“Don’t worry,” my English Department Chair said to me within my first few months of my tenure track job as an Assistant Professor of English, “with what you’ve already got published, you’re sure to get tenure, so I don’t want you to stress about that.” He got up from the table in the cafeteria, and I sat there, with the buzz of undergrads around me and my coffee cup warm between my palms where I held it with more force than was necessary.
My Department Chair was being very kind to me. As a new faculty member hired during his time as Chair, he wanted to make sure that I didn’t pile on too much stress and burn myself out. He wanted to ensure that my integration into the Department and the University as a whole was a smooth and enjoyable one. And for that I am grateful to him.
But instead of feeling relaxed at his words, I felt something else. I felt a chill down my spine and a sense of panic.
My palms got sweaty and I began to feel trapped. Seeing tenure unfold before me didn’t feel like the gift I had been led to believe it was. I didn’t feel the gratitude that I was supposed to feel. I felt the doors of a cage close and lock around me. For the first time in my life I began to see that the price I would pay for the safety and security of tenure was a certain type of fixity that I was terrified to pay. Certainly mine was a gilded cage, one with comforts and benefits, but a cage nonetheless.
I could see with absolute clarity what the professoriate would give me. I wouldn’t be poor, but neither would I be rich. I wouldn’t be “made redundant” and let go, but neither would I be able to move universities. I would have freedom within a framework, but I would never break that framework.
In short, I would face no risks, but I would be safe.
I may well be a big book nerd – a person who has made her living reading and writing, someone with hundreds of books on her shelves and hundreds more on her Kindle – but I am also a competitor. I’ve been known not to back down in a debate with my 94 year old grandmother when I’m right and she’s wrong; I’ve been known to fight over games of Trivial Pursuit; I run races; I race bikes; and I try hard at my marriage and my friendships. We all have our own internal baggage, and mine is the feeling that if I just try hard enough at everything and am good enough, then maybe, just maybe I might be worthy of love and acceptance. Now, I’m grown up enough to realize that is just some silly feeling leftover from childhood that a psychologist would probably have a field day analyzing, but what it means professionally is that without the stick of risk and the carrot of reward driving me onwards, I was terrified of the stasis that might set in and make me unloveable.
And because I believe everyone wants to be loved – me included – I felt that panic in the face of tenure, and I left.
“But what else can you do?” People asked me as I began untangling myself from my life as an English professor. Some version of this question is often lobbed at people with Liberal Arts/Humanities training, and I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of our skill set. Those of us trained in these fields are masters of critical thinking and problem solving; we know how to research; we can work independently and as part of a team; we can secure grant moneys and fill out paperwork like nobody’s business; we know how to write and use a semi-colon properly; and on top of all that we have content-specific expertise. I think a better question might be: “What can’t you do?”
And in my case, when people would ask the additional question “What job could be better?” I realized that part of what made tenure seem like nothing more than a gilded cage to me is that I didn’t really want a job. I wanted to be the one making the jobs for other people.
So now nearly five years out from when I first left my tenure-track job as an English professor, I find myself as the co-founder and CEO of EssayJack Inc., and educational software company that has invented a web app to help students with academic essay writing. EssayJack prestructures student essays for them, so that they can focus on content; EssayJack also allows educators to customize that template to meet their needs, and it has an integrated feedback function to make essay-grading less opaque and subjective from a student’s point of view.
We’ve done prototype testing, feature builds, and are in the throes of our 2015-2016 beta year, with individual subscribers and institutional licenses, and I can tell you that it is both exciting and terrifying in equal measure.
I’ve flung open the doors of my gilded cage, and now I’m flying without a safety net. The risks are greater than I ever thought I’d have the stomach for, but I find that I am less panicked now than I was that sunny day in the cafeteria when my Department Chair tried to put me at ease.
Lindy Ledohowski completed her Ph.D. in English at the University of Toronto and her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Ottawa; she sits on the Board of Trustees for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, is a member of the Institute of Corporate Directors, a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, and was both a high school teacher (at Balmoral Hall School) and university professor (at St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo) before co-founding EssayJack as its inaugural CEO.
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