Whose Dime?

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.

Other ideas?

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16 Responses to Whose Dime?

  1. dmerkow says:

    Perhaps the answer is to move away from national meetings and national searches. Instead there should be regional meetings (probably 4 or 5) that are held in driving distance from most historians. At the same time, the searches could be more regional. This move would also undermine the power of NE corridor grad programs.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    In practice, though, that would nearly force most job-seekers to relocate to the Northeast, given the concentration of institutions there.

  3. jfruh says:

    A friend of mine just had four interviews at MLA; I have to imagine that lots of interviewees are being interviewed by multiple schools. If interviewing institutions are going to be reimbursing some expenses, how does that get coordinated?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I thought about that a bit. I think this is where the association could provide an invaluable organizational infrastructure–and maybe make the cost-defraying even more plausible. Let’s say you get four interviews at MLA: you and your interviewers log or register this with the association. The association compiles all the registered interviews. For the person with four, his four interviewers each pay a prorated share of the travel support for the interviewee. I can see some potential problems in that scheme (for example, this means it would be cheaper to interview people being interviewed by multiple institutions) but I think there might be a way to make it work pretty well.

  5. Rana says:

    An additional complication is the short time frame between notification of having been chosen for an interview, and the conference.

    If you wait until you’re sure that you have an interview to justify attending, then the airfare and the hotel fees are much, much more expensive. On the other hand, shelling out to attend a conference that you wouldn’t attend otherwise, and then not have interviews, is also bad.

    If search committees could let candidates know in late October or early November, it would be easier to make such decisions, than the usual “wait until Christmas break” schedule. (This would also eliminate the problems associated with trying to contact people who have left to travel or visit relatives during the holidays.)

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Ok, but think about the implications of that on the other side of things. That means searches which *close* by September 30th or so, because honestly, it takes that long to responsibly read through 200-400 dossiers and have a meeting(s) to discuss the next steps (if notification needs to come by late Oct-early Nov.) In terms of budgetary cycles, this means approval to search would need to come by May (because getting a faculty committee or administrative group together in June-July is unlikely). That’s partly because of the lead time involved in getting ads into professional association journals, the Chronicle, and so on. So for candidates who are already holding academic jobs or working on the academic calendar in some respect, that means assembling their dossiers in late August, etc.

  7. G. Weaire says:

    Re: the last point. Classics advertises positions centrally through the AP(hilological)A placement service, which emails the ads out to registrants and maintains an online list. (Here: http://www.apaclassics.org/Administration/Placement/jobscurrent.html)
    For us, the lead time of journals is irrelevant, and I’m inclined to think that this should be the case for other fields as well, in this day and age.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Agreed. But that’s not the way a lot of departments and institutions think about it even now.

  9. Dance says:

    I don’t think a direct relationship between interviews and support should exist–that just makes things worse for the student who only has one interview. Rather, centralize it.

    First of all, the AHA sets up an online job processing system, which saves lots of paper, mailing costs, and administrative costs for the dept. Candidates upload materials—depts download an entire package. Letters can still be customized if desired. This adds to the value that a dept receives for registering as a hiring institution with the AHA, which I think they need to do (with associated fees) to get the suite or the table in the hall. It also serves to filter bona fide candidates—those whose materials are complete in the AHAJOBS system AND verified as students, adjunct or independent scholars rather than as TT-faculty are eligible for a limited number of last-minute discounted hotel rooms, perhaps making it easier to do room shares. They can also apply for additional support with the costs, via a relatively simple process–submit a formal letter online attesting to need. The system also provides centralized scheduling (without names, eg, you can see that your candidate is blocked for 3 hours but not the other schools interviewing), reducing more hassle for the hiring dept. It also publicizes basic information such as “interviews all scheduled”, reducing the need for the wiki and thus the potential for nastiness on the internet. It also offers (additional fee, requires uploading dept letterhead) to generate and mail “thank you, you’ve been rejected” letters, a perennial weak spot on the part of depts.

    Last minute flights are still a problem—however, the AHA will be able to lobby candidates registered in the system to encourage them to plan to attend regardless, publicizing the career advice workshops that they do, perhaps promising a CV-Doctor workshop to anyone who attends but receives no interviews logged in the system.

    All this is funded by membership fees and by the fees paid by hiring institutions, and possibly some grant money.

    I don’t know how many institutions seek to bypass the AHA system—this might add to that.

