The Pitfalls and Opportunities of Hiring in Non-Western History

Jane Hathaway, February 2007

Editor's Note: The following essay is part of a series of articles commissioned by the Professional Division of the AHA to provide practical and helpful information on various aspects of the profession.

Anyone who follows the news, as most academics do, will have noticed that the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and South and East Asia seem to occupy the headlines as never before. For that reason, these areas of the world attract the attention of the general public. Partly in response to this trend, history departments in the United States and Canada are hiring experts in the history of these regions in seemingly unprecedented numbers. An impressionistic look at the academic position announcements in Perspectives or the H-Net Job Guide yields a surprising number of history jobs, many of them entry-level, in these regional specialties. A fair number of the departments placing advertisements, in turn, are hiring in these fields for the first time ever, or at least for the first time in many years.

What this often means is that during the search process, a species of culture shock can surface on both sides of the interview table. This culture shock can result both from a hiring department's lack of familiarity with the culture of the region, or of the candidate, in question, and from the foreignness of the rituals and folkways of the subdiscipline concerned. This article seeks to shed a few rays of light on the potential pitfalls of participating in a search in a non-western field from either side of the table, and to offer guidance on avoiding such difficulties. It is not only exotic regions of the globe that produce this sort of cultural anomie, however; other non-traditional subfields, such as gay and lesbian history, and crossdisciplinary specialties, such as the history of science, can present just as great a challenge. Although the main focus of this discussion is non-western history, some of the observations advanced below may therefore apply to those fields, as well.

Conference interview venues. Whereas the AHA's annual meeting, which now falls in early January, is unquestionably the major professional gathering for historians of the United States and western Europe, historians in other regional specializations often attach more importance to the meetings of various area studies associations. When these occur in mid- to late autumn, as a number of them do (see chart on page 28), they make more logical interview venues than the AHA meetings for candidates in these fields, particularly for jobs announced toward the beginning of the academic year. The annual meetings of the African Studies Association, Middle East Studies Association, and Jewish Studies Association, all of which normally occur between early November and late December, are major interview sites for job-hunters in those regional specialties. In some cases, the hiring process for positions in these subfields will include interviews at one of these conferences but no AHA interviews. (In contrast, the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, which ordinarily falls at roughly the same time as the ASA and MESA, serves as more of a complement to the AHA, with a fairly limited number of interviews.)

Departments that have not searched in particular subfields before may therefore find it helpful to pay special attention to these conference dates and to plan their searches accordingly. More and more frequently, however, hiring departments seek actively to complete searches before the AHA meeting so as to get a jump on the "competition." Some bypass conference interviews altogether and proceed directly to a "long short list," then to on-campus interviews, possibly with telephone interviews in-between. In view of these developments, a department that runs a job advertisement in one of these subfields with a relatively late application deadline, expecting to conduct the bulk of its interviews at the AHA meeting, may find itself with a limited selection of candidates come January. Ideally, then, the job announcement will specify at which conference, if any, interviews will be conducted and when the committee expects to fill the position. If the position will not be filled before the AHA's annual meeting, the ad should specify whether interviews will also be conducted at the AHA. A department that does elect to conduct the bulk of its interviews at an area studies conference should do its best to accommodate candidates who are unable to attend, perhaps by arranging telephone interviews. By the same token, hiring departments should be aware of each other's positions and should be sensitive to the needs of candidates who are under pressure from one institution to make a decision before they have even had a chance to interview with other institutions. A candidate in one of these subfields, meanwhile, should not expect all relevant job interviews to occur at a single conference but should be prepared to attend both the AHA meeting and the annual meeting of the area studies association most closely connected to the field in question.

An additional complication to hiring in "less commonly taught" fields is that scholars trained in these specialties may not be trained solely or even primarily in history. Scholars who specialize in certain features of Middle Eastern, African, Central Asian, and Far Eastern civilization, for example, are sometimes as likely to come from comparative religion, anthropology, or folklore programs as from history departments. This circumstance can have a number of implications for which a hiring department may or may not be prepared. Most notably, perhaps, these specialists may gravitate toward large professional conferences in other disciplines, such as those of the American Anthropological Association or the American Academy of Religion, both of which occur in the fall and both of which are major interview venues comparable in size and scope to the AHA meeting.

In many cases, a position in one of these fields will be shared with another academic unit; for example, a position in African history may be a joint appointment with the university's department of African and African-American studies. In that case, a faculty member from the co-sponsoring academic unit should unquestionably be named to the search committee. More generally, the two units should agree before the search commences on what sort of candidate they are seeking and on how, once the hire is made, they will evaluate the new faculty member's performance. It should be clear from the outset, for example, whether the other unit will be represented on review committees. Candidates, too, should be made aware of the nature of the two units' long-term relationship with regard to the position.

