Of rednecks and rockets

Nobody ever thinks about tenure growing up. It's the kind of adult possibility that doesn't register on kids, and rarely registers on college students. If you end up in a social circle of people in which post-graduate education is common, eventually the reality of tenure becomes all too real for you.

A few years ago, I watched the drama of tenure unfold for a friend of mine, and it caused me to look back at my college professors in a different light, knowing every one of them who had gotten tenure went through this process. In academic circles, tenure is "go big or go home" on a grand scale. You've just finished undergraduate and post-graduate work. You've survived the thesis process, and you're out in the work force armed with your brain and enough college loans to float a Third World country or two. Your tasks are as simple to describe as they are difficult to execute:

  • Spend the next few years proving why your current employer should hire you for the rest of your working life.
  • Get complete job security for the next few decades or get asked to leave.
  • Go big or go home.

So what happens in the meantime? If you're good at what you do, and conscientious, you're going to pour all your effort into making sure you get the answer you hope to hear. It isn't just teaching. You have to network, perform research, and publish. How much is 'enough' to get tenure? You may or may not know.

It eats at your personal life, too. Do you buy a house, knowing that you might have to move in a few years? Do you have a baby? Can your spouse start a career, or does this level of uncertainty mean everything -- both personal and professional -- gets put in a holding pattern, both in your life and theirs?

(I smile at the concept of tenure babies, but they're real; there are three people who will read this entry and say "Yep! That's my kid!")

Fast-forward. Friday afternoon, four-fifteenish. Me, in a chat window to a friend: "shit. ANOTHER shooting." A week after the student-on-student shooting at Discovery Middle School on the opposite side of town, a mass shooting at UAH. I work a few blocks from the hospital, and use the same road that the ambulances would be using to get there. I realized I probably had a few minutes to get out of the parking lot and off of Governors Drive before the ambulances started arriving. (At the time the news said ten, not six, people had been shot.)

I pulled out of the parking lot to the sound of multiple sirens, and made the turn onto the freeway just as police cars started blocking the roads to let the ambulances through.

The evening unfolded with the utter normalcy of a friend's birthday party, with scattered pockets of complete absurdity. While standing at the bar, holding drinks and waiting to be let into the private room for our party, one person in our group said "I think half of my professors were shot today. I'm not exactly sure what we're going to do next week."  While waiting for our dinner to arrive, a check of Twitter showed multiple acknowledgments of the victims being advisors, professional colleagues, and personal acquaintances.

That's what struck me about Huntsville when I first moved here, and what strikes me today. Huntsville is an odd, odd duck. It is close-knit and insular, and a product of its singularly unusual creation. It's the logical end result of the government fostering a research facility in a rural, somewhat isolated, area and letting it ferment for a few decades. Drive twenty, thirty minutes outside the metro area and it's farms and open spaces; inside the metro area it's doctorates, rockets, lasers, and NASA -- and sometimes it feels like everyone in this city remembers each other from grad school, worked with each other on a prior government project, or went to school with so-and-so's older sister Suzie.

It's hard to break in. It took us years, and making a few friends, and slowly building up contacts. After a while, though, it becomes a bit of a punchline. Of course everyone knows everyone else. Of course you have a master's degree (engineering, right? which flavor?) and are you thinking about doing a doctorate? Did you get the research funding you were hoping for? Oh, you're having to get checked to go from a secret clearance to a TS? Yeah, that sucks, doesn't it?

...and just outside the city?  Cows.

We joke sometimes that Huntsville really isn't in Alabama; it's in its own little world.

You get used to being here after a while. I know I did, despite the fact that I hated it the first few years here. It took me a long time to warm up to this city, but after eleven years of living here, I realize I've picked up its rhythms, its cadence, its language. Doctorates aren't unusual to me now; we celebrate them with dinners. I like knowing that I can ask around to find out about someone I just met, and I'll probably get substantive answers. I hate that arts and culture struggle more here than they should in a city this size, but I simultaneously have a deep sense of amusement at just how many of my friends hold engineering degrees.  (Hint: most of them.)

I ache for my friends who have lost colleagues, mentors, teachers, and friends.  I didn't know the people who were shot at the tenure hearing yesterday, but I had a pretty good idea of which of my friends would.

Huntsville's like that, after all.