A Response to My Call to Abolish Conference Interviews

AAR_LogoBelow is a response I received to my last post calling for an end to the conference interview and the Employment Center at the AAR Annual Meeting. It comes from Ryan Woods, a graduate school colleague of mine and currently the Associate Director of Employment Services at the AAR. I post it here with his permission.

Disclaimer: what follows represents my own opinions, and in no way represents any official positions adopted by AAR/SBL.

Dear Mike,

As the Associate Director of Employment Services at the American Academy of Religion, I read your post with great interest. As a veteran job seeker, I sympathize with many of complaints you ventilate. The onerous costs that candidates must assume to interview at the Annual Meetings represent a moral quandary. Your suggestions for reducing these burdens deserve careful consideration as AAR seeks more effective and equitable ways to serve our constituents. However, to make meaningful improvements, we need to disentangle problematic AAR policies from the larger landscape of employment practices in higher education. In particular, progress depends on distinguishing systemic issues from those specifically generated by Employment Services and recognizing the limits of reforming measures.

It is a travesty that, as you observe, “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.” Indeed, I read an article just this morning that inventoried the high costs of attending the Annual Meetings, and the Chronicle recently ran a feature on how the exorbitant fees of attending a professional meeting of sociologists had deterred members from participating. Another blogger advanced a spirited proposition to abandon conference interviews altogether. Horror stories of unsupported graduate students and penniless adjuncts maxing out credit cards in the faint hope of securing a position on the tenure track have become staples in this literature. But their narratives no longer occupy the periphery; they have come to be emblematic of the bleak realities that a growing population of candidates faces.

I know these difficult circumstances from personal experience. Last year, I was on the market for a second year. Marginally employed, I was not planning to deliver a paper or participate in a panel at the Annual Meeting. Because I had defended my dissertation earlier that spring, I was no longer receiving institutional support to attend conferences. The later I waited to register and make travel reservations, the higher the prices climbed. Financial exigency finally made the cost prohibitive. Consequently, I decided against renewing my membership or registering for the Annual Meeting. Just three days before the Annual Meeting, an employer contacted me for an interview. I informed him that I was no longer planning to travel to Baltimore, but could arrange to meet on campus for a preliminary interview (fortunately, the campus was conveniently located less than an hour from my parents’ house). We convened shortly after Thanksgiving weekend on a windy, leaf-strewn Midwestern campus for a half-hour interview. A few months passed, and then the search chair rang again, this time to inform me that I was a finalist for the opening. In the end, I wasn’t offered the position. But in the process, I came to appreciate the sober calculations that many job seekers and institutions are making this time of year. Given these challenges, many rational actors – like myself – will select from among the products offered by the AAR based on both fiscal and practical considerations. An increasing number of both employers and candidates may choose to arrange interviews outside the Annual Meeting.

In the light of these experiences, I think we should reframe the discussion. AAR and SBL are not so much “charging admission” (since one is not formally required to purchase any of their products) as offering a range of services from which students can select. To understand how and why students select from among these options, it is useful to distinguish the various services offered to employment candidates. There is membership, first of all, which entitles one to view employment listings. Because most tenure-track offerings in the field are advertised on the auxiliary employment website (although it is noteworthy that academic job wikis have eroded this monopoly to an extent), this is a valuable service for job seekers. Membership costs $55 for both graduate students and those who make less than $20,000. This is comparable to dues assessed by peer societies such as the American Philosophical Association or the American Historical Association. To interview onsite at the Annual Meeting, one has to be there. That means that candidates must register for the Annual Meeting, make travel plans, and reserve lodgings. These procedures are connected, since the AAR and SBL negotiate discounted hotel rates based on the number of registrations they have in hand. The size and timing of the registration cohort therefore determines cost. Consequently, the longer a candidate waits to register, the higher the charges rise, for the same reasons that hotel costs and flights tend to increase the longer one waits to make reservations. Finally, for a fee of $25, candidates may register with the Employment Center, which allows them to post their credentials online for employer review and communicate confidentially with employers. None of these services is required, and the first two services (membership and registration for the Annual Meeting) are not exclusively associated with the Employment Center. This invites selective consumption. One might become a member, for example, but choose not to attend the Annual Meeting, arranging for Skype interviews. Alternatively, a member might attend the Annual Meeting but choose not to register with the Employment Center. To be sure, each decision has consequences. Not renewing one’s membership means missing out on other membership benefits as well as potentially missing a job listing. Missing the Annual Meeting entails foregoing opportunities for networking and scholarly conversation as well as interviewing in person. A member who doesn’t register for the Employment Center forecloses on an avenue for exposure: a potential employer might review her credentials and request an interview onsite. As with deciding whether to attend a job fair in a distant city, these deliberations will always involve an aleatory element. Many calculations must be made well in advance of the meeting, with limited resources, and without assurance that these investments will pay dividends.

