From The Profession column of the October 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Time to Dispense with the AHA Conference Interviews?

Robert B. Townsend, October 2009

Editor’s Note: We print below an adapted version of a recent blog post on AHA Today both because of the interest it generated among readers of the blog and also because the Professional Division of the AHA is itself grappling with the question at present. We also publish below abridged versions of some of the comments received.

In a recent blog post at Tenured Radical (http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2009/07/more-annals-of-great-depression-whither.html), Claire Potter offered an interesting critique of conference interviews, and suggested substituting telephone interviews as an alternative. While that may be necessary as an economic expedient for the moment, I wonder whether it is really the best long-term solution. Yes, conference interviews can be a miserable and emotionally draining experience for all involved, but would the alternative really work for the large pool of applicants coming onto the market each year? I suspect not.

Potter’s article is built on a faulty premise, that the conference interview is merely a holdover from the bad old days of the “boy’s club” in the discipline. Judging from my reading of the correspondence of senior historians of the 1920s to the 1940s, and interviews with historians hired in the 50s and 60s, hiring back then was based on little more than a phone call or a letter from some senior member of the profession. The present system was established in the 1960s as a way of making the hiring process more open to women, minorities, and students from less prestigious universities. By allowing a much larger number of applicants to get into the mix of candidates considered for every opening, I think the system has been quite successful in making the job search process more accessible and egalitarian than it had been.

The obvious, if nonquantifiable, benefits offered by conference interviews far outweigh the economies that search committees and candidates can secure through telephone interviews. For search committees, the meeting interview provides a unique opportunity to actually meet with a much larger number of candidates. The average search committee at the AHA Job Center interviews 11 candidates. Under a system where all the preliminary interviews are made by phone, I doubt that search committee members would—or can—schedule more than half that number of interviews into the day-to-day routines of their lives on campus. Departments are more likely to make a much smaller first cut, and in the process would be more likely to base their selections on the old traditional categories—the applicant’s adviser and school.

We have seen evidence of this happening already. Over the past few years a growing number of elite schools are moving in this direction. As the alignment between new PhDs and jobs approached parity in some fields, and the competition for the “best candidates” heated up, a number of the elite schools have been using phone interviews to lock in their choices before the AHA meeting. Everything I have heard about these searches reinforces my concerns, as fewer candidates got their foot in the door, and those that did were from a narrower strata of elite departments.

The cost calculation for applicants is not as simple as Potter’s analysis suggests either. Job seekers who come to the meeting usually get between three and five interviews, and can attend the interviewing workshop. They can also network with other historians throughout the course of the meeting. And given the larger number of interviews per applicant at the meeting, it also increases an applicant’s odds of meeting with a larger number of search committees. If I am correct in assuming that shifting to phone interviews would cut the number of people getting preliminary interviews, this proposal would just mean larger numbers of rejection letters before the first interview. That hardly seems less degrading and impersonal than the conference interview.

While I continue to think that conference interviews remain the best and most democratic system for making the first cut in academic job searches, the AHA is always looking for ways to make the system work better. Over the past decade we have made the whole process more humane—just ask anyone who remembers when all the tables were in a large open room, and interviews were scheduled through “two-way” paper forms. Along those lines, Potter (drawing on an earlier article from David Evans that no longer seems to be available) pushes another idea that I find quite intriguing and potentially helpful. Would it make sense for the AHA to establish an online vita bank for history—effectively a central clearinghouse for c.v.’s, letters of recommendation, teaching portfolios, and the like? I can see how that could greatly simplify the application process for candidates and applicants alike, though there are some obvious technical and privacy issues (setting it up would not be cheap, and keeping letters of recommendation confidential could be a problem).

We are here to serve applicants and search committees alike; so we welcome your advice and suggestions about how we can make the system work better for you. You can either post your comments on the blog at http://blog.historians.org/annual-meeting/851/time-to-dispense-with-the-aha-conference-interviews or e-mail.

—Robert Townsend is AHA’s assistant director for research and publications. He has been involved in supervising the organization and running of the AHA’s Job Center for many years, and has also conducted extensive research into the history of the profession.

Comments

We print below abridged and lightly edited versions of selected comments on the blog post. All the comments in their full versions can be read at http://blog.historians.org/annual-meeting/851/time-to-dispense-with-the-aha-conference-interviews.

Larry Cebula writes:

Conference interviews are the least equitable way of making the second cut and should be eliminated. The worst thing about conference interviews is the way they put much of the financial burden of the job search process on those least able to afford it. New PhDs with tens of thousands of dollars of debt have to pay their own way to one of the more expensive cities in America for the convenience of the search committee and a 20-minute interview. Or the hope of a 20 minute interview!

At my last school I was on half-a-dozen search committees and we did preliminary interviews by phone. It was easy, convenient, less expensive, and less stressful for everyone concerned. We went to the chair’s office, put the candidate on speakerphone, and interviewed. We [conducted] 3–4 interviews at a time and decided which two [candidates] we would invite to campus. And the phone eliminated any chance of biasing the interview based on appearance or race or dress or other irrelevant factors.

I have known of many departments that do not interview at the AHA, and others that only do so sporadically. Are there any figures on the percentage of tenure track jobs that have been filled via AHA interviews? I suspect it has always been a minority of positions.

