Renewing Our Profession Professionally: Further Reflections on the Job Register

Steve Hochstadt, March 2001

My colleague, Lillian Guerra, writes elsewhere in this issue about the AHA Job Register from the point of view of a recent graduate student. I participated in the interview process this year as the chair of a search committee. We met many wonderful historians, full of ambitious intellectual hopes and dreams of the perfect job. I also observed and heard about a hiring system that appears designed to dash those hopes. Using a room packed with small impersonal tables to distinguish among job candidates is an admission of disdain for aspiring historians. Although the AHA staff provides crucial logistical assistance in organizing the Job Register, the process of hiring new historians is determined by decisions we make as practicing historians in history departments. We can do better.

One of the key choices that departments make is whether to pay $140 per day for a suite or to reserve a table for free. The last time I saw a Job Register interview table was when I was on the market in 1978. So I snuck into the table area in the Sheraton. How can we expect to make significant decisions about the candidates' intellectual capabilities and teaching skills amid such a cacophony of voices? Institutional budget constraints set limits on what we can spend, but don't determine how we spend. What do we say about ourselves as professionals in a field of communication and human relations when we choose to create such a setting for hiring? Apparently we say that our departments believe that spending the money for a suite is a lower priority than one journal subscription or one committee dinner. Possibly we say that we judge candidates by their ability to survive this form of hazing as well as by their qualities of mind. After all, they're just graduate students; they're used to being treated with condescension.

The particular indignities of this year's Job Register as described by Guerra are, one hopes, a temporary problem. In the long run, however, the nature of relationships within departments between established and new faculty are in no small way determined by the methods we use to hire. Certainly much has improved over the past couple of decades in the way that gender and race issues are dealt with in hiring. I believe we still have a long way to go to make the hiring process reflect our humane values, professional status, and intellectual pretensions.

I urge the AHA to help historians develop a set of best practices for the entire hiring process, from conceiving a position to sending out those final letters of regret. For example, after having run many searches, I now send candidates we have interviewed but not invited to campus a note informing them that others have been invited, although their candidacies are still active. This is the kind of task we all would like to avoid. But it is simply addressing the obvious: candidates invited to the campus six weeks after a Job Register interview can guess that they were not the first choice. We must acknowledge that we are not keeping secrets about how a hiring process went to spare the feelings of whomever we do eventually hire. They will guess or find out later anyway. Historians must accept our responsibility to be better administrators, in hiring as in other areas of human relations. The AHA can help by insuring that more suites are available, by developing and publicizing better hiring practices, and perhaps by avoiding the Sheraton chain in the future. The ultimate responsibility, however, lies with us, especially with department chairs. We should seek colleagues with methods that maximize intellectual exchange and leave survival by elimination to the television.

—Steve Hochstadt is professor and chair of history at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.