Unraveling the politics of Geek Chic

Adam Corner and I have co-authored a piece for the Times Higher this week on so-called ‘Geek Chic’ and what, if anything, this means for universities.

'home' earrings

I like to pin computer keys into my ears and handknit necklaces.

We wrote it a while back and didn’t think it’d be especially topical. Then A-level results came out last week, along with some figures showing that, for the first time since 2002, physics is back in the top ten most popular A-level subjects. Further, applications for physics degrees were up 17% on last year; astronomy up 40%. Writing on the BBC website, Pallab Ghosh suggested this was an example of not only geek chic, a “Brian Cox effect” even.

(Yeah yeah, geek chic is all very 2006. Dr Corner, the THE, the BBC and I are all way behind the times. Spare me your hipster-isms. I live in Hoxton: I’ve heard them)

If feeling especially cynical, we might note that the “Brian Cox effect” is a story the BBC would be particularly pleased to promote. Although I do think the apparent rise in the popularity of physics is worth noting, we should be careful of taking these stats at face value, and of ascribing singular explanations. Personally, I like the Institute of Physics’ line of we don’t really know: “To be honest with you we don’t really understand that. We’re delighted, but we can’t quite put our finger on why that is” (Tajinder Panesor, quoted by Ghosh).

In particular, that stat on the rise in astronomy applications left me with a lot of questions: how many students are we talking about here, has someone started a new astronomy course recently, has there been an increase in the astronomy content of the school curriculum in the last few years, are there more astronomy clubs in schools, could Galaxy Zoo be credited in some way…? (many of these seem answerable – any readers of this blog help me out?).

Several people have noted that teachers and parents remain key influences on young people’s career and further/higher education choices, for all that celebs might make for a neat story. Others have also mentioned the possible role of the Stimulating Physics network, and it’s maybe also worth noting work aimed at developing school teachers’ professional skills, science museums and visitor centres, and public engagement activities. Over the last twenty five years (especially the last ten) the UK has invested a lot of resources on promoting science to young people; inside of schools and out of them. Cultural change is slow, and often happens through long threads of small, interpersonal projects you wouldn’t see on TV. Arguably, this is especially true when it comes educational change. We should remember that university applications are many years in the making, relying on GCSE grades and A-level choices. Brian Cox’s BBC show was only broadcast in March last year. It may well have ignited some previously laid kindling though, it’d be interesting to know more. Actually talking to teenagers about their attitudes to science and technology isn’t, I think, done enough.

Moreover, looking at the evidence we do have, I think we should remember that there are still some clear challenges. The Campaign for Science and Engineering warned against complacency over the “good news” for science in A-levels, stressing inequalities in gender and school type. From their analysis, it looks like the gender gap in science and maths is widening, not narrowing. Although more are girls taking physics, maths, and chemistry, those increases are, if we look in detail, outstripped by the number of boys taking them. Physics, for instance, saw nearly two thousand more entries this year, but only a tenth of those were girls.

CaSE also note that although independent schools account for just 13.4% of all A-levels taken, they provide for 29% of further maths, 18.1% of maths, 17.9% of chemistry, 19.1% of physics, and 14.8% of biology A-level students. I think this is really important. In putting together the THE piece, one of the things that stuck out for me was a reference to a ‘Geeks vs Chavs’ parties. We used this reference to reflect upon quite what a middle class movement a sense of geek chic might be, and suggest that it is perhaps “less of a celebration of the underdog and more simply a way of those traditionally in power finding new ways to assert themselves”. There is a politics to be unwoven here, ignoring it does no one any favours.

At an event on higher education policy last night I asked what the we could do to stop science becoming a space only for the middle classes? I didn’t really get an answer. That isn’t a criticism of the debate’s panelists; I don’t think there are simple answers here. Still, it is a question we should keep asking ourselves.

28 thoughts on “Unraveling the politics of Geek Chic

  1. Sylvia

    Just an anecdotal note on the ‘Brian Cox effect’ and students’ opinions. On our science podcast Scibernia a few months back we interviewed one of the teacher participants in ‘I’m A Scientist, Get Me out of Here’ (the UK secondary school initiative for promoting student engagement with science). He noted there was a disproportionate amount of questions from students about all things space-related, which he attributed to the ‘Brian Cox effect’. I think Cox has certainly helped to raise the profile of physics and to stimulate curiosity, but as you note it’s not an effect that’s really measurable.

    As to how to prevent science becoming a middle class affair, I think the answer is the same as for any career that involves third-level study – support, information and resources for students are needed at second level, and third level has to be made an affordable option. Easier said than done of course!

