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.

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.

commute · feminism · running

Experiments in Walking While Feminist

Earlier this year, I read about Beth Breslaw’s experiments with walking in public and male entitlement. Breslaw decided that she would stop moving out of the way when a) she was walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk, and b) someone was not walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk and directly in her way. I decided to take her up on the challenge of doing the same on my twice-daily walks to and from the office, and during my weekend errand runs around the Annex and down to Kensington Market (which is packed with pedestrians). 
Here’s what will come as not even a little bit of a surprise. Entitlement is alive and well on the sidewalk. When I don’t move–and I can’t do this every day, because it’s exhausting–I get slammed. Repeatedly. When another walker and I are on a collision course, I apparently become invisible and my personal space completely disappears. And it doesn’t matter how much or little of my side of the sidewalk I’m taking up. I can be essentially on the curb and I still get body checked. Women also fail to yield, but men are much (much) more likely not to move over. A number of snarky articles took offense at New York Magazine’s decision to call this “manslamming,” and called into question the legitimacy of Breslaw’s experiment. Hers (nor mine) stand up to any kind of rigorous examination as scientific experiments, but they don’t need to–at least one of the many walking studies in the 1970s demonstrated exactly what we both experienced: “when two pedestrians passed closely to another, the majority of women turned away from the other walker, while the majority of men turned toward the opposing pedestrian.”
What gives? Breslaw makes the connection between failing to yield and manspreading, or what we might think of more generally as the male entitlement to fully bodily inhabit public space, and I think she’s right. One of the reasons that I was so desperate to give up my subway commute was the back pain it was causing me–men felt entitled to sit fully back in their narrow seats, shoulders spread, and I was getting chronic back pain from squeezing between them and having my shoulders pushed forward the entire hour-long ride. When I did attempt to take up my full allotted amount of space on public transit, I experienced the same pushback, subtle and unsubtle, that women continually report in every story about manspreading ever written. The same pushback I get on the sidewalk. 
What I really wonder is how I failed to notice for more than thirty years of my life that my seemingly straight-lined walks were actually continual feints, dodges, and weaves. When I’m not refusing to move, I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy moving, repeatedly, multiple times a minute, for people who have decided that my half of the sidewalk is their rightful space. The distance between my starting point and destination on a map does not equate with how far I actually walk, because all of my weaving adds up to a significant addition. Interestingly, the same is not true for when I’m out running. Perhaps its simply because I choose not to run during rush hour, or on streets that I know will be crowded, but my GPS tracker normally lines up with the distance on the map at the end of a run–I haven’t feinted my way to an extra half kilometre. I wonder, though, if it’s because “athlete” registers differently in public than just “woman.” 
Despite how frustrating, and sometimes painful, keeping up this experiment sometimes gets, I still refuse to move on at least a few of my walks a week. I really doubt that the men who bash into me are learning anything from the experience, although I hope they might. But mostly I do it for the same reason that I do power poses before an interview–to remind myself that my body is entitled to its share of space in the world, and that to step aside or hunch my shoulders or compress myself into a smaller space does make me smaller, does disempower me, does change how I experience being me in the world. And I’m not down with that. 
academic work · accomodation · commute · family · free time · inconvenience · kid stuff · open letter · parenting

4:30 is the worst time in the world

Dear Academic Scheduling Powers That Be,

It has come to my attention that you continue to schedule visiting speakers, and assorted other events where I have to sit down and take notes, at 4:30 in the afternoon, usually for 90 minutes.

This must stop.

You see, 4:30 is the worst time in the world. There are a number of reasons I can imagine that this time slot appeals to you; however, as I hope to convince you, these are outweighed by several more compelling reasons why this is absolutely the worst time in the world.

I know you think that 4:30 is kind of the Luxembourg of time slots. It aims to offend no one, and split the differences in the most innocuous way possible. I can almost hear you puzzling it out! Most people are mostly done teaching at 4:30. Administrative meetings, too, don’t tend to be scheduled to run to the bitter end of the standard workday. 4:30 seems innocuous research-wise, as well: who is still writing at that time? They’ve had a full day to live the life of the mind already. I know that it seems like 4:30 forestalls all those faculty objections of too-busy, I’m teaching, it’s a research day, I have lots of meetings that seem to diminish attendance to embarrassing levels. Surely loads more people will be able to attend a talk if we stuff in a time slot that’s mostly taken up by commuting and staring bleakly into space!

