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  • Ninety-Nine Problems:Assessment, Inclusion, and Other Old-New Problems
  • Marisa Parham (bio)

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, W. E. B. Du Bois opens his seminal The Souls of Black Folk with a simple formulation that encapsulates the workings of structural inequality even still today: "How does it feel to be a problem?" The question is striking in its disingenuousness, masking the questioner's complicity in the interrogee's predicament. When I ask you to talk to me about a thing that has happened to you, "your" thing, the fact of my asking asserts my ignorance as innocence, even as I know enough to presume it is safe to refer to you as a problem. The fact of my asking also weaponizes my imagination of good will: I am asking because I am concerned about you, which transforms a thing that is happening to you into a thing discussed squarely in terms of how it has been processed by you and can be narrated to me. Even as it ostensibly expresses concern for you, again, how are you feeling, the question transfers the responsibility for making meaning onto you—you who are special, tell me more. To be a problem is to carry an identity that a structure is unable or unwilling to accommodate. To ask the question is to acknowledge the dissonance while abdicating responsibility for its resolution.

Developing less burdensome and more equitable ways to support scholarly difference is a preeminent challenge when thinking about the future of assessment and promotion in higher education. At stake in this is the very capacity of institutions to do the work of scholarly inclusion, to recognize the range of approaches well captured in the digital humanities caucus of the American Studies Association's succinct 2016 characterization of humanities work that is "innovative, critical, boundary-pushing, justice-based, and experimental work—scholarship that takes a diversity of forms, that reaches and is produced by thinkers, teachers, practitioners, and makers from a wide range of communities and contexts."1 Assessment potentially shadows or highlights scholarly identity at every institutional juncture, and this is as true for undergraduate research work as it is for matters of promotion, tenure, or contract renewal for faculty and staff. In 2018 digital work is still often an unreasonably risky [End Page 677] pursuit for many faculty, staff, and students, unless that work is undertaken as additional to the other kinds of scholarship already vetted by any given field or discipline, or that work comes after a scholar has an established record of nondigital publication. At many institutions, digital and other kinds of new or experimental scholarship have become the latest examples of adding qualities that make job candidates desirable without actively subtracting from the list of expectations historically attached to any given position. In many cases the oldest DH cliché still holds true, that if you want to secure your appointment, you must "do double the work."2

What would it mean for a college or university to encourage or support digital work without a willingness to demonstrate equal and immediate commitment to building a larger or deeper institutional conversation around that work? To do so would be to support the neoliberal tendencies identified in some of the most trenchant critiques of digital humanities projects and programs, hiring in the name of "innovation" that is ultimately superficial to the institution and destructive to faculty and staff enfranchisement.3 In such cases, untenured scholars and contract professionals working on some of the most telegenic and financially supported projects, for instance, would be explicitly asked to do so from a position of institutionally advocated precarity. In 2011 Kathleen Fitzpatrick, writing as director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association, noted the increase both in graduate students becoming interested in new kinds of scholarship and in faculty being recruited to bring digital approaches to campuses. Despite her optimism for institutions broadening humanities approaches, Fitzpatrick was also concerned about "what provisions are being made for supporting those new faculty members, particularly on campuses where the positions represent a first foray into the digital humanities."4 Under what kinds of institutional conditions does it become possible to successfully address...


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