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In spod we trust

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.

3 Responses to “In spod we trust”

  • 1
    Debi Linton wrote on 25 November 2011:

    The problem with educating spods like your GeoFest visitor, is that there is still a challenge to us to still give them an educative experience. When you give a fact and he accepts it, did he learn anything?

    My first instinct when someone – especially a spod – reels off incorrect facts is not to correct them, because they tend to do as you describe, say “yes” and move on without learning, but to ask them how they came to that conclusion and let them work themselves to a state where they’re actually willing to engage, rather than play one-upmanship. So instead of “no, that’s Compognathus“, I’d go with “Why do you think that’s Archaeopteryx?” and see where that leads us. I hope that leads to extra enthusiasm for science when they’ve discovered the process behind the facts.

  • 2
    Jack Ashby wrote on 25 November 2011:

    Hi Debi
    You are of course completely right. Getting people to come to the answers themselves is by far the best way of engagingm and is how all of our learning activities are normally designed. I must have been put off my game by the cape.
    Also, as everybody knows, the first question we normally get asked about anything skeletal we have is “Is it a dinosaur?”, which it almost never is at the Grant Museum. The funny thing is that when we do actually bring dinosaurs out, like Compy, no-one asks that question.

  • 3
    Maev Kennedy wrote on 30 November 2011:

    As parent of a demi (at least) spod – 17 now and temporarily diverted into delta blues – I relished this. One of his first complex words was cumulonimbus, from an achingly dull book on weather which I had to read every night until one of us fell asleep …

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