Home Editorials Talk Nerdy to Me Episode 3: What is a nerd?

Talk Nerdy to Me Episode 3: What is a nerd?


What is a nerd?

I pondered this question quite a bit while writing my last column. Thanks to some good training, anytime I write I generally find myself stressing over a fundamental writing question: who is my audience? Am I writing for the nerds who are? And if so, why? Is it to establish rapport or flaunt some self important knowledge? I don’t feel like any of these are the case.

Nerds are people of passion. They are connoisseurs of obscure culture who latch on to particular subjects and immerse themselves in every nuance and detail. They quote movies line for line, discuss the philosophical merits of their favorite story, or argue over canon within an imaginary universe. As nerdy as I am, I know many people whose expertise far exceeds mine on any such topics.

So why then do I write about comics, TV shows, games, apparel, and all other miscellaneous things relevant to such a niche group? After a lengthy discussion with my best friend, I settled on a simple answer. It’s embedded in the name of the column itself: “Talk Nerdy to Me.” This is a column about communication. It’s for every time that I wear a shirt and end up having to explain it a dozen times to people who don’t get it. I write for people who haven’t read “The Call of Cthulhu,” don’t know what a Dalek is, or have never seen an episode of Cowboy Bebop.

I write for those who didn’t understand or maybe even looked down on kids like me growing up. I do it in an effort to broaden the horizons of the writer and the reader; it’s my effort to introduce non-nerds to the topics we are so passionate about, and to offer new venues of exploration for advanced nerds (myself included). I feel it’s important because, if you haven’t noticed, being a nerd in this day and age is actually pretty sexy.

Image from infinitydish.com. We totally didn’t steal the column name from them.

Being a nerd hasn’t always been sexy, and I haven’t always been proud of the nerd label. I vividly remember a childhood of being shoved into fences, mud thrown in my face, and being chosen last for sports. I was bullied for having too many of the right answers in history and science class. And I was publicly ostracized (more than once) for sheepishly asking out the pretty and popular girl, who lived on a whole separate plane of social existence above me. I had perfect attendance through most of my elementary school years and didn’t make my first C until 8th grade. I was always in the top two to five percent in standardized testing, and was admitted to the Talented and Gifted Program by 5th Grade (I narrowly missed acceptance in 2nd grade, but I was dreadfully sick on test day). I was always the first to finish an assignment. My 2nd Grade teacher even stocked a small library of books (including stories like Robin Hood and King Arthur) just to keep me busy and out of trouble while other students “caught up.”

Me as a baby nerd.

When I transferred at the end of 8th grade, I was a year ahead of math. I was a band nerd. I aced most of my science assignments. I wore glasses that were way too large for my face and never quite sat straight on my nose. I was skinny with a high pitched voice, and I got picked on… a lot. In a class of 90 rural Alabama students, most of who grew up together starting in kindergarten, it doesn’t pay to stand out. So I quit trying as hard. I still did well in some classes (mostly science, social studies, band, and ag/vocational) but I became a less vocal participant in my education. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class, in fact I was barely in the top third, yet my ACT scores outranked all but the top two members of our class. High School was a hard social scene for me, and I was always a wallflower who was just passing through.

Enter college. I started my college journey at Mississippi State University. Mississippi was my first “home;” it was where I spent my early formative years. And it was far enough away from Alabama that I could put high school behind me. It didn’t hurt that I was the only member of my high school class to go there. Mississippi State, at that time, boasted 16,000 students. It’s easy to stand out when you’re one in 100, but thanks to basic statistics, when you’re one in 16,000 it’s a lot easier to fit in.

I lived in the freshman honors dorm my first year and made friends quickly. Everywhere I went I found people who were as smart and passionate as me. I started hanging out with computer nerds and getting into video games. I became a regular at the local comic book shop where I met my first girlfriend and got into Warhammer. I read my first book of stories by Lovecraft, played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons, and watched anime.

During those four years at Mississippi State, I came out as a nerd, and learned that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was. It would take a few more years for me to apply that passion for learning and knowledge to my academic and career goals, but I’ve gotten there.

The rewards for being a “fish nerd” have more than paid off for the years of bullying and being an outcast, but that’s an appreciation that has come with time and experience. In the process, my passion and nerdiness have carried me farther than most, from Mississippi to Alaska and to who knows where next. I’ve learned to channel that energy creatively as well as professionally and academically.

So when I write about the nerd life, it’s not to stroke my own ego. I do it to open people’s eyes to a world populated by people who passionately pursue the things that pique their curiosity. It’s to help people appreciate the joy and the jokes they might not otherwise get, and to share new venues of interest with my nerd peers.

James Shewmake was the science and nerd culture columnist for the Alaska Commons. He also provided photojournalism and general editorial content for the site. He was the 2nd place finalist for the 2013 Alaska Press Club Leslie Ann Murray Award for his editorial piece on science and religion. James holds a Master’s of Science degree in Natural Resource Management from the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. When he is not working on content for the Commons, he is usually dedicating himself to research on subsistence fisheries, time travel, and/or the establishment of a new Galactic Empire.


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