From the Letters to the Editor column in the January 2001 Perspectives

The Job Register at the AHA

Sam A. Mustafa, January 2001

To the Editor:

This is a letter addressed to all those search committees who will be interviewing candidates at the AHA annual meeting. I am writing to ask that in the future, they consider a different forum for conducting the initial round of interviews.

The cost of attending the annual meeting is formidable: $50–$70 for the AHA membership, plus the $65 registration fee, plus at least $300 for airfare, at least $30 for ground transportation, $200–$300 for lodging, and probably around $100 in food and other expenses. In all, around $800 for the privilege of a handful of 20-minute interviews in a curtained cubicle.

In 1999, I estimated that my four interviews cost me $170 each. In one case, the interviewer talked without pause for 25 minutes about the history of his school, then looked at his watch, mentioned that we had perhaps five minutes left, and asked if I had any questions. Interesting as his discourse might be, I can't afford it. In another case, I met the department chair who asked permission to tape-record our conversation, because the other committee members hadn't been able to fly out to the meeting. If a tape recording of my voice was sufficient for the committee members to make their decision, then why was it necessary for me to have flown out to the meeting?

The people who most desperately need a shot at a job—graduate students and adjunct and part-time faculty—simply cannot afford the current system. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that these people are also usually the lowest on any department's priority list for receiving travel assistance funding.

If the search committees must do a first round of 10–20 candidates in order to narrow the pool to a final three, then I recommend that they consider interviewing by phone or Internet chat-room. Surely, given the rushed and formulaic nature of the AHA cubicle interviews, the telephone or the Internet would be a more relaxed and probably even more comprehensive forum for exchanging ideas and answering basic questions. Is it really so important to know what I look like? Do you want copies of my syllabi in the midst of our conversation? They are only one click away.

Everyone claims to hate and dread the AHA "cattle car" interviews, yet very few departments are willing to part with them. They seem to promise the maximum efficiency of time and concentrated effort. I suspect, however, that an interviewer is much more likely to get to know "the real me" in a casual phone conversation than in the assembly-line environment of the AHA booths.

It is a reasonable question to ask how much the AHA would lose in conference attendance fees if no interview-seekers came to call at the annual meetings. I hope, however, that the premier organization for historians would be willing to subordinate its own financial aims to the very serious needs of young would-be scholars hoping to enter the ranks. If not, then discounted hotel and airfare rates (or even a waiving of the attendance fee for interviewees) would do a world of good.

—Sam A. Mustafa
Charleston, S.C.