Eight, Arizona PBS on ASU campus is known for providing trusted educational programs, and after three consecutive years of sponsoring the ASU Homecoming Nerd Walk, it’s also known for supporting intellectualism and full-on nerd-dom.
After kick starting in October of 2011 thanks to Bob Beard, promotions coordinator for Eight, Arizona PBS, and founder of Nerd Walk, the event has not only grown in its participant registration every year, but other PBS stations around the country are using it as inspiration to create their own nerd activities.
“I went and spoke at the PBS annual meeting and shared the idea of the PBS nerd concept and how people who love PBS will come out and literally take to the streets to support it,” Beard said. “It’s really cool, because it came right out of Arizona and is very homegrown, grassroots.”
This year’s Nerd Walk brought out more than 260 participants who dressed up and “got their nerd on” as they marched to celebrate the empowerment that comes with knowledge, and to spread the word that being a nerd is not only OK, it’s something of which they should be proud.
“Nerd-in-chief,” 10-year-old Scott Thomas was elected to lead this year’s walk after participating in it with his parents since it began in 2011. Beard elected him to take charge after Thomas decided to run for class president in his elementary school with an anti-bullying campaign.
“Being a nerd isn’t about dressing up in a costume or showing off your action figure collection, it’s about using passion and knowledge to change things and make things better for people,” Beard said. “I mean, for a 10-year-old to do that, it was sort of — well, how could he not be the nerd-in-chief? That’s amazing.”
Thomas said he was excited to play the role of “nerd-in-chief,” and that participating in the Nerd Walk is something he has fun doing.
“The nerd walk, I think, is a great way to express ourselves, to show that we care for each other, to make sure we have the right to not be bullied by other people,” Thomas said.
Beard, who said he has always been a nerd, is also pursuing a Master’s degree in communications at the West campus and is currently working on a graduate thesis that explores nerd culture.
He was inspired to empower other nerds like himself through Nerd Walk, in part, because of PBS and the station’s pro-nerd attitude that shines in its programming.
As a station that broadcasts things like the chemistry that goes into making crème brulee, as well as an hour-long documentary that explores the Helvetica typeface, PBS provides something that Beard says is super niche and super interesting.
“Really, when you take away the negativity of the word … being a nerd is about being enthusiastic and singularly focusing on one thing that’s amazing and loved with an unbridled passion,” Beard said.
In his current studies, Beard said that subcultures have always been fascinating — from Harley-Davidson enthusiasts to Bronies, or adult, male fans of My Little Pony — and that today’s pro-nerd, “geek-chic” societal subculture is an interesting shift from past nerd sentiment.
“Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to be called a nerd, but now you see NBA players and people that aren’t stereotypically a nerd going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m totally a nerd … like I’m such a nerd for that,’” Beard said.
As Beard began his studies in fandom, subcultural membership and performance practices, he decided to use Nerd Walk as his applied project and explore alternative discourses within nerd culture. One thing he found interesting in his studies is what he calls the “backlash to a mainstream assimilation of nerds being now cool and commoditized.” This, he described, is a new, attractive view on owning the nerd label, as well as the fight to be the “nerdiest. “
“I understand from a social point of view that there are labels and sort of categories that you put yourself into, but I also find it problematic from a nerd culture kind of standpoint because nerds have always been the ones who have been excluded,” Beard said. “So now, for nerds to sort of start excluding others, even other nerds … I find it disturbing.”
In his studies he also explored the phenomenon of “booth babes,” or young female nerds, and the idea that women can’t be nerdy if they are attractive, something he calls a misogynistic view.
“With these sorts of authenticity claims where you can’t be nerdy unless you fit into this mold, I think the Nerd Walk proves that you can be nerdy for anything, and anything is OK to nerd out for,” Beard said.
For self-claimed nerds like business freshman Bronwyn Hazlewood, the Nerd Walk was exactly that — an opportunity for self-expression.
“I like dressing up and I’m a huge nerd, and I have like ‘Adventure Time’ accessories and stuff, so I was excited about this,” Hazelwood said.
Another Nerd Walk participant shared a similar sentiment. As a journalism junior and PBS employee, Sierra Loerch said she thinks the opportunity for expression and engagement that stems from Nerd Walk is important.
“I think it’s important that people in the community who don’t always feel like they have a niche always have a place where they can get together, feel wanted and feel proud to be themselves,” Loerch said.
Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, an Arizona-based book reseller, is known as a big fan of pop culture and believes that “geeking out” can come in all shapes and sizes, according to the company’s Mesa community relations planner and Nerd Walk partner, Lori Whipple.
Whipple said that when PBS announced the first Nerd Walk three years ago, Bookmans jumped on the event, seeing it as an opportunity to create a mutual partnership that would benefit everyone involved. For this year’s Nerd Walk, Bookmans helped organize the event, spread the word, encourage registration and provided drawstring bags for Nerd Walk participants to don, reading, “Geeking out is half the fun.” The used-book retailer also partnered with The Willy Wonka Candy Company so that Nerd Walk participants could pass out Nerds to the crowd.
“For a corporate sponsor to come on board and help out, these are our people,” Whipple said. “I finally met up with Bob Beard after emailing him for three years and the stars just aligned — the dates, the times and everything else.”
As Nerd Walk supporters of all shapes, and sizes marched through the streets of Tempe last weekend, chanting: “Sine, sine, cosine, pi. 3-point-14159,” and “That’s all right, that’s OK, you’re gonna work for us someday,” while Bob Beard shouted into his megaphone, “PBS,” and the Nerd Walk herd responded, “Nerds, nerds!” it was apparent that this event is not just something to put on for the sake of Homecoming week at ASU, it’s an event that really does support its participants, and it proved that nerds can be the coolest kids in the room.
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