bush, with his proud and aggressive anti-intellectualism, represents literally everything that is bad about America.)

Mind you, I don’t mind being called a nerd for my many nerdy interests. Heck, I am a nerd: I played roleplaying games from grades 10-16; I have nine of the thirteen Series of Unfortunate Events books and a bookshelf filled with comics; I know who Shigeru Miyamoto and Hayao Miyazaki are. These are my hobbies, they’re nerdy, so there’s nothing pejorative about calling me a nerd, any more than it’s pejorative to call my roommate—officially one of the NFL’s three biggest fans—a jock. But Peyton Manning and Shaquille O’Neal are not jocks, and Harold Bloom is not a nerd. And I am, but not because I’m going to be a Philosophiæ Doctor.

As a postscript to this, I just five minutes ago got a call which I get periodically: it was the Orange County Firefighters, raising money for a charity event they’re throwing. As I often do with calls like this, I begged off by saying that, while I support the cause, I’m a graduate student, with little disposable income. Except this time, as soon as the words “I’m a graduate student” were out of my mouth, the woman on the other end said, with real feeling, “Oh, I’m sorry.” Yeah, well, them’s the breaks, right? Don’t shed any tears for me; we all have our cross to bear.



  1. Absolutely. I might add that the real sucker punch is hearing that nerds are alright — that hey, we love nerds. I call it The Dorky Mystique.

    Comment by Joseph Kugelmass — October 26, 2006 @ 2:25 am

  2. I think the woman on the phone was probably apologizing for trying to get money from a graduate student, not the fact that you’re a grad student in the first place.

    With people like the Yiddish scholar, I feel like a lot of intellectuals, scholars, grad students, etc. are trying to reclaim the word “nerd” much like gays have reclaimed the word “queer.” Unfortunately, it’ll never work as long as the rest of the country sees it as a pejorative term.

    Comment by Julie — October 26, 2006 @ 9:15 am

  3. Well, the rest of the country saw “queer” as pejorative at one point, too; indeed, most of the country still does, yet we have Queer Studies departments in major universities. I think that reclaiming a word depends on using it in a positive light (“We’re good with words, we’re nerds, get used to it!”) rather than in a self-deprecating way.

    “Trying to get money from a graduate student” should be an idiom, the opposite of “taking candy from a baby.”

    Comment by tomemos — October 26, 2006 @ 11:19 am

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