Illustrations, University News

Professors juggle commute with home, work lives

Faculty members living in Boston, New York commute to College Hill, go home to friends, family

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2016

While the trek from Perkins to class may seem unbearable to some students, professors who live outside Providence may contend with morning commutes hours longer.

The University does not collect information on the number of faculty members who commute from outside Providence, said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12. But many professors spend hours on public transportation or freeways to keep their families from having to move.

But it’s not heroic, said Associate Professor of English Deak Nabers. It’s just the way life goes.

The morning grind

Four hours there. Four hours back. Outbound to Providence. Inbound to New York City. Rinse. Repeat. Nabers spends approximately 16 hours a week in the quiet car of an Amtrak train sleeping and occasionally doing the work he’s supposed to do, he said.

Each Monday, Nabers takes his son to school in New York City and then catches the train to Providence. Upon arrival, he spends the day on campus working, then the night in an apartment he rents on College Hill. Tuesday morning, he goes back to work, then takes the train home to tuck his son into bed, Nabers said. The cycle repeats on Wednesday, and he returns home Thursday night for the weekend.

Living in a New York City apartment with his wife and six-year-old son, Nabers organizes his commute around his family’s schedule. He has arranged his life so that he can either put his son to bed or take him to school each day. His role is to be “the family guy,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s spending a lot of time on logistics,” Nabers said. His commuting schedule varies from semester to semester according to his class schedule.  The inconsistencies of family life, such as when someone gets sick, make the job harder.

But “these are the regular frustrations of ordinary life. We blame them on the commute just because it’s something to blame it on,” he said.

As a self-proclaimed “vibrant member of the Amtrak community,” Nabers knows all the conductors and shares greetings with them each ride. In addition, he is a “quiet car enforcer,” a duty that entails shushing talkers, phone call-makers and other rule-breakers of the train community.

“I serve humanity by being a total dick-face on the train. I’ve yelled at old women and at people who might have been children. I’m unapologetically an asshole about that,” he said. He calls the unofficial position a “moral duty,” a side effect of his rough-and-tumble commuting lifestyle. Strangers on the train even thank him for his service, he said.

Another commuter, Professor of English William Keach, finds his time on the MBTA commuter rail from Boston productive, he said.

Each day, Keach takes the Boston subway system to South Station in the city’s downtown area, catches the commuter rail and spends an hour on the fake leather seats sending emails, grading papers and preparing for his first class. “I can almost do it blindfolded now, I’ve done it for so many years,” Keach said.

From the Providence station, he takes the long journey up College Hill to his office in the English Department building. “If I’m not awake fully by the time I get to Providence, I am by the time I get up the hill,” Keach said.

For Ravit Reichman, associate professor of English, the commute is time she’s come to relish. Her hour-long drive from Cambridge to Providence two to three times a week provides “unconnected time” away from computer screens and syllabi, she said.

Reichman prefers the drive to public transportation because of the convenience. Rather than having to “watch the clock” during meetings to catch the train, she can simply leave when she wants to. And since her commute home goes against traffic, the travel time is nearly as long as it would be if she worked nearby in Boston, she added.

“I wouldn’t say I do it in my sleep, because that would be very reckless, but it’s a pretty easy commute,” Reichman said.

But winter does change the rhythm of these routines. When winter storms are extreme, classes are sometimes canceled.

While Keach does not often miss class, last year provided challenges. “There were a couple days in the midst of all the snow and ice last year where I couldn’t get to Providence at all,” Keach said.

But the cold does not seem to bother professors much. Reichman has only had to cancel one class in her 13 years of commuting to Providence — last year when “a lot of people in Providence couldn’t even make it in,” she said. Similarly, Nabers has canceled “maybe a total of five classes in eight years” despite the distance.

The morning and evening grinds do have their downsides. Nabers cites studies that state “the length of your commute is inversely proportional to the amount of happiness you have in your life.”

Love’s labor

It’s easy to love the city of Providence — to admire the view of its majestic steeples jutting out into a brick-patterned skyline. But for most, there’s something even more enticing: love.

“I am commuting because I love a woman who has to live in New York,” said Nabers, whose wife is tied to the Big Apple as a columnist for the New York Times.

When Reichman was first hired at Brown, she knew she would not have the time to foster a “thriving social life” in a new city. She moved to Cambridge because she had friends in the area and wanted a “built-in community,” she said. Eventually it became “home,”the place where she settled her eventual family.

Keach commutes to accommodate his partner, who teaches at Tufts University. “For people in a field like English, it’s difficult to find good jobs close together,” he said, adding that even though Providence and Boston are not exactly close, “we actually feel lucky.”

