The gap between professors and students can be big. Elon University will help make them small. This is good because those relationships will be wildly rewarding now and throughout your life. Just ask the 30,000 students polled by Gallup and Purdue who were twice as likely to be happy in their lives and careers if they had a professor or staff member who took a personal interest in their intellectual development. This is great. Really great. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to build the same kind of relationships with your peers. In other words, let your geek flag fly. Because we all have a passionate geek inside us if we’re willing to admit it, and we are all are a heck of a lot more interesting when we connect our social lives with our intellectual ones and let our inner geeks out.
My guess is you already know this. But the temptation to retreat into superficiality in our social interactions is strong and doesn’t go away with age or education. Faculty can fall into mind-numbing conversations about how many meetings we have or how many papers we have left to grade. As brief phatic conversation, this doesn’t sound the death knell of intellectual thought on campus, but don’t let sociability keep you from engaging in deep conversations. Instead, let one feed the other. Because sociability and intellectuality aren’t antithetical to one another, they’re perfect partners, like Bert and Ernie, Masters and Johnson, Kid and Play, Lewis and Clark or Thelma and Louise. Combining your intellectual and social interests is the recipe for an interesting, engaging, fulfilling life.
So, how do we reprogram ourselves to recognize that meaty conversation isn’t a chore, or something we’re supposed to feel obligated to do as “global citizens,” but something we can enjoy? In other words, how do we get our geek on?
1. Own the term. If you’ve watched even one Hollywood teen movie, you know that the geeks always win. Because after only an hour and a half in movie time, even the snitty popular kids finally realize that the “geeks” are far more interesting, successful and, yes, even popular. While official definitions of “geek” continue to suggest people who are overlyintellectual, or excessively interested in a specialized subject, more contemporary definitions suggest a very different meaning: “The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult” (Urbandictionary.com). That switch happens in college. Own it now.
2. Take it outside. The classroom is a great place to foster intellectual discourse. In fact, as faculty, we think it’s one of the best incubators out there. But like any good incubator, the goal is to initially nurture something that will then thrive beyond its bounds. The classroom is just the starting point. Your professors regularly ask you to draw on your personal experiences and make connections to class readings and content. Your job is to do the reverse. Take your class readings, discussions and experiences and make them part of your personal life. If you found an idea in class interesting, chances are one of your friends will, too. On a more practical level, do it because it will raise your GPA. If you really want to understand an issue, try to engage in conversation about it. The areas you do and don’t understand will become clear. The old adage, “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” is both true and a great process for learning. Your GPA will thank you.
3. Stretch before running. Warm up. Don’t go from straight from “Jackass Number Two” to Nietzsche or Durkheim, or you’ll pull something. Start with typical conversation fodder. Television, celebrities, sports and rumors tend to be popular conversation topics. Start there. Take Caitlyn Jenner. She hits all four of these categories with ease. Conversations about her clothing choices or media appearances leave little to digest, but consider what happens when you apply those feminist and queer theories you learned about in your anthropology, English, religious studies, philosophy, art history or (fill in the blank) class. All of a sudden, the media circus becomes a fascinating space for questions about the social construction of gender. Or how about those urban legends about new technology: computer viruses, cell phone scams and money scams, my favorite being that a Nigerian prince has no one to contact but me, a random guy in Burlington to help launder his money. We may laugh at these legends, but they tap into some very real fears about how easy it is to be mugged electronically, as our fears of dark alleys are transferred to the corridors of the microchip. Applying a bit of meme theory to the spread of these stories also opens up worlds of interesting thought and conversation, linking folklore, human behavior and genetics in surprising ways. Be creative in your intellectual connections and you’ll be amazed at how much richer your conversations become.
4. Take on the World. Now that you’ve stretched, continue to add ideas and issues to your conversational plate. In an ideal world, we would all read 15 newspapers and magazines from around the globe. But you can still tackle current and pervasive global issues without failing out of school and losing your job. I won’t try to suggest how you should stay informed other than to note that I’m a big fan of newsfeeds and daily email updates that skim the major national and world stories. Just be sure that you follow a few of the links to the deeper story.
Reveling in your intellectual interests rather than denying them is liberating. And it makes for a much more interesting college campus. In fact, deepening the intellectual climate at Elon is so important to your peers that for the past three years, students from across campus, including leaders in SGA, have been working to make Elon a more interesting place. Join them, whether by following the steps above, or joining their Intellectual Climate Working Group (simply email Alex Vandermaas-Peeler at email@example.com or Ben Lutz at firstname.lastname@example.org). Either way, don’t be stingy with your big brains and great ideas. Tap into just how fun it can be to chat with friends about those ideas that captivate, perplex or challenge you. We’ll all be the better for it.
Tom Mould is a professor of anthropology at Elon University.