The long and often arduous commute of freeway professors

Cindy Von Quednow

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One day last semester, Michael Powelson, a part-time lecturer at CSUN, was scheduled to give a midterm exam to a class he was teaching at California State Channel Islands in Camarillo. The exam was scheduled at 4 p.m. He left his home in Van Nuys in the morning to ride public transportation to his final destination. He never made it to his midterm.

His normal Metrolink trip was disrupted by the Porter Ranch fire and the train was stalled at the Chatsworth station. He decided to ride his bike from the station to the Warner Center to catch a bus to Ventura. There was no bus, so he rode about half way to Thousand Oaks where there was no bike lane, and drivers were yelling and honking at him. He made it to the transit center at about 2:30 p.m., when yet again there was no bus heading in his direction. He peddled until getting a flat tire. After riding for almost five hours and 40 miles, Powelson gave up. He called the secretary to postpone his midterm.

Getting home was another mission. Instead of paying $80 for a shuttle to take him back to Van Nuys, he waited for two hours for a local bus to take him back to Thousand Oaks, where his sister picked him up. He got home at 9 p.m. that night.’ ‘

‘That was a six to eight hour commute,’ said Powelson, who sticks to driving his 1993 Toyota pickup to Camarillo. ‘If I take the public transportation, I’ll be commuting far longer than I’m in class teaching’.

Getting around on time is one of the dilemmas Powelson faces as a part time lecturer; aside from teaching three history courses at CSUN and three at Channel Islands, he also teaches a class at Los Angeles Valley College. He is the epitome of a freeway professor.

‘Since I live in Van Nuys, the logical thing would be to teach here but I’m a ‘part-time instructor’ even though I work well over 40 hours a week,’ said Powelson, who has two sons. ‘The reason I do it so much is to pay the bills.’

Despite having three jobs, Powelson understands that he has little job security, due to the current CSU budget cuts and economic crisis.’

‘The university cut down on summer teaching, so in addition to the seven classes a semester that I teach, that’s 14 over a year, I also taught two summer classes which means 16 classes a year, but now that the summer classes have been cut in half, tenured faculty have priority,’ explained Powelson, who will not be teaching classes this summer. ‘My income has been reduced at least by one eighth. I’m a non tenure track instructor, so I would be more vulnerable than anyone else because I don’t have any leverage.’

Theresa Monta’ntilde;o, associate professor of Chicano/a studies and co-president of the California Faculty Association (CFA) at CSUN sympathizes with the plight of the part-time lecturers because they have to look for work elsewhere in order to make ends meet.’ ‘

‘(Lectures) don’t get benefits unless they work a certain amount of hours, their stability is never assured, they work from semester to semester, from college to college not knowing what’s gonna be happening to their salary next year,’ said Monta’ntilde;o.

‘I do empathize with people who do have to find additional employment to make ends meet, you don’t make a lot as a full time professor, you definitely don’t make a lot as a lecturer,’ said Montano.’ ‘And when you have a family to support, and a mortgage to play, you’re going to look for whatever you can find out there.’

Since part-timers have to wait to be given classes for the following semester, those who commute have to make sure their schedules at other schools don’t conflict, which might affect whether or not they can teach, said Ernesto Rojas, a part-time instructor in the Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures department at CSUN.

‘Sometimes you have to look for other institutes where you can teach ‘hellip; we always have this dilemma of how we’re going to do it,’ said Rojas, who also teaches a class at Pierce College, and taught one at Moorpark College last semester. He even substituted at a college in Inglewood for a month.’
Although he teaches the bulk of his classes at CSUN, he is unsure of his future at the university.

‘The university has cut classes which means we are teaching less, and if I want to teach more, I have to travel more because I would have to teach at different institutions, which means using your car a lot and spending more money,’ said Rojas. ‘I have no way of knowing if I will teach next semester, and that is understandable.’

Still, Rojas admitted to feeling anguished at the thought of having to find another job if he is left without a teaching position.

Although Rojas would like to acquire a higher degree to be more competitive in his job market and possibly become a full time professor, it will be hard for him to be a student and a teacher simultaneously.

‘I’d like to take classes at UCLA, but it would be impossible because I’d have to quit working and dedicate myself completely to studying,’ said Rojas.

Like Powelson, Rojas said it would be ideal to teach only at CSUN, not only because he would be able to use public transportation from his home in Winnetka, but also to be able to dedicate more time to his students.

Celia Simonds, an adjunct professor of Central American studies at CSUN and Ethnic studies at Glendale Community College (GCC) also feels her commuting affects her relationship with the students.

‘What bothers me about having to rush from one place to the other is that quite often you pack at the end of the class, and students hang around, they ask you questions you walk together with them’hellip; I can’t do that,’ said Simonds who also teaches at GCC on Tuesdays and Thursdays. ‘I think that hurts the students, that part of not being able to be there for five extra minutes, because otherwise I wouldn’t make it on time (to my other class).’

Despite her hectic schedule, Simonds still finds time to focus on her students, said Nancy Menjivar, a junior psychology and Central American studies major.

‘I think it’s amazing how hard she works and she still has time for us, she gives feedback even through emails and she is very devoted to her students,’ noted Menjivar who is taking a CAS 102 class with Simonds this semester. ‘She has to pay to work, ironically, but that just shows how devoted she is.’

Besides parking, one of the costs Menjivar referred to is the price of gas, which was at a peak last semester, when Simonds had to drive back and forth between her two jobs twice on a given day. She said she was paying $50 to fill up her 1999 Toyota Corolla and like the other professors, didn’t have an option of public transportation for her home in La Crescenta.

Although her schedule is more manageable this semester, Simonds says her situation is still precarious.

‘We’re living in hard times, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in our everyday lives, I’m very thankful that I have a job and that my husband has a job, but if either of us looses our job, we won’t even have a home,’ noted Simonds. ‘If anything were to happen our house of cards will crumble.’

In these troubled times, it is necessary for lecturers to know their rights and benefits, said Monta’ntilde;o, the CSUN CFA co-president.

‘Lecturers need to know that we will protect them and we will represent them at CFA and assure them of what their rights are, not only during bad economic time, but for all the time,’ she said.’ ‘This includes whether or not you’re entitled to unemployment benefits, which a lot of folks don’t know’hellip;things they need to know in case (you get fired) resting assured that we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.” ‘ ‘

Monta’ntilde;o emphasized the importance of part time professors that, although the university relies on them, they do not receive the
same benefits of full-time professors and are more at risk of losing their job.

‘So it makes you wonder, why aren’t we converting some of those positions into full-time faculty, making them less vulnerable and making us stronger?’ said Montano.

Although Powelson asked himself the same question, he makes best of his situation and understands it is a reality he lives with.

‘It doesn’t make any sense from a practical perspective, but it does make sense when you’re talking about the bottom line.’