Friday, August 20, 2010

Tenure/Snake Dilemma

Last week's post on Tenure and how certain media outlets choose to portray the issues related to tenure reminded me of an incident and made me wonder about the role of tenure in our daily lives.

My decision to write about this incident and cast it in a tenure context also made me wonder whether I may have finally reached a pinnacle of bizarreness with this blog, but I shall not let such concerns deter me from presenting, for discussion, a Tenure/Snake Dilemma. My secret desire is that this anecdote will one day become part of the "ethics" training most of us must now endure.

Some context: Numerous media outlets seem to like to portray the Pursuit of Tenure as a very delicate undertaking, possibly undermined by the slightest of slights against a senior (voting) colleague. If we don't laugh at their jokes, share their hobbies, agree with their opinions on topics of debate in and beyond faculty meetings, and do their bidding when it comes to committee work, research collaborations, and/or teaching, our chances for tenure are doomed, or at least seriously imperiled. If tenure can be denied for such petty and political reasons, tenure must be a flawed concept that is harmful to so-called 'academic freedom' that is frequently mentioned as the reason why professors need tenure.

This view of tenure does not match my experiences nor that of any of my close colleagues at a wide range of institutions. Perhaps it happens somewhere (in fact, someone I know in an education-related field is having tenure-pursuit experiences that would be surreal in my department or related science/engineering departments), but I don't think such situations are the norm.

Even so, before we get tenure, we do make decisions about our activities and speech in the context of being as-yet tenureless. Even though we know that we don't actually have to sit and politely listen to a senior colleague tell us how tanned and muscular he looks without a shirt [true story], and we would still (probably) get tenure even if we retched on his (leather) shoes, we may nevertheless be a bit more polite, quiet, and nice before tenure is secured.

With that in mind, consider the following real but not-entirely-serious situation, and decide whether you would make the same decision about the given scenario before vs. after tenure:

A particular person, who is professor of a non-biological science, is extremely phobic about snakes.* This person is terrified of snakes and, although appreciating from afar the valuable role they play in the ecosystem, does not ever want to see one or knowingly be within 50 m of one, not even if the snake is secured in some sort of escape-proof snake habitat. This person cannot even look at pictures of snakes without shuddering and feeling sick.

This same person is very fond of cats.

This snake-o-phobe, felinophile has a senior colleague who is also a neighbor. That is, these two people work in the same department at the same university and also live near each other.

They occasionally trade cat-care when one of them is away. The snake-o-phobe adores the colleague's cat and is happy to take care of this very affectionate and charismatic beast.

Imagine that at a particular time in the summer, the colleague planned to go away on vacation and needed some cat care. The felinophile agreed to take care of the cat.

Then, almost as an aside, the colleague sends an e-mail that says: "Oh by the way, we also now have a snake. You will need to change his/her water** and you may also need to go to the pet store and get a freshly killed mouse to feed the snake."

Question for discussion, keeping in mind the intense level of snake-phobia of the person in question and imagining that this is you, even if you think snakes are beautiful and interesting and you long to get a pit viper as a pet (and/or you already have one):

Do you take care of the snake despite your horror of it? Does your agreeing vs. declining to take care of the snake have anything to do with your tenure status and your wish to be agreeable to your senior colleague?

Is there anyone who would say yes if you did not have tenure and no if you did? Or would you say no, even if untenured, because you don't believe that the tenure system is so warped that refusal to take care of a colleague's snake would make him turn against you in the tenure vote?

Sorry, but saying yes because you are really eager to work on your snake phobia and/or you just want to be a good neighbor is not a realistic or acceptable answer in this situation. You can, however, say yes and then find someone else to do the job for you, but that answer would be boring, even though it is what the person in question actually did.


* As a youth, this person did not mind snakes and even sought them out, thinking they were kind of cool. This person then had a sustained experience living in a place with many many poisonous snakes, some of which entered the home of this person on a routine basis so that s/he never knew when there would be lethal snakes under the bed or sitting on a chair, as happened from time to time. A snake phobia, acquired during this time of extreme snake interaction, became well entrenched through multiple terrifying encounters with snakes and the observation of horrifying things that happened to friends and neighbors who were bitten by snakes, and it has not abated over the years.

** This is not some weird "let's not specify the gender of the snake" thing; the neighbor-colleague wrote "his/her" because he does not know if the snake is a he or a she***.

*** Comments explaining how to tell male from female snakes are not welcome.

39 comments:

mOOm said...

I would say no irrespective of the tenure situation. My wife is very scared of snakes as in this case. For me, it would be dogs, though I'm not as scared of dogs as she is of snakes by a long shot. I'd refuse to take care of a dog.

Anonymous said...

I think I'd say no regardless of tenure. Or at least I'd start a negotiation to get out of snake care, by explaining the phobia and suggesting other people who could help. Maybe the newest grad student?