But. Consider: with this 4:30 time slot, are you not, effectively, suggesting that attending this rigorous and demanding research talk is not part of the work day? And thus not part of work? Is this a discretionary, fun activity? Like a cocktail party that would traditionally substantially overlap the time period in question? The French call these “cinq à sept”, because this kind of party runs from five until seven–note carefully, please, that there is booze and nibbles generally served at this time, which is never the case at these talks you’re scheduling at 4:30.

I think attending research talks is part of my job. Your scheduling thus confuses me on this front. Do I do a full day of teaching and research and meetings and then this too? Or am I doing this instead of something else? Is it part of the work day, or not? You know, I’m here in my office most days by 9:15, and I stay until 4:45 or 5, having eaten lunch at my desk while reading or grading. By 4:45, I’m kind of not really smart enough to take in a lecture. I need booze, and nibbles, and possibly to put on track pants. If I’m being perfectly honest, 4:30 in the afternoon is an absolute ebb, energy-wise, mood-wise, and metabolism-wise for me: I am tired, and crabby, and hungry then, you know, from going full tilt on the life of the mind for a full day by that point already.

Also, I really didn’t want to mention it, but you might not be aware that most daycares close at 5:30 or 6 o’clock. Maybe I could pick up my daughter early, like at 4? Then bring her to the talk with me? If only there were juice and nibbles, it might be possible! And if my husband goes to pick her up, I have no way to get home: we commute together. And if I take the bus home, leaving here at 6, if the talk ends on time, which it never does, I’m not there until 6:45, and who’s going to make supper and do homework in French with my kid, or get groceries or have time to go for a run or walk the dog or do my yoga homework before bed? I know it’s unseemly to have a personal life, but it is nevertheless the case that we must, as a family eat, and sometimes my husband likes to go to the gym, and I like to attend yoga classes, and we would all like to meet these basic needs and still be able to get to bed before midnight.

I’m sorry to be so troublesome about this, I really am–I know you’ve probably also heard loads from my colleagues who drive in from great distances to be here during the work day and would prefer not to spend the rest of their night in traffic, or to have to stay in a hotel. It’s just that I don’t want your feelings to be hurt when the same pitifully small number of people show up for the 4:30 talk as showed up for the 2:30 talk.

In conclusion, then, I ask you: is attending this talk work or not? If it is, please schedule it during the workday. Also, 4:30 is the worst time in the world.

Sincerely yours,

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · balance · commute · day in the life · transition

The Non-Academic Day-to-Day Debunked

From what people tell me, life as a tenure-track professor isn’t all that different from life as a PhD student, especially with the increasing expectations that grad students will be presenting at conferences, publishing, and doing service activities. Sure, you teach more. The pressures to publish increase. You add supervision and more service to the mix. But the job is fundamentally still flexible (in terms of focus, hours, and location), self-directed, and performed in the same environment with the same types of people. Transitioning from the day-to-day of a PhD student to the day-to-day of a faculty member sounds pretty easy.

One of the consequences of the way that grad students are indoctrinated into the conventions and customs of academe is that the day-to-day realities of working life outside of the academy seem a bit strange, a bit scary, even a bit unsavory. I know lots of us have had these thoughts: Working in an office from 9-5 sounds like a prison sentence. Non-academic work and co-workers can’t possibly be intellectually stimulating enough. No boss is going to tell me what to do. I’m nearly three month into my new administrative position, the amount of time conventional wisdom suggests it takes to settle into a new job, and I’ve been reflecting on what life is like in the #alt-ac compared to my initial fears and expectations. So, what’s it like, you ask, and what did I think it would be like?

Belief: There’s no way I can spend two hours a day commuting.
Reality: Yes, commuting kinda’ sucks. I spent twenty very cold minutes in an extraordinarily long line for the bus this afternoon. But most of the time, it’s actually very pleasant. Sometimes I write, or crochet. Mostly I read. The commute is so automatic now that I’m mostly unaware that I’m doing it at all, and I’ve read more books in the last month than I probably did all of last year.

