January 27, 2015

From Gerald R. Lucas

Aspiring Digital Nomad

Last semester, I applied for a job that I knew I could do, but I also knew really wasn't for me. The position was in administration —something that I’ve managed to mostly avoid in my career in higher education. Still, while I have had some success in reinventing myself as a practitioner of Digital Humanities, I’m not sure I was ready to give up my faculty position.


I was, however, ready to minimize my teaching —at least for a time. While I feel that I have been an effective educator in my years of practice, I tend to be a polarizing figure in the classroom. Students seem to either love me or hate me. I’m demanding, and sometimes I can be “intimidating” and “arrogant”— adjectives that seem to appear regularly on my evaluations. Indeed, even with my glowing successes in the classroom, they are overshadowed by student grumbling on my annual evaluations. While my teaching record in graduate school was exemplary and consistently recognized,[1] I’ve never received anything more than a “meets expectations” from my last two department chairs. Is it me? Maybe.

So when I saw the internal job posting for an “Executive Director, Innovations in Teaching, Learning and Alternative Delivery,” I decided to give it a shot. It had elements that I had been doing for a while, like: “Knowledge of the field of teaching innovations, alternative delivery, instructional design, pedagogy, and analytics”; “Knowledge of cutting edge technology tools and solutions”; “Skill in developing collaborative partnerships”; and “Skill in oral and written communication.” However, it called equally for qualities that I lacked: “Knowledge of entrepreneurial operations and disruptive innovation”; “Knowledge of the government and corporate operations”; and “Skill in identifying the barriers and providing solutions to solve issues around recruitment and enrollment of adult students.” While I could claim familiarity with these latter aspects, I was by no means an expert, nor did I have much experience.

Still, my various interviews went well. However, I inferred from those discussions that this position would emphasize the skills that I seemed to lack, so I decided that I would not accept the position even if it was offered. In my final meeting with the provost, I said as much.

Instead of that being the end of it, she asked me to work for her anyway. She told me that I should use this semester (spring 2015) to design my dream job - somehow relating to the position for which I originally applied. So, given the opportunity, how could I resist. Here’s my current thinking about it.

The “New Reality”

Changing economic and political realities are repositioning the mission of higher education in the US. Increasingly, the specter of neoliberalism has reached further into higher education. In a recent interview with Dissent, Wendy Brown, author of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, states “Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres —such as learning, dating, or exercising —in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices.”[2] In this sense, college is considered a gateway to the private sector, and students (now “customers” who must be “serviced” so they have a good “educational experience”) expect that a degree will be directly applicable to their efforts to find and secure a well paying career. Whether this view is supported by the mission of the college - especially local institutions that serve the particular interests and needs of a limited geographical region - the operational life of the state institution depends on how those local attitudes influence economic and political realities. In other words, funding of state institutions of higher education has been falling[3] due to a “shrinking commitment”[4] and new funding formulas[5] based on “achievement”[6] and political ideology[7] which all pushes up tuition costs,[8] so the “new reality” must have two priorities:

  1. Figure out how to work productively within falling budgets;
  2. Maintain the rigors of a liberal arts approach to higher education.

Whatever "college" might have meant at one time, it now seems to prioritize access to higher-paying careers through measurable achievement, like retention rates, standardized “student learning initiatives” (and different but equally important “student learning outcomes”), and diplomas in hand. This emphasis on practical outcomes may be seen in everything from salaries to curricula development. If the job market for newly minted Ph.D.s was bad ten years ago, it seems much worse now. And in the neoliberal college, forget about tenure.

I have lamented this refocusing of higher ed before,[9] but that is not going to solve the problem.

Perhaps we in higher education need to begin thinking about highered from a less centralized, hierarchal perspective. Ultimately “highered” might have to be separated from the “university.” I’m not advocating this, but the traditional brick-and-mortar university might going the way of the shopping mall. There is an appeal and convenience of having all of these stores under one roof - and even a place to meet for a Cinnabon or a float down the lazy river.[10] However, these massive structures cost money that many state governments seem less willing to support. Perhaps students and their parents should be, too.

A virtual university could direct funding to where it’s needed —less to buildings and middle management —and more to the researchers, teachers, and support staff that seek to build the college in the cloud. Perhaps it’s time to hack education systemically to reemphasize what HigherEd is all about. I see this, at least in the short term, complementing the brick-and-mortar institution, perhaps shrinking its footprint, but helping to sustain it during the transition.

OK, so what, then, is my dream job? (Typical academic: I take way too long to get to the point.) A virtual university needs a virtual professor, what else?

Digital Humanist in Central Georgia

In general, the Digital Humanist remediates the Humanities by leveraging digital technologies and traditional academic approaches to teaching and scholarship. In short, the Digital Humanist aligns liberal arts curricula with the latest digital approaches to research and instruction. These scholar-hackers aim to maintain the rigors of traditional textual analysis by bringing artifacts into digital environments, thus creating something new, participatory, and multimodal.

