Just kill the convention interview already. NOW.

Bomb-throwing from my sabbatical!

Bomb-throwing from my sabbatical!

My department plans to conduct first-round interviews at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in January for the open position in my department.

I would like to apologize for this waste of everyone’s money and time, but most of all, I must apologize to the most junior, poorest, and most vulnerable members of our profession, who will feel compelled to spend money they may not have in order to book a flight to New York City, a hotel room, and pay for their own meals in the hopes that they can advance their candidacy to an Assistant Professorship. Because of course the people who most need jobs don’t have travel budgets or expense accounts!  (Not that ours is that generous, to be perfectly honest.)

I have made these points repeatedly in department meetings, and have only succeeded in killing the convention of AHA convention interviews when I’m on the search committee. For some reason, some of my colleagues believe without evidence or reason in the superiority of the annual trek into the basement of various hotels in icy, snowy northern North American cities in January, when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative. I’m on sabbatical and out of state this year so I can’t jump up and down and scream about this at Baa Ram U., but you can bet that I will after I climb out of this palm tree, starting next fall and every year after that anyone tries to fly a search committee to Chicago, New York, or Boston again.

I never liked the call to muster for an interview back in the day when I was unemployed, but it was a different world in the late 1990s, when gas was $0.89 a gallon and tickets to Chicago-Midway could be had for $99.  Round trip!  And to be perfectly honest, I’ve never liked conducting job interviews in “the pit” as a member of a search committee.  We are at the point now both in terms of the technology for videoconferences or Skype calls, and in terms of the precarity of the academic humanities, that senior scholars like myself must take a stand against this abusive system. 

The whole convention of “the convention interview” was, at the time it was established, a progressive reform. The American historical profession wanted to move away from the old boys’ networks that organized the job search process. This process–such as it was–involved a department Chair calling his old advisor or friend from grad school, and saying, “We’re hiring in X field this year. Do you have any likely candidates?” One would get the nod, and frequently would get the job offer without any open search, screening process, or even a single interview! I’ve heard this “process” described as the way that 1) my former advisor got his job at Penn in the early 1960s, and 2) most of my now-retired colleagues were hired into my department in the 1960s.

In this context, publishing advertisements for available jobs, soliciting applications from people who are outside of one’s professional networks, and holding interviews at a central location was a step in the right direction–in the early 1970s.  But times have changed.  Advertising jobs nationally is now standard practice, and it’s been made even easier because of the internet.  I say let’s take it all the way, and let the internet help us conduct the first-round interviews as well.

What are the advantages of conducting first-round interviews by Skype or videoconference?  Let us count the ways:

  1. They save everyone time and money.  This really is reason number one for me, and it’s the only reason we should need, but just for giggles, I’ll list other reasons why we should kill the convention interview once and for all.
  2. They save petroleum.  Consider the carbon footprint of most national conferences with all of the air, car, and taxi travel miles, not to mention the savings in water (by not patronizing hotels for a night or two, necessitating massive amounts of laundry)!
  3. Candidates can save money on skirts, trousers, and shoes, since they’re only visible from the waist or bust on up.
  4. Neither candidates nor search committees have to worry about the perils of travel in January in North America, and can stay home to write another dissertation chapter or their spring semester syllabi instead of getting delayed or stuck in airports or hotels because of snow- or ice storms.
  5. Search committees are freed of the artificial deadline of the first week in January, which becomes a mandatory pivot around which the entire search is organized.  They can create a search schedule that more easily accommodates their universities’ calendars and budget cycles.
  6. Search committees are also free to schedule interviews over as many days or weeks as they choose, so that they can space out their work and give each candidate her or his due in the interview because they’re not interviewing eight or ten people per day.
  7. Your turn now:  fire away!

cowgirlgunsign1Now, to be fair, I will list the disadvantages of killing the convention interview:

  1. Search committees won’t be able to shake the hands of the candidates they interview.
  2. No more subsidized trips to places where search committees may have friends, family, or research interests.
  3. Both candidates and search committees will miss opportunities to network with professional friends and contacts.
  4. No book exhibit.  (Honestly, I don’t get why people think book exhibits are such a big freakin’ deal, but I get it that for many conferees they are.  For me, they’re just a place to kill time in-between appointments.  At the AHA and at the Organization of American Historians and possibly other meetings, Pinkerton guards actually check for conference badges and won’t let anyone in who’s not officially registered with the conference!  This always seemed like such a scam to me–the creation of an artificial scarcity.)
  5. Sometimes the Skype connection is a little weak, and we sometimes have to ask people to repeat themselves because we missed part of what they said.
  6. Your turn again.  Try to change my mind.  (Do ya feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?)


63 thoughts on “Just kill the convention interview already. NOW.

  1. So, the argument is that departments need to interview at AHA so that (some) people will get funded to travel to AHA? What about all of the people who *must* travel to AHA on their own dimes?

