Focusing While Commuting

As an early Americanist, the Omohundro Institute’s annual conference is always high on my list of events to attend each summer (and more so now that I work for the OI). This year, I have the great fortune of having everyone come to me, or at least close enough. With the conference meeting in Worcester, just a forty-minute drive away, I can spare myself the vagaries of airport travel, having to stay in a hotel, the search for coffee and breakfast, and living out of a suitcase for three days, not to mention the cost. (I actually enjoy going to conferences. Really.) I also get to see my family every day rather than having to sneak off to Skype before the kids go to bed.
On the other hand, the local conference has reminded me of what life is like all semester for those students of mine who commute, in some cases an hour or more. Being able to avoid all of the negatives of conference travel is great, and saving money when there are few opportunities to get conference travel funded is a must. But I know that this weekend my mental energy will be divided. Usually when I travel to a conference, I immerse myself in the experience—I’m focused on the academic conversation, exploring the city, and spending time with colleagues and friends. With nothing else to do, I turn all of my attention to the conference.
When a conference is “at home,” however, I’m always thinking about and glancing towards my real life. This morning and tomorrow morning, I’ll drop my daughter off at daycare on my way to Worcester. I’ll need to make a conscious decision of whether I have time to pick something up at the office on my way, whether I can sneak in an appointment I need to make, whether I should come home for dinner or stay with my academic friends a little later. My family is completely supportive, by the way, and for this particular conference my in-laws are visiting to help make all of that work and coordination possible (thanks!). And I don’t mean this as a complaint, given that hundreds of people will be wandering the streets looking for a Starbucks while I’m going into my kitchen for breakfast.
But it occurred to me today that it’s a good reminder of the challenges that my students–about half of whom commute–face every week during the academic semester. As faculty members and advisors, my colleagues and I often talk about those issues in the abstract. But they’re real, and they have a real impact on the ways in which college students interact with their academic work. To be sure, it can be far more cost-effective to live at home rather than taking on the expense of a dorm or apartment. And there’s a certain comfort in home. But many college students are trying to complete their academic work not in some idyllic setting where they have nothing else to worry about. Instead, they coordinate car access with their parents, agree to pick up siblings off the school bus, or work part-time (or more) jobs in their hometowns. It fundamentally changes the experience, which is what it is.
So among my goals this weekend—perhaps while I’m driving!—is to contemplate how students manage, and whether there are ways to make the transition between the two worlds a little easier.

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