Homecoming

Before 2013, I hadn’t spent much time in California, aside from a few trips to Los Angeles. Truth be told, there wasn’t much I liked about Los Angeles. One of my strongest memories—probably of no shock to LA natives—is sitting in traffic trying to drive just five miles that took a half hour to complete. Who would ever want to live around this kind of traffic?1 But California beckoned. I was offered a job. Very quickly, I had to make a decision and move to the San Francisco Bay Area for a job at Stanford University. I never imagined I’d be in California, let alone at Stanford. And to this day, just short of four years later, I still sometimes can’t believe I landed here.

The view from Emerald Hills.

I came out to California by myself while my wife moved our stuff and sold our house back in Nebraska. In what seems like a quintessential Silicon Valley move now, I found an Airbnb in the hills above Redwood City, where I lived for two months just an eight minute train ride from campus. That Airbnb turned out to be more than just a place to stay. It became a core network for us to meet others who were relocating to the Bay Area. The proprietor often held “Airbnb reunions” for us to meet one another. One set of our closest friends—and new parents, like us—stayed at this Airbnb as well.

The first few weeks at Stanford were a blur of activity. This was my first full-time academic job, and adjusting to that new reality took some effort. Stanford is very decentralized and entrepreneurial, and, like NASA, loves its acronyms—I had a litany to pick up (ACS, SUL, CESTA, VPOL, CTL, ATL, and so on). As I grokked the culture of the university, I had to familiarize myself not only with the sort of things Stanford offered me and the faculty I worked with, but what exactly did I do here? I was the first Academic Technology Specialist in the History Department, and defining that role has been an evolving process over the past four years.

Office Space. Go watch it if you haven't seen it.

I’ve commented on how UNL was an amazing intellectual environment for me. And while I started writing my dissertation in that community, I finished it around the Stanford community. I like to think both UNL and Stanford colleagues deeply shaped not only the resulting dissertation, but my own thinking about history, digital humanities, libraries, knowledge creation, data visualization, and a whole host of other things. My dissertation, which happened to be about the place I was moving to, was likewise shaped by living in Silicon Valley. There’s something about studying place and actually living in that same space. I hope that my time here will impart some extra wisdom to my book manuscript.

But we’ve decided it’s time to move on.

We’ve grown to love many things about the Bay Area. The recreational opportunities are unparalleled: we can hike and bike in foothills just twenty minutes away, the beach is forty minutes away, Yosemite a few hours of driving. We’ll miss the year-round sunny weather, lack of humidity and snow, San Francisco, the excellent coffee, the diversity of people, experiences, and cultures. But there are things we won’t miss—the housing problems, the long and traffic-clogged commutes, the high costs of everything from rent to groceries. And, as new parents, the almost complete lack of a support system—our families live elsewhere, and friends are so spread out in the Bay Area that it’s difficult to see, let alone rely, on one another.

The hardest part is leaving behind my team and colleagues. Stanford taught me a lot of things: that I could find a professional home in the libraries, new programming languages that have served me well in developing digital humanities projects and I’ll continue to use in my work, the opportunity to network with lots of new people, more skill at project management. My colleagues and students are the smartest and most generous people I’ve worked with. All will remain lifelong colleagues and friends, and I hope we’ll continue to catch up at conferences and events over the years.

In January, we’ll be returning to our home on the Northern Plains. I’m joining the University of Nebraska at Omaha as an Assistant Professor, Digital Engagement Librarian. I’m quite excited about the role, and in some ways is similar to what I do now: collaboration on digital humanities projects with faculty and graduate students. But these projects will also take on a more public humanities focus, a desire I’ve had for quite a while (reflected, most recently, in the syllabus I put together for digital public history). The mission of the Digital Engagement Librarian, and the university libraries more generally, is also to work closely with community partners and cultural heritage institutions in the city of Omaha and the region. I’ve long wanted to work more in public history, and UNO seemed like a great fit for that desire.

Furthermore, the position offers me a chance to continue working on my own historical research, an opportunity lacking at Stanford. While the ATS position at Stanford is built around supporting and collaborating on faculty research, I actually spent very little time doing research. Too often, I felt more like a software engineer than a historian. I’m not one who is afraid of being a programmer, and I love the process of designing and creating interactive visualizations. But complex software building isn’t why I got into digital humanities. I’ve designed algorithms, complex visualizations, innovative spatial analysis, all of which play to my strengths; and while I enjoy the process of designing tools, building them isn’t quite my strong point. Nor was any time carved out for me to work on my own research. I miss the archives, I miss having time to write, I miss working on my own digital projects, I’m not eligible for any sort of financial support for research, I’m not eligible for sabbaticals. While there isn’t a huge amount of time given to me for my own research at UNO, it is supported (including sabbaticals) and grants me more flexibility than I have at Stanford.

I will also continue to teach, likely through the History Department under a courtesy appointment. While I’ve managed to craft my position at Stanford to become more focused around teaching—from directing a Digital History Reading Group to teaching a digital history course every year—that work is done in addition to all the other projects and administrative tasks I must support. The class and workshops I teach are part of my regular duties as at ATS. Which means if I spend several hours a week in the classroom and many more on prepping, revising, and designing new courses, my pay, in effect, drops considerably. I took this on because I love teaching and greatly enjoy working with my students, but it is a serious commitment. At UNO, my teaching duties are negotiated differently and come with additional support to make up for that time and energy commitment.

And on a personal level, living in Omaha puts us in between our families again. We also have many long-time friends living on Omaha and Lincoln. As new parents, being back among our close friends and family was no small part of our decision. Not to mention Omaha is a great city and quite livable.

So, as I stand here today, my options were to remain at a wonderful job at Stanford while giving up some of my scholarly interests and identity, or pursue this position at UNO that allows me to work on my historical research while also continuing my interest around research and teaching in digital humanities and public history. I will miss Stanford and everything it offered, but great things await me at UNO.

There are many exciting things afoot, so stay tuned!

  1. Luckily the Bay Area has done a slightly better job on public transportation. People complain about Caltrain, BART, VTA, and MUNI, but they’re pretty amazing services for this area. Sure, the system could be more unified and better built (a topic that may end up in my book), but overall the system is the best I’ve ever lived near. 

About Jason

I am a digital historian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.

This was written on September 22, 2016 | 6 minute read | 1,409 Words
Filed under: career

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