Reforming the Hiring Process

Gregory D. Massey, Edward Ross Dickinson, and Marc Becker, May 2001

To the Editor:

Thanks to Michael S. Foley for identifying the indignities that countless historians have faced in their job search (Perspectives, March 2001). The problems he notes are rampant in the history profession, both in academia and in public history. I hope Foley's timely essay sparks debate and eventual reform. When search committees finish their short list, they should immediately send a letter notifying the candidates whose applications are no longer under consideration. Too many history departments and public history agencies wait until the job search is completed before sending any notification to applicants who were excluded from consideration months earlier. Applicants who spend hours tailoring their application to a particular position deserve civility, not churlishness.

—Gregory D. Massey
Freed-Hardeman University

To the Editor:

I was amused and pleased to see some AHA Job Register horror stories aired in the March 2001 Perspectives. I too have many such stories. There was the time I arrived at a hotel suite for an interview at one of the leading midwestern universities to find the wife of the search committee chair sitting on the bed, with her stocking feet up, four feet from my chair, reading a paperback thriller and smoking. (And no, she didn't leave when the interview started.) Or the time one member of a slightly stuffy liberal arts school's interview committee remarked to me, "Oh, so you're one of those body people from Berkeley." Or the time someone from a rather sleepy public university in the Northwest told me to "go ahead, be convincing." Evidently this individual felt he shared something deep with Dirty Harry; his department chair, however, apparently found the scene hilarious, and broke into a fit of slightly demented giggles.

In retrospect, these things seem genuinely funny, and I should be thankful that I didn't get a job in any of the departments in question. At the time, they seemed just genuinely grotesque, and demoralizing.

A number of the contributors to the March issue argued that something should be done to improve the process. That's a bad suggestion. Instead, we should abandon it. It is pointless. I worked for 10 years in a history department in New Zealand. We never conducted conference interviews. In that time, we never made a bad hiring decision. Any search committee can put together the right short list by looking carefully at the materials and letters of reference submitted with applications. The idea that a department gains anything from asking three or four of its members to talk to 15 or 20 candidates for one hour or 30 minutes each in three days at the AHA is unrealistic, to say the least. And that's before we start to talk about the financial inequity of requiring graduate students to fly to the conference and stay in some overpriced Death Star of a conference center—after having had to book the trip before they even knew whether they would have any interviews at all!

The AHA job interview was never a good idea. In the present job market, it's an even worse one than it ever was. It's time to drop it.

—Edward Ross Dickinson
Victoria University of Wellington
New Zealand

To the Editor:

I appreciate the recent attention you have given to the dismal job market (Perspectives, March 2001). Being a victim in past years of too many job searches, I have one suggestion that would make the process somewhat more palatable, even if it does not address the structural issues that have led to this situation.

My suggestion is that the AHA use its web pages to allow search committees to communicate simply and effectively with applicants regarding the status of the job search. This is how I envision this could happen. When departments submit job ads to Perspectives they are given special user names and passwords to logon to a section of the AHA web page where they can track the status of applications. When candidates send in job applications they use their user names and passwords to log on to this same section. Candidates would see a list of job openings, and check off the jobs for which they have submitted applications. Search committees would see a list of candidates and through a simple system of check boxes be able to indicate when applications and supporting materials have arrived. It would be an easy and unobtrusive way for candidates to confirm that an application file is complete.

Since I think job searches should be conducted as transparently and professionally as possible, I would take this one step forward. The search committee could use this system to indicate when they are meeting to review applications and whether they are still actively considering an application, holding it in reserve, or have decided to pass on it. Again, simple check boxes could be used to indicate whether a committee hopes to interview a candidate by phone, at the AHA, on campus, and whether an offer has been extended and/or accepted for a position.

We all know that "no news is bad news" when it comes to the job market, and most candidates would rather know the brutal truth about their chances for a specific position rather than having their energy slowly drained from them during a long spring as they wait by the phone for that elusive call. Four years ago North Dakota State University used a web page to communicate such information to job candidates, and while I did not get that job, I did greatly appreciate their efforts to communicate openly, honestly, and professionally with their candidates. It is time that the rest of the profession assumes these same standards.

—Marc Becker
Truman State University

Editor's Note: The staff of the Association shares Marc Becker's concern about how the AHA web site can better facilitate communication between job candidates and search committees. However, as noted in Robert Townsend's article on page 3, the World Wide Web is not a cost-free panacea, and the "simple" checkbox system Becker recommends is a good example of how this is true. It would require a significant amount of programming time from a staff already stretched thin maintaining basic membership services, as well as the active assistance of search committee chairs overburdened with dozens and often hundreds of applications. Moreover, when we proposed a similar idea (that of an electronic vitae bank) to candidates and search committee chairs at the annual meeting we found very little enthusiasm for the idea. One response suggested that the automated e-mail replies that would come from such a system would be even more dehumanizing than a pro forma letter. Nevertheless, we remain actively committed to finding better ways to serve the profession in this area, and continue to seek advice from all interested parties. Please send your suggestions and comments to us by e-mail at our feedback page. or by regular post to Job Register, American Historical Association, 400 A St. SE, Washington, DC 20003.