Belief: I like sleeping in and starting my day when I choose.
Reality: Most mornings, I get up a 5:15 and go to the gym before work. I leave the house at precisely the same time every day, and I have no choice about when I start my day–everyone in my office works the same hours. I don’t mind in the least. It’s actually easier for me to get up at 5:15 than it is to get up later, probably because I’m in a lighter part of the sleep cycle.

Belief: I’ve spent five years working from home, mostly alone, and I’m a total introvert. There’s no way I can be productive and sane working in an office full of people every day.
Reality: I love working around people. I love my cat, but spending my days only with him were making me a little crazy. When I need to focus, I put on my headphones and/or shut my office door. I love office gossip, and that when something isn’t going well (or when it is), there’s always someone to vent to or celebrate with. And you can’t beat co-workers who buy pizza for everyone when their back-pay from a contract negotiation comes in.

Belief: I’m too independent and self-directed to report to someone on a regular basis.
Reality: Probably because my job is pseudo-managerial (I’m staff, but my position used to be management level and mostly still resembles a management role), I have oodles of autonomy. But I like reporting to someone. The PhD is a whole lot of delayed gratification and feedback, whereas office life provides tons of both. It also helps that my boss is straightforward, reasonable, and practical, as well as someone I actually like talking to. 

Belief: I treasure my flexible schedule too much to work a 9-5 with only two weeks of vacation a year.
Reality: Yes, I miss weekday lunches with friends and Friday afternoon movies. But it turns out that a flexible schedule and I are a major mismatch. Anxiety about how to structure my time and about the sense that all the time was work time was the bane of my academic life. Now, 4:30 comes and work is over. I work some evenings, but I work on things I want to–these blog posts, my dissertation, on a friend’s book, with my grade 5 student–and they each have their time in my week. I feel no guilt about taking time for myself, my friends, my partner, my family. My brain positively adores the structure. Yes, I’d love to take off for thee weeks this summer, but I’ll get there eventually.

Belief: No one is as smart and interesting as academics, and any non-academic workplace is going to be soul-crushing and mind-numbing. (Yes, I’m exaggerating, but you know people feel like this, at least a little.)
Reality: My co-workers are awesome. Most of them are not academics. We all love to cook and eat, to trade office gossip, to bemoan whatever drama is going on with the students and faculty we work with, and to talk about our pets and families. No, we don’t debate about theory or David Gilmour. But is my working life lacking in intellectual stimulation? Not remotely, especially not the week that I had to read upward of 50 scholarship proposals in science and math. I can pretty convincingly explain massive gravity now, which is not bad for an English major.

Belief: I work in my yoga pants every day. I’d hate having to get dressed for work every morning.
Reality: Putting together a fun outfit + accessories is just that–fun. It’s nice to feel put together every day, instead of like someone who forewent a shower to squeeze in a few more paragraphs and only remembers at dinner time that she forgot to brush her teeth that morning.

Belief: All I do all day is read and write. What if I never get to write in a non-academic job? Or read?
Reality: I got lucky with my job, sure, but I spend most of my days reading, writing, and editing–nomination letters, instruction manuals, briefing notes, government reports, emails (so many emails), student research profiles, workshop descriptions, presentations, and on and on. With my headphones on and my favourite wordprocessor open, I sometimes forget that I’m not at home dissertating–except that my office chair is way better.

If my transition posts have a central theme, it’s this: the contemplation of transition, of not being an academic any longer, can be terrifying, but the reality is not remotely as terrifying, or as different, as our imaginings. Many of us are so conditioned to think of an academic life as the best kind of life that no other seems like it can possibly compare. Imagine my shock when I realized that the structure, the community, the wardrobe of the non-professorial life would, in combination, make me far happier, less anxious, and more productive than I’ve probably been since I started my PhD. Turns out the day-to-day of life in the alt-academy isn’t all that different, and is just different enough, from the academic day-to-day I once aimed for. Colour me suprised–and pleased.

balance · busy · commute · day in the life · enter the confessional · job notes · mental health

A day at home: downtime as worktime

Greetings, internauts! I write to you from my white leather IKEA Poang chair, be-Croc’ed feet up on the footstool, cosy in my Waterloo track pants, my Lululemon thinking hoodie, and a big mug of tea. It’s 5pm as I write this; I’ve been sitting here pretty much all day, except for that chunk of time I was reading on the couch so the dog could warm my feet up.

