The Iron Cage

German sociologist Max Weber coined the term the Iron Cage to describe the way bureaucracies create conditions that force actors to be impersonal cogs in the machine. Our daily lived experiences are trapped in a web of heartless decision making, a result of strict rules and procedures that dictate what we can and cannot do.

Today, I suffered the angst of being caged. As a community college professor, I (and many of my colleagues) feel real pain turning anyone away. So when my college recently implemented a program that would expand the access of Honors through a contract system, I was stoked to contribute to the widening of its reach. In the previous model of Honors, I taught a whole class of Honors students. Some of those students are in the Honors Scholar Program and some are step-in students (trying out an Honors class). The challenge with that model was the limited number of options students would have. Honors classes are on certain days, at certain times, and on certain campuses. Why did we not expand those class offerings? It costs too much. Cold, hard, economics driving that decision. With the contract system, we teach our usual classes and offer students in those classes an opportunity to do Honors work in addition to the work in the class. We could have unlimited classes now that offer Honors work. Another issue with the Honors class is the label itself. Many of our students come in lacking confidence, beaten down and marginalized by the harsh socioeconomic and political conditions imposed on their communities. They don’t see themselves as Honors capable (even though they are indeed capable). Just applying to the Honors program is an intimidating endeavor. The contract system is supposed to remove the perceived barrier of oneself as “not Honors student material”.

Now let me digress just a bit to explain the Faculty Assembly (FA).

The FA is like our union, even though we’re not technically unionized. It’s the group of faculty on campus who do the work of acting in the best interests of the faculty’s working conditions (pay, hours, assignments, duty days, release time, etc). One of the cornerstone pieces of advice that the FA gives to faculty is to not do extra work for free. The idea is that the college will extract us to do as much work as possible with as little resources as possible. Hence, we have to negotiate with the district if we are tasked to do more work. I love my work, but hours are hours. The Honors Contract system was agreeable to the district because it theoretically grows the program at a lesser cost than expanding the designated Honors classes. Paying faculty to do contracts is cheaper than paying us to teach a full class.

Back to the issue at hand, the Honors Contract system does require more work. We create an alternate set of assignments for students who want to do Honors work. We mentor them outside the class, one on one and in group settings with other Honors students to complete high level work, such as conducting original social research in my class. The FA negotiated for faculty to be compensated per Honors contract student. But the mistrust of the district was that if they didn’t cap faculty, we would take too many contracts just to cash out. We would abuse the privilege. So the district capped the number of contracts to 5 per faculty per semester.

Here’s my dilemma. In the 2 sections of SOC 101 Introduction to Sociology where I offer contracts, 7 students have emerged as showing strong interest and capability. I ask the Honors dean for wiggle room from the cap of 5. The answer is no wiggle room. I then offer to do the 2 additional contracts for free. I don’t need to be compensated. The response was that the “FA won’t let faculty work for free.” So because of the compensation “rule”, I can’t do more than 5. And the FA doesn’t like faculty working for free because it would set precedence for free labor. The end result is I will have to turn down 2 students. I have to create an internal application process to select who the 5 will be. It’s replicating the same problem it purported to address — denying access to students. It’s painful. I feel incredibly sad that I have to say no to 2 students. I could think I’m helping 5 students who otherwise wouldn’t have an Honors opportunity, but denying the other 2 overshadows any sense of doing right by our students.

This iron cage of mistrust and passive piloting of programs are a disservice to students. Rules and regulations, practices and procedures….they lead us to the road of impersonal decision making that removes any sense of sentiment or compassion for the human condition. Weber warned of dehumanization in the iron cage. I can write it off as an institutional problem and that the higher ups are to blame, but I am an actor in this, too. To participate in the dehumanization of students is immoral and antithetical to our purported mission. And I feel dirty as a contributing actor.


8 thoughts on “The Iron Cage”

  1. Very well said Dr. Thao! Keep up the struggle within a semester or two voices can grow, and policies can be reformed to meet the needs of students. The mere fact you can help 5 students this semester is awesome.


  2. You have a sincere dedication to mentor your students. And you go out of your way to rattle the iron cages. I hope one day very soon, you will be in a position where you can change the rules and the iron cages can become less restrictive.


  3. Nicely framed. If you feel dirty, then teach all seven. Granted, two couldn’t get the H designation, but they could still learn and grow. They could even form a protest group. Not that that is necessarily the best use of their time, but it does check the citizenship box for outcomes. 😉


  4. Thanks for shining light on this complex problem with such clear language. I have struggled inside the iron cage as well, but I had not been aware of that concept / metaphor. Now I am trying to think about ways of staying out of the many gilded cages with the doors hanging enticingly open that community college education in California offers its professors and students. You and Weber have given me a new model to help me analyze those challenges.


  5. I love your courage. Please continue to stand up in what you believe in. The other two students will be stronger due to the end results, saying no is not always a bad thing. Yes the laws sucks, but you didn’t allow that stop you.


  6. Keep up the great work and I feel like this is a problem hat needed to be addressed in order to help more students get opportunities.


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