If, as in the case of African studies, the other unit's discipline has a major professional conference of its own, particularly one that meets earlier in the academic year than the AHA's conference, interviews might more profitably be conducted there. Search committee members who do not belong to the other unit's professional organization should visit the organization's Web site and look over the conference program so as to avoid undue awkwardness when they arrive at the conference venue. The same, naturally, goes for the search committee member from the other unit if interviews are held at the AHA meeting.

Interview hazards. Doubtless the worst way in which a search committee can interact with a candidate in a non-western field is to treat him or her as an exotic alien. It behooves search committee members to do a bit of homework on the field in question, if only by contacting specialists at other institutions. It should be possible even for a search committee with no experience in the field in question to learn its basic parameters: major recent debates, most prominent authors and journals, and the like. A common interview question is "How do you position your work within the field?" But the committee will not be able to gauge the candidate's answer or respond intelligently to it if members have not taken the time to familiarize themselves, in broad strokes, with the field.

So far as specific interview questions are concerned, simplistic generalizations about the region that the candidate studies should be assiduously avoided. For example, a committee conducting a search in Middle Eastern or Islamic history should avoid ahistorical clichés on the order of "They've been killing each other for centuries," or remarks implying that Islam is responsible for everything the region's population does. On the other hand, asking the candidate to explain the difference between Sunnis and Shiites in terms an undergraduate engineering major could understand might be a useful exercise. In general, no committee member should make offhand disparaging remarks about the religious or cultural traditions of the region or population group that the candidate studies. While it might appear that such faux pas would be easy to avoid, a seemingly innocent question with which female scholars of the Middle East are routinely confronted is, "Weren't you afraid to go over there as a woman alone?" The cultural assumptions and prejudices underlying such a question will probably not be obvious to the person asking it. A college's or university's international studies program or office for international students might be able to offer pointers on such intercultural encounters from which search committee members would benefit.

Cultural sensitivity extends to all features of the conference and campus interviews. For a key example, major religious holidays associated with the region a candidate studies should be respected, regardless of the religious affiliations of specific candidates, which the committee will probably not know and about which it should not inquire. It may occasionally be impossible to avoid scheduling a conference interview on a religious holiday, but campus interviews should never be arranged at such times. Religious strictures on consumption of alcohol or certain categories of food can be handled as they would be for any job candidate who happens to be, say, a vegetarian or a teetotaler: simply give the candidate a chance to refuse the offending item in a way that does not make her or him uncomfortable.

Search committee members might find it worthwhile to determine whether their institution has a sizable population of students from the region or population group in which the candidate specializes, and whether these students have an organization—for example, an Asian Students Organization or a Muslim Students Organization. A meeting with representatives of such an organization might be arranged during the candidate's campus interview; at the least, the organization should receive advance publicity of the candidate's talk.

The onus for creating a comfortable interview environment should not rest solely with the search committee and the hiring department, however. The candidate should also do systematic homework, using Web resources to find out about department faculty members and students, as well as existing local resources for the field in question. If the department has never hired a faculty member in your field, suggest ways in which your teaching and research might mesh with those of existing faculty members. Try to view the interview—especially a campus interview—as an opportunity to introduce your potential future colleagues to the part of the world and the culture or cultures that you study.

After the hire. The same sort of sensitivity that marks an effective conference interview and campus visit for a candidate in a non-western field will ideally carry over to the new faculty member's experience after he or she is hired. A new faculty member who is not a United States citizen will need a visa, most probably an H-1B work visa, although visiting and temporary faculty may require a J-1 visa instead. Since Immigration and Naturalization Service processing of visa applications can now take as long as six months, application procedures should begin at least as long before the new faculty member's anticipated arrival. The departmental administration should be aware of difficulties that may arise and should be willing to address them. Talking to colleagues in other departments or at other institutions that have hired significant numbers of foreign faculty may be beneficial in this regard, as will conferring with the International Studies or International Students Office, if your institution has one, or with university lawyers about potential problems. A new faculty member who finds that his or her university is unprepared to help with visa problems can only feel disappointed, helpless, and alienated.

It is often difficult for a small department traditionally dominated by Americanists and Europeanists to accommodate the differences in folkways and intellectual culture of non-western fields. Scholars in these fields, particularly junior scholars, often aim their articles toward journals associated with their regional specialties: for example, the Hispanic American Historical Review, the Slavic Review, the African Studies Review, the Journal of Asian Studies, or the International Journal of Middle East Studies. When publishing their first monographs, they may target presses with stronger lists in these specialties than in general history: thus, for example, Stanford University Press for East Asian history, E.J. Brill (now Brill Academic Publishers) or the State University of New York Press for Middle Eastern history, Heinemann for African history. An astute history department will be alert to these differences and will evaluate these faculty members accordingly.