Decades ago, commuting was rarely a problem for families, McLaughlin said, because many women did not have full-fledged careers. “Now that it’s not a given that women are going to stay home,” both partners have to coordinate their schedules, he said.

Additionally, since many people marry within the same education level, academics often marry each other, McLaughlin said. This makes finding jobs in the same city difficult, especially in a small city with relatively limited opportunities like Providence, he added.

Another family factor to consider in commuting is the local school system. “If you have children and you can live somewhere where the public schools are better than in Providence, then that’s a good reason not to live here,” McLaughlin said.

The University has several family-friendly policies to respond to the difficulty of finding jobs close together. While it does not offer a spousal hiring program, “We do whatever we can,” McLaughlin said. After being hired by the University, a spouse can go to the dean and apply for a pool of staff position opportunities.

In addition, there is a family teaching relief program in which spouses can take a semester off teaching to act as the primary care provider for their children, McLaughlin said.

These programs “make it easier for two-career households to cope,” McLaughlin said.

Tale of two cities

While professors say that living split lives does not affect their teaching, where they call home at the end of the day does make a difference in their lives.

“It’s hard to feel like you’re part of the Providence community when your child goes to school in another city,” Nabers said. If he weren’t “split this way” he would have more time and opportunities to experience other parts of the University — “I’d like to be the little frumpy professor dude who shows up on a Friday night” to theatrical productions and other campus events, he said.

But even so, Nabers said he has plenty of time for his students, offering Skype office hours on weekends before papers are due and even hosting movie screenings on the nights he stays in Providence.

For Keach, commuting means his time on College Hill is more concentrated. Office hours are scheduled carefully and well in advance to make adjustments if students have time conflicts, he said.

When, at the end of a long day, Reichman just wants to get dinner and go to a talk, she knows she has to face the freeway for an hour to get home. “There are times when of course I want to live in Providence,” she said.

But Reichman also appreciates experiencing two separate locales and getting “the best of both worlds,” she added.

McLaughlin said productive faculty members manage to be focused in the workplace despite the commute. “If people really love their work, they find a way to do it,” he added. “Whether they have to get up two hours earlier or stay up two hours later, they do it because they’re really driven.”

And whether they arrive on campus by way of train or automobile, professors from outside Providence are driven.

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  1. Why don’t professors teach from home? Why must they spend the CO2 to commute to Providence? For that matter, why can’t the professors be based in Silicon Valley?

    Just because Brown is >250 years old doesn’t mean that it can’t join the 21st Century.

    These are the same professors who refuse to put their lectures online, to move to social media to interact more with their students.

    These are the same professors who refuse to offer online AP courses to high school students, thus raising an additional $100 million per year with just 14 courses.

    As a McKinsey consultant, I looked for change agents. All the change agents at Brown appear to have been silenced, or to have left the institution.

    Who’s left? Hide-bound cowards who think that they can still hide behind brick walls and pretend that education is not changing.

    • A New Leaf says:

      John, the whole point of this article is that professors make a huge effort to commute into Providence because they realize the face-to-face contact is still important. Online education just isn’t as great as you think it is.

      • Really, face-to-face contact? Do they have to breathe the same air? Why waste the time and the CO2 sitting in their cars or on the train? Haven’t you heard of Facetime, Webex and the like?
        Why must every answer at Brown point to no need to change?
        Why must a 66-year-old alum point out the disruptive nature of social media.
        You guys should be getting this.

        Is Brown really THAT provincial?

        • A New Leaf says:

          I enjoy being in the same place as my professors. If I didn’t, I would have gone to school online. As an actual student, NOT a 66-yo alum, I resent the fact that you seem to think that you know better than me.

          • Sorry for getting uppity. I guess that I should know my place, and just send money.
            After all, we alums are just a nuisance.
            Don’t worry, new leaf, you’ll be there soon.

    • I don’t think Brown is interested in converting the school into a tech-startup with a football team (aka Stanford)

      • Brown is failing as an institution of higher learning.
        Change is hard, flatstock. That’s no reason not to change from a failing educational model–even at a hidebound institution like Brown.

        • A New Leaf says:

          I guess Brown’s 32k applicants this year definitely show that it’s a failing model.

          • 40% of those accepted to Brown went elsewhere (as compared to 18% at Stanford and 8% at Harvard).
            Brown graduates under-earn their Ivy League compatriots
            Brown charges among the highest tuitions in the US.
            Brown has the lowest endowment in the Ivy League.
            Brown is running a chronic deficit.
            Brown’s expenses are climbing 3x the rate of inflation over the past 30 years.