Sam W said...

I hope the colleague with the snake didn't know of this person's phobia or he'd be a mean person...
What I'd do? Having originally said yes to this colleague, in any situation I'd feel uncomfortable backing out as presumably this person is stressed about going on holiday and sorting everything (that's what I feel about going on holiday anyhow) and relies on me taking care of the cat (and snake) without making other arrangements for that. So I'd stick with that and if possible get someone else to do it...
Afterwards I'd tell the colleague about my phobia and ask them to next time find someone else if possible...

Academacule said...

Are comments about how comments explaining how to tell male from female snakes are not welcome welcome? Because I thought that was great!

I think if the boring route was convenient and reliable (e.g. I had a nearby spouse, friend, sibling, teenage child... perhaps a well-behaved chimpanzee) I would probably go for the boring route. I'd say "sure," and have someone else take care of it.

If I wasn't sure I could get someone else to help with the snake and my phobia was as bad as you describe, I'd probably ask my colleague to find someone else, regardless of my tenure status.

I can't imagine feeding a snake and changing its water if I had a genuine snake phobia. That's way too up close and personal.

cherishthescientist.net said...

If you substitute the word "spider" for snake, then the answer would be a definite "no". I've dealt with my arachnophobia quite well (which had a sudden onset at the age of about 12 while living in a house where I would wake up with large welts/bites all over my face). However, if someone asked me to come over and feed their tarantula, I don't think there is anything I could do about the fear paralysis that would hit me as soon as I caught sight of the thing.

Luis said...

God in Heaven, FSP. Did this person grow up in a snake-handling congregation or something?

Anonymous said...

As someone who both has a severe snake phobia and who left an institution where the tenure process was biased, non-sensical unfair, and just down-right crazy, I can say that I absolutely don't want to get tenure at an institution where situations like that play a role in the tenure process! So, I would tell the person who asked that I would not be feeding the snake. I think you may have started a new euphemism for academics. From here on out, every inappropriate or crazy thing that assistant professors get asked to do simply because they are assistant professors should be known as "feeding the snake."

On a side note, I did have a friend in grad school who felt compelled to feed his advisor's very large lizard (we called it the dragon...it was so big, it could be walked on a leash).

Anonymous said...

I would agree to take care of the snake but then I would secretly ignore it the entire time my friend was away, relying on the common knowledge (which turns out to be not entirely accurate) that snakes can go for weeks without eating.

Joseph said...

The bigger question for me as a postdoc is whether or not there's any point in going into a faculty job if tenure isn't an option or is improbable. I currently have in front of me keeping my family (I have a spouse and a baby) in the postdoc-to-postdoc very low-paying holding pattern for an unknown period of time until I can get a professor job, for a fraction of the pay of any other job, and without even the prospect of real academic freedom, sabbaticals, and with the prospect of becoming a manager of proto-scientists (including fighting for my employees in intra-departmental fights, securing funding, etc.) as much or more than a scientist in one's own right.

What's the point? I could go into industry now, start actually paying into a real retirement fund (with matching contributions from my employer!!) and be able to save for my kid's college in addition to making ends meet. This is why my resume is being resurrected and passed around to some non-physics organizations right now.

Female post-doc said...

I find this a prime example of the drawbacks of email. If this exchange had been in person, the colleague would be able to clearly see the horror on my face (if this was me) when I explained my situation and asked if they could find another vacation spot for the snake. By email, it may sound silly, but I think my immediate reaction would be to send an apologetic email and decline care of the snake. Having someone else help out just means you'll be asked again to care for the snake!

Anonymous said...

Oh my god, that is the most bizarre thing I have ever heard (and yes, I do realize that was the point).

I would think that a neighbour and colleague whose cat you sometimes babysit, you would also consider a friend. And surely anyone you consider a friend would not be so warped and evil as to base a tenure vote on whether you are afraid of snakes??

I say this as a TT professor - I have some senior colleagues I consider friends, and a few I really dislike - but I can't imagine any of them voting on a tenure case based on anything of this sort. In fact it has never really occurred to me that how well I get along with them personally will affect my tenure case.

Maybe I am naive? But seriously, I can't imagine any of my colleagues, even the least-nice ones, voting based on personal issues of any kind.

Still to be tenured Assistant Prof said...

I understand your defense of tenure. When I get tenure I'll repeat your arguments with a completely straight-face ;)

But, for now, in my experience the Slate article is right about the potrayal of tenure. It is a crap shoot at the majority of places and especially harmful to women.

BTW I totally like your blog.

Anonymous said...

I am a snake-o-phobe (in exactly the same way described in your post) as I grew up in a country where poisonous snakes abound. I would have refused to take care of the snake (tenure or no tenure) and explained it to the colleague. To me snakes are non-negotiable :)

DrDoyenne said...

