The highs and lows of the peripatetic life

December 12, 2003

Working as an academic commuter is difficult and stressful, writes Ruth Morse, but it can have its benefits

If anyone had told me, in the 1970s, that I would spend most of my time commuting substantial distances to work, I would have treated the idea with incredulity. To say that managing two academic careers has never been easy is to state the obvious. The hurdles are many and continuous; the prejudices against commuting women, in particular, include tacit assumptions that we will behave irresponsibly with the arrival of children because, after all, families are what we care most about. Older advisers counselled me to get pregnant, as if that would solve the problem of finding two tenured posts.

In Britain 30 years ago, lecturers had to live within a well-defined distance of their universities. Across the Channel, such demands have never been enforced. Teaching preparation can be done in many places (including trains); lab work and library research, however, are limiting. Universities ask for a great deal beyond their heavy teaching loads, and admissions procedures or tutorial systems depend on goodwill.

"Other duties" raise the difficulties we commuters create for universities, which should not be underestimated in any description of scholarly travellers. With email, it matters less, although where teachers are expected to be physically available more than the continental-style minimum, the losses are palpable. But now, with research assessment exercise-fuelled emphases on research, many of those "other duties" are no longer performed by academics.

Nonetheless, the resurgence of temporary posts brings back the vulnerabilities of the two-tier 1970s. The huge deterioration in teaching conditions has brought grossly inflated classes with soaring marking burdens. Temporary posts usually concentrate on teaching, so the young and the temporary prepare more and mark more; in addition, "assistants" can find themselves with apparently limitless other duties. Young people desperate to get teaching experience eagerly agree to chores that will actually be deleterious to their futures.

"Other pleasures" include a base that is home, with joint friends and a life. Most couples sensibly choose one end or the other, and only one of them travels. Sometimes one is forced to work within uncomfortable constraints in an uncertain but short-term future. Long-distance commuting can be the only alternative to unemployment.

At one point in the 1980s, driving 150 miles to and from a temporary post, I rented a room in the house of an elderly lady. I have never been so cold.

The discomfort was a great spur to extracurricular activities: trips to the theatre, restaurants, even group play-readings. Travelling in "dead" time, often at the end of a day, lengthened by the requirement to get everything done, took its toll. Commuting is extremely expensive, but it is crucial to staying employed.

There are great gains to living in two places, not least of which is the illusion of independence. There is much to be said for being able to get away from our all-absorbing jobs. The main strains are the physical fatigue of increasingly stressful travel and the psychosomatic disruption. Small practical arrangements help diminish the tensions of inevitably hurried departures, such as duplicating things to minimise lugging. Doing the same things in the same surroundings makes them less of an effort and helps you deal with the times you wake suddenly, wondering where you are. Freeing yourself from external distractions to concentrate on the reason you are mobile involves its own conquest of space. It also reminds us of the privilege of a life that includes thinking in a mobile-free room.

Ruth Morse is professeur des universitiés at Université Paris Vll.

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