            New leaf: Brown is failing. Wake up. Smell the coffee!

          • DisgruntledSenior says:

            For someone who claims to be so well informed about Brown, you seem to be missing the mark on a few of these points that I’d like to address. Specifically, why we have a low endowment and earnings.

            It’s a fact that Brown grads enter jobs like education and nonprofit work at a much higher rate than peer institutions out of personal preference (the BDH actually just released an article about this) and desire to make a substantive difference.

            Naturally, this leads to lower median salaries, and a lower ability for alumni to donate. This doesn’t mean for a second that the students here aren’t as smart and passionate as their peers at other similar institutions, like Dartmouth, Penn, or Duke.

            You can rant and rave all you want about Brown’s educational model, but don’t make the naive conclusion that alumni earnings automatically equate to institutional quality. I picked Brown over other institutions that have higher alumni earnings, and I don’t regret that choice for one second.

          • So disgruntled:
            You answered 1 of the above 6 points. Brown grads are more altruistic (or less charitably put: unable to earn as much as their peers).
            That leaves the other 5 to answer…
            Is Brown failing its students as an educational institution? I think the answer is “yes”.
            Then again, I can compare Brown to Harvard (where I also went) and to the schools with which I work, like Stanford.
            Sorry, but Brown is currently second-rate, on a quick march to being irrelevant as compared not just to Harvard, but also Arizona State, Northeastern and the University of Texas.
            Wake up and smell the coffee! Brown is in deep sauce…and has no paddle.

          • DisgruntledSenior says:

            Once again you’re missing the mark. I never once stated that I’d offer a rebuttal to all your points. Rather I wanted to clear up a few misconceptions you have. And unfortunately the fact that your response conflates altruism with lower earning potential means I wasn’t successful even in that.

            Also it’s laughable to think the Brown will fall behind a school like Northeastern. And we’ve never been on the same level as Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. But there’s very little evidence that we will dip below our peer Ivy schools, aside from your relentless speculation.

          • What was I thinking? Of course Brown is the best place in the world! All the students are above-average!
            As to Brown grads earning less–it’s worse than that. Even though over 300 Brown alums work at Google, most of them are floor cosmeticians. As we used to say at Harvard, “if we can’t do it, we can hire people from [pick a school like Brown]”

            Read the rest, disgruntled. Brown is failing on all fronts: it’s failing its students (40% decide to go elsewhere), its professors (the best are jumping ship) and its administrators (Brown keeps losing performing deans to schools like the University of Michigan).

            Face it, Disgruntled. To quote the Black Panthers, ‘you’re part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem.’

            Failure to recognize Brown’s deep malaise makes you an apologist, not a change agent.

          • DisgruntledSenior says:

            You’re right. Brown is not great. It clearly failed to teach you adequate reading comprehension skills, so that you’ve been unable to fully understand any comment I’ve made this far.

            I very clearly acknowledged that brown is not the best. We do not compare to the top ivies. Nowhere did I insinuate we are the best. There are areas that need improvement, and you point them out. But there are some things we do well that you refuse to acknowledge. We consistently beat peer institutions for Rhodes and fulbrights scholarships, for example.

            But to say we will decline to the level of a school like northeastern is disingenuous fear mongering, and likely the reason nobody here takes you seriously.

            . If I’m an optimist about brown’s reputation, you’re a decided pessimist that refuses to look at any counter evidence that refutes your points.

            Edit: As an aside, not all departments at brown are suffering from the attrition you stress. I’m an economics concentrator, and in the past few years brown has pulled off a virtual coup by hiring some really really top notch, tenured young talent from Chicago and Yale, without many good people leaving. The department has catapulted in quality from top 20 to arguably borderline top 10-11. Clearly something about this place is attractive to professors. Not all is gloom and doom in gloomy providence.

          • What was I thinking. Of course–things are fine! Thanks for showing me how wrong I was.
            I guess what I’m seeing here at Berkeley and Stanford are just aberrations.
            No need to be concerned, little frog. The water’s warm–not too hot.

          • DisgruntledSenior says:

            Hahaha quite clearly a constructive discussion with you is impossible. Should have realized this from the other numerous threads in which someone has tried to engage you.

  2. ShadrachSmith says:

    It is hard to feel gratitude for faculty that tell you to vote for Hillary, but do your best 🙂

  3. Phil Marsosudiro says:

    Professor Nabers — the worst part of graduating ~30 years ago is that I didn’t get to take a class with you. Rock on with your bad self.

    Phil Marsosudiro ’89

  4. Nice to know that some professors actually experience parts of the real world like the rest of us.

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