Being a snake-o-phile who even has photos of snakes as screen-savers, I find it somewhat difficult to put myself into the shoes of an extreme snake phobic. But I'll try by imagining something I would find disgusting.

I'd suck it up and take care of my colleague's snake (even if I had to pay a neighbor's kid to do the actual feeding part). Not because I would want their tenure vote, but to help out a colleague/friend. I don't think agreeing or refusing would impact tenure chances.

For a true story about snake phobics, see this link: http://femalescientistadventures.blogspot.com/2010/03/close-encounters-of-wola-kind.html

Anonymous said...

I would politely decline to take care of the snake whether or not I was tenured. I would tell colleague that I don't like snakes and wouldn't be comfortable doing this favor.

On the other hand I suspect my husband would do the favor pre-tenure but not post-tenure. He's of the do-everything-to-keep-the-tenure-committee-happy camp.

ChemProf said...

This diabolical. If this were me, as you describe the person, I would say yes only before tenure, and probably get somebody else to do the entire thing - with so much phobia I don't see how I would even set foot in the house. After tenure, I would say no.

Matt said...

If I were the junior person, I would try to put myself in the senior person's position. I hope I would conclude that honesty is the best policy. Granted, my conclusion would not have purely altruistic motives: I would be afraid that the senior person would somehow find out that I enlisted a substitute without his/her consent. As far as the senior person is concerned, a phobia of snakes is a lot easier to understand than why a strange person is in the house. This would be especially uncomfortable if the substitute, did something silly like smoked in the house or burnt it down.

So: no to taking care of the snake and no to any cover-up. Offer to help the colleague find another solution, even suggesting the substitute considered in the cover-up scheme.

Anonymous said...

I'm shuddering just reading the word snake so many times. I've had a severe snake phobia since I was a kid - I even had my mom tape post-it notes over the pictures of snakes in my high school bio textbook after it flipped open to a picture once and I jumped away and dropped the heavy book. If it came to that, which I hope it wouldn't, I would resign myself to a life as an adjunct before I would touch a snake, and in reality I would decline both or take the boring route and make a friend do it - I don't think I could even go in the house of a snake owner.

Rosie Redfield said...

Why not, if you have a suitable 'someone else', say 'I'm afraid I'm terrified of snakes, but my friend will be happy to look after your cat and your snake'?

Average Professor said...

I have no constructive comments, but I had a really great laugh over the story. This is one of my favorite posts ever.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like the perfect job to be delegated to a grad student!

Susan B. Anthony said...

I vote for going the boring route and discussing it with the colleague afterward. And I really hope that when I am a full professor, I will have as many amusing and bizarre tales of academia to share as you do!

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I would tell the neighbor "sorry, I don't do snakes." I would *not* under any circumstances substitute another person. I might *recommend* another person and offer to ask them if they are willing, but passing on a key I've been entrusted with to someone else without explicit permission would be completely unethical.

Tenure has nothing to do with it.

Of course, I behaved as if I had tenure from the very beginning. I said "no" to unreasonable requests and spoke my mind at faculty meetings even when I was a minority of one. My bluntness may have kept me out of high-paying administrative jobs, but I didn't want to be an administrator anyway. I also worked hard at both my research and my teaching, as I continue to do even many years after getting tenure.

ImogenQuest said...

On a CHAIR?!

GMP said...

I would have said no, tenure or no tenure. I really believe in the tenure system and cannot imagine that the colleague/neighbor would vote against me because I would not feed his snake -- no one I know could be that careless about the career of a deserving colleague.

I had a similar situation happen while I was on TT, although without poisonous reptiles. I actually advised a not-too-close relative of a senior colleague when I first started as assistant prof (I know, it was a stupid thing to take on this student in the first place). I had to fire the dude from his RA position; I thought I did it with plenty of warnings, notices, and lead time. The colleague was not happy, but he wasn't a vindictive prick about it; but, just in case I also made sure I covered my butt by speaking to other dept elders before I let the student go. A few years later, I got tenure. The departemnt vote was unanimous, meaning that said colleague voted in favor of my tenure too.

Patchi said...

Call me boring, but I'd say yes then PAY someone else to do it and watch from outside through the window to make sure they are not getting me in trouble. I'd probably do the same thing before and after tenure. My only concern thereafter would be finding appropriate excuses for NOT going to dinner at this colleague's house if ever invited. But I would still welcome their cat at my house because the poor thing has nothing to do with the snake.

Anonymous said...

@Anon at 7:15am
"I think you may have started a new euphemism for academics. From here on out, every inappropriate or crazy thing that assistant professors get asked to do simply because they are assistant professors should be known as "feeding the snake.""

ROFL. Love it.

And, no, I wouldn't feed the stupid thing, regardless of tenure.

Anonymous said...

