Tales From the Pit, part deux: Classy Claude files his report on AHA 2009

Classy Claude, just phoning it in.

In academic hiring, universities are represented by two equally important groups:  the job candidates, and the search committees interviewing them.  Classy Claude, an American Studies scholar at Hudson University, spent most of last weekend in the Job Register, also known as “the Pit,” or “the Killing Floor.”  These are his stories:

The wireless miraculously appeared when I turned on my computer this morning.  I’m due to check out in an hour or so and head back downtown, but here are some thoughts:

AHA winds down today (panels through the early afternoon).  In a change from the normal Thursday-Sunday routine, this year in NY the festivities began on Friday and continued through to Monday.  My sense was that most people had hightailed it out of here sometime yesterday and, if not (and as in the normal routine) were using the final morning as a travel day with perhaps a brief stop in the book fair (Knopf paperbacks reduced to 3 bucks) before heading out.

I was on a search committee this year and am rather a junior member of my department so had not long ago been on the other side of the table.  We interviewed in the room I heard referred to as the Killing Floor: the bad rayon curtains (red this year), the distracting voices, the Dixie cups for water, the crowd of anxious interviewees awaiting their fate.  

I heard a few horror stories, but I’ll start with my own (admittedly basic) observations:

The fashion is still bad.  With the exception of some standout dressers, most historians are not exactly chic.  I was particularly struck, in the case of the women, by how casual some of them were.  I know that there is more latitude for women in “business attire” than for men, but one woman showed up in a sweater and a pair of cords.  Too casual, methinks.  (Ed. note:  me too!)  While most interviewers (perhaps with the exception of your intrepid reporter) don’t much care about how fashionable job candidates are (and are wearing bad suits themselves), some sense of formality is a good thing.  It shows you’re taking it seriously.  

Some people didn’t answer the questions.  When asked about how he would teach a class in nineteenth-century U.S. history, one candidate handed over a syllabus on comparative slaveries and proceeded to explain how he would teach that class.  When asked, helpfully I thought, if he meant to use slavery or race as a theme to explore the whole of the nineteenth century, he seemed slightly flummoxed and proceeded to explain the particulars of this course.  This is a prime example of Not Answering the Question.

Some people were perfectly able to say what their dissertation (or book) was about and what sources they had used, but were not very good on saying why it mattered: what historiography it took on, which paradigms it disrupted, what contributions it made.  There needs to be a good punchy sentence or two in there.  

When asked what questions interviewees had for us, most people knew that this was in part a trick question and continued to perform by asking about our students, our department collegiality, etc., but one man actually got out a checklist of questions that were almost exclusively related to the particulars of the job that would only affect him (load, tenure process, research funds, travel money, etc.).  Bottom line: the interview isn’t over till you actually leave.  

Some people are so nervous that it’s difficult to see how they could possibly stand in front of a classroom.  This is a problem.  Some people are so bland or monotonous (even if confident and prepared and highly capable) that it’s difficult to imagine having an interesting conversation with them.  These are the moments when one remembers that simply being oneself (with all the genetic or environmental accidents this might entail) can either really help you or be your biggest obstacle, and I’m not sure what can be done about that.

Horror stories: I was near a booth where the interviewers spent most of the time explaining all of the shortcomings of their school (open admissions policy, no tenure track jobs at all, 4/4 load where everyone teaches 3 U.S. surveys no matter their specialization, no accreditation), and then asked brightly, “So what attracted you to our school?”  A couple friends told of interviewers who were so exhausted they seemed to have little sense about which job the candidate had applied for or who in fact the candidate was.  Another friend was asked if she was capable of teaching a class on comparative colonization in the U.S. and gave what she thought was a bright and insightful answer about how she would do that.  The interviewer said, “Oh good, because one of my colleagues teaches that now and hates it” while making a notation in her little book.  All in all some poor performances by interviewers as well as interviewees.  

There was, of course, all the usual competition and angst and bizarre preparation–for example, a friend of mine walked into the Ladies’ Room while a candidate did lunges and other calisthenics in front of the stalls–and it all seemed worse this year because of all the job cancellations.  Anxiety was really high with far too many people competing for far too few jobs, and bear in mind that those were the ones who had made it to interviews at the AHA.  It was not wholly dissimilar from other years, but it seemed worse to me.    Also new this year was historianstv.com, with large flat screen TVs throughout the conference broadcasting previously recorded material and on-the-scenes reporting with interviewers, candidates, panelists, and chirpy undergrads extolling the virtues of Phi Alpha Theta.  A little surreal, perhaps, but as in all conferences, the entire experience always feels like a bit of a time and space warp.

