I spent last weekend in DC attending the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). I've been to many librarian and teacher conferences in my day, but this was my first academic conference. You know what I observed? We nerds may call ourselves by different names ("librarian," "teacher," "editor," "historian..."), but basically, we all look alike. And no, it isn't that we are all wearing high waters, white socks, and pocket protectors.
Some of us actually look quite hip. Women have tattoos on their ankles. Men have diamond studs in their ears or long hair pulled back in pony tails. Still, you can tell we are editors, librarians, professors. Not a soul at any of these conferences would be mistaken for a model or a movie star or an athlete (well, except that one author of mine who is a history professor but who really does look like he could fit into any one of these categories. He seemed completely out of place. People probably thought he was someone else's guest).
I was perfectly comfortable at this conference. I felt like I'd been gathering with all these people for years. I could have plucked people off the exhibit hall floor and plopped them down on the exhibit hall floor at the next meeting of the American Library Association or the National Conference of Teachers of Math (yes. I said math. I know people think there is a huge difference between history nerds and math nerds, but really, a nerd is a nerd), and nobody observing them would be able to tell the difference.
You can tell us editors, though. We're the only nerds in the world who are also whores, the ones shoving our cards into the hands of every nerd who walks our beat, asking "What's your specialty? Would you like to write a book or perhaps an essay?" I'm shameless, preying on the younger, less-experienced when I ought to let them keep their innocence a while longer. As I mentioned to my friend Bob, who is very familiar with these conferences and us editor-whores, a frog could hop into the booth, and I'd thrust my card into its hands and say, "Might you be interested in writing about blue frog migration in green frog territory?"
The professors, of course, are just as easy to recognize. They aren't whores. They are beggars. They want to know if they can get a free review copy of this or that book. They want to know if we'll publish their dissertation on the history of the shoelace from 1960-1961. I'm sure this was an extraordinarily significant period in the history of the shoelace, but when confronted with such a proposal, I (whore that I am, not likely to let any potential writer slip through my fingers) am likely to respond, "Well, we might, if you broaden it a little. Here's my card. Email me, and I'll send you our proposal guidelines." The thought bubble above my head reads, "Broaden it to, oh, maybe the entire history of fashion. I'm sure he can do that." A year later, I will get a manuscript with eight chapters on the history of the shoelace from 1960-61 and one chapter on the history of fashion as a whole.
You can tell why I fit in so well with all these nerds. As I wrote that completely facetious paragraph (which might be more representative of the truth than you think), I found myself thinking, "I wonder what the history of the shoelace is. How have shoelaces come in and out of style over the years? Were laces used on such things as corsets before shoes or on shoes before corsets? And then there are the big questions: are these really dumb questions? Are these things everyone already knows except me?
Nerds: you can dress us up, but you can't take us anywhere. We will always be embarrassing you with all our questions and obsessions. We will always drag you into book stores, be forever thrusting books at you, and be most comfortable when surrounded by other nerds.