  10. Dance says:

    PS. Registration in the system as non-TT faculty also brings a waived conference fee, and the additional support that can be applied for comes from the AHA, not from depts. As time goes on, people who have benefited from the system and found jobs as TT-faculty (something the AHA can then track more easily) are also asked to donate back to it. Another potential source of funds—sell the candidate’s names and mailing addresses to textbook publishers as a market.

  11. Dance says:

    PPS. AHA, MLA (and whoever–APA?) get together to fund the cost of developing the computer system, then they all run separate customized instances of it. More funds from licensing the system to additional groups—centers running fellowships might also pay tiered fees to use it. I’m trying to figure out how the “Studies” jobs would fit into this system, but if the big disciplines can partner to build it, they should be able to design a way to help out those candidates and institutions who are interviewing in multiple fields/conferences.

    I’m also imagining that the system, once built, could have a variant that smoothes the administration around book/article prizes. Alternatively, might make it more feasible for the AHA to lobby the medical industry to fund a grant for research in medical history, if the industry just supplies the grant and some admin fees. And so forth.

  12. cgbrooke says:

    I want to second Dance’s point about centralizing the application process. We tend to think of the conference itself as the big ticket cost, when in fact the actual applying often costs more in terms of copy costs, dossier services, mailing, etc. And the cost of application carries much longer odds–perhaps 5-10% of the money/labor spent will result in an interview, and that may be a generous estimate.

    Our program at SU is intentionally small, and one of the advantages of that was that while I was grad director, we managed to provide $500 stipends to MLA attendees each year. Not ideal, especially when the conf was West Coast, but pretty good when most of our students split hotel costs (and to be fair, MLA does a decent job of providing relatively fair-cost hotel options).

    In terms of our searches (5 in the 9 years I’ve been here), our last two have gone the route of option #2 above, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. We provide our own candidates with practice phone interviews and feedback, but I’m sure that there are excellent candidates we’ve interviewed who haven’t received that kind of practice and who have suffered as a result (as you suggest above). It is a specific skill/talent, and one that can make a big difference in how well a person does, but it’s a skill that has absolutely nothing to do with their ultimate success. Too often, I’ve ended being the committee member who’s cautioned against treating “phone skills” as a relevant factor in our decisions.


  13. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Tim, I do not understand your objection to option 2. You dismiss phone interviews with one sentence. I have done as many phone interviews as I have AHA interviews. I have also done phone interviews while serving on a search committee. It was cheaper and frankly less degrading than the cattle call interviews at the AHA.

    Yes, there is a chance the candidate might do badly in a phone interview, but I do not see how it is any different from doing badly in a face to face interview. I remember totally tanking a face-to-face at the AHA, even though I had thoroughly prepared. (It was a totally degrading experience, because after the first five minutes it was clear that the committee did not want to talk with me further and was just going through the motions. I would have felt better if someone had leaped up from the couch and hit a giant gong to let me know I was done). I also had a great phone interview for a post doc and did not get the position. I do not think you can blame either outcome on the format of the interview. Frankly, I really do not understand your objection.

    You cannot undo the fact that search committees and universities will do everything they can to externalize the costs onto the applicants. That is the logic of ‘excellence with no money” and the bottom line of the modern university. Dance has it right. The AHA should pull together two on-line systems. One for grad school applications and one for job searches. If they do this right, it can be sold as money and time saving proposition to the universities that participate.

  14. I’d put in another vote for #2. In Film & Media Studies, conference interviews are much more rare, as the main conferences are in the spring. I’ve been involved in both ends of phone interviews, and just conducted a round of video Skype interviews for a hire – all went quite well, helping some candidates rise up the ladder and others fall lower. It might not be as personable as in-person, but it’s close enough to justify the huge savings for everyone involved. Like Matt said, I don’t know what’s different than conference interviews aside from cost and inconvenience.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess I’m just reacting to some very bad conference-call interviews that I thought didn’t do candidates any good. It’s possible that Skype interviews w/video could be the technological affordance that pushes that approach into making some kind of sense.

  16. Rana says:

    Honestly, I don’t see why assembling a dossier in August would be any more onerous than assembling one in September or October, when one is in the midst of teaching and early-semester workload. And really, given the choice between expending time, and expending money, I can find ways to make the time. Finding ways to come up with the money is much harder.

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