    I guess that’s the argument I would make too if I were the Executive Director of the AHA, but there are other ways to make the AHA relevant. I agree that they run some interesting panels, and that for non-U.S. historians based in North America, it remains a very important meeting. Why not encourage more people to put together interesting panels that focus on pedagogy and on professional issues? Why not partner with local universities to make low-cost housing available, like the Berks does and the Omohundro Institute conference? Why not waive the registration fee for anyone who’s not employed?

    Here’s a thought: if the conference weren’t organized around the academic job search calendar, then maybe we could all avoid having to travel the week after New Year’s, in the middle of North American winter? A summer conference would make loads of dorm rooms available for lower-cost housing for the grad students and junior folks who might want to attend for intellectual and professional reasons, not just to find a job.

    There are all kinds of ways the AHA could re-imagine its annual meeting that don’t involve making the poorest members of the profession subsidize a meeting for people whose travel will be reimbursed.


  2. My IT director just stopped by to chat and we discussed
    Microsoft Lync, a program that is much better than the free Skype or Hangouts. I’m sure there are non-MS programs as well.

    You host it, other people connect via browsers, you can save it so others can re-watch later, etc. It seems to work pretty well.


  3. Thanks for the tip. MS Lync might be a good solution for my college, which is always locked into these contracts with Microsoft and PCs only. (Gee, why would anyone in the liberal arts college prefer Macs/Apple computers? I wonder. . . )

    Engineering gets Macs at my uni; the Art Department doesn’t. Go figure.


  4. I’m all for moving to Skype (or whatever tech) interviews. However, I do think it’s ideal if the committee encounters everyone in the same mode. So if the move is to skype/tech, then do all the interviews that way. While I’m glad committees are offering skype as an option, I worry that when they see half the candidates in person and half via skype, the in-person folk have a better chance (of impressing or, I suppose, being jerks). It’s all well and good to *say* that everyone is considered equal, but I’m not convinced that you get the same read on people in person and over broadband. All this said, I think moving to all skype/phone/non-flying-around-the-country-to-hang-out-in-windowless-rooms options is great; it just needs to be the mechanism, not a mechanism, for first-round interviews.


  5. Part of the requirement for successful online interviewing is technology (YES to hardwired connections in the department, plus a $200-$250 conference webcam that can turn and zoom), but part of it is a thoughtful process.

    1. Reserve the in-department interviewing site with enough time to provide a connection check 15 minutes before the interview. (YES, this means you don’t do back-to-back interviews. Go get a coffee, or a cup of water, or something else, in between.)

    2. Have a protocol to separate the tech check from the interview — e.g., assign a staff member or a student do the tech check, not a member of the committee. Or if a faculty member does the tech check with the candidate, she or he is not on the search committee or the faculty member leaves the room for a few minutes before the formal interview starts.

    3. Have the tech check include a check on telephone numbers (i.e., an actual phone call).

    If I were a candidate, I’d probably pay to reserve time at a business facility where my end would be hard-wired, but I know that’s not always going to be possible.


  6. Sherman, thanks for your further thoughts on this. You are right that it’s all about being thoughtful in one’s use of technology.

    We all know how to show up for an in-person interview at AHA or MLA–but it takes a lot of planning on the back end, right? We have to buy plane tickets, reserve a hotel room, arrange for transport to and from the airport, make sure our good clothes are clean & pressed, take a shower, brush our teeth, turn off our telephones, etc.

    Preparing for a successful Skype or telecomm. interview is a lot easier, but it still requires SOME thought, planning, and checking.

    I agree with r that standardized interview formats should be the goal, but the fact of the matter is that conducting interviews at AHA or MLA already means that there will likely be one or two people who will ask to do a phone or a Skype interview because they can’t be at the conference. This was the case every time I was on a hiring committee that did interviews at AHA–we had to do one or two phone interviews as well. So therefore moving to all-telecomm/Skype interviews will make it likelier that all screening interviews will happen the same way.


  7. Amen, amen, and amen!

    MLA was such hell for me that even many years later I shudder at the thought.

    I think the issue of timing is an interesting one. We’ve tended to do phone (or Skype) interviews for the first round here, and in recent years, because budgets are so uncertain, we’ve sometimes pushed to do things very fast.

    We also have an issue with not starting our spring semester until late January, which meant with traditional MLA interviews, we’d have a sub-committee do the MLA interview, then we’d wait until the first week of the semester to have the full committee meet, and then work on inviting people, so that campus visits weren’t happening until February or March. And job offers came later, and if (as happened at times), our favorite candidate(s) took another job, we had to invite someone else, and so on. Now, we’ve even had job visits in mid-December, which means we’re ahead instead of behind most others.


