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The Adjunct Commute

by Gordon Haber

When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to keep adjuncting. This was in 2008, when the economy was imploding. But I was determined to teach, so I went through the LA Times education supplement, made a list of colleges and universities in the area, and contacted the English departments of every single one of them. It took weeks, but in the end I was rewarded with sections at two different schools.

Good for me, right? There was just one problem. One college was 20 miles south of home, the other 20 miles west. This would be a long commute for anybody, but in LA, freeway miles are like dog years. Plus, as an adjunct, I was invariably given the lousiest class times, which meant that it was impossible to avoid rush hour. Thus I averaged about 8 hours a week in my car—almost twice the national average.

All the commuting was expensive—I spent over $200 a month in gas—and it affected my

health. I put on weight. I had a constant ache in my neck and calves. The worst was my back. I’d get out of bed and end up supine on the floor, unable to right myself, like Gregor Samsa.

I tried to make the best of this long commute. To pass the time, I got language CDs from the library, and as the months passed I brushed up on my French, Polish and Hebrew. When I got bored with languages, I listened to the blues and early rock-and-roll. And when I got bored with music (which I had never thought possible) I listened to the news. I became an extremely well-informed guy who could ask for directions in Warsaw, Tel Aviv and Paris.

But my commute had unforeseen side effects. It made me irrationally anxious—although I never had an accident, I couldn’t get behind the wheel without knowing I was going to crash. I was also depressed, which made me a miserable person to be around (later I’d learn of the study that found a correlation between long commutes and divorce). All this, by the way, was in addition to the adjunct life, to the near-constant grading and scrambling for sections.

I will say one thing for the commute: it taught me a lot about LA. I learned my way around East L.A. and South Central, Bel Air and the Valley. And eventually I realized that I was lucky. My wife made decent money, so we could afford health insurance and a nice apartment. But what if that weren’t the case? What if I had to face life as a freeway flyer alone?

This was the inspiration for my novella, “Adjunctivitis.” It’s about an adjunct desperately seeking health insurance—and a stable relationship—in Los Angeles. And because it’s unavoidable in LA, I had some fun with the parochialism of show business.

So I guess a couple of good things came out of

that hellish commute. But I never want to go through anything like that again.

For unrelated reasons, my wife and I decided to move back to New York. It seemed like a good opportunity to stop adjuncting. Instead I’ve been freelance writing and consulting for publishers about e-books. And now I have time to polish my story collection and finish my novel.

I can’t say I’ll never go back to adjuncting. With all its indignities, it is the most spiritually-rewarding day job I ever had, but, of course, the pay is pathetic. If I do try and pick up a section or two, you can bet my first and only choice will be the nearby community college.

What’s your longest adjunct commute?

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16 thoughts on “The Adjunct Commute

  1. I adjunct at two colleges, one 38 miles away, the other 65 miles away. I insist that they schedule my classes back to back so that I drive up for at least two 3 hour classes. My drive is gorgeous, through rural Vermont, but it still takes an enormous toll physically and economically. On the economics I wrestle with whether the mileage is deductible on my Schedule C — probably not. Physically, it kills my body and the other problem is food. I’ve spent years working on improving, bit by bit, my road food for commuting days, and am now packing vegetable juice, dried apples and granola from home instead of stopping for coffee and danish at the minimart-gas station. I’m supposed to park in some commuter lot and take a shuttle to campus — but I’m not adding another 45 minutes on to each direction of my commute to do this. I park maybe a half mile away from campus in free public parking and walk. Hey, some people pay for the gym. Bottom line: the whole thing is ridiculous, why do we all keep doing this? Oh yeah, there is the money, such as it is, but in a world that isn’t leaping to employ philosophers and political scientists, paying the rent is better than not paying the rent. Just think of it as a salt mine…

  2. Fall 2003

    89.2 mi — Windsor, VT (home) to Manchester, NH (two sections of Comp)
    30.2 mi — Manchester, NH to Crotched Mountain, NH (Hillsboro, NH) (one Comp, one Philosophy)
    52.4 mi — Hillsboro, NH to Claremont, NH (one section of Humanities)
    10.6 mi — Claremont, NH to Windsor, VT (home)

    181.4 round trip

    • Let me translate for my TriState friends:

      First leg is longer than going from my home town of Bay Shore, Long Island to Montauk or around off the Island the long way to Bridgeport.

