February 26, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Advertisements for Myself, 2021[1] covid-19: day 340 | US: GA | info | exit

My role at Middle Georgia State University has always been a bit ambiguous. Yes, I was hired as a tenure-track faculty member in the Division of Humanities at the former Macon State College in 2002, but as the institution grew and changed, my identity remained in the disciplinary interstices, even if my practical responsibilities were clear. As an Assistant Professor, then Associate, and finally a full Professor, I maintained my teaching, scholarship, and service duties, but only since post-tenure has my vision as a scholar come into focus.

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My scholarly interests lie in a liminal space between English and Media Studies, or between the content and the containers of the liberal arts. My Ph.D.-trained discipline of lies in traditional English Studies—mostly literary, but since coming to Macon, I have grown increasingly aware of the technologies that define and shape what we call art, culture, and knowledge. If I were pressed to name to my professional identity, I might choose Digital Humanist—a hacker-scholar seeks ways of using computers to reconsider the past as we look toward the future of liberal arts in higher education. My work over the last five years exemplifies this focus.

One of the tenets of the liberal arts education that has always resonated with me is its goal of creating a critical and engaged citizenry—one that’s capable of the engagement necessary to maintain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The idea of employing one’s knowledge and enthusiasm in order to positively influence one’s communities is not only the at the foundation of democracy, but also at the heart of my professional endeavors. Networked technologies offer such promise in helping us realize this goal, only if we can avoid the increasingly obvious dangers of what Donna Haraway identifies as the “informatics of domination”: the isolating echo chambers or pulpits for want-to-be autocrats that tend to rouse our baser instincts.[2] Technology must be embraced in a way that allows for a democratic and open participation in building community knowledge and institutions that support and maintain health and growth.

Much of my professional life over the last few years has revolved around what is arguably the most enduring, successful, and well used digital humanities project ever undertaken: Wikipedia.[3] I became a Wikipedian over a decade ago, but only recently I discovered its usefulness in supporting my work as an educator and scholar. In recent years I have authored, co-authored, or significantly improved at least a dozen articles, mostly centered on the life and work of Norman Mailer. Some of these articles are original, some began as student projects, and some languished as “stubs” needing revision and expansion. The first article I authored is “The Man Who Studied Yoga.” I found that writing a Wikipedia article is much like doing the preliminary research for a major writing project, like a dissertation: I surveyed the criticism and synthesized it into a coherent, organized, well supported encyclopedia article. One of the foundational rules of writing for Wikipedia is “no original research,” meaning no new interpretative or analytical content; instead, articles should provide an overview of notable subjects supported by the established conversation of credible experts and journalists. I find the process an excellent way to begin a paper for publication: I have to do research first, why not let others benefit from that work. Likely, more people will be familiar with my Wikipedia contributions than will ever read my journal publications. Since “Yoga,” I have, most notably, (re)written articles on Norman Mailer (always in-progress), “The Time of Her Time,” An American Dream, The Norman Mailer Society, The Mailer Review, and “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” (with Society colleague Jason Mosser). Writing for Wikipedia covers all major areas of my professional life: teaching, scholarship, and service—perhaps most apropos to the latter.

Several years ago, I created a new class for graduate studies, NMAC 5108 Writing and Publishing in Digital Environments, which would become a key component of the MGA’s Master of Arts degree in Technical and Professional Writing. I designed this course with Wikipedia in mind: it would allow students pursuing an advanced, professional degree to complete real-world projects that teach them skills for writing on digital platforms in support of knowledge-building communities. Writing original Wikipedia articles seemed a perfect fit for a graduate-level writing course, and indeed, my students excelled. Last spring, for example, we collectively wrote “The Faith of Graffiti” about Mailer’s 1974 book on graffiti in New York City with me working as writer-editor. Not only did we create a well supported article by the end of the course, but I later put it through the rigorous “Good Article” process and elevated it to official GA status.[4] This process might be likened to an advanced peer-review, made easier by the stellar foundation my students and I provided. This article received the notice of Mailer scholars and the Norman Mailer Society. If I teach this course again, I hope to receive the official support of the Society, including a financial donation to the graduate school in order to support a graduate research assistant and further graduate studies at Middle Georgia State.

