Recurse Center

Words are hard

David Albert

We don’t like to use the term “student” to refer to people who come to Hacker School, but we’ve had trouble finding another word to replace it.

Words are hard to choose because they come with context. In some ways, “student” is a good word for us to use. Almost everyone who comes to Hacker School can identify as having been a student at some point in their lives. This makes “student” friendly and familiar. Calling yourself a student can also signal your commitment to learning.

Unfortunately, “student” brings some non-Hacker Schooly context with it. “Student” implies a traditional student-teacher relationship that isn’t present at Hacker School. It implies that there is someone else responsible for your education, when there is not.

We’ve tried using other words, but none of them are perfect. A safe one is “Hacker Schooler.” All it implies is that you’ve decided to come to Hacker School. Unfortunately “Hacker Schooler” can be a bit of a mouthful and cumbersome to use in some situations.

Another term we’ve considered using is “hacker.” The word “hacker” describes a very particular identity and subculture and there are plenty of people who make great Hacker Schoolers but don’t identify as hackers.

The word “developer” has similar problems, but for different reasons. It has a professional connotation similar to “software engineer,” but being a professional programmer, or wanting to be one, is not a requirement for coming to Hacker School either.

“Programmer” is actually not bad. All that it implies is that you write computer programs. Everyone at Hacker School does that. Still, even “programmer” has its problems. Not everyone who applies to Hacker School identifies as a programmer when they apply.

“Student” isn’t the only word that we struggle with. “School” has given us even more trouble and it has many of the same problems. A school is a place of learning, which is a good start, but it also has teachers, grades, homework, and curriculum, none of which are part of Hacker School. Explanations of Hacker School often start by explaining that it’s probably not like any school you’re familiar with.

Calling ourselves a school causes all sorts of confusion. Experienced programmers think they have too much experience for Hacker School even though Hacker School is designed for people with a wide range of experience levels,1 our alumni have trouble describing what Hacker School is like to other programmers, and companies have a hard time understanding how they should compare us to other places they hire from.

This seems to be a problem for anyone trying to explain the unfamiliar. If you invent new words, few people will know what you’re talking about, but if you make analogies using existing words, you bring along all their context, whether you want to or not.

  1. There are also new programmers who think they don’t have enough experience for Hacker School, though this probably doesn’t have to do with the word “school.”