You have to tell the person. It is so easy to be oblivious about privilege and power. The tenured person thinks, cool they can get to know my snake. Eventually the tenured person will find out and not only feel like a shit but also worry that your friendship was false. "OMG I lived in the-land-of-ten-thousand snakes. I cannot feed a snake. But I love and can care for the cats." And if the person votes against you for that imagine the venom from finding out that the person has been cast as a bully and false friend.

MathTT said...

"You can, however, say yes and then find someone else to do the job for you, but that answer would be boring, even though it is what the person in question actually did."

But that's totally what I'd do, both pre and post tenure.

Assuming this is really me, and my personality and life situation are unchanged except for the severe snake phobia, I would be loathe to admit a fear of anything. I would also have an adoring husband who knows and enables my quirks. So he would do the snake care, that time and all future times (because, yes, colleague will ask again).

It would really be my (real life) phobia of admitting fear (is that a thing?) that would keep me from saying no, not any tenure fears or even any kindness towards a colleague. I just hate to be thought a whimp.

If I didn't have the enabling husband (or best friend or whatever), I would probably hire a professional pet sitter to do the deed for me. Seriously. I am that messed up about showing fear.

But more to the point, as a tenure track prof with tenure review a couple of years away... I don't feel the need to kiss ass outside of work. I occasionally turn down social invitations, and have been known to call someone out on a sexist "joke" in a social situation.

I do, however, suck up everything they throw at me committee & service & teaching wise. I am so over-committed I could scream, but I just can't say no to that stuff, like at all. Because I really don't know who will remember what come tenure review.

Anonymous said...

I don't consider myself spineless, but I think my over-eagerness to please and fit-in with people would result in me saying yes then seeing who I could get to actually take care of the snake (spouse?).

Of course, during my postdoc I also got over fears of things I didn't want to do. But unlike this situation, it was in a supportive environment.

Anonymous said...

This post is hilarious - I love your writing/storytelling style, FSP.

I would have said no. My philosophy is that the best defense is a good offense (sorry - sports analogy), so I've made sure to have a bulletproof publication-and-funding record during my pre-tenure years. I feel like I can speak my mind and risk offending my senior colleagues because of this. However, I should note that what I've observed of the tenure process at my uni indicates that it is fair and based on merit rather than popularity/politics, and the expectations for tenure are pretty well laid out for us and appear to be consistently upheld.

Janice said...

This is why we pay a sanguine pet sitter to care for my husband's snake and tarantula (and before their untimely passing, my daughter's pet rats). I would never assume that anyone is comfortable with any of these little critters (or our larger ones), tenured or not!

Anonymous said...

MY advice: grow some balls and take care of the snake.

Gingerale said...

I'm with ChemProf (8/20/2010 08:05:00 AM). I might hire somebody licensed, bonded, & insured.

Lsquared said...

I'd say that snakes make me nervous, and if the vacation were at least a week off, ask if they could find someone else to do it, or, if the vacation were imminent, I'd offer to find someone else to do it. The tenure consideration wouldn't affect my decision at all (if they're that easily swayed, I wouldn't want to be in that department anyway. Having sane colleagues is important).

butterflywings said...

I don't mind snakes, but am bird-phobic - childhood trauma at a zoo. I physically cannot be within 10m of a bird, even caged. Nothing would make me care for a bird - I physically couldn't do it. So I replaced snake with bird.
I would say no - explain that I'm really sorry, but I'm terrified of birds, so won't be able to do it. If the senior colleague guy is really a friend, he'll understand. I don't think anyone would seriously be so petty as to let the refusal affect their tenure decision.

Anonymous said...

I would say yes pre-tenure, and no post-tenure. And I'd have someone else take care of the snake, and probably wouldn't tell the colleague until years later what I had done/was doing (assuming more vacation requests will take place). I'd like to believe personal irritations don't factor into tenure, but we are human and often can't separate objective from subjective. Why add something that can be solved get in the way?

I love this post. and the new euphemism "feeding the snake".

Helen Huntingdon said...

I'd go with politely saying I cannot provide snake care. Depending on whether I think I can enter the house knowing the snake tank is there, I'd state whether or not I could provide cat care under the circumstances.

Since I love the cat in question, I might offer to care for it in my home depending on how workable I think that is.

I'd probably be tempted to demonstrate submissiveness by offering explanations for not providing snake care, but I think the better answer is just a calm polite statement that I will not be doing this particular task.

Helen Huntingdon said...

As a follow-on to my previous comment about saying no:

Changing the task under you and assuming agreement is a bad sign. It's a mistake ordinary mortals make from time to time, but it's also a power play used by abusive people.

Your answer isn't just about this one task, but a communication of how much you're willing to put up with. If you acquiesce to this, you're communicating that you'll take orders to do favors when they should be requests. That can get ugly fast, and you can be sure that the tests of your boundaries will escalate from there.