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The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Alexandra Robbins Interview

TeachHUB Interview

Bully Prevention BookThe era of the geeks is at hand, according to Alexandra Robbins and her "quirk" theory.

Robbins is a journalist and author who studies the social behavior and experiences of teens.  In her latest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Robbins follows the lives of seven very different students, while also observing and interviewing school admin, staff, and students.

Through her research, she allows readers to catch a glimpse of the social struggles many young adults face and develops the "quirk theory" that celebrates individuality. Find out what Robbins learned from shadowing 7 students from different cliches around the country, what her "quirk theory" is all about and why she believes geeks will inherit the earth in this exclusive TeachHUB interview.

You focus most of your work on the social experience of teens and young adults. What draws you to this research?

I love working with students, but I don’t think I have the patience (in terms of bureaucracy) to be a teacher .  I’m in awe of everyone who does.  I write about young people because they don’t have much of a real voice in the media or literature today. I like to give them a platform to speak for themselves.

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In the book you discuss the “quirk theory.” Can you briefly describe what this is and how you came up with it?

I define quirk theory this way: Many of the characteristics that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same qualities or skills that others will admire or value about them in adulthood and outside of the school environment.

While I lecture at schools around the country, I kept noticing that some of the most interesting and genuine students thought there was something wrong with them simply because they didn’t happen to sit at the popular table.  I coined 'quirk theory' to validate their individuality and to explain to them not only that it gets better, but more important, why it gets better.

This book follows the lives of seven different high school students that fit different stereotypes, such as the ‘the nerd’ and the ‘popular girl’.  Did you notice any shared similarities between these kids, even though they were a part of different social scenes?

Actually, yes.  At one point, each of the girls confided the same thing to me, almost verbatim, about wanting to have a real friend with whom they could be themselves.  Behind the labels, students have a lot more in common with each other than they think they do.

Your book also posits that teachers also conform to “groupthink” and bullying. What are some examples of this?

Teachers told me that they can come to dread the teacher’s lounge just as much as students might dread the cafeteria.  One teacher called it “a lions’ den.”  One of the biggest surprises in my research was that even in schools that shell out thousands of dollars for anti-bullying programs aimed at students, teachers engage in the same bullying and clique behavior.  Some teachers cliques even have names, and even T-shirts!

Teachers told me about “teacher bullies” who bully other teachers whom they view as less cool, or who have less seniority.  Not only are students fully aware of tensions among teachers, but also, as many teachers told me, teacher cliques have withheld resources from the teachers they pick on which results in the students’ education suffering.

What has your response been from teachers after revealing this theory?

Widespread agreement that teachers have to deal with high-school like social hierarchies among adults far more often than they should. 

By the way, this is why the caveat to quirk theory is  “in the school environment.”  There’s just something about school that can lead fully formed adults to suddenly revert to teen behavior and insecurities.

Out of all the stereotyped students that you followed in this book, which student did you relate to the most and why?

I could understand where all of them were coming from.  I was a floater in high school, which meant I could sit at the edge of many cafeteria tables with one or two people, but I was not wholly a part of any one group. This led to a lot of lonely weekend nights!

Aside from “just wait, it’ll be better when you’re older," what IMMEDIATE advice do you have for students who are being bullied by their classmates?

The Geeks has pages and pages of tips, but here are a few in a nutshell (besides, of course, tell an adult immediately):
1.) Give everyone a chance
No matter your social status, try to get to know as many other students as possible beyond a first impression and behind the label.  Even if you don’t have something in common, it’s still possible to be friends and to develop a new shared interest.
2.) Stop conforming
Unless you’re doing something unhealthy or destructive, be proud of who you are and don’t waste any time trying to pretend to be someone you’re not.  If you spend your school years repressing your identity, someday you’re going to graduate and realize that you’ve lost yourself only to appease a temporary crowd. 
3.) Pursue non-school activities
Get involved in after-school activities with students from other schools who don’t already have preconceived notions about you.  If you choose an activity you love to do or are fascinated by, you’ll meet people with similar interests.  Whether or not you end up with new friends, you can at least develop a skill and gain confidence in your abilities. 
4.) Switch schools
If the bullying is terrible, look into options for switching schools.  Every student has the right to a comfortable, tolerant school environment.

What advice do you have for teachers and administrators when handling conflicts involving bullying of an outcast by a cliques?

The advice would depend on the individual situation, but generally, I’d advise being tougher on the bullies than you think you should be.  This should be done in a manner in which other students will not know that this meeting is taking place . Also, I suggest to meet with the outcast and ask what the school could be doing differently to tailor the education experience to his or her needs. Also, just listen.

I’m not big on using only a band-aid approach to bullying, though.  There are so many easy things that schools can do to reduce social tensions overall.

You focus on the message of celebrating one’s quirks rather than hiding them. Do you have any quirks about yourself that make you unique that you celebrate?

Oh sure.  I’m a total dork. I always have been.  As an adult, my dorkiness makes it easier for students to relate to me.  Plus, I married a dork, my close friends are dorks, and I was featured in a celebrity interior design book because my foyer features a giant cardboard Yoda nailed to the wall in a large and ridiculously overdone gilded frame.

You have written books about college sororities, secret societies, and student achievers amongst others. Out of all the books you have written, which book do you relate to the most? Why?

I relate most to the high school books, for sure.  The Geeks is by far the most important thing I have ever written.
What is the main message you want readers to take away from this book?

There are two:

1.) Popularity doesn’t make you happy
2.) Being excluded doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you . In fact, it probably means that you’re going to be an exceptional adult. 

My aim with The Geeks was to get these messages across in a way that’s fun to read and that can spark conversations between students and adults.

Share your opinion on the "quirk theory" or suggest a subject for our next Ed Celeb interview in the comments section!

Want to learn more about Alexandra Robbins and The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth? Check out Alexandra Robbins' website.