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.
2 years ago