Lynn Lubamersky, an Associate Professor of History at Boise State University, makes a pretty good case for using Skype instead of flying faculty and grad students around North America to (usually) northern cities in early January:
[S]ome history departments like mine have tried Skype to do initial screening interviews, and I think that it is a much more humane and effective method of seeing who is best for the job. At first, I thought that using Skype was useful because it is free, but that we should return to the AHA when the economy improves. But now I feel that interviewing via Skype is a better way to find the best job candidates.
Why? Because job-seekers are not required to travel across the country and the world to pay for the opportunity to be interviewed, and they have more control over the presentation of self. Instead of all the candidates appearing relatively the same in a sterile environment, the job candidates interview in their own offices or even kitchens, taking the opportunity to position themselves to best advantage.
I’m with her entirely–using Skype saves everyone’s time, money, and carbon emissions to boot. And I think the arguments about the greater economic justice for using Skype make it an absolute slam-dunk. I’ve been on search committees that wanted to inteview people at the American Historical Association’s annual convention, but because of a candidate’s recent surgery, recent or impending childbirth, or perhaps because of plain ol’ poverty, some prospects were unable to meet with us there.
But with respect to Lubamersky’s last point about the charm of seeing people in their home or work environments–I’m a little whingy about considering that at all when considering someone for a job:
It was striking how beautifully some of the candidates communicated with us, filling the screen with their laughter and wit, and showing real enthusiasm and capacity to bridge the digital space between us. I think that students today prefer to communicate via their electronic devices rather than in person, so these candidates showed that they were already doing that in a big way. Some of the candidates staged their interview so appealingly — with artfully placed key titles in the background — that their image gave the impression that it was the book jacket photograph on their first published book. Other candidates were interviewing between classes, standing before 12-foot-high European casement windows of their university offices while gray northern light streamed through, projecting their competence and professional experience. And one candidate who was living in an 18th-century farmhouse delightfully scanned the camera 360 degrees so that we could enjoy a view of the rustic space in which she was living.
I think her major point here is that more of a candidate’s personality can shine through, and that Skype makes interviewing candidates a more varied and enjoyable experience for the search committee. But, really: who cares about the experience of the search committee? As a once and future member of faculty search committees, I sure don’t, and I would work hard to avoid making judgments about candidates who needed to go to a coffee shop or sit in a sterile, cinder-block office (much like my own!) instead of staging their interviews with carefully-selected books arrayed in the background, or gothic revival windows lighting their performance. What about the candidate who just gave birth and who decides to hike on down to her local cafe to focus on her interview and make sure it won’t be interrupted by a crying baby? What about the Road Scholar adjuncting at two institutions who is squeezing in his interview in-between classes and has to borrow a proper office for an uninterrupted 45 minutes? Here’s where the invisibility of good, old-fashioned phone interviews seem to have an advantage over the video link or Skype interview: it makes it harder to discriminate by the appearance of the candidate and/or by the appearance of hir interview setting.
The search committee’s number-one priority is making a good hire, and making a good hire means making job candidates feel as comfortable as possible and treating them generously and thoughtfully through the whole process. The advantages of the Skype interview for the majority of job candidates are clear and obvious, and democratizing access to the screening interviews seems like a no-brainer to me.
But then, I’ve never conducted an interview by Skype in my life since we haven’t hired anyone for tenure-track positions for four years! Please share your thoughts and experiences with video link and/or Skype interviews, from both the perspective of the job candidates and from the perspective of the hiring departments. Here’s a question I have: how would this change the nature (not to say the attendance) of big conferences like the AHA and the MLA? I think they might get smaller, and that this change might be much for the better in terms of amping up the intellectual life of the conference.