  8. In the natural sciences, we develop a short list of a half dozen or fewer candidates on the basis of the paper applications, and then invite them all to interview on campus. The idea that you would interview *dozens* of motherfuckers for a few minutes each at a conference and think you are getting any better information than from the paper application is fucken *lunacy*!!!!!! And such a brief interaction–essentially nothing more than a first impression–is probably substantially more contaminated by unconscious bias than the review of paper documents.


  9. My major compliant is not so much with the convention interview but adverts for assistant professorships that demand people provide such a massive amount of material upfront when it’s clear they are going to reject at least 50-95% of people on cover letter alone. Why bother for three letters of recommendation when you know you aren’t even going to bother to look at them?


  10. I held two student conferences over skype this week (and a lot more face to face ones, but these students asked for skype so they didn’t have to make long drives). One came through clear as a bell but dropped once (then came back); the other had a lot of interference from other conversations (which apparently the student couldn’t hear, but I could), and occasionally sounded like it was taking place underwater, or at least in a very long metal pipe of some sort. In both cases, I was on a fast university connection (but using a basic Windows 7 desktop with a low-mid quality plug-in mike; I didn’t bother with my webcam since we were sharing screens in order to discuss a draft). I’m not sure what setups or connections the students had, though the one with the better connection appeared to have a separate webcam mounted somewhere other than the top of her monitor, and to have considerable practice looking into it. I suspect she uses Skype on a regular basis for important (at least to her) conversations, and I have to say that it did make a difference in how she came across. So, at least for the candidate and probably also for the committee, it’s worth experimenting a bit with setups and webcam angles that are not only more flattering than the one produced by a built-in laptop cam, but also make it easier for one to seem engaged in the conversation, and to at least approximate eye contact with one’s interlocutors.


  11. I agree that Skype/phone/videoconferencing interviews are better for first-round interviews than the AHA convention. When I have been involved in searches that did AHA interviews (most recently, 7 years ago), we always offered the alternative of a phone/videoconferencing interview, or for those within a reasonable travel distance from Amherst, an “airport interview” (actually at a hotel conference room), both with the same length and questions as the convention interview. It didn’t prejudice our decisions, at least based on our invitations to second-round interviews.

    Attending conferences is an important part of professionalization, and grad programs should subsidize their students to do so. But AHA isn’t necessarily the most important conference for that. Regional conferences, like the New England Historical Association, are more friendly venues for presenting work and getting it critiqued, and more focused subdisciplinary conferences (History of Science Society, in my case) are better for making professional connections.

    I felt very isolated at my first few AHA meetings (and I went to a couple before the job market, to see how it worked). It was my 2nd or 3rd year as an assistant professor when I attended the AHA meeting in Washington and was stunned to find that I recognized huge numbers of people moving through the narrow passages in the Marriott Wardman Park, and that I didn’t have time to meet up with everyone I wanted to see. I think the AHA could be more of the latter, and less of the former, if the job market side were eliminated.

    The one concern I have – and I’m not sure how much of a problem it really is – is that the convention interview imposes a rhythm on the annual hiring process that can work to candidates’ advantage: if first-round interviews happen the first week of January, then second-round interviews will happen later in January or in February, and offers will come shortly after. That allows candidates with multiple interviews to negotiate. A system in which first-round interviews are online might lead to more and more fall-semester interviews, especially by departments interested in making an offer ahead of everyone else, and thus a dilemma for candidates: take the offer in hand in November, or hold out for a better job later? We already have a protocol for accepting graduate admissions offers, but given the pragmatic need to have someone teaching in a given position in September, I don’t think a similar protocol would work for faculty job offers.


  12. When I chaired a search committee, we interviewed a nursing mother who was SO RELIEVED that we weren’t going to demand that she travel 10 days out of childbed. When we brought her to campus the following month, we paid for a plane ticket for her partner, so that he could care for the baby and she could nurse during her campus interview. And she got the job!

    This is great. I am sitting a home with a 2 week old right now and just thinking wow, how thoughtful and humane. (I’m missing my discipline’s major conference this fall due to the baby, but I’ve found nearly nothing in my subfield this year, just “open specialty” positions that must get hundreds of applications, and I’m ABD…so no loss.)

    What I find surprising and annoying is the variability between fields. My official disciplinary association has ruled that asking for recommendations with an initial application is bad behavior, so TT jobs listed with them don’t require letters right away. But I’ve mostly been applying for interdisciplinary postdocs and “________ Studies” jobs, and they all require up front recs, which have to be submitted through online systems AFTER I submit my application but before the deadline. I can’t think of a system that would be more burdensome for letter writers than this.


  13. The preliminary interview I had for my current job was a Skype interview. For whatever reason, the sound didn’t work, so I had to call them on my cell phone, which was also spotty in my house. But it ended up being okay, if awkward. At least I got called to campus and eventually got the job. It was four years ago. Hopefully Skype has gotten better, not worse.


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