Thomas DuBois writes:

I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comment. In our department (National University of Singapore), we Skype-interview all of our first-cut graduate school applicants. This is a large number of people, and does take time. But we can be in the comfort of our own offices, and can spread the process out over a few days. Everyone is happier this way.

Mark Higbee writes:

Townsend’s observations are mistaken in two ways. First is his assumption that search committees cannot manage to do a dozen or so phone interviews. That task is much simpler than attending the AHA, and is in fact regularly done at many schools. The second mistake is his assumption that AHA interviews are where the “first cuts” in the selection process are made. That’s not usually the case—not for AHA interviews that are set up in advance, which is done by the most thoroughly prepared search committees. The cold-call AHA interviews—in which the committee is hearing your name for the first time—may be used to make the first cut, but if so, they are an exceedingly inefficient way of doing so.

James Schneider writes:

At UTSA, we have been using telephone interviews for years, involving close to a dozen searches I suppose. Faculty participation has been excellent, despite the fact that interviewing anywhere from 8 to 12 candidates consumes up to two working days. The quality of information we get, and the ultimate success of the searches, has been in every way commensurate with the results obtained using face-to-face interviews at the AHA. Moreover, we have had very few problems in arranging these telephone conferences. I view our current system as superior to the old method, hands down.

Joseph Morgan writes:

The interview process at the AHA conference is indeed tiring, but two of our most recent hires came through that process and they are great assets to the department and the school. I don’t know if my department would have been able to hire them we didn’t send faculty to the AHA Job [Center].

Alonzo L. Hamby writes:

As a person who has been on both sides of the interview table at AHA or OAH meetings, I’m very surprised by the negative comments. As an ABD seeking employment in December, 1964, I made contacts at the AHA meeting that I would not have gotten otherwise. As a senior member of our department and briefly as a department chair, I found conference interviews far preferable to making a campus cut on the basis of written credentials.

The plain fact is that what you see in person is not necessarily what is depicted on paper by supportive mentors. This is especially true if one needs to assess teaching capabilities. The conference interview also allows for a degree of probing into a candidate’s research and mastery of a field that is more difficult on the phone. (Some candidates, I am certain, have rather resented being subjected to what may seem another PhD oral—and on occasion being eliminated as a result.)

Yes, these convention interviews are a pain for everyone involved, but they are a price worth paying if a department wants to cast a genuinely wide recruitment net and elevate its quality.

I know it is often financially tough for job seekers to travel to conferences. But if one is committed to history as a career, then it is imperative to attend as many AHA (or OAH) meetings as one can, and do it early on.

Former job seeker writes:

My experience on the job market a couple of years ago was that phone interviews prevail for those not on track to get positions at large research institutions.

I agree, however, that phone or digital interviewing is a legitimate strategy as well. It is efficient and effective.

And, yes, prospective faculty members need to attend one of the large conferences to get a feel for the wider scholarly community and stay abreast of emerging research trends. On the other hand, many smaller colleges require candidates to pay for their own campus travel and get reimbursed later, so for the successful job seeker the AHA is also just the beginning of a very expensive travel season that can stretch meager graduate student budgets to the breaking point. Grad schools rarely offer travel compensation just to interview at the AHA (you must also be on a panel), and often neglect to school their student candidates about the costs they should anticipate in a year-long job search.

I believe the trend toward phone interviews opens opportunities for candidates rather than closes them, especially for those seeking employment on the teaching or lighter research tracks.

Peter Porter writes:

I believe interviews at AHA remain an important part of the process. They allow a large pool of candidates to interact and be interviewed by various universities. As to the good ole boy comment. our former chair was a woman and she conducted many interviews at the AHA.

New Assistant Prof writes:

As someone on the job market for the past two years, I am surprised to see so much support for telephone interviews. All of my telephone interviews were horrible experiences. No visual cues, awkward pauses, mistaken identities—“Oh, I’m sorry professor X, I thought I was responding to professor Y.” At least a conference interview is a face-to-face interaction in which both sides are expected to behave professionally [and] is a chance to exchange ideas in person and watch a candidate communicate. That is, it is a teaching demonstration. Unless your institution teaches courses by conference call, this alone is reason enough to conduct AHA interviews.

The opportunity to meet potential colleagues in person is [another] real benefit to job candidates.

Cost is an issue. But as a graduate student, I learned to accept the fact that I would have to pay for conferences, books, journal subscriptions, and other forms of professional development. Attending the AHA as a job candidate was stressful at times, but I was surrounded by other people in the same boat. Conversations with other candidates were absolutely worth the expense.

Constance Bouchard writes:

I have opposed AHA interviewing for 20 years—when I had an op-ed piece on the topic in Perspectives (April 1990; online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/1990/9004/9004VIEW.cfm). The main justification for these conference interviews is that, by “opening up” the job search, we avoid the good ol’ boy network. But interviewing at the AHA (versus interviewing on the phone) does nothing to make applying for jobs easier for women and minorities, given that those interviewed at the conference were pre-selected in almost all cases. At our university we routinely interview about 10 people by phone, spreading it out over a week so that we can think about each candidate. Candidates have more time to develop their candidacy, up to an hour if necessary. In addition, it seems to us very wrong to expect candidates to pay their own way to the meetings. We especially do not want to be one of those schools that eliminate any candidate who cannot afford the meetings.