By Jack Ashby, on 25 November 2011
Today I would like to celebrate the spod. There are a couple of definitions for this term relating to over-users of online chat-rooms, but the spods I’m referring to here are those that Urban Dictionary defines as:
“A derogatory term used to indicate someone with one of the following:
1) A penchant for academic study, above and beyond the call of duty
2) Higher than average intellectual capabilities
See also swot, nerd, geek.
“You’ve already done your history homework? Dude, you’re a spod!”
“I hate that kid, he’s a bit of a spod!”
My aim is to dispel these derogatory connotations and praise them for their gumption, rejection of the norm and dedication to something that is important. I use here terms like geek and nerd to which I attach no negatives – and have to a great extent be “reclaimed” by people like myself, who do belong in these categories. Geek-chic is cool these days, as we all know, but I’m not actually talking about the fashion for being a geek-wannabe. Just dressing like what you think a geek dresses like doesn’t make you a geek.
There is something about natural history that attracts the geeks/spods/nerds. Perhaps it’s that there is a huge amount of tiny facts to learn, and lists, categories and hierarchies are what taxonomy is all about. Spods like to know stuff. I remember being a zoology undergrad, sat in class thinking that I’ve landed in a pretty special situation – actually studying dinosaurs as part of my formal education at 21 years old. However, despite my academic training early in my career as a science communicator I developed a strict rule not to talk to 10 year-olds about dinosaurs – it’s impossible to win. It’s best to pivot to mammals where possible.
It certainly isn’t the case that museum staff should be “winning” when engaging the public in fact-based conversations, but in all honesty, when someone engages in a battle of oneupmanship with you, it’s only natural to fight fire with fire. This is exactly the kind of behaviour that is very common in spod kids – they come and try and out-spod the museum staff, and we tend to fight back, I’m ashamed to say.
I expect it’s mostly because they come to museums and find that the staff there are spods too, and they suddenly see the opportunity to talk spod in a way they can’t with their family and friends, and they want to demonstrate to us “experts” that they aren’t like the “average” visitor we come across – they know loads of stuff.
At this year’s Festival of Geology a couple of weeks ago I encountered an eleven-year old who had completed an Open University course on palaeobiology. I was largely in awe, though he was quite funny in the way he dropped Latin names into conversation that meant nothing to his family, to test whether I could keep up. Spods like nothing more than appreciation from other spods.
This can backfire though: my favourite spod was a Geo Fest visitor a few years back. We had a load of activities with our palaeontology collections. With the Festival we can be a bit more in-depth than other events as there is a huge spod-contingent there and they don’t appreciate being under-stretched. On this occasion, I look up from a giant ammonite to see an eleven year old wearing a thick black felt cape, elbows resting on hips, chin pointing air-ward. His entire countenance was as if he had just planted a flag in the summit of Everest. “Ah!” he proclaimed masterfully “Archaeopteryx!”.
“Oh,” I said shocked, for spods are rarely wrong, “that’s actually Compsognathus. But the two are quite closely related.” I reassured.
“Yes!” he bellowed, as if I had just said something painfully obvious. He moved on to a mammoth tooth.
“Ah! Mastodon!” Again, this was surprising as to those in the know Mastodon have some of the most recognisable teeth, and it seemed strange to point at a more common mammoth tooth and say it was Mastodon. By selecting Mastodon, you must have rejected the option in your head that it’s a mammoth.
“Well, that’s not a Mastodon, as it doesn’t have the round peaking cusps. This is a mammoth” I said.
“Yes!” he tells me.
I have said before in the New Scientist that most zoologists I know have been zoologists since childhood – it’s a state of being that rarely first arises in later adult life. When I meet these child spods I see a potential professional zoologist, and I think that needs some encouragement. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that I don’t value young visitors that haven’t yet become spods, as I’ve spent most of my career trying to show them the path to spod-hood, but I do like it when they come to us as fully-fledged spods, and we get to reassure them that there are grown-ups like them too, even if we don’t wear capes.