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:
- 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.
- 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)!
- Candidates can save money on skirts, trousers, and shoes, since they’re only visible from the waist or bust on up.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Your turn now: fire away!
- Search committees won’t be able to shake the hands of the candidates they interview.
- No more subsidized trips to places where search committees may have friends, family, or research interests.
- Both candidates and search committees will miss opportunities to network with professional friends and contacts.
- 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.)
- 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.
- Your turn again. Try to change my mind. (Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?)