I meant to talk about this compelling post by Brian Croxall back when I first read it via 11d. Croxall has a lot of interesting things to say about the problems of academic labor but I want to focus on one particular point he raises: the cost of attending professional association meetings for job candidates.
I think the cost of membership and attendance is high no matter what your circumstances are, though I’d agree that the American Historical Association and the Modern Literature Association have worked fairly hard to return some kind of value to their members in various ways, which isn’t always the case with these kinds of groups.
But Croxall is quite right about the specific problem that confronts job seekers. Even if you don’t have screening interviews, if you’re hoping to keep your name and work in circulation, you often feel an obligation to be at the annual meeting. Set against that, though, is the expense of attendance, which is especially brutal to adjuncts or junior faculty in low-paid contract positions. But they’re the people who can’t afford to pass it up, either, especially if they’ve got some interviews.
So Croxall says that the profession as a whole needs to find a better way to do this. I’m inclined to agree, but I have to say that I’m stumped when it comes down to workable alternatives. So let’s look at the problem a bit.
The interviews at the heart of the issue take two forms. First, there’s the “screening interview” that wealthier institutions often undertake when filling a tenure-track or long-term contract post. Typically, these are with the candidates who had the top 8-10 dossiers that a search committee selected. The goal in this case is to identify a smaller number of candidates to bring for a full on-campus interview, typically three.
Second, there are institutions that are conducting their one and only interview for a vacant post of some kind: a contract or visiting position, a leave replacement, or even a tenure-track post, with no plan to have a follow-up on-campus process.
The first kind of interview is often done (and is sometimes required by association rules to be done) in a hotel suite. The second kind is often done in a large room at the conference site that has partitions drawn between different teams of interviewers. If you’re being interviewed, neither experience is a comforting or relaxing one, but I found the big-room cattle-call especially depressing when I was on the market. Benches full of awkward, anxious candidates being called in, conversations surrounded by a sussurus of other interviews going on all around you, a sense of wam-bam next please about the whole thing.
Both sorts of interviewers have a strong motivation to seeing candidates face-to-face before making further decisions. Candidates often surprise their interviewers, in both directions: some seem far less impressive than their dossiers, others seem more so.
The reason both kinds of interviews take place at the national meeting of a professional association comes down to money. Essentially, the interviewers are deferring the cost of a face-to-face evaluation of candidates onto the candidates themselves. The interviewers still incur some costs, typically paying the travel expenses of their own faculty and some kind of rental fee for the interview space. But they don’t have to deal with the expenses of the candidates.
So what are the alternatives?
First, what about screening interviews for tenure-track or long-term contract positions?
1) Just skip them altogether: go straight from dossiers to three finalists and bring them to campus.
2) Conduct screening interviews by phone or video conferencing system.
3) Expand the pool of people for a campus interview to five or more.
4) Pay some or all of the travel expenses incurred by candidates at the national meeting, while perhaps the professional association could waive or drastically reduce costs of registration for attendees who are there to be interviewed.
1 and 2 are not likely to benefit the pool of job-seekers generally. Smaller numbers of finalists means that fewer people will get an opportunity to persuade an institution to give them a look. In my own experience, I’ve often seen the committee’s opinion shift to formerly underappreciated candidates during screening interviews. It’s pretty hard to evaluate how a potential professor might be in the classroom or explaining research just from a curriculum vitae.
Phone or videoconferencing interviews are generally pretty awkward affairs that undersell or diminish the actual skills of job-seekers.
3 and 4 seem like they’d be much more expensive for the interviewing institutions. In this budgetary environment, I doubt that would fly. Also, in practice, I suspect this would put strong pressure on the size of interviewee pools, which again probably doesn’t work to the advantage of the entire field of job-seekers, just for the people who are most impressive on paper.
However, I wonder a bit about whether option 3 costs out close to the expense of paying for three to four faculty members to fly to the association meeting and renting a hotel suite. It would depend on a lot of variables: how expensive is it to fly candidates to where the hiring institution is, how expensive is it to accommodate them there, versus the cost of the association meeting. But there’s also a question of the time and effort involved: I frankly quake at the idea of five or six full-day on-campus interviews followed by dinner with the candidate, and the logistical labor involved in coordinating all of those is a cost in and of itself.
With option 4, there’s a half-way point possible. I think professional associations should completely waive the fees for attendance for anyone who is a confirmed interviewee at that meeting, first off. Second, institutions which are wealthy enough to pick up faculty costs of travel and rent a hotel suite should be willing to defray some of the costs of candidates coming for a screening interview: half the cost of airfare or some portion of hotel accomodations.
How about institutions which use the professional associations to hire a candidate on the spot rather than select a group of finalists? What alternatives do they have? Again, phone or videoconferencing is one possibility.
Another is to simply insist that they bring candidates to campus, but there are many, many institutions of higher education that simply can’t afford to do that on a regular basis. If that was the standard, then in practice they’d no longer draw from a national pool of candidates and stick strictly to a local pool instead.