How about a Geeks’ Day?

“It’s just, in high school, knowledge was pretty much frowned upon. You really had to work to learn anything. But here, the energy, the collective intelligence … It’s like this force, this penetrating force, and I can just feel my mind opening up, you know, and letting this place just thrust into and- and spurt knowledge into … That sentence ended up in a different place than it started out in.”
Willow, about the University, in “Buffy – The Vampire Slayer”

I recently did a short presentation on handling diversity in a technical college. The focus was on addressing the heterogeneity of students with different backgrounds. But in looking into the issue, I also stumbled upon the usual attempts to increase diversity.

For me, diversity is only a goal when it improves the outcome for those involved. In itself diversity is value neutral. My guess is that few colleges would want diversity in the strength of students’ interest, or when it comes to grades. I think the main goal of a college should be to attract the students who are best qualified for the studies. Those who have the necessary qualifications and interests to succeed. It’s essentially a ‘content of character’ thing, only here the character are qualifications and interest.

You can support qualifications within reason. And support should be made available, either by the college or by a coalition of colleges. Courses to acquire the necessary fundamentals should be offered as early as possible, because learning the fundamentals takes time. And that’s possible today (hello elearning/MOOCs/etc). But you can’t ignore interest — dispositional interest (relatively enduring and context-independent, with high personal value and meaning; it often goes hand in hand with knowledge and leads to more engagement with the topic; it’s usually compared to situational interest which is just that — situation specific). And when things get tough — and in worthy fields they do — you need this kind of interest to get you through. And to get really good in a domain.

Because after all, no college can ignore the quality of the students it produces. It would be unfair to the student and future employers (and employees, customers, etc.) if the education fails to ensure highly competent graduates. It would also destroy the reputation (or “brand”) of that college.

So, how can a college attract qualified and interested students whom they would otherwise miss?

There are already days addressing groups that supposedly miss out, e.g., a “Girls’ Days”, or (less common) “Boys’ Day”. But the goal seems to be more political and aimed at equality of outcome. Never understood why people’s life and career decisions should be influenced by which disciplines do not conform to a 50:50 distribution on an attribute no-one had a say in joining or not. Shouldn’t people decide for themselves? Wasn’t that what enlightenment and its following movements were all about?

So, personally, I’d like to try out a Geek’s Day.

I’d like to try out attracting those introverted geeks who might not even think about visiting a technical college. Who don’t usually go to career events, because they get “crowded out” at those events. People who usually stay in the back, who think a lot before they actually do anything. Who watch as other boys and girls make their way to the front of the line, thinking it’s not worth the hassle and they can look it up later.

It should be possible to find ways to attract these more introverted people and ensure that they can actually participate in the “fun stuff”. Convince them in advance that they can participate, ensure that they really show up. That would be hard, but manageable. Given our information society, it’s possible to try to identify them by their online interests, then address them directly, offer slots at the career day and ensure that the ones who usually are in the back are given a chance to participate. In short, not only have rules based on fairness and transparency, but make sure everyone adheres to them. No matter how loud they scream, how calloused their elbows are, or how pretty they smile.

I think it would send a nice message: “We as a college think you have the potential to excel and we like to help you to achieve excellence, no matter which groups you fall into (well, you’d have to be a geek, but the rest — sex/gender, social or cultural background, race, sexual orientation, or whatever else — not important).”

I wonder whether a “Geeks’ Day” would attract people who later chose to study the offered courses and work in these professions. And whether they excel in them. I think so, because I think it would attract people with the necessary dispositional interest. You get people, men and women, who are actually interested in the topics and have the grit to get through difficult courses, but who usually miss out in career events. Who already have some background knowledge due to their more geeky interests.

Whether it works is a somewhat complex question (legal issues in tracking potential students over time), but it’s a manageable empirical question. A bit of evaluation that must be well done to avoid biases. Hmm, I wonder whether it has been done before and what the outcomes were.

(Edit: Note that I am talking not about a “Geek Pride Day”, or a Geek Day that’s just a day where tech is presented. I’m talking about a day that takes into account that some more introverted geeks might miss some great opportunities, because these career days are social events and all that new stuff might attract people more interested in the coolness than the geekiness of the stuff and crowd out some kinds of geeks.)

What do you think?