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More Annals of the Great Depression: Whither The Conference Interview?

July 7, 2009, 1:21 pm

In my opinion? It’s on its way out. For what Zenith spent on searches this year, we could have hired a bunch of visitors, or two tenure-track faculty. Or we could have given the faculty we have a weenie little raise. Just a weenie one, but a raise all the same. Or not cut the library budget. Or….or…..

Budget cutting is no reason to end a tradition permanently if it is valuable, but I predict that budget cutting will jolt universities to some useful reforms. Replacing the conference interview with the phone interview is one of them. We had this conversation in my department recently, and I have had it with a Zenith administrator on two separate occasions. Perhaps I have fallen out of love with the conference interview because I am finishing a book on the early years of the historical profession. I know, for example, that the origins of the conference interview are exactly the opposite of democratic. They go way back to a time when each mentor brought “a few excellent men” to the AHA in order to pair them up with colleagues who had positions to offer: the matches were more often than not made at “smokers” which were held in gender and racially segregated spaces.

This began in the 1880s, and continued until about 1968.

Or perhaps, more relevantly, the scales have fallen from my eyes because I did one search in each semester this year, at a total cost to the university for me alone of around 4.5K. Or perhaps I was just horrified as I watched a colleague interview over twenty candidates for two searches at a single conference, running back and forth between hotels, a test of endurance and good humor that I am not sure I would have passed.

Or perhaps I am hopeful about this possible transformation because I have had real success with phone interviews. All of that time and money, in my view, has no benefit other than what many of my colleagues call “laying eyes on the candidate.” Because I hire in an interdisciplinary program, we routinely interview people over the telephone because the American Studies Association conference is so early, and many of our potential candidates are saving their money for the disciplinary conferences where they are more likely to get offers. This year, we interviewed half of our candidates in one search over the phone, brought two of the phone interviewees to campus, and hired both of them. Seven or eight years ago, we interviewed all of our candidates over the telephone and brought in three superb candidates. Regardless of how I feel, it seems quite certain that for many schools, budget cuts may create permanent change, and it is probably time for us to start thinking about the ethics and practices of the phone interview more seriously.

David Evans wrote a timely column about this annual ritual in yesterday’s Careers section of the Chronicle of Higher Ed. In “Is The Conference Interview On The Way Out?” Evans observes that the cost of going to conferences is prohibitive, for committees and especially for those on the job market. Even if your university is still willing to foot the bill, there may simply not be as much bang for the buck as there once was. Faculty could better spend this money on curricular development or research, he argues; the jobless could better spend the money on — well, eating, probably, or printer cartridges. Evans writes that there will also be loss. “I still think that conference interviews have a lot of advantages,” he notes.

Meeting candidates face-to-face is, I believe, considerably more effective than talking to them on the phone. Simply being able to read their body language, make eye contact, and interact directly provides a clarity that isn’t available by phone. The intensity of the conference-interview process, while exhausting, gives hiring committees the opportunity to make direct comparisons between candidates, refine their impressions, and get a sense of the candidates’ interest in the position.

With all due respect, there may be losses, but the points that Evans raises are the aspects of interviewing that I am ready to say goodbye to. I have thought for some time that this process of forming definite beliefs about candidacies on what are necessarily superficial impressions is flawed and makes the process contrary. I mean, why do candidates obsess about their clothes? Because they know that it is likely that someone is judging their capacity to think and teach by the height of their heels, the color of their tie, the sweater vest that just doesn’t work with that outfit. And we haven’t even started with how you occupy the space you are in, who you looked at most frequently, your handshake, your voice, your….your…your….

By the time everyone gets home and start talking about the candidates, each committee member is positive that s/he has the “correct” interpretation of this personality trait or that tone of voice, and you end up arguing about aspects of self-presentation that are most vulnerable to what they call at Zenith “unintentional bias.” In my experience, this kind of bias is often a question of perceived class differences. Direct comparisons are just as easy over the phone as in person; indeed, if you are not watching a person’s body language, thinking about what moved a certain candidate to cut his hair that way, or trying to judge whether a person really wants the job, you might hear what they are saying with a bit more clarity.

