It is time for search committees to stop interviewing candidates at national conferences. It is time for the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature to dissolve the (un)Employment Center.
Over the weekend I noticed some posts in my Facebook timeline from friends and colleagues who are on the job market about the upcoming American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego. One person was lamenting the $500 she spent out of her pocket for a plane ticket to a conference where she wasn’t even sure she’d have any job interviews. Another was asking when he should arrive in order to be there the right days for any interviews he might get. So, here are two young scholars, not yet on the tenure track, trying to find the time and money to attend a conference for imaginary job interviews they don’t even know about yet. This makes absolutely no sense. The constituency within the AAR with the least resources, the least funding, and the least institutional support is required to attend the annual meeting with no promise that it is even worth their while.
I had the privilege of landing a tenure-track job in my second year on the job market. I was fortunate. But both those years, I did not hear about job interviews at the AAR until a week or so before the conference. Luckily, I was already planning to go because I was presenting papers and involved with programming. Luckily, I had institutional funding to go. But what if I didn’t? What would have happened if I told a search committee chair on the phone, “I won’t be at the AAR, but I’d be happy to interview over Skype?”
Look at the conference fees and the membership dues for the AAR. Even if they register in May (for imaginary November interviews) student candidates will have to pay $140 in registration and membership fees. Someone who has finished their Ph.D. but is still looking for a tenure-track job would pay at least $210 and up to $465 depending on what they make in their non-TT position. These non-TT members are the one’s who are least likely to have funding. On top of these fees you also have to add in travel and hotel costs for an imaginary interview you don’t even know you’ll really ever have.
Why do we charge an admission fee for a job interview?
At the heart of this ridiculousness sits the AAR/SBL Employment Center. There are two sides to the Employment Center. First, there’s the digital side. These are the job listings that departments pay to have listed. They are only available to AAR members who have paid the membership dues. For an extra $25 ($50 if you do it on-site) candidates can also submit their C.V. to a database, get a sweet printout of the job listings at the conference, and communicate with search committees through an arcane messaging system. I paid to register for this twice and I think it was totally worthless. The other side of the Employment Center is physical. It’s a place. A place deep in the bowels of a conference center. It is a large ballroom divided into cubicles for interviews and a bullpen for candidates to wait until someone emerges and calls their name. It is the most depressing place on Earth. It is unnecessary. The Employment Center is a wast of resources. Rather than force candidates to travel to the national meeting, search committees should take advantage of Skype or one of the many other options for conducting video interviews. Moving job candidates to a central location is wasteful, foolish, unnecessary, and puts an undue burden on job seekers. The constituents of the American Academy of Religion do not need the Employment Center. It is a matchmaker in the time of Tinder.
So, all of that said, what should the AAR do for candidates? Here are two things.
1. Get rid of the Employment Center
2. Take the Employment Listings out from behind the paywall. Free the jobs!
If the AAR can’t do these two things, then it has an obligation to do something else:
No conference registration fees for students and recent Ph.D.s (within the past 2 years).
Students make up about a third of the AAR membership, according to the AAR. I don’t know how much of the meeting attendees they make up but I’d guess a lot. Nonetheless, it’s time to get rid of the $200 handshake. If the AAR won’t stop the conference interview then it should at least make them cheap-as in free. I’m not the first to recommend something along these lines. When you get that phone call from a search committee chair saying, “We’d love to speak with you about our position.” You’re reaction shouldn’t be “How the hell will I pay for that?” It should be:
UPDATE 2:48 pm 10/20: I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that I’ve low balled the costs. It’s not just a $200 handshake. This is true. I went with 200 bucks anticipating a “REAL scholars always go to the meeting anyway” response from those defending the status quo. Philip Tite has a great breakdown of the full cost. He sets the minimum at $1525 and the max at over $2400.