Saturday, 8 November 2014

ECOOs1: Nerd Machismo & Other Barriers That Prevent Technology Learning

Nerdismo works like any other kind of machismo,
insecure boys belittle others and make the most
of what little they know to establish a social
space they can control.
I attended an excellent talk by Anne Shillolo on how to engage girls in technology at the ECOO Conference this year.

I've been struggling for a number of years to convince girls to hang in there in senior computer classes.  In the grade nine introduction course I have a number of girls who are often front runners in terms of skills and ability to learn tech, but they all drift away in the senior grades.

Anne covered the systemic and social issues around this in great detail during her presentation.  Hopefully those issues will begin to resolve themselves now that many tech companies are conscious of the problem.  As much as I'd like to I can't model being a woman in technology, but there are some other angles I can pursue.

In grade nine, especially in semester one, you tend not to get a lot of attitude because they are all fairly terrified to be in high school for the first time and are cautious.  As students become acclimatized to their new school they look for where they are strongest and tend to establish dominance in those areas; the jocks own the gym, the drama kids rule the stage, etc.  I was dismissively told by a university professor once that tribalism is dead as a theory of human socialization, but that guy was an idiot.  In the world of high school (and pretty much everywhere else, including online) tribalism is alive and well.  Computer society is more tribalistic than most.

In the senior grades the (mostly male) computer geeks do to computer lab what the jocks do to the gymnasium, they establish dominance.  I've seen a number of girls begin a senior computer studies course only to bail after the first week because of all the posturing.  The most frustrating was a coding prodigy whose parents were both programmers who vanished to take an alternate course online where she didn't have to put up with the drama.  This nerdismo ends up damaging the field of computer studies in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is choking it of sections in high school because the vast majority of students feel ostracized by the culture of the students in the room.

Anne's girls missing out on technology presentation led me to consider just how insular computer culture can be.  The idea of barriers to learning mathematics, sciences and technology came up in Anne's presentation.  As someone who wanted to be an astronomer before he almost failed grade 10 physics (and did fail grade 11), I know that it takes a fair amount of effort by the alpha-nerds of the world to shake otherwise interested right-brained kids out of 'their' fields of study.  From the science teachers who seemed to take great joy in pointing out that this wasn't my thing to the computer science teacher who watched me drown in mathematical abstraction with an absent smile on his face when all I wanted to do was tinker with code, I've experienced those barriers first hand.

As a non-linear/tactile/intuitive/experimental thinker I was intentionally bludgeoned by numbers until I couldn't care less about computers.  Watching the tribe of like-minded students (many of whom were good friends) form around those teachers and pass beyond that semi-permeable membrane into the math/science/tech wonderland scarred me.

My tactile nature eventually paid off when I got back into computers (years later - scars heal) through information technology, but I've never forgotten how those left brained mathletes made me doubt myself and turn away from the computer technology I loved.  I went from being the first kid in our school to publish code and own his own printer to going to college for art (and dropping out) because that was what I thought was left to me.  There was certainly nothing like leading a charge for greater accessibility in learning coding (Anne showed this in her presentation):

I can't help but wonder how many kids we shake out of technology because they don't approach it in an orthodox manner, or don't fit the stereotype of what we think a person in tech is.  It might be slowly changing, but the gateway to learning technology is guarded by your stereotypical computer geek, and they are as fierce about guarding it as any athlete in a locker room. 

When I see teachers putting students in silos because of this kind of thinking, or worse, punishing students who don't follow their discipline in the same way that they do, I can't help but remember that I was once that kid who ended up dropping out and walking away.

Everyone can learn coding and computers.  Anyone who says, "I'm no good at that stuff" (including all the teachers I hear say it daily) are responding to the barriers that surround it.  Exclusivity driven by arrogance has defined how many people see the computer field.  Digital technology is so big now that any kind of thinker and doer can survive and thrive in the field, but we need the traditional computer experts to tone down the nerdismo.

The people who build the digital world we inhabit have as much swagger as a professional athlete does nowadays, and it starts in high school with insecure boys chasing everyone who isn't like them out of the lab.  Until we take steps to open up technology to more diverse learners it'll continue to chase the girls and atypical thinkers out of this left brained, male dominated industry.

Perhaps I can convince more girls and alternative thinkers to keep learning technology into senior high school by not being an arrogant git, but I'm also fighting this well established conception of what a computer geek is.  Until I can tone down the nerdismo in the classroom, I fear that preconceptions and the aggressive nerdismo in the computer lab will dictate who takes my courses.  The field of computer studies would greatly benefit from an influx of creative/alternative thinkers, but until the geeks loosen their grip, nothing will change.