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Professors juggle commute with home, work lives

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

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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