    1. alice Post author

      I think anecdotes like that are useful to alerting us to stuff like this – I’d certainly agree that (from my limited personal perceptive sphere) there may well be something on the Cox effect. Spark on some kindling perhaps.

  2. David McGloin (@DundeePhysics)

    On the Astronomy rise, then I assume the figures come from here: http://www.ucas.com/about_us/media_enquiries/media_releases/2011/20110630

    This says that there were 1223 applications (which rough would equate to about 200 odd applicants), so the rise in applicants is around the 40 mark or so (with margins of error, as, e.g., you could apply for both Astronomy and Physics degrees). This number is difficult to assess as we don’t know how ‘Astronomy’ is defined. For example, are degrees on ‘Astrophysics’ included here, or are they lumped in with ‘Physics’ or some of the other physical sciences options. 200 applicants strikes me as a little low for the UK undergrad population, so I guess things are spread between categories. As to why the rise, not sure. Could be new courses, or could be relabeling of courses etc. Further analysis would be useful.

  3. Athene Donald

    Do you actually think science is more middle class than the arts and humanities? I think the answers as to what needs to be done are fairly obvious, and you did get them at SciQT, it is just that translating them into effective action is so fiendishly difficult it doesn’t hugely help. It requires that interventions start much earlier, with support both for the individual children and many of the teachers at the schools that aren’t overwhelmingly middle class. But this requires a lot more than an enthusiastic PhD student going in once a year to talk to the school, it requires long term support and engagement – which is well nigh impossible to provide. But I am not sure that the same doesn’t apply to many other subjects.

    1. alice Post author

      I think that self-consciously geeky events are very middle class. I think Science is in danger of becoming more so.

      With comparison with Arts and Humanities, if you see these subjects in an Oxbridge sense, then they are v (upper) middle class (I feel excluded from much of these communities in a rather class-based way, despite an AHRC funded PhD and parents who are both arts grads). However, look to the newer Arts, Humanities and Soc Sci and newer universities and that isn’t the case (Media Studies being a good example).

      I do think there are potencial problems just for science, for three reasons (a) its can be harder to be self-taught in science, (b) it is culturally more distinct that (some) areas of other subjects and (c) because of the requirements for specialisation we increasingly put upon students if they want to be scientists – requirements not all schools will be able to provide (e.g. triple science).

      There is also the cultural image that is given out by (some aspects of) science as something reasonably elitist. I hear the ‘work early’ argument from Russel Group a lot too. I agree with aspects of it, but I also think it smells of hand-washing.

      Yes, you are right at a general level I was given answers about working early on and talking to parents, etc too (which as you say are easy to note and hard to actually deal with – I agree very much on that). However, I do also think there are more, and more detailed thinking to be done. I wasn’t that heartened by the ideas mentioned, in particular I think science needs to look at its structure. Things like the capacity for more part-time scientists, and jobs which are a mix of science research and teaching and/ or public engagement (alongside people who are full time researchers) would, for example, have a huge impact.

      1. Athene Donald

        In my experience there are opportunities for part-time working in science – Pfizer, when it hung out in Sandwich, was particularly good at this, but in my university there are two female professors I know who both work part-time, and have for years. Now it is true in the latter cases the underlying posts are full time, but there are creative solutions. But, like you, I think the problem starts much earlier and it is possible triple science is going to cause problems.

        The Royal Society tries to make clear (I know because I’ve watched reports, comments etc being produced and people take great care over this point) it does not think this is a one size solution that could possibly fit everyone, even if it may be the most desirable solution for those who wish to pursue a degree in science. That is very different from saying it has to be the requisite route in, because so many schools still cannot offer it.

  4. alice Post author

    Seeing as I quote CaSE, I should flag up a possible conflict of interest, and say I share a flat with CaSE’s director. That said, we are quite capable of disagreeing with one other, even if (perhaps especially because) we share a bathroom.

    In particular, CaSE often argue that because universities look for triple science GCSE and yet this only is available to privileged few, they should lobby for all kids do triple science. I’m not so sure about this (I mean “not so sure”, I don’t use the phrase as code for “I don’t like this and want to sound polite in disparaging it). I worry that this is just playing the game of following whatever symbol of elitism the private sector is currently using to sell themselves, which at the moment is triple science. If the scientific community really want equality, personally I think groups like CaSE should be lobbying for more open and imaginative admission policies by universities (and perhaps coping with the fact that part of the price of a well-rounded well-educated population which science plays a productive role in, for everyone, is that their undergrads might not have done quite so much science by the time they arrive on campus).

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