If a new faculty member's position is a joint appointment with another department, then she or he will almost certainly have to fulfill the research, teaching, and service requirements of both units. The administrations of both departments will help the faculty member immeasurably if they take the time to familiarize themselves with each other's expectations and coordinate their course and committee assignments accordingly. Even if these assignments are divided between the two units, the faculty member will almost inevitably end up attending nearly twice as many faculty meetings and job talks as colleagues whose appointments are solely in the history department. Performance review committees in both units should give these realities of a joint appointment due consideration. This task will be made easier if the two units agree on a division of labor at the time of the search, as noted above.

World history. Commonly, a job candidate in a non-western field is expected to teach world history or some variation thereon. In actual fact, there is nothing intrinsic to the historiographical traditions of any particular non-western region that would equip specialists in the history of that region to teach world history any more effectively than their counterparts in American or European history.

World history is a relatively new subdiscipline that has its roots in the sort of comparative history undertaken by Fernand Braudel and William McNeill, both Europeanists by training. During the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, to be sure, historians and social scientists specializing in Latin America, Africa, and India contributed greatly to world history approaches and theory. Notwithstanding, the notion that teaching a large undergraduate world history survey somehow comes naturally to historians specializing in one of these regions reflects not so much homage to these world history pioneers as the habit in many history departments of lumping non-western history together into one "everything else" catch-all, even though the historiographical traditions of Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American history differ in fundamental ways, and in some cases have more in common with American or European historiographical trends than with each other. For a specialist in the intellectual history of Ming China, for example, teaching an introductory survey course ranging "from Sumer to Saddam" and taking in the Maya, Mauryas, Abbasids, Romanovs, and Habsburgs along the way comes no more naturally than it would to a specialist on the New Deal. The hiring department should be sympathetic to the difficulty of preparing and executing such a course and should offer necessary technological and instructional support. Ideally, allowances could be made, possibly in the form of limited release time or modest salary supplements, for the new faculty member to acquire or refresh her or his knowledge of civilizations other than the one in which she or he specializes.

Meanwhile, the candidate in non-western history should expect to be asked to teach world history and should prepare accordingly. Today, many graduate degree programs in the United States offer minor fields in world history with opportunities to serve as a teaching assistant or even to design and offer one's own course. These experiences will, to be truthful, prove more valuable to a new hire than graduate seminars in global or comparative methodology. If the department in which you will receive your degree lacks a world history component, you might check out your institution's comparative religion or comparative studies program, or the offerings of nearby institutions.

* * * * *

As more and more history departments hire more and more specialists in non-western subdisciplines, academic culture shock will erupt more and more frequently. A few extreme examples have even made national and international headlines and become causes célèbres in recent years. However, if society at large really looks to the academy for leadership on the thorny issue of engaging with "exotic" cultures, then we must address this issue on our own turf first. What we are confronting, however, is not a clash of civilizations but simply a broadening of the historical discipline, and the departments in which it is practiced, to include scholars of the history of every part of the globe and every corner of the human experience. Most historians now acknowledge that this expansion is a good thing and that greater inclusiveness benefits the entire discipline, and perhaps even society at large, in the end. To achieve it, however, we must overcome episodes of misunderstanding and prevent them where possible. The process can start at the beginning: with carefully worded job announcements and thoroughly prepared search committees, with accommodating, culturally sensitive interviews and campus visits, and with well-prepared, illusion-free candidates. These will, ideally, be followed by performance reviews that take into account the distinctive intellectual cultures and the logistical challenges of non-western subdisciplines.

Once these conditions become the norm, search committees can perform their tasks with every confidence of making a worthwhile hire, while candidates can arrive for interviews without a sense of dread or foreboding.

Meeting Schedules of Disciplinary Associations


Usual conference

Major interview site?

(N.B.: "No" should not be taken to imply that no interviews whatsoever take place at the conference, or that the organization forbids interviews at its conference.)

African Studies Association

late Oct.-late Nov.


American Academy of Religion

late Oct.-late Nov.

comparable in scope to AHA

American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies

mid-late Nov.

complement to AHA

American Anthropological Association

mid-Nov.-early Dec.

comparable in scope to AHA

Middle East Studies Association

mid-Nov.-early Dec.


Association for Jewish Studies

mid-late Dec.


Association for Asian Studies

early Mar.-early April

No, except for temporary or replacement hires, and some language and literature positions

World History Association

late June-early July


Latin American Studies Association

every 18 months (late March-early April and early-late Sept.)


—Jane Hathaway, a member of the AHA's Professional Division, is associate professor of history at Ohio State University. She specializes in the history of the Middle East.