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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

On the Road Again: Burlington-based professors who commute

Despite the college’s remote location, not all college faculty live in Middlebury proper. Among professors, there is a growing community of “commuters” who live outside of the town, many of them in the Burlington area, but still work at the college.  

While there are logistical challenges to commuting to work in such a rural state, like coordinating a busy schedule with sporadic bus times or beginning a commute at 6:45 a.m. during harsh Vermont winters, the professors The Campus spoke to are content with their decisions to seek residence in Burlington. Whether seeking a balanced personal and professional life or finding a home in a more active, vibrant environment than small-town Middlebury, there is a theme of intentionality to working and living in a different place. 

Professor of Political Science Betram Johnson lives in the southernmost part of Burlington. Many other Middlebury professors also live in Burlington, given the straightforward, 45-minute commute via U.S. Route 7.

“I lived in Middlebury the first four years that I taught here. I did enjoy getting to know the town. I subscribed to the Addison Independent. I went to the Middlebury town meeting every year as an observer,” Johnson said. “But I like a little bit of anonymity once in a while. If I go to the grocery store in Burlington, I’m probably not going to run into a student.”

Anonymity is not the only benefit that living outside of Middlebury presents. Due to the inherent geographic distance from the college, living elsewhere also creates a physical boundary between professors’ personal and professional lives, which can seem nonexistent during a hectic semester.

“The separation [from the College], not living in the same place you work where everyone either works [there] or is a student, is nice,” Associate Professor of Sociology Linus Owens, another resident of Burlington, said. Owen noted that being a good professor is often about setting boundaries about being away from work, even as students may expect professors to be constantly available. 

“It limits that ability but that is actually not a bad thing. There are boundaries. I think people who are here all the time get burnt out,” Owens said.

Additionally, professors shared how living in a city has certain perks. Johnson highlighted the multiplicity of opportunities within a city to enjoy diverse interests, such as live music performances, art shows and museums. Furthermore, living in a city offers more in terms of comfort, affordability and diversity.

Director and Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Laurie Essig believes her family is more comfortable and safe in Burlington. 

“I was a single lesbian mom when I started [at Middlebury], and I'm a Jew,” she said. “I just don't think I could have sent my kids to the Middlebury schools. I'm glad they grew up in Burlington where there are lots of queer families and single queer parents, and as much racial and class diversity as is possible in Vermont.” 

Despite these benefits, there are still challenges to commuting to the college for work during the day. Johnson, Owens and Essig used to frequently take the Middlebury Link Express bus that had flexible departure times before route times became scarce and inconvenient due to complications from Covid-19. Time on the bus fortunately allowed for an organic community bonding environment to form among colleagues who normally would not bump into each other on campus. 

Since the bus has become more inconvenient, professors are now reliant on personal vehicles or carpooling. That means that schedules have to match — which is often uncommon — and makes it harder to participate in evening talks, student performances or other social activities on campus. 

Owens noted that it can be difficult to attend student performances and events that often take place after the final bus leaves Middlebury. Additionally, for some, there are logistical challenges with classes, office hours and faculty meetings. Owens said that it is harder for him to schedule his classes, which can act as an inconvenience for his colleagues. 

Yet, for some, like Assistant Professor of Economics Akhil Rao, a South Burlington resident, class schedules remain unaffected by personal residences outside of Middlebury. He explained that even if he did not live in South Burlington, his class schedule would not change.

“I tend not to schedule things after 4-5 p.m. mostly from personal preference — I prefer to do interactive work during the daylight hours and set evenings aside for other things.” 

Rao also affirmed the practical side of living outside of Middlebury, especially for those with families, despite the costly side of commuting in terms of time and money. He would prefer to be within walking distance of city amenities or have robust public transit to commute by bus or train. 

“My partner commutes to Waterbury. Living in South Burlington balances our individual commute times,” he said. 

“It is nice to be close to Burlington and its amenities, but the main reason we live here is because we work on opposite sides of the mountains. It is also easier to find rental housing and multifamily units in Burlington.” 

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While it may seem more convenient for all Middlebury professors to live in the town of Middlebury, this is not the reality. 

Owens believes the administration could offer more support for professors who, for many reasons, choose to live elsewhere in Vermont. In his opinion, the college would be able to attract more diverse faculty if they encouraged a less monolithic perspective on residency.