Conference Interviews – Not Worthless; Still worth replacing

More thoughts on academic cattle calls
Over the past few weeks, I have been watching graduate
students, adjuncts, and people on fixed-term appointments struggling with the
decision of whether or not to book plane tickets and hotel reservations for
their academic conferences. None of them have received interviews yet, all of them hope to do so, and are playing the game of wondering whether to buy when the tickets are cheap or wait until the last minute.
There’s a problem here. If, by the time the conference comes close, they have received at least one interview, then they really have to go. If they do NOT receive any interviews, though, they can’t cancel, because an interview could always come up the next day.
Yesterday, I argued that this system was a problem. I wrote:
But this small injustice is easy to fix. We can stop making the
vulnerable, poor, hopeful, desperate members of our community pay to
attend a conference in order to have a chance at a job. We can just
change it. We can change it this afternoon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was enormously privileged during my time on the job market.  First, I had a bunch of interviews and got at least one relatively early in the process, both years. Second, it only took two years. Third, my university (Minnesota) did a great job preparing us to enter the job market, with help developing portfolios, practice interviews and job talks, teaching development, and more. Fourth, I was working as an adjunct at St. Olaf for my first AHA and a visiting prof at Macalester for my second – in both cases, these spectacular colleges helped fund my travel to the AHA. Fifth, and finally, I had my parents.

Both of my parents are history professors. When I went to the AHA, my mom and dad were right there, ready to support me whenever I needed it, but staying out of the way when I needed that instead. They took me out to dinner and on both occasions I got to dine with other historians. They’d help me parse my interviews, think about what I needed to say, and encourage me. None of this is fair and I spend a lot of time thinking about my privilege and how we might change the playing field to make these benefits less necessary.

Because we are seeing an accelerating process in which academia becomes closed to people who do not come from privilege. This is not a new problem, but that doesn’t mean we have to just accept it as done. We can change systems in feasible ways to support entry to academic life for those who lack privilege.

Across various social media sites, yesterday’s posts received a lot of feedback. Many responses were supportive and I appreciate those. But I’m also interested in the gentle, thoughtful, pushback from various and sundry academics I know in my social media world. I thought the counter-arguments were interesting and have summarized some of them here. Basically, I agree with all the defenses of the conference and the conference interview as important and useful. But to me, they do not override the fundamental economic issues.

  • The AHA has slashed costs for membership and conference fees for graduate students and entry-level/non-tenure-track faculty. 

 This is great news. It doesn’t solve travel and hotel costs, but it definitely helps.

  • One person with knowledge of the budget said that the conference is not a major provider of income for the MLA

 I do have this sense that the conferences suck money from people who can’t afford it in order to fund their other activities. That sense may be completely unjustified and I should re-examine my own biases here. And collect data.

  •  Going to a conference is a sign that the institution is serious about the job, the department, and that their funding is in good order.

I don’t remember thinking in quite these terms. I did phone interviews and conference interviews and did look for signs of financial stability, but didn’t make that equation in my head. I believe that others do. I remember seeing Dominican’s new science building and thinking that at least they had decent credit if they could get that built.

So I guess the return question is how does one code for wealth/stability without booking a suite at the conference hotel?

  • Quite a few people argued that attending national conferences is GOOD for graduate students. The AHA, for example, holds all kinds of formal programing to help graduate students learn how to navigate the professional world. I’m sure other conferences do likewise. Also there’s lots of informal networking and professionalization that goes on, just by participating in conference life.

This is exactly the kind of knowledge I soaked up through privilege and want to make available to everyone. These programs and experiences are essential.

But I wonder how these programs could be delivered if entirely divorced from the job interview process? Could regional conferences pick some of this up? Would networking at the annual meeting attract students to the national meeting, at least once, to get this experience? Because while these programs matter, so many of the people struggling at the conferences are not raw graduate students, but early professors who are wandering through the wilderness of contingent labor. I’m sure the conferences are good for them too, in terms of networking, sharing ideas and strategies, and even advocating for change in the profession.

But none of these defenses of the conference, defenses with which I agree, relate to the mandatory attendance and outlay of funds for job seekers desperate for a first-round interview. They are adjacent to the interview.

  • Graduate schools should pay to go to the major interview conference

And some do. I agree that all schools should do this, but in practice it creates a have/have-not situation. And what about the adjuncting faculty without conference support who are trying to move into the tenure-track?

  • Conference interviews are a vast improvement on the “old-boy” network that pre-dated them. I know this to be true from many conversations with academics who started their careers in the 60s and the stories that they tell about how they get their jobs.

The conference system is more equitable, and in an era when universities relied less on adjunct labor (even if the job market was still tough), the benefits of both going to the conference added to the increased fairness of the interview seems like a workable system.

But times have changed.

  • Skype interviews are not really all that good. They can be buggy and hard to process what’s going on for both interviewers and candidates.

Here are two of my interview stories. I received a phone call for my phone interview and just couldn’t hear it. They tried turning up their phone, but of course the real issue was that my phone just wasn’t loud enough for this particular call, even though it was usually fine. I couldn’t tell who was talking, I couldn’t read facial expressions, I could barely hear, and I hated it. All of my skills as an interviewee were muffled, and the thought that other candidates were having just as tough a time didn’t make me feel any better.

At a conference, I went to interview with an R1 school in a suite in a hotel. I sat down, we did introductions, and then an interviewer asked me about my dissertation. I went into my spiel, which in retrospect maybe was structured the wrong way. I said, “There are two small contributions and one MAJOR one, the first small one is …” and there was a knock at the door. Housekeeping. They dealt with that. I started talking again and the phone rang. Not long after, the next job candidate, early, knocked on the door. So by the time I finished talking about my dissertation, the small contributions dwarfed the big one and I don’t think my scholarship sounded especially impressive.

As for the cattle call in the big interview rooms at these conferences, they are deeply unhappy places, as you wait, dehumanized, surrounded by your competitors and colleagues, then have to sell yourself amidst the hubbub . It’s functional but awful

My point is that all formats of interviews have problems in terms of how they go for people on both sides of the table. The best option? Clearly, it’s face-to-face interviews in the living room of a private suite with candidates who have travel funding. But that’s not realistic. It’s not doable.

As opposed to making video-conference interview the norm. Again, we could do this, as a profession, tomorrow.

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