Signing out, and back downtown to return to real life…

0 thoughts on “Tales From the Pit, part deux: Classy Claude files his report on AHA 2009

  1. Historiann-a perfect intro to this guest blog! From what I’ve read, it captures the tone of this year’s AHA perfectly. I could hear the “dun dun” in my head as I read…

    And Claude-thanks for reporting back to the rest of us!


  2. Thanks, ej–I wish I knew an exact way of transliterating that dun-dun (or, I’ve heard it described elsewhere as “doink-doink,” but that seems imprecise to me). Chung-chung? Dung-dung?


  3. Historiann, I enjoyed reading the various posts from the AHA. I also attended and you can read my post at amymittelman.com/musings. Most of the people who attend the AHA are either job seekers or job interviewers. This year was no different.


  4. Finally back from the AHA, but I don’t really have anything eventful to report. Ran into two friends who teach at smaller schools with 4-4 loads who are both doing searches in 20th C U.S. Both said that they got over 200 applications and that the conference interviewees were almost universally strong overall. One mentioned that despite previous assurances his dean is making noises about possibly canceling the search. (After giving his entire semester over to reading the said 200+ applications, he’s likely to go homicidal if that happens.)

    I attended a few panels, but due to family travel I didn’t go up until Saturday, and many of the panels that seemed most interesting were on Friday, so I missed them. I made a few comments, which of course one agonizes over afterwards (Did I just say something blindingly obvious, or something that made no sense at all? Does Dan Rodgers think I’m an idiot now? Etc….)

    I went to a couple of receptions and caught up with some friends away from the conference, but I had less success in meeting new people or running into old friends/acquaintances than usual. In general it seemed like a relatively subdued affair intellectually, socially, and jobwise, compared to previous years. Maybe I just never found out where the action was.


  5. JJO–thanks for your report. And by the way, Dan Rodgers wrote me a few hours ago, and in fact, he thinks you’re an idiot. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but I think you of all people deserve honesty! I think you know I’m special among your friends, in that I recognize that you wouldn’t respect me if I weren’t completely honest. (BFF 4ever? Love ya, JJO!)


  6. I interviewed this year and we had a bunch of really strong candidates. Except for the one who talked so incessantly that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Note to candidates: when the interviewer begins looking pointedly at her watch and coughing that is your cue to stop talking. Also–please talk to my face, not my chest. Thanks.


  7. Nikki–I’m glad you had some good interviews (despite the apparent mezmerization your name badge inflicted on the interviewees.) Sisyphus: you can borrow this schtick if you like–I ripped it off myself from L & O! (Obviously.)

    I just thought that a little levity was perhaps necessary after hearing about all of the doom & gloom at MLA and AHA.


  8. Damn. I knew it! So much for the Princeton job. I could just tell that his take away from the whole conference would be “I must make sure to destroy that one guy who said that thing at the end of that one panel I was on.”


  9. Surely you’re not surprised, JJO–saying anything at the AHA (in job interviews, on panels) is a sure career-ender! There’s no way everything at AHA won’t end badly. It’s best to avoid the whole scene, I’ve found. If you ever have the urge to attend the conference again, I suggest taking a few valium and lying down until the urge passes.


  10. Eeeew, Steveeboy–if you knew what most historians look like (Historiann and her commenter excepted, natch!) you wouldn’t be so eager to contemplate conference sex. GayProf (see my blog roll at left) had a funny post a few months ago after the American Studies Association about conference sex. (Search ASA and you’ll find it, I’m sure–I also linked to it in a post here, so you might find it at Historiann.com).


  11. remember, I am a vet of a US History PhD program, several major conferences and many minor ones…

    I know the good and bad of the discipline!


  12. Well, I would say the beauty and fashion sense of historians definitely falls on the “bad” side of the discipline. (But, maybe because we’re used to being turned down for dates, we’re very friendly, in the “loveable loser” mode!)


  13. Well … I have to say I brought my black suit and lovely silk blouse (it’s a good suit, but in the classic sense rather than the particularly fashionable one — suitable to someone my age, though!) and I went with something else — power boots, a flared skirt, and a sweater-y tunic that I’ve worn to talks and taught in. Most of the women interviewees I saw were wearing black or grey suits (some with the most inappropriate shoes ever — black patent leather t-straps with 4″ spiky heels are NOT a good choice for an interview, IMO), and I had run my outfit past a friend who is tenured and has run several searches. But now I’m worrying!


  14. Your outfit sounds great–I would have made the same decision. Black suits are very practical in terms of stain-resistance (or disguising)–but they do become a kind of uniform. I don’t know why anyone would go to AHA in anything more than 1-inch heels, because if you’re interviewing you’re doing a lot of standing around (and there aren’t that many places to sit, anyway.)


  15. Pingback: Checking in on the AHA-hahahahaha? (Lolsob.) : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  16. Pingback: AHA report: Put on a giant smiley-face mask, if you have to : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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