Sporting Event, Dental Appointment, or Shock Therapy? Reflections on the Job Register
Lillian Guerra, March 2001
Crowded into the holding pen that doubled as a waiting room for this year's Job Register at the annual meeting in Boston, I found myself reminiscing on my own experience as an ABD graduate student and prospective job candidate at last year's Job Register. But as the memory of sitting among fashionably dressed, well-coiffed, and sweaty-palmed fellow job candidates drifted through my mind, waves of nostalgia rather than pangs of terror seized me. How could I have complained about last year's Job Register? Conditions at this year's Job Register made last year's look festive. Any reservations I may have had about the style and organization of the Job Register at the AHA annual meeting in Chicago in 2000—and they were many—paled by comparison with both the number and nature of complaints that any job candidate or AHA staff member might have legitimately made this year in Boston.
"It doesn't just look like a construction site, it is a construction site," said Robert Townsend, AHA assistant director with overall responsibility for the Job Register. He had traveled from Washington to visit the site in November and planned the layout accordingly, but unbeknownst to him, the Sheraton Hotel commenced and apparently expanded construction plans in areas of the hotel directly reserved for key events of the annual meeting only days before it began. Most affected were the areas devoted to the Job Register. As a result, ongoing construction drastically narrowed the main walkway leading into the hotel and into the information booths and general waiting area of the Job Register to only a few feet across. Because the space reserved as a waiting room was so small, AHA staff advised candidates who arrived early for their interviews to come back 10 minutes ahead of time and to be sure to listen carefully, lest the hustle and bustle of passersby drown out the voice of staff members charged with calling out candidates' names for interviews. Even then, as interviews ended and new ones began every half an hour, AHA staff members found themselves bellowing the names of candidates scheduled for an interview in order to make themselves heard.
At last year's register, staff members eventually concurred that speaking the names of candidates while moving among candidates seated at different tables in the waiting area, rather than yelling out names from the room's entryway helped substantially to reduce tensions. While the vastness of last year's waiting area clearly facilitated such a humane approach, congestion in the waiting area at this year's register proved so great that staff members could not move out from behind the sign-in table at which they were stationed. Thus, yelling out the names of already jumpy and nerve-wracked candidates became the only alternative.
Among the many challenges of communication, stress, and organization that normally characterize the Job Register at any given annual meeting, staff, candidates, and interviewers alike at the 2001 conference in Boston faced a number of unexpected challenges. On Thursday and well into Friday morning, strident pounding and the sound of saws and even jackhammers worsened the naturally high level of anxiety and already-heightened degree of noise pollution that the Job Register's proximity to regular hotel traffic produced. How did all of this affect the interview process? One job candidate said the curtain-festooned metal scaffolding that lined the hallway of the Sheraton leading to the Job Register gave him the sense that he was a lab rat in a maze. Another noted, "When I finally got to the interview, I spent the whole time leaning forward in my chair. The interviewers probably thought I looked enthusiastic, but I was actually just trying to hear."
Ultimately, Sharon K. Tune, AHA convention director, responding to pleas from Job Register comanagers Karen Adams and Flannery Shaughnessy, protested to the Boston Sheraton's managerial office about the highly disruptive conditions at the hotel and Job Register in particular. Incredibly, management for the Boston Sheraton refused to comply with the AHA's demands that all construction activities cease for the duration of the conference. At this point, Tune communicated the gravity of the AHA's complaints to the national corporate office of Sheraton Hotels, insisting that the
construction stop immediately. As a result, the national office ordered the Boston Sheraton's local managers to stop the construction late Friday afternoon. The Sheraton has agreed to send a letter of apology to all members who attended the conference (a copy of the letter is printed in this issue on p. 23 as an advertisment paid for by the hotel).
