March 1: Happiness vs. Security

 ·   6 min read

Jennifer Guiliano and Roopika Risam hosted the second DH-WOGEM conversation on March 1, 2019 on happiness vs. security.

This call brought together participants from diverse professional roles, including tenure-track faculty, postdocs, and technical staff. While the initial prompt focused on the compromises one makes between happiness and security, the conversation touched on a range of issues from postdocs that set people up to fail, to navigating HR-inflected processes and documentation when encountering problematic behavior, to the place (or lack thereof) for emotion in the academy.

Happiness and compromises

On happiness and compromises, one participant noted that her compromises affect other people, who are left to pick up the slack when she travels, or accommodate how distracted she can be at family events. Travel and work can also be a response to a toxic workplace environment, but using work and travel to run away from a bad situation can take a toll on everything else in a person’s life. When you’re successful and get a lot done, people assume that it comes at the expense of self-care (even sleeping and eating) — what sort of message does that send? Another participant mentioned her challenges coming to terms with the impact of mental illness: even when she’s on medication that works, she realizes she’s not able to do as much work as other people she knows.

Gendered lens of DH-WoGeM

When the discussion started to veer towards issues of life and labor more generally, one participant inquired about the gendered focus of DH-WoGeM. While responses varied in their emphasis on this gendered lens, a number of responses highlighted specific challenges that people who aren’t white cis dudes experience in institutional and advisor circumstances. One participant noted the proliferation of women in precarious positions through the way their jobs are defined. Another noted that she’s feels the need to steer students towards or away from certain groups or advisors because of their gender. While there are other groups that address issues like labor (e.g. a postdoc group), one participant noted that gendered issues were functionally taboo in that group, along with overt expressions of feelings.

Precarity and labor issues

Job precarity, reasonable job expectations, and responding to others’ behavior at work (ranging from well-intentioned but tone-deaf remarks to unacceptable ways of engaging with colleagues) became the focus of the conversation.

Multiple participants mused that DH postdoc positions are often a terrible deal. For the institution, a postdoc is a consolation prize in lieu of a tenure line. These positions set the postdoc up to fail by expecting them to do extensive program-building work for the institution, while simultaneously expecting them to teach and do research, all with the knowledge that the job won’t last more than two years. Such positions are not conducive to happiness. Postdocs in general come with major trade-offs in terms of uprooting people, and working with the specter of unemployment always hanging over one’s head — and in postdocs without a digital component, the scholar is often “not supposed to be doing digital stuff” as part of it. One participant noted that university IT jobs often pay better than TT positions, and can provide opportunities to do interesting work, but there are very few women who apply for these positions out of concern for not meeting the qualifications, even when they’re often more qualified than male candidates.

Workplace conflict

Participants in multiple kinds of institutional roles recounted situations where they had to deal with triangulation behavior at work — where students, colleagues, etc. would take issues to a third party (often a supervisor or senior colleague), rather than going to the person directly. In many cases, instead of redirecting the person engaged in the triangulation, the third party would play into it in ways that undermined the person who was targeted by this behavior. In many cases, the third party would not seem to perceive the triangulation being a big deal — or any sort of issue at all, which complicated attempts to explain why both the triangulation and the third party’s response were inappropriate. Attempts to approach the problem directly with the person engaging in the triangulation also backfired for some of the participants.

We discussed people’s experiences trying to create a paper trail in order to enable future formal escalation, if necessary — though all participants were reluctant to involve formal HR or administrative powers if at all possible. One participant suggested sending an email after particularly difficult conversations to formalize the major points in writing. In general, participants felt unsure about what kinds of responses (formal or informal) were appropriate in different kinds of circumstances, although some situations (e.g. having a supervisor yell at a junior colleague to the point where others stepped out of their offices in concern) are unambiguous in necessitating the involvement of higher administration. (This may not, however, lead to any changes; a participant recounted filing a complaint in response to such a situation, only to learn that multiple such complaints had been filed against that individual.)

Working with allies

On a positive note, one participant described the value of identifying key allies and talking with them about what you’re interested in doing, able to do, and what you don’t want to or can’t take on. Those people can help proxy your interests, suggesting you for the kinds of work you’d like to do, and steering others away from approaching you about the things you’d rather not do.


The group discussed feelings — sadness, anger, even happiness — being things that are treated as awkward to talk about in academia. Happiness and security often manifest in “feeling-language”; at the same time, if someone is happy, it’s assumed they must be doing something that’s contributing to it. Being upset is dismissed as “getting emotional”, rather than a situation with an underlying cause. Multiple participants noted that showing anger was a reliable way to experience a backlash from other women. POC participants mentioned the compounding factor of race, and how they find themselves responding to racially coded behavior by walking around, smiling at everyone, making everyone laugh, giving everyone the message that they’re happy to be there and happy to be invited no matter what, accompanied by an inner monologue filled with expletives.

Next steps

There were two areas of follow-up from this conversation. One was to provide feedback and input a postdoctoral laborers group that has put together a document that will serve as guidelines for those creating, hiring, applying for, and sustaining postdoctoral positions with a labor component (such as the many DH postdocs proliferating as we speak). This Postdoctoral Bill of Rights is in draft form, and they hope to release it this spring. You can read it and provide anonymous feedback using this form.

For the second follow-up area, we put together an anonymous survey to surface common situations that contribute to systemic problems in how people behave towards one another. The goal is to bring these situations into the open, and support one another by developing practical suggestions, templates, etc. (e.g. what would it look like to send an email to an advisor about something they’ve said or done?) These materials could also be a resource for people who are in positions of power — how can you be a better chair, program director, project PI, etc? The first step may simply be admitting that DH isn’t a utopian place to work, much as we position ourselves as “outside” the rest of the academy with its well-documented ills. Please fill out the survey to share your experiences with difficult situations in the workplace.