Another advantage of the phone interview? You can wear whatever you want, eat and drink without making the candidate uncomfortable, sleep in your own bed, and get up and stroll around the room in mid-interview if your back hurts. The committee can make funny faces at each other — err, I mean, communicate better during the course of the interview — to move things along when the conversation has gotten off track, or when you all realize that the person has gotten hopelessly muddled about something and you need to backtrack and give them another chance at it. You can look imperiously at a colleague who is talking too much and make slashing gestures across your throat.

Not that I’ve done that.

There is another great idea in a comment on the Evans story:

Here is a suggestion for my field (history): Why not have a centralized database, where candidates upload their materials? Then, when a department is authorized to hire, the search committee trolls the database (searchable by field and other variables) and picks 4-5 candidates. Instead of paying to send a search committee to the AHA, the university can foot the bill to bring more candidates to campus. This would cut out the preliminary interview altogether.

Here I disagree slightly with the suggestion that a next stage of information gathering be entirely eliminated, but this would be an otherwise outstanding use of existing technology. A preliminary interview of some kind gives you an idea about how a person thinks. It allows for specific questions about specific courses, as well as the research, that can help resolve disagreements on the committee. A conversation can tell you a lot about a candidate as a teacher — particularly if the committee asks for a draft syllabus for a core course that person would be asked to teach. Furthermore, because jobs differ from each other in emphasis, even within fields, letters of application tell you a great deal about whether someone is prepared to teach what you want, how prof
essionalized they are, and how they see themselves as a scholar. But a central database where letters of recommendation, vita, transcripts, a chapter-length piece and an abstract of the dissertation could be uploaded would be terrific. Think of the number of (wo)man hours are spent filing and duplicating these things, not to mention mailing them in the first place.

There could be another great feature in these days when universities are afraid of affirmative action, many committees don’t know how to do diversity recruiting, and many candidates entitled to affirmative action either don’t believe in it or don’t want to be interviewed just to be your “diversity candidate.” Job hunters could opt in, or opt out, of providing information about gender, race, ethnicity and national status. You could have a box to check for “GLBTQ” — not a federal category, to be sure, but for some of us that would be information that we would want people to know. Thus, such a data base would be searchable if a department was genuinely interested in interviewing more women or people of color. Before advertising, you could test a job description against the gross candidate pool. You could even do a search in round one on the basis of scholarship only, with all identifying characteristics of the candidates (gender, race, university) hidden until you had activated your first round of selections.

One of the unnecessary tragedies of the hiring season is that there are not only great people who don’t get an offer, but there are jobs that go unfilled. Let’s say it is still fall, and you don’t love the candidate pool you’ve got: what about looking at the materials of people in a slightly different, but contiguous, field? What about looking at a higher/lower rank? Or what if, after bringing everyone to campus, there isn’t anyone the department can agree on — and little do you know, in a narrow departmental battle, the liberal arts college down the road decided not to make an offer to someone who might be perfect? And finally, when the adjunct and visiting season strikes, the pool of people who have yet to be hired would still be there to be searched, and they wouldn’t necessarily have to write a whole new round of job letters.

Such a data base would make hiring more of a year-round process, as it is in other professions. It wouldn’t have to replace the application process as we know it, but it could strengthen it. And it could allow universities to woo junior candidates who have not applied for their job, inviting them to apply as senior people are now invited to apply for jobs. There is an assumption among an older generation (which I think I am now a part of, unfortunately) that everyone who wants a job applies for all jobs in her field. But it isn’t so. Candidates rule out applying for certain jobs for good and bad reasons: ignorance of the region the school is in, a new baby or sick parent, a deadline that has passed by mistake, a relationship that they fear will not stand a commute, a belief that the fit isn’t good when in fact it might be.

Interviewing at conferences may disappear because of budget cuts, to be sure. But if we are thoughtful about how to replace it with a good new system, cheaper could be better.

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