This afternoon, I will be making my final commute of the academic year. In many professions, discussing one’s commute might not be all that interesting. But academia isn’t just any profession. Since the job market is so tight, many of us find ourselves needing to make more than a modest commute from where we live to where we work. Perhaps you’re a member of the new faculty majority of contingent labor and are teaching at more than one campus in your general area. Perhaps your life circumstances dictate that you live in one part of the state/region/country and work in another. Or perhaps you live in a large metro area with untenable traffic and unreliable transit. As a member of the first group, I’ve had a 240-mile round-trip commute throughout the year, and at first I found myself wondering where all my time went. But throughout the year, I’ve developed three techniques for making the most of my drive.
The very first thing that must be said in a post of this nature is that safety trumps everything. Distracted drivers endanger themselves and others on the road. As Forbes.com recently reported, the “National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 80% of all car crashes are related to driver inattention. Six thousand fatal crashes each year involve an inattentive driver.” Ultimately, the most productive thing you can do while driving is to make sure you get where you’re going.
Fortunately, once I became comfortable with the route that I traveled, I found myself with several hours to reflect on what I was going to teach that day, on what I’d been reading recently, on an upcoming presentation, or on an argument I was preparing to write. I do not believe that I’ve ever had so much time to think about my work, even when I was in my first year of grad school and had a mostly open schedule apart from weekly seminar meetings. As such, I’ve come to enjoy my commute as a moment where I can make headway in things that matter. My problem is that this valuable thinking risks evaporating by the time I’ve reached a place where I can make any notes. As such, I’ve begun to capture my thoughts using the voice memo function of my cell phone. Even though I don’t have a super smartphone (shockingly, this is not required here at Team ProfHacker), my phone still allows me to record messages and save them in a voice mail directory. Combining this feature, a Bluetooth headset (remember, safety comes first), and voice commands (which are standard are many modern cell phones), I’m able to capture my thoughts about one thing or another as I travel. Later in the day/week, I can take advantage of a lull in office hours to listen to my messages and act on what I’ve cooked up for myself. In many ways, using my cell phone this way is similar to the pad of paper that I used to keep next to my bed while writing seminar papers with the distinct advantage that my voice memos are more lucid and legible than my 2am, woke-to-a-spontaneous-realization-about-Friedrich-Kittler scrabblings.
Beyond my own ideas, I’ve used my travel time to catch up on those of others. This has taken the form of listening to audiobooks and podcasts. For the former, there are several good sources for digital audiobooks, including iTunes, Audible.com (which powers iTunes audiobook offerings), and eMusic. But I’ve chosen to go the cheaper rout and just used books on CD from my local library. Since my car doesn’t have a CD player (see previously mentioned membership in the new faculty majority), I’ve ripped the CDs to my iPod. You can use iTunes for this process or dedicated tools, such as Splasm Software’s Audiobook Builder (Mac-only). Using this process, I’ve managed not only to “read” through everything Malcolm Gladwell has written this year, but also the outrageously fun and outrageously large Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Podcasts are much easier to get on my iPod; once I’ve subscribed in iTunes (or the manager of your choice), they just download automatically and are loaded onto my iPod. I stay on top of developments in technology and higher education by listening to the excellent Digital Campus, which comes from the Center for History and New Media. I’m also a fan of NPR’s All Songs Considered. And let’s not forget the occasional ProfHacker podcast. Listening to books or podcasts not only keeps me awake (and safe!) but allows me to “read” when I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
A final thing that I’ve done while driving this year is to exploit a seldom-used feature of my cell phone: I call people. (Again, let me mention the Bluetooth headset and voice commands.) We live and work in a world where we frequently don’t have time for the people that are closest to us, let alone those whom we do not see on a regular basis. Having four hours per day where I have to be by myself heading in a north-easterly or south-westerly direction (depending on the time of day) has given me the chance to call up family members, old friends, and colleagues. If you can expand your academic network in five minutes by writing an email, just think about how much you can accomplish with a phone call.
What techniques have you used to make the most of your drive—however great or small the distance? Moreover, I’ve focused here on how to improve a commute when you’re in the driver’s seat; how do those of you who commute by plane, train, or anything but automobile manage your travel-time productivity?