Michael Bowen has an article up at Inside Higher Ed that argues that the American Historical Association (AHA) should do better by graduate students. He wants the organization to 1) stop touting an improved job market without taking into consideration the backlog of un- and underemployed Ph.D.’s from years past, and 2) to formulate uniform deadlines and standards of communication for search committees. I think point #1 is reasonable (although I think if you read Robert B. Townsend’s reports, and not just the headlines, they are much more cautious), but I have some doubts about #2. The discussion in the comment section, especially the comments by “Nimrod” and “AHA Veteran,” does a good job of explaining the limits of both the AHA and search committees themselves to control the hiring process. (One exception: I like Bowen’s deadline of offering interviews 30 days before the convention, although 3 weeks is usually early enough to get a decent non-refundable plane fare. It’s horribly exploitative to invite graduate students and the underemployed interview at the AHA after mid-December.) Bowen’s article is a fair shot, unlike some of the overheated discussions on the job wiki, but both this article and the job wiki are striking in that they suggest that job candidates feel very alienated from the faculties they want to join.
Historiann has been thinking a lot recently about how technology has changed the job search process, and how it may have raised expectations that neither technology nor the search process can satisfy. As recently as the mid-1990s, search committee correspondence took place entirely via Pony Express–just kidding!–I mean the U.S. Mail and telephone calls, and most departments didn’t have web pages, so job candidates had only the AHA Directory of History Departments and course catalogs on microfilm (!) to prepare for interviews. E-mail has made getting and staying in touch with job candidates easier, and search committees who don’t take advantage of this to keep their applicants posted on major search developments are indeed neglectful. But the ease of discovering information about a prospective employer via the web doesn’t seem to have improved job candidates’ preparation for interviews, especially on-campus interviews. Nor have laptop computers and the ease of making revisions on the spot improved people’s job talks–things like practicing the talk 5 times in your hotel room and being able to think on your feet aren’t technology dependent.
The main thing that technology has done–like “just in time” ordering and delivery of parts in the auto industry–is allow us to work up to deadlines. It also allows both job candidates and hiring departments to vent in places like the wiki, so we’re more aware of the antagonism on the other side. As a job candidate, I’ve been treated shabbily by hiring committees and prospective departments both before and after the technological divide, and I try to use those experiences to make the job interview process saner and fairer for others. As a faculty member now, I believe that’s the way the majority of us approach the hiring season, but I know from experience that it only takes a few jerks (or a few jerky departments) to poison the well. Sad to say, but I don’t really remember the kind, respectful people who took me out to dinner, or asked thoughtful questions on my job interviews for positions I wasn’t offered. The jerks, however, are etched onto my brain in stark relief (and you know who you are!)
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