Geek Speak

Jordan Carroll is a self-proclaimed geek. While many classically trained English scholars devote their lives to Shakespeare or Hemingway, he uses traditional scholarly methods to interpret Star Wars and Xbox—as well as canonical authors such as James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein. Carroll’s current research explores the central role that science fiction fan culture has played in the resurgence of white nationalism. Another of his projects examines what it means to be a geek and how those qualities are seen in modern society. As a visiting professor in Puget Sound’s English department, he asks students to approach his classes with the same openness and creativity found in his research.

Q: Much of your professional work takes place at the intersection of literature, sexism, politics, and race. Tell us about your "Geek Temporalities" project. 
A: The project looks at geek culture and time. Many interests that used to be considered very geeky—science fiction, superheroes, gaming—are now part of the mainstream, but there is still a clear distinction between geek and nongeek. Unlike casual media consumers, geeks have a strong tendency to become so absorbed in their favorite activities that they lose track of the clock. Being a geek can be subversive. At the same time, these are also traits that are prized in Silicon Valley startups, which seek out geeks for their ability to stay focused on coding and ignore everything else.

Q: How did you make the leap from English to delving into these topics? They’re not what most people think of when they think of English majors.
A: Because of my own background, I was naturally drawn to geekiness, which combines both a set of fan practices and a sense of identity. I am lucky enough that I get to research and teach a lot of the geeky hobbies I like to pursue in my spare time. I also really like coffee, cold weather, and Cascadian black metal, so I have ended up in the right part of the world.

Q: How do you approach teaching?
A: I often incorporate creative production into my teaching. In the past, I have had students envision their own utopias or present designs for products that might be developed in a science fiction future. This semester, I had students in my Visual Rhetoric class create their own comic book metacommentaries—narratives which direct the reader's attention to a text’s purpose and positioning. Next fall, I plan to have students in a proposed fantasy literature class write role-playing scenarios that reflect on the assumptions built into Dungeons & Dragons.

Q: What has it been like trying to rethink education this year?
A: I have become much more willing to improvise based on student feedback. Everyone is going through so much right now that you have to meet [students] where they are. I am learning how to pivot midlesson based on the mood in the classroom. We cover the same content, but I am now prepared to switch teaching strategies if it seems necessary that day.

Q: What do you want students to come away with from your classes?
A: Our culture is pervaded by a sense of presentism which makes it difficult to investigate histories or envision futures that are very different from our own time. The study of literature and culture is a corrective for that because it helps us imagine something beyond the world as it currently stands. I want my students to realize that there is nothing final or inevitable about our contemporary moment.


By Anneli Haralson
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Nov. 29, 2020