Bitches, Good Soldiers
and Golden Boys
I’m a bitch. I realized this about six months after I started on the tenure-track at my small Midwestern liberal arts college. It took me a bit longer to figure out what the others in my cohort were. But gradually we all took our turns under the sorting hat. By the time I earned tenure last year, I had figured it out. There are three ranks of junior faculty: bitches, good soldiers and golden boys.
Despite our sexually progressive campus, bitches must be women, and golden boys will be boys. Good soldiers alone promise equal access to all.
Bitches and golden boys needn’t work very hard to earn their titles. Often, the die is cast before heels or oxfords touch down on sod. A woman, rumor has it, might have asked for too much start-up money upon receiving her offer. Golden boy status is often earned far, far earlier — frequently, birth, does the trick. While many bitches belie the canine etymology of their label — many of our local brood are quite stunning — for men, being golden often means, well, being golden. And tall.
After a few faculty and departmental meetings and the scuttlebutt from students circles up to faculty, cementing your title in the gendered categories requires only a few token gestures. A suspected bitch might express strong opinions about curriculum, hold only four office hours a week or grade tough. You can practically hear the sizzle upon flesh.
Golden boys will shine bright if they have some innovative ideas about revising the curricula, travel to conferences frequently and ask for lots of start-up money upon receiving an offer.
There’s nothing much surprising about the above — these are just gender stereotypes, after all. What’s surprising is that they’re really true. This, despite the fact that we’re not stuck in the past here: scholarship by women is assigned in class without having to make a point of it, many departmental chairs, administrators — well-nigh the highest administrators — are women. We hire as many women as we do men and, overall, do well at helping with the work/family balance. On paper we’ve left those stereotypes behind.
But this is a place where buying a house before tenure can still raise eyebrows and where most junior faculty are to be seen but not heard. When it comes to that all important tenure criterion — being a good colleague — gender still gets in the way.
You might think, resentfully or aspriationally, that the best thing to be is a golden boy. Not so. Sure, when they’re assistants, golden boys are the top of the class. But remember, we’re a liberal arts college in the Midwest, so golden boys are both flattering and threatening. They smell too Research I. It’s like when someone more good-looking than you asks you out — you can’t shake the suspicion that you’re being played. And while golden boys make the senior faculty look good (we hire the most promising graduate students) and never have any problem getting tenure, once they become senior, the gilt falls off quick. Suddenly they become washed-up middle-aged guys who never fulfilled their promise.
If you’re in this for the long haul, then, it’s a good soldier you really want to be, and what I now advise recruits become. Good soldiers are the meat on our bones, the soul of our institution, our bread and butter, what makes the place tick. They’re married to the institution; they’re, well, they’re us.
Unfortunately, unlike becoming a bitch or a golden boy, becoming a good soldier requires work. Grunt work. Serving on committees. Going to student plays. Taking on new course preparations. Asking good questions at departmental meetings. It means raising your hand when the question is “who can help?” not “what should we do?” Good soldiers are in town when you are hosting a dinner for a speaker, and they keep their office doors open, should anyone want to chat.
When the tenure enclave commences, golden boys, of course, sail through. No rules are broken, but mediocre teaching and a few less articles than promised are overlooked. It’s the period after tenure golden boys need to worry about. Rumor has it, the therapists in town see them a lot. Good soldiers, though, are rarely done deals come tenure review time. Service is no problem, of course; they’ve already entered the ranks, have perhaps already served a tour of duty as temporary chair or on a major committee. Superior teaching evaluations are required. Research is usually fine but not great (guess why?). However, having earned the love of students and lessened the senior faculty’s workload for seven years, good soldiers will, usually, sweatily, receive their medals.
Bitches? We’re tricky. We tend not to even make it to tenure. Some of us get better jobs — we may not smell Research 1 on this campus, but we do on those. A surprising number leave academia altogether. A good number read the writing on the wall early — unlike golden boys, bitches can’t sail through, and the senior faculty let us know that in yearly reviews. So those who aren’t producing quite enough, or never could find a comfortable seat in departmental meetings, make lateral moves before tenure. You might say that bitches are smart.
As for me, I spent a few years holding my tongue, raising my students’ self-esteem and volunteering for thankless tasks. I was being good, if not exactly a soldier. Some of this, I freely admit, was salutary: I stopped fighting losing battles, learned the value of the phrase “buy in,” and relaxed during debate-filled faculty meetings. knowing I wouldn’t be contributing.
I made it through, and to those who sorted me upon arrival, earning tenure meant that I had, at long last, arrived. In the photocopying room one summer afternoon shortly after the results had been posted, a career soldier congratulated me, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard. “It’s nice to have you with us,” he said, seven long years after my arrival on campus.
Still, it’s lonely. I miss my bitches. However, I’m also, suddenly, thrilled. I’m not washed-up, I’m not stuck in the mire of the foxhole, and I can finally say, without impunity, what I think this institution should do to improve, hold my students to high standards and pursue an independent research agenda. And isn’t that, after all, what being a professor at a liberal arts institution is all about? Maybe being a bitch isn’t all that bad after all.
Ruth Haberle is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.