Conditions on Friday, the second day of the annual meeting and the height of the AHA's dispute with the Sheraton, approached crisis proportions. With job candidates streaming down the hallway and spilling out of both the information area and the waiting room, AHA staff members were nearly at the end of their rope. "The worst part was that through it all, there was absolutely no water to drink," one staff member remarked. "All through Thursday and into much of Friday—when congestion levels and tensions were the worst—the Sheraton did not bring any water and I was sure people were going to pass out." In the hopes of improving the "cultural climate" of the Job Register, staff members had seriously considered the question, among other things, of how to organize the water service provided by the hotel for candidates' refreshment. Many staff members had decided that the giant yellow water coolers and tiny Dixie cups the Marriott had afforded at Chicago's 2000 conference were demeaning. Many job candidates heartily agreed. "It gave it the look and feel of a combined dental appointment and sporting event," one candidate told me. Yet, the steel pitchers and elegant water glasses the staff had ordered this year in an effort "to civilize" proceedings at the 2001 Job Register failed to appear for the first day and a half of the register at the Sheraton. "When they finally did appear, it was a blessing," said a thirsty student who had two interviews back-to-back on Thursday and another on Friday. By this time, "no one cared if [the water] came in a pitcher or in a trough."
Beverage service was also provided by the Coordinating Committee for Women Historians in the nearby "Graduate Student Lounge." Although the AHA generously provided an elegant coffee and tea service for graduate students at the Job Register, the refreshments were located hundreds of feet away from the Job Register area because of the construction. Moreover, as more than one student mentioned to me, the hotel staff actively encouraged students to believe that beverages served at the Graduate Student Lounge were not free. It was not until Saturday when word got out, one student told me, "that the place was as packed as it should have been all along. The CCWH deserves a medal for doing this for us. Just being able to sit down with a cup of tea in a nice big room like this reminds me that I'm worthy of my interviewers' consideration. Being in that waiting room definitely did not."
Perhaps it is not surprising that those candidates lucky enough to escape the Job Register's cubicles and periodic cattle-calling expressed gratitude to the hiring institutions that went to the trouble of reserving hotel suites outside the "circus tent" of the register for their interviews. One candidate told me that the opportunity to sit in a space where he did not run the risk of being distracted by the stray voices of other interviewees nearby had greatly contributed to his performance and the overall tenor of the exchange. Aside from an interview he had in a hotel suite around a table, the most "relaxed" of his interviews took place in quiet corner of the hotel lobby where interviewers and interviewees sat on couches and "just talked normally."
Of course, hiring institutions bear the burden of informing the AHA and their job candidates of the locations of interviews held outside the auspices of the Job Register—especially if they have reserved rooms rather than business-style suites. Otherwise, disaster can and will strike. As one embattled AHA staff member explained, many hiring institutions simply fail to inform the Job Register of where their interviews are being held, with predictable results. Since all hotels prohibit their own staff from revealing the location of a room without the prior authorization of its occupants, many interviewees face the glum prospect of having to call a hiring committee (often engaged in the interview of another candidate) to find out where their interview will be. "Interrupting another interview in progress often means that the hiring committee will blame the candidate who interrupted rather than themselves for the mix-up," said Karen Adams, comanager of this year's Job Register. Faced with desperate, weeping job candidates who confronted the dilemma of not knowing where to go, Adams volunteered on at least three occasions to make the calls herself. "You know I feel bad for these people and in most cases, I know it's not their fault," she said.
Since academic job interviews, no matter the institution, are all theoretically about getting to know someone intellectually and personally, it seems only logical that the setting in which interviews are conducted should help facilitate this process. That many job candidates succeed in getting their interests, ideas, and skills across to interviewers despite the plethora of factors that make the Job Register and interview sessions at the AHA's annual meeting far from ideal settings for this purpose, is nothing short of amazing. This is especially the case given the many additional challenges that candidates and staff faced this year in Boston. If graduate students are to believe that recent increases in the number of academic openings and minor improvements in the job market are signs of hope, the conditions at the AHA's Job Register, the primary point of entry for the interview process, must improve. As the graduate student representative to the AHA Council and a two-year observer of the heroic efforts of AHA staff to achieve the Job Register's goal—making the job search as smooth and painless as possible—I urge that every member of the AHA consider how she or he might make the interviewing process better. Critical in this regard are the hiring committees themselves. I am convinced that graduate student morale and the outlook of young historians already in the profession depend on it.
—Lillian Guerra, an assistant professor of history at Bates College, was elected to be graduate student representative to the AHA Council for 2000 (when she was a PhD student in the department of history of the University of Wisconsin at Madison). She is also currently the chair of the AHA Task Force on Graduate Education.