      I should’ve asked myself this question: would you have driven to Montauk to teach two sections of comp? No — though, if they were in the summer time, you may have had a deal there buddy (smile)

  3. The only cities worth adjuncting in are ones like NYC, Boston, D.C., S.F. and a couple of others which have density and good public transportation. Anyone who spends more time in a commute to a class than they spend in the classroom is an idiot. Take a job paying minimum wage within walking distance from your home and you are a lot better off. Commuting time is one of those things that make life miserable. Even when I have had full-time jobs, I try to live within walking distance or near a bus line that will take me there.

    Most younger people dislike the car culture and sprawl. But most younger people — millennials — are simply not going to be adjuncts, who are mostly pathetic older people. Millennials have more self-respect than you do and wouldn’t dream of adjuncting.

  4. My current online time probably compares to the time you spend on your long commutes. Difference is, there’s no wear and tear on my body, car and wallet. But I fear that staring at a screen is not good for my eyes. Of course, the cost of my eye glasses is not covered by my college employers.

    • Your point about eyesight is good. A recommendation for those who work at a computer is to occasionally focus on something at a greater distance. This seems to help.

      A worse problem is the recent study showing that sitting for long periods contributes to heart disease even in those who regularly engage in strenuous physical exercise. Follow-up work is needed to see if interspersing exercise with sitting will lessen the effect. I teach online and sit for several hours per day, so this is a great concern for me. I have seen computer workstations built in to treadmills and this might be a potential solution although the ones I have seen would cost the net earnings from two or three courses to purchase. I wonder if they could be deducted as an employee business expense? : – )

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  6. My adjunct commutes amount to 3 hours average a day (3-4 days a week). This is in good weather. However, in order to keep the commute times this low, I need to leave before 7 a.m., no matter when my classes are due to start. If I leave after 7 a.m. the commute time climbs to 4 hours average a day. Of course, I have gained weight, am experiencing terrible neck and back problems, am constantly stressed, and do not have the time or ability to continue working on my Ph.D., which I need to continue working as an adjunct (let alone apply for a FT job). I am an American living in Australia. The difference for me is that I have well-subsidized health care. Even with that perk, I do not earn enough to buy medications, or even food, during the in-between times (semester breaks, student professional placements, etc.), resulting in constant anxiety and depression.

  7. My commute is almost an hour but I have to leave my nice warm bed before dawn to get there for my 7am clinical. My clinical lasts all day so it’s a really long Monday and Tuesday since I get home well after 7pm. I have lots of paperwork but I love doing the teaching. The best part of the arrangement is I teach nursing students just before they graduate and I’m still passionate about what I do. But I’m trying to get my doctorate which is expensive so I’m starting a new administrative position at Yale to pay for my education so I can go back to my adjunct position. Crazy, huh? Who knows, I may love my new Yale job.

  8. Ca State Law does not allow an adjunct to teach a full load at any one college so if you teach to make a living
    (ha ha), you are forced to become what is called a Freeway Flyer. Luckily my two colleges are on the way…
    but my commute is 200 miles/week to two colleges. What cracks me up is that I teach a section on Climate Change while the State of Ca is forcing me to pump carbon in the air to teach a section on Climate Change.

    I think this is my last time as an adjunct after almost 20 years at five diff. colleges. When sticking yourself with sharp objects seems a more attractive option, it’s time to quit.

  9. I had annual extendable contracts with one U.S. university that taught in Europe and Asia. Although not an adjunct, I lived their life because our classes were scattered all over.
    At the end of our 8 week terms we moved to a new location. Often another country, usually on the same continent. In Europe we bought cars as you could drive anywhere.
    My $200 Fiat went 60,000 km in 14 months for my teaching in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Most commonly we used public transport which could be difficult. One friend had to ride to work in a bakery van, it was all that was moving at 4AM. I often slept standing up on the trains in japan. It was so crowded that one did not easlly fall over.

    Our daily commutes were usually 30 to 150 miles(one way), often heavy traffic. At term end, we’d be on a military cargo airplane several hours. All-in-all the moving was actually enjoyable and was much nicer than the incessant commuting which it later became.

  10. In a period of 4 years three friends working with me died in traffic accidents in Korea.
    For safety, I quit driving.

    When it looked as though war was going to break out, I resigned and happily returned to the USA.

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