I’ve had just the most amazing day, frankly, and I wanted to share it:

  • 6:45-8:20: shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, roust child and animals
  • 8:20-9:05: take kid to bus, take dog for walk
  • 9:05-10:30: write conference proposal, reorganize 30 open Safari windows
  • 10:30-10:50: dancing break (Violent Femmes), empty dishwasher, call husband
  • 10:50-12:00: read intensely and rapidly through materials for summer workshop
  • 12:00-12:20: lunch, make latte
  • 12:20-2:00: read opening two chapters of new book in my exact area
  • 2:00-2:20: play piano
  • 2:20-4:00: intense blitz of organizing research notes and web clippings for project
  • 4:00-4:30: goof around with the dog, eat apple, make tea
  • 4:30-5:00: write research blog post for other blog
  • 5:00-now : work on this blog post
What’s amazing is the kind of sustained focus I’ve been able to bring to a variety of important but awful tasks: reading, writing, databasing, etc. And how even though I’ve worked way hard on these really intense tasks, I don’t feel burnt out. I am looking forward to my family coming home. I’m ready to talk to people again.
There’s something really important about these days where I don’t have to go to campus, that many of you probably feel, too. This is probably only the second or third day since new year’s where I have not had at least one on-campus obligation to attend to. Being on campus every day, day in and day out, can be very productive in a lot of ways, but it’s really unproductive in others. You know I hate the getting dressed and putting makeup on and doing the commute and trying to pack a lunch or find something edible on campus. And people see me and suddenly I have students lined up at my door, or someone pops in with something that wasn’t urgent but since I’m around do I have twenty minutes? Then I have to commute home again. The clothes are itchy. I don’t have a good reading chair.
I hear that it sounds whiny. But believe me, I am on campus a lot and for a lot more meetings than many people–I am a VP on our Faculty Association, and there’s a LOT of meetings associated with that. I’m not complaining about that. What I want to do is stress the importance of the at-home days.
It’s not really down time. It’s a different, essential kind of work time.
My sister jokes about me working in my pyjamas. And essentially, I am. But it doesn’t mean I’m not working hard. Arguably, the kinds of work I got done in my pyjamas are much more efficiently and competently accomplished in that attire and in this location than they would be at the office in my heels.
I guess that’s what I want to say. In this era of professor accountability, and “room optimization” scheduling software that sees non-teaching days as a kind of luxury professors ought to count themselves lucky to have any of during the week, I strike out a blow for home work. Working at home means that I can intersperse really intense, exhausting brain work with a bit of downtime I really enjoy. I am physically comfortable, and I am psychically comfortable. I have my fridge and my dog and my cat. My latte machine. There are no students here, and no administrators. I have the freedom to give it 110% for 45 or 90 minutes at a time, then lie down on the floor with my feet up on the couch doing yoga breathing.
It matters. Without intense kinds of downtime there is no intense kind of worktime. Without my track pants, there is no book project. 
accident · commute

Why My New Years Was Worse Than Yours

I want to talk a little bit about something that was an essential part of my university experience, but sorely overlooked because of the extreme mundane nature of it all – the commute or rather, the car that made the commute possible. 
I live close within driving distance to the University where I did my undergrad and I drove the 45 minutes every day, rain or shine. As I did not live in town, my car became my closet, change room, dining table, library and junk drawer. After over 4 years of university and over 8 years of driving the little blue Toyota Echo every day, it began to feel like an extension of who I was. 
The dashboard became littered with parking stickers and I proudly bore my university window sticker in the back as I made the daily commute. Never mind that it didn’t have power steering, automatic anything or air conditioning, it was mine and it was the perfect place to plan what I was going to say in my seminars on the way into school and the best way to process the day on the way home. 
New Years Eve, my little car (name: Serendipity Elizabeth) died in action after hitting a patch of black ice and it felt like the end of an era. 
This was my university car. I graduated this summer and had a thousand different plans ready for the moment that I paid off that ever present student debt. Instead, I begin 2013 with the frantic search for a new vehicle and the promise of new memories to be made in grad school or who know where else. 
Thankfully, I survived the accident unscathed, save for some bruises and whip lash but it made me realize how much I depend on my car. And yes, I will be giving my new car a name. 
Any suggestions? (For both the name and new car)
Anyone else have a commute every day?