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About the same time that I created NMAC 5108, I also conceived of a Digital Humanities (DH) project to support the Norman Mailer Society’s chief goal: to promote the legacy of Norman Mailer. In this capacity, I had already been a member of the Society’s Executive Board for over a decade, and I would soon be elected to serve as its Vice President (2018). In the spring of 2014, I submitted a proposal for a fellowship to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in order to develop “Project Mailer” (projectmailer.net): a centralized digital hub of projects and content that supports the Society’s raison d’être. I was accepted and spent most of the summer in Salt Lake City researching and writing a proposal that would eventually lead to an on-going repository of multimodal projects centered on Mailer’s work and built on MediaWiki, the open-source software platform that runs Wikipedia. Project Mailer began by updating and remediating Norman Mailer: Works and Days, the 2000 book by official Mailer biographer J. Michael Lennon and Donna Pedro Lennon. W&D now contains over 1500 entries about the life and work of Mailer, all searchable, indexed, and cross-referenced. We include images, full-text resources, and a platform for expansion, like the project “An American Dream Expanded” that my NMAC 5108 students completed. This project builds on the W&D entry for Mailer’s 1965 novel, by adding digitized artifacts, letters that Mailer wrote while working on the novel (again based on Mike Lennon’s book), an expanded bibliography, and other resources. The Lennons and I later published an updated and expanded Norman Mailer: Work and Days as a full-color hardback book that won the Robert F. Lucid Award for scholarship in 2019. Project Mailer now houses the digital version of the Society’s journal The Mailer Review and the web site for the Society, and it undergoes constant updating and improvement. Project Mailer has become a cornerstone of Mailer studies and a showcase for the Society’s work. In a recent interview, Mike Lennon sums it up:

I think that Jerry Lucas has proved to be a superb digital humanist, steering the ship with the work he’s done for Project Mailer, which is one of the main activities of the Mailer Society. Jerry knows much more about digital technology than anyone I know, and it has been a pleasure collaborating with him. . . . Jerry Lucas is doing magnificent things in Project Mailer, which he founded, that I couldn’t even dream of, especially digitizing all of Works and Days, and posting other resources like all of the Prefaces, Forwards, and Introductions that Mailer wrote for about twenty-five books by other writers. . . . Jerry is exemplary and his knowledge of the digital world is phenomenal. And he continues to evolve unabated. He’s constantly working on things that are new.[5]

Recently, I began using Project Mailer as a place to expand undergraduate education in media fluency. Since I serve as Digital Editor for The Mailer Review, and I regularly teach NMAC 3108 Writing for Digital Media, I decided to design a project that allows my undergraduates an opportunity to help remediate our print journal to digital, with me, again, acting as supervisory editor. Each class targets one volume of the Review for remediation: changing the container from print (PDF) to web. This process requires learning wiki code, or the secondary literacy of digital design, and translating the document to better fit user expectations for online research: scan-ability, search-ability, and usability. By midterm, not only does the Review have another digitized volume to support Mailer scholarship, but the students have learned the intricacies of online publication. For their second project, they collaboratively write articles for Wikipedia, usually supporting a local community, like developing articles about Macon and central Georgia, or an online community, like the Women in Red, a Wikipedia project that endeavors to address gender bias by creating articles about notable women, their works, and their issues. My fall section of NMAC 3108 collaborated on two original articles for this project: Edith Jacqueline Ingram Grant and Dorothy Cowser Yancy. Likewise, I began teaching two new courses for me, ENGL 3900 Modern Drama and ENGL 3700 Studies in the Novel, and have students working on Wikipedia projects that create and improve germane articles in literary studies.

My work using Wikipedia in teaching has also allowed me to apply my knowledge and practice to service and scholarship. Since I began using Wikipedia in my teaching, I have used the resources of Wiki Education, an organization that supports educators who use Wikipedia as a classroom tool. WikiEdu supplies training, support, and curricula for educators in all disciplines. Since using their services, I have become an active member in promoting their work: I was invited to publish an essay on their blog, and I have acted as a mentor for other educators in my discipline since the spring of 2020. My own scholarship has also benefitted from this experience: I have published the aforementioned Norman Mailer: Works and Days in digital and book form and an essay about Digital Humanities both in theory and practice in my essay “Project Mailer 2015.” Likewise, my presentations at the annual Norman Mailer Society Conference are always anticipated and well attended by those wanting the latest about new digital projects in support of Mailer’s legacy. I am a regular organizer, moderator, presenter, and sometimes photographer at the conference, and in 2018 as the new vice-president of the Society I brought the conference to Macon, organizing a successful multi-day meeting in downtown with novelist Janis Owens as the keynote speaker. The conference received support from MGA and the graduate school, and several of my MGA colleagues presented as well.