A major focus of the Digital Humanities (DH) is curation. It collects and re-presents primary materials, allowing for open access, collaboration, multimodal convergence, and participation. Digital curation constructs new knowledge for the benefit of the specific communities of users. The job of the Digital Humanist would, therefore, depend on the needs of the community that employs her. In this case, Middle Georgia State College’s mission provides direction:

The mission emphasizes the local population and their needs. I see as part of these needs the development of an online curriculum that targets the needs of local industry (“economic”) and supports it with new media components (“global context”) that teach civic agency, responsibility, and participation (“intellectual” and “cultural life”).

In general, a nomadic Digital Humanist would:

  • Work collaboratively to support faculty, administration, and students in building digital projects for teaching and/or scholarship;
  • Help align those projects with the strategic plan of the institution and determine goals, outcomes, and metrics;
  • Develop online sections of courses within area of specialization;
  • Develop multimodal approaches to learning goals within various disciplines;
  • Use the best digital tools for each job (one size does not fit all);
  • Keep abreast of current trends in educational technology and social media;
  • Open communications to the campus community and encourage them to experiment with digital approaches;
  • Present projects, research, and/or outcomes to campus and peer communities.

My Dream Job

One of the reasons that a career in the academy originally attracted me was its flexibility. I like working when and where I want. I don't like offices, nor do I find that I am regularly productive during “business hours”—another moribund idea that I could easily dispense with. I even wrote my dissertation in a coffee shop. I'm even wary of traditional classrooms - especially those that offer little flexibility. My dream job would allow me reasonable flexibility. I don’t want an office, nor should I be expected to inhabit one from nine to five. As a digital nomad, I'll carry all I need to work on my MacBook Air, iPad, and iPhone.

I’m not a lazy person, but the quotidian makes me sluggish. I don’t need rigid schedules or constant supervision like one might find in a corporate environment. I want location independence. The ability to explore and discover actually inspires me to channel energy and creativity into everything I do. We Americans seem to emphasize work too much—just as we put too much importance on home ownership and collecting stuff. If anything, prioritizing these ideas enslaves us to an inflexible system. I began to think this way while teaching abroad. Living away from home breaks us of this naturalized need to be at “home.” When traveling, one needs to pack light, live in the moment, and revel in the different. Houses, cars, and the things we fill them with weigh us down to one spot until we can barely move anymore. Some ideas have the same affect.

I think we can also travel lightly in our jobs. This doesn’t make us less devoted or lazy, but gives us a certain trust and agency as professionals to do what we were hired to do in the first place. Besides, the best thing one can do for a community is to leave it for a while and bring back what you've learned to enrich it. This is particularly true for education. It makes sense, then, that travel budgets are being cut annually. But, I digress.

My job as Digital Humanist at MGA would include the following:

  • Develop innovative approaches to the online delivery of classes in my areas of expertise. I would like to develop one fully online class a semester. I would also teach at least one these courses.
  • Assist faculty in digital approaches to their own projects. Act as a sort of DH evangelist for faculty. Offer assistance to faculty in developing their own online courses, integrating digital components into their traditional classes, remediating their research to take advantage of digital approaches, and/or other support duties.
  • Act as a liaison between the goals of online curriculum development and the MGA community, from whole schools to individual faculty and staff. Help direct their efforts to meet those of the institution.
  • Research and construct my own DH projects. I'm currently working on Project Mailer; the Norman Mailer Society has several projects that I'm spearheading.
  • Keep updated on the latest research, methods, and applications that support DH. This might include attending conferences, presenting papers, and publishing in national and regional journals. Also, I would continue to actively engage the DH community via social media, like Wikipedia and Twitter.

A boy can dream.


  1. I received six teching awards in graduate school — two were university-wide.
  2. Shenk, Timothy (April 2, 2015). "Booked #3: What Exactly Is Neoliberalism?". Dissent Magazine. Retrieved 2015-05-03.
  3. Mitchell, Michael; Palacios, Vincent; Leachman, Michael (May 1, 2014). "States Are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels". Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved 2015-01-31.
  4. Suggs, Claire (January 29, 2014). "Overview: 2015 Fiscal Year Budget for Higher Education". 15 Forward. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved 2015-01-31.
  5. "Higher Education Funding Commission report released". Georgia.gov. January 16, 2013. Retrieved 2019-12-27.
  6. Nouraee, Andisheh (June 23, 2010). "$980,000 in Beltline funding gone". Creative Loafing. Retrieved 2015-01-29.
  7. Mortenson, Thomas G. (Winter 2012). "State Funding: A Race to the Bottom". American Council on Education. Retrieved 2019-12-23.
  8. Johnson, Sandy (May 1, 2014). "States Are Still Cutting Funding For Higher Education". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2015-01-31.
  9. Lucas, Gerald (March 28, 2015). "The Liberal Arts Are Dead". The Synapse. Medium. Retrieved 2015-04-01.
  10. Rubin, Courtney (September 19, 2014). "Making a Splash on Campus". The New York Times. Fashion. Retrieved 2015-01-31.