Given the costs associated with conference interviewing, one begins to wonder why constituents continue to pay for any of these services. If the logic is so irresistible – if “moving candidates to a central location is wasteful, foolish, unnecessary, and [sic] puts an undue burden on job seekers” – then why don’t more candidates and employers embargo the Annual Meetings? For that matter, why do employers at all learned societies continue to host interviews at their annual meetings and conferences in the age of Google Hangouts? In a time when universities are increasingly wary of their bottom lines, withdrawing from the Employment Center would seem an obvious means of saving money. Candidates could likewise circumvent the costs and game the system by cutting out the intermediaries and communicating directly with prospective employers. Although the inertia of tradition might influence the continued demand for centralized interviewing, it seems inadequate to explain why employers cling to pipe-and-drapes cubicles. Likewise, the observation that “hope springs eternal” seems not to cast much light on candidates’ behavior. Candidates are as aware as anyone of their meager prospects as they populate the flickering pixels of registration forms with their Visa card accounts.

The reason, I think, lies in the intangible benefits afforded by attendance and participation in the Annual Meetings. Employers and candidates prefer to exchange ideas and interview in person at a central location for the some of the same reasons they prefer to teach in person rather than online. Delivering a paper, networking with other candidates and employers, attending employment workshops – all these benefits are hard to communicate virtually. An employer can’t catch a candidate’s presentation if the candidate isn’t attending. Employment seekers like to ask colleagues at a university reception about departmental ethos or gossip about the search chair’s previous appointment with a recent acquaintance from a panel discussion. Most candidates and employers agree that viva voce interviews provide better venues for assessing the “fit” between institutional needs and candidate dispositions than mediated conversations. And as long as employers are attending the Annual Meetings on the university’s dime, it’s convenient for them. So long as those preferences exist, there will always be some demand for onsite interviews.

You maintain that AAR should stop paywalling the advertisements, dismantle the Employment Center at the Annual Meetings, and – failing those two prescriptions – waive registration fees for students and recent graduates (within the past two years). The first proposal has been under discussion for a while. Some other learned societies (such as APA and MLA) do not make membership a prerequisite for viewing employment listings; others (such as AHA) do. To be clear, though, the question is more complicated than just freeing the advertisements. Membership confers privileges aside from access to employment listings. We think it is valuable for anyone in the field of religious studies – not just job seekers – to be affiliated with AAR/SBL, for reasons that transcend the search for employment. But we might be able to do more. A colleague recently floated the “drug dealer” model of membership for graduate students in their first year of studies: for this trial period, one’s membership is free, followed by the resumption of a normal fee structure. It might be useful to waive membership fees as a “graduation present” to newly minted PhDs. Perhaps AAR could further discount the student rate, and lower the corresponding dues for the lowest income bracket in our membership. Personally, I would consider jettisoning the Candidate Registration fee ($25) and make it a membership privilege. The other two prescriptions are less feasible. As long as employers and candidates prefer to attend annual meetings and interview in person, the Employment Center is here to stay. Moreover, there are some advantages to retaining a centralized apparatus with standardized policies and reserved spaces for interviewing. If you’re going to have onsite interviews, the best protection against intoxicated committee members questioning candidates in bedroom suites is to provide a public venue governed by a single code of conduct. Still, it might be worthwhile to consider levelling the playing field for virtual interviewers by providing Skype services in the interview booths. Suspending registration fees for the Annual Meeting is the least negotiable proposition. Because registrations for the Annual Meeting give the AAR bargaining power with hotels and convention centers, waiving these fees might end up costing candidates even more in the larger picture. Even here, though, perhaps we could consider adjusting the financial incentives to be less punitive or discounting registration rates to candidates. It would be worth scrutinizing.

Much of this depressing state of affairs lies beyond the scope of AAR’s purview and capacity to change. As you know well, an anemic job market is not unique to the field of religious studies. In fact, it is much worse in other disciplines. A disproportionate number of candidates vying for a dwindling number of full-time positions means intense competition. Institutional bureaucracy and sclerotic hiring procedures extend timelines for contacting candidates, disadvantaging them in the registration process. Employers sometimes insist on personal meetings, or treat virtual interviewers as second-class. Although AAR cannot turn back the tide of these changes in employment practices, we can listen to our constituents and continually reassess our services in view of their needs. Perhaps we can consider reducing some fees for candidates, or collapsing some services into others. We can offer more useful employment workshops. Maybe we can provide financial incentives to encourage institutions to contact candidates earlier, to assume some of the costs of candidates being onsite, or to offer greater consideration for those who cannot interview onsite. But we can only help to improve the experience of job seekers if members and institutions demand it and participate in the process of reform.

Thanks for opening the conversation with your article. It’s a timely issue to consider. But weighty problems are best discussed over drinks at an AAR reception. See you in San Diego, I hope.