I hope I have made clear my own support for graduate education at Middle Georgia State. I would like to add that I have served on the Graduate Studies Council since its inception in 2014, and I will begin acting as its chair in the fall of 2021. Similarly, I represented my department on the Faculty Senate for two years in 2016–2018 and chaired a successful search committee for a film professor in 2016. Service that strengthens teaching and learning at all levels remains a priority for me at MGA.

The pandemic has tested the flexibility and endurance of us all. I think most faculty, support staff, and students have met this challenge well. While I am generally one to resist factory-line approaches to education, as they make students dependent on particular platforms and practices rather then building their agency, self-confidence, and creativity, I have transitioned all of my course to D2L for the fall of 2020. While I think platform independence and open resources ultimately benefit higher education more than proprietary and closed systems, I also see the benefit of not increasing the burden of education at this time. I have always approached my responsibilities as an educator very seriously: education should be a challenge that exemplifies diversity, critical engagement, and creativity in order to make our students better citizens, not defined by their majors, jobs, or pursuit of material wealth. I emphasize individual growth in support of the community in my professional endeavors, and I hope this emphasis positively impacts student success, even when this means temporary setbacks. I credit my own initial failure at higher education with my eventual success as an academic. Often expectations need to be shattered before personal and communal goals can imagined and achieved.

Over the next five years, I intend to continue to develop my classes along similar lines: tweaking and innovating each semester. I will also develop a major new DH project with J. Michael Lennon and Susan Mailer: a digital edition of Norman Mailer’s Lipton’s Journal—a 100K marijuana journal he kept in 1954 and 1955 that documents his ideas and artistic development. We will edit, annotate, and cross-reference his entries, adding an introduction, commentary, and other resources for reader and researchers, like Mailer’s correspondence with Robert Lidner during this time. First, we will complete the digital project before publishing a separate book in time for the centenary of Mailer’s birth in 2023. I will continue to serve as vice-president and board member of the Norman Mailer Society and to act as digital editor of The Mailer Review. I plan to pursue an aggressive schedule of traditional, peer-reviewed scholarship; I will start with my chapter “Courage through Opposition: The Political Resonance of Norman Mailer” accepted for publication in 2021 or 2022 in the Cambridge University Press book Norman Mailer in Context. I plan on continuing to be an active Wikipedian; currently my colleague and I are writing an article on “In the Red Light” and are working on a critical edition of The White Negro for Project Mailer. If time allows, I would also like to develop an online textbook, tentatively Writing.Digital, to support my teaching of online writing, since current textbooks inadequately cover this material. I plan to make it online and open so my students may use it for free and the community at large might benefit as well. I will continue to support graduate education in particular at MGA in any capacity that I am able, hopefully aligning my relationship with the Norman Mailer Society and the graduate school in some official capacity, like the financial support of graduate assistantship—something like a Norman Mailer Graduate Fellow that would directly support Project Mailer and graduate studies at MGA.



notes

  1. With apologies to NM. This is a first-draft of my post-tenure review letter—actually post-promotion review. I figure it should be represented on my portfolio. I wrote over the past two weeks and posted it today since that’s when the portfolio is due.
  2. See Haraway, Donna (1985). "A Cyborg Manifesto". In Wardrip-Fruin; Montfort. New Media Reader. p. 515–527. See also A Cyborg Manifesto, “A Cyborg Précis,” and “Haraway Revisited”.
  3. I know, I know. You’re thinking: “Get serious, Lucas. Wikipedia is an unreliable amusement at best. How can you possibly expect me to take your work seriously when you begin with Wikipedia?” In my experience, the editors at Wikipedia take their roles as seriously as editors of academic journals do. Wikipedia is a community that is interested in building a knowledgebase of factual, evidence-supported reference material about, well, everything notable. It uses the philosophy of open-source and applies it to knowledge construction, encouraging and valuing everyone’s input, from the expert to the “expert amateur,” as scholar N. Katherine Hayles puts it. Wikipedia is democracy in action, giving anyone the authority to edit anything at anytime. Yet, instead of making the final product unreliable, like Linus’ rule, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” in open-source software, more editors increase reliability.
  4. The entire process of article construction through the GA review can be seen on the article’s talk page.
  5. Sipiora, Phillip (2019). "On the State of Mailer Studies: A Conversation with J. Michael Lennon". The Mailer Review. 13 (1): 46–64.