academic work · commute

Commuting: Some Thoughts

For the first time in my life I have what counts as a long commute to work. It isn’t what many business magazines call “a hellishly long commute,” but it is a big change for me. Two hours of my work day are now spent in my car. Let me start by being very clear: I am excited about my new contract; it feels wonderful to be teaching in my field, and the health benefits don’t hurt, either. In fact, the only hitch I have when people ask me how the new gig is going is the distance.

I don’t mind driving. In fact, I am sort of used to it. I grew up in a rural area and getting to school (or the grocery store, or any friend’s house, or the library, or…) meant driving half an hour or more. But this is a bit different. What I mean is this: I find that I account for the time spent commuting for work differently (does the two hour drive count as my work day? Or is it supplemental to it?) In short, I find I am thinking about why and how people commute in ways I hadn’t had to before.

Here are some of the ways I mean this: I think about money and time. My time in the car costs a lot. There’s the gas, of course, but I think about is the less visible cost. Because our kiddo is still a bit too young for daycare, we have a nanny for the term. Two hours in the car is a quarter of the time we pay for child care each day, so I am paying to go to work again, and I am then spending two hours of that work time in the daily commute. That’s okay, by which I mean I am able to do it for now, but I am acutely aware that in terms of the cost many people are not. I wouldn’t have been, not before this new contract. So there’s that: the cost (emotional, financial) of child care. And there’s also the question of productivity. Is it my protestant work-ethic, drilled into me from an early age? Is it the neoliberal institution of higher ed that gives me the not-so-unconscious imperative that I should be working every waking hour and the short term pleasure when I Get All The Things Done? Or is it simply that walking or biking or taking public transit to work felt like I was doing something for myself (fresh air! reading in public!)? Or maybe, as one friend who has commuted further and longer than I, I simply haven’t got my podcast game sorted. Regardless of the psychology of my desire to make my commute matter! (whatever that means) I found myself thinking about how other people use their commuting time. Funny how that happens, eh? I’ve never given real thought to this until it really began to shape my daily life. Hmm… I sense another blog post coming.

Anyhow, I digress. When I started doing some cursory internet research on commuting two themes emerged: how to decide if your commute is too long, and how to improve your commute. The similarities in these articles are pretty predicable in that they are both predicated on the assumption that one has agency in one’s employment situation and one’s housing situation, for that matter. Some bloggers caution that trading a long commute for a job with more money will often deplete your personal happiness. Others suggest that long commutes chip away at your ability to empathize with others. And articles that are specifically about academics who commute are all-too-familiar in their sensationalism meets stasis. You know the formula (& indeed, you may live this too): two academics land good jobs in different cities/countries/timezones/continents. Articles that I’ve read about this underscore the extreme strain of this kind of distance and commute, but few (okay, none) have suggested any practical or structural changes to make the institution more open to the “two-body problem,” except, maybe, this piece by Tenure, She Wrote. In short, public discourse on how academics and and other white collar workers commute are, well, not-so-subtly focused first on class privilege, and then not-so-subtly on gender. Not much (any) overt discussion of race or sexuality.  Surely when we are thinking through the material and affective conditions of academic work we need to take into account how people get there, what options they have for their commute, and how that commute structures their working and non-working lives.

For now, though, as I think about these things and drive my admittedly beautiful 90km drive, I’m also looking for audiobook, podcast, and music suggestions. Bring ’em on, please. Give me a soundtrack to my thinking.

10 thoughts on “Commuting: Some Thoughts

  1. I'm so looking forward to more on this! I'm obviously a big fan of the commute + podcast formula, and faves include:

    – Call Your Girlfriend
    – Colour Code
    – 99% Invisible
    – Dear Sugar
    – This American Life
    – Oh Witch Please
    – Pop Culture Happy Hour


  2. I can relate all too well to this post. My partner and I teach at different campuses of the same university. I began a professional teaching TT job a few years ago and, initially, I really wanted to make every minute of that commute count: Audiobooks! Podcasts! Lectures! To be honest, I was so physically and emotionally drained from the teaching gig by the end of the day that I often ended up staring blankly (rather dangerously so) into the middle distance or belting out whatever 80's power ballad happened to be on the local station. Now I have a bit of a pattern happening: listen to audiobooks — any available audio versions of books I teach — on the way there. And treat the hour home as my 'wind down' time. That means I simply enjoy my favourite albums, the beauty of the drive or the beauty of silence. I'm on mat leave right now so, come January, I think I'll chose the beauty of silence… Best of luck figuring out what works for you and try not to worry about wasting time. I imagine you work so, so hard both on campus and off. Enjoy the in-between.


  3. I have a short commute (about 30 mins one way, in reasonably light traffic) and my approach to it is similar to Katie Bell's: it's my gear-up or wind-down time. I put my bag and all devices in the backseat, turn on the radio and sing along loudly to songs I love if they happen to come on, or just chill out in silence and focus on the drive itself. It's valuable to have time away from work and home, so I'm refreshed in both places.


  4. You have to listen to the new podcast “Buffering the Vampire Slayer” where Jenny Owen Youngs and her partner, Kristin Russo, provide commentary and analysis to each episode of BtVS. It is quite good!


  5. Yes. I love this. Thank you for this, Erin. I find that my biggest problem with the commute is the intensification of the “Krang” effect of academia- or for those who didn't watch Ninja Turtles in the 80s- the Cartesian effect. I feel like a brain floating in space. The hardest part about the work is the loneliness of writing- which then becomes the loneliness of driving- the act of driving seems to 'abstract' space and landscape in the same ways that philosophical thinking does. I forget my body. Things move too fast. It keeps splipping away before it touches the rest of my senses. The speed, the stress, the sensation of balancing on the sharp edge of certain crisis- that's where I feel like commuting and scholarship blend together and suck me dry. I commute because I need queer community (which I can't find in the same way near my campus) and family (which is increasingly pushed the margins because of overwork). When I worked in frontline community organizations I enjoyed the solitude of a commute… But now, I find it to be numbing and alienating extension of that weird realm we enter when we are always plugged in / charging. It also makes me think of Paul Virilio. The car is my 'fast pants' as he would put it. Anyhow. xo. Thank you Hook & Eye from Ardath and Luna (the world's best commuting dog)


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