“Gilded cage?” Maybe it’s not where you think.

There’s nothing quite as disappointing as seeing those who should get it  — who by all rights should be your allies, your friends, your family — making silly and ultimately harmful observations.

Especially when those observations add to a miasma of half-truths, stereotypes and unfortunate political leanings that are slowly and steadily choking education in this country.

"Gilded Cage," courtesy of KayVee.INC through Creative Commons.

“Gilded Cage,” courtesy of KayVee.INC through Creative Commons.

Of all the dismal news and opinion I’ve read in the last couple of weeks, the most disheartening was this blog entry about a former academic who quit to form a business.  The company will produce an online app that pre-structures essays for students so they can “focus on content.”

Starting the company, author Lindy Ledhowski wrote, was preferable to being caught in the “gilded cage” of a tenure-track and eventually tenured position.

In such a position, she “would face no risks, but … be safe.”  Now there’s a contrast whose supposed oppositions and subtleties I likely never will grasp.

Ledhowski found it far more attractive to “make jobs for other people” than be in “a job.” The professoriate, she apparently believes, is an area in which “stasis” would be inevitable, at least for her.

Personal ephiphanies are fine. When those are gussied up in the language of education’s most ardent enemies, it’s a little more problematic.

Where to start?

It might as well be with the product itself. This may seem like an irrelevant aside, but bear with me, as I’m a guy who believes both structure and content are crucial to how messages might be received, especially when those messages superficially mask an ominous core.

An application that pre-structures essays makes about half as much sense as other offerings now on the market.  After all, if we’re going to remove requirements that students be able to plan and execute, without an on-screen template, the outlining and structuring of messages,  we should go all-in and let students avoid having to work at their own content, too.

Those full-blown, ready-made paper services are already available. Why go partway?

Preformatted essays are a nice idea — to a certain extent. Just like instant cake mixes are a nice idea.

But schools for chefs don’t mess with instant cake mixes. I’m not sure we need to fool around with halfhearted attempts to promote true understanding of writing to anyone beyond elementary school.

I see some very limited potential in this product, but I see more potential for it backfiring among the very people who may need it most.  Example: the blog post that promotes it.

If we assume the author’s criticism of education was unintentional, she has a problem that software just won’t fix.  She appears to have used her own writing structure, but worked with pre-packaged content that gives a very limited portrayal of what the profession of education involves.

Her blog entry seems to take Ayn Rand’s pie-in-the-sky individualism, neoliberalism’s faith in so-called free markets, the trite criticisms of university bashers, and the veiled sarcasm and cynicism of tired advice columnists everywhere, cramming it all into a blog-post template for self-promotion.

The content didn’t fulfill the structure’s promise. What came out was a half-baked concoction of convenience that tasted vaguely like another bitter attack on education.

That’s harsh, and in some ways it may seem unfair. But the post is unfair to anyone who cares about higher education — which is most of the people I work with.  Intentional or not, it’s damaging.  It therefore needs rebuttal.

To Ledhowski, a faculty position is a “job.” To me, and most of my university friends and colleagues, it’s a calling.

To her, tenure is “a gilded cage.” To me and many colleagues, it’s an illusion and a promise broken, a system we see crumbling before our very eyes (as it has been for years).

To her, academia is an area with no risks and no real rewards. To me, facing a field with burgeoning administrations, shrinking budgets, declining enrollments, increasing pressures to perform even more with fewer resources, and shriveling numbers of tenured and tenure-track educators, it’s a time of extraordinary challenge and commensurate opportunity.

To her, starting a company is “making jobs.”  To me, it’s a potential classroom discussion: why would someone want to create something (a “job” for others) that isn’t good enough to keep her own self feeling happy, productive and satisfied?

From where I stand, this is a richly varied gig for those of us who choose it. Just for starters, it involves:

  • managing classroom and out-of-class performance for at least dozens and often hundreds of students each semester, each of whom will contribute to the economy and culture in important ways
  • shepherding advisees through their academic careers
  • mentoring graduate students
  • advising student organizations
  • working with internships and service-learning projects
  • conducting research
  • drumming up grants
  • helping run committees that decide on all aspects of university governance (increasingly including tasks like promotion and recruitment — marketing, if you will)

Professors run the equivalent of several small- to mid-sized businesses at once.  Ledhowski herself begins to acknowledge this when she writes about English professors being able to, in addition to use a semicolon properly and fill out paperwork “like nobody’s business,” do research, think critically and solve problems.

In the larger context of her piece, however, the acknowledgement rings hollow.

Despite having much in common with business, education lacks the same potential  for economic profit for most faculty.  Our eroding standard of living, which for many wasn’t good in the first place,  is the most obvious indicator of this.

Most of us know we could do better on the “free” market with our credentials and experiences.  Some of us came to academia because we didn’t want to crank out products, collect our profits, and repeat.

And we stay despite the the increasingly successful efforts to weaken tenure, which we all know has never meant a job for life, regardless of what critics think.  Yet this is the narrative Ledhowski perpetuates, and it’s why her essay is so disturbing.

The real question might be, “So just where, in reality, is this gilded cage?”

Someday Ledhowski will be looking for a software wizard with management skills.  Or a good copywriter or public-relations professional who needs to write from scratch in order to deal with a unique problem or opportunity. Or a human resources manager who can train all those folks who must be hired but are puzzled by human interactions and fundamental communication requirements.

When she does, she’ll be able to look to our universities — basic economic engines of our shared culture —  where all of us canaries will be trying to teach future employees to sing, even while the fat cats keep swatting around with their grasping paws through the broken doors of our rusted cages.

We may not always be successful at teaching everyone to be perfect at both form and content.  Still, no company has yet to outperform us.

It’s a great job, and somebody has to do it.



2 thoughts on ““Gilded cage?” Maybe it’s not where you think.

  1. Steve, I agree with everything you said. Just don’t tell anyone! 😀

    Faculty are also under pressure to do even more research, help with fundraising, and more. Especially on campuses where part-time instructors outnumber full-time faculty to save cost. The trend only seems to be gaining momentum. For some, the only solution is to leave the profession or retire……


    • Yes … and when we lose good people because they do what’s obviously best for them, it exacerbates the issue. As we are now seeing in your former department, where more than half of our institutional memory retired in January.

      We’ll soldier on, but it’s hard to see much of a silver lining in you all leaving us. But we do hope you’re enjoying what you richly deserve.

      I was going to tell you not to worry about people seeing that you agree with me, but there’s a spike in readership since you appeared.


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