commute · grad school · job market · travel

Easy commutes and hard choices

It’s turned into commuter week on Hook & Eye, with Erin thinking about her new commute,  and Aimée musing on her un-commute. Like Aimée, I’m currently an un-commuter,  although it wasn’t always that way, and getting to this point took some tough decisions and a whole lot of privilege. It might not seem like it, but my current commute says much about the state of academia, my place within it, and the kinds of decisions grad students have to make on the regular.

Scenes from my un-commute

For nearly seven years, I commuted from downtown up to York campus, the last two of those full time. When I started my PhD,  I was commuting from the apartment I shared with my then-husband at the edge of Yonge/Eg and Don Mills, which took up to ninety minutes each way in the winter. I was also, for the first while, commuting to my full-time job at OUP. I’d never, not since I was old enough to work, not worked and gone to school at the same time–I’m a pretty typical first generation university student in that–and I thought my PhD should be no different. The work commute ended when I realized how wrong I was, and the school commute changed when my marriage ended and I moved back in with my parents in the suburbs. I couldn’t afford to live in the city on my own–humanities graduate funding packages aren’t kind to single people, especially not in Toronto–and I was lucky to have a home base I could commute from, no questions asked, until I could find a roommate.

But that commute from my parents’ house was wearing, and when I moved in with a grad school friend downtown, we chose somewhere central that would minimize our travel time. The forty-five minutes I spent in transit–a walk, plus the subway, plus the bus–morning and evening was doable, for a time. But somewhere during that time I decided that one of the things I was absolutely unwilling to do was to become an academic road warrior, piecing together teaching across multiple campuses while I was hunting for a tenure-track job. And when my current partner and I inherited a house in the city (extraordinary, extraordinary privilege, despite the fact that it was only possible because he lost a parent), I made the decision that I was also not going to apply for tenure-track jobs that would require us to sell that house and move across the country, away from my family and his aging father, or that would see him stay in Toronto and me commute home at intervals from wherever I was working. Which meant, in practice, that I wasn’t going to apply for tenure-track jobs, because there weren’t exactly floods of Canadian literature jobs in the Golden Horseshoe.

Scenes from my un-commute

Making that decision was freeing, and taking my first full-time administrative job at York was even more so. But ninety minutes a day in transit, five days a week, was a lot of time I could have been using to do other things–writing, exercising, spending time with my people–and a hard transition after so many years of a flexible academic schedule. And having made the first big decision not to become a professor, I felt confident in choosing to look for a new job that gave me back that time. So now I have a lovely walk to work, and colleagues that affectionately tease me that I only took the job for the commute. It’s no coincidence that I wrote the largest chunk of my dissertation in the year after I settled into this new job, because the absence of a long commute–and the walking and thinking time my un-commute time gives me–turned out to be what I needed to write.

My choices were largely driven by personal preference, and I have enough privilege–financial, racial, health–that I could make those choices. For lots of my people, choices about their commute, or their lack of one, are a matter of necessity. They have to choose jobs, or entire careers, that permit a commute and a schedule that accommodate a sick or disabled child, or their own disability, or their mental illness, or an elderly parent, or the need to be close to family for childcare, or a combination of these. Sometimes that means choosing no commute because it means choosing unemployment; sometimes that unemployment isn’t a choice at all. And the reality is that for those of us who aren’t the lucky ones like Aimée, those kinds of necessities often drive our career choices, and drive us out of an academy that likes to tell us that having preferences about where we work and how we get there and how long it takes are less important than the tenure-track dream. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the connection between the kinds of choices that academia tells us are legitimate, the kinds of flexibility it accommodates or doesn’t, and the leaky pipeline that pushes people who want, or have, to choose different kinds of working arrangements, different priorities for their location and time, out of the academy.

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