From the Professional Division

The Ethical Historian: Notes and Queries on Professional Conduct

Catherine Epstein, Mary Louise Roberts, Andrew Jon Rotter, and Philippa Levine, November 2014

The Ethical Historian features the Professional Division’s reactions to the ethical and professional questions it regularly receives. We welcome suggestions for this column, which may be sent to the division members listed below at PD@historians.org. The Professional Division will not reveal in this column the identities, or identifying characteristics, of individuals or institutions involved.

In our last column (Perspectives, May 2014), we discussed the problem of potential employers pressuring job candidates to accept or reject a job offer on a tight deadline. Here we roll things back to the period before a job is offered and consider a few matters that have come to our attention over the past several years. In some cases, it may be that undesirable practices are not so much unethical as impolite; the boundary between these can sometimes be difficult to discern. Our purpose here, then, is to note cases we think test the ethics of interviewing and communicating with candidates.

Videotaping an AHA interview. The videotaping case came up just prior to the AHA annual meeting last year, when a PD member got an urgent e-mail from the chair of a search committee. Just as she was leaving campus for the meeting, her dean contacted her and asked that she record the job interviews for department members who would not be in the room. While the pervasive use of videoconferences to conduct interviews has perhaps blurred lines that were previously clear, we do not condone this practice. First, it puts candidates in the awkward position of having to decide, maybe on the spur of the moment, whether to acquiesce in being recorded, since their permission is required. In truth, candidates are not in a position to decline. The spectacle of one committee member being charged with keeping a camera trained on the nervous candidate is hardly edifying. And who controls distribution of the recording after it is made? The AHA Council unanimously rejected this practice as unethical.

An ethical matter? Ensuring a professional and comfortable setting for an interview surely goes well beyond the realm of mere courtesy.

Paying one’s way. There are two problems associated with the practice of job candidates paying to get themselves to interviews. Job search committees generally start reviewing applications in October or November. If there are scores or even hundreds of applicants, the screening can take a while, with the result that the 10 to 15 long-list candidates do not learn until well after Thanksgiving that they have been chosen to interview at the annual meeting in early January. By that time, airfares to the host city have skyrocketed, registration rates may have crept up, and hotel rooms may be at a premium. Department interviewers need to keep in mind that paying for travel and lodging can be a hardship for graduate students, recent graduates, and postdocs. The AHA strongly endorses notifying conference interviewees at least three weeks in advance of the meeting.

The second problem concerns the next level of interviews for those candidates fortunate enough to get a “flyback” to the campus of the hiring department. It is tempting for the department to ask candidates to make their own travel reservations, then apply for reimbursement later. How much later? That’s the issue. Again, early-career historians seldom have discretionary income. For many, having to carry what can easily be a four-figure travel expense for any length of time is a serious burden. It is best if the institution pays all travel expenses up front. Failing that, the institution should strive to reimburse candidates before or immediately after they leave campus.

The hotel interview. Until recently, job candidates readily swapped horror stories about the “cattle pen” that was the job interview center at the AHA meeting. The center has been spruced up, and because the AHA has taken steps to give candidates more information and more privacy, there are many fewer complaints than before. Many departments prefer to interview in private rooms. Suites or parlor rooms are well designed for this purpose. But not all departments can afford suites, and hotels sometimes run out of them. The AHA “discourages holding interviews in hotel bedrooms” (Guidelines for the Hiring Process, bit.ly/1vwPS0L). Still, if it must be, the search committee chair should ensure that the room is clean, that personal effects are put out of sight, and that under no circumstances does anyone sit on a bed. An ethical matter? Ensuring a professional and comfortable setting for an interview surely goes well beyond the realm of mere courtesy.

Keeping candidates informed. The AHA’s guidelines mandate that “as [job] candidates are eliminated, they should be notified promptly and courteously.” Those who don’t make the long list should be told by e-mail before the conference (or videoconference) interviews. Those long-listed candidates not chosen for a flyback should be e-mailed after the interview—though there is a gray area here: if none of the flyback interviewees is hired, the department may wish to return to the long list. Many historians can recall being short-listed for a job but then left twisting for weeks after a campus visit without hearing the outcome of the search. (News sometimes comes in the form of a letter, apparently sent to all applicants, proudly announcing the hiring of another historian.) Those who are invited for campus interviews should be notified of the search’s outcome personally and as soon as possible. It is hard for a search committee chair to call an excellent candidate and tell him that he has not been offered the job, or that an offer has gone to someone else and that she hopes the second- or third-choice candidate will please wait a week or so until the first choice makes a decision. Yet that is what the chair should do. It isn’t polite to leave a candidate to wonder where things stand, and it isn’t fair either, as he may have other decision deadlines pressing. And the initiative should come from the chair, not the candidate, for reasons we think are obvious.

These are some of the issues that have come to the Professional Division concerning interviewing and hiring. We welcome your comments on these matters and, as always, suggestions of others to consider in future columns.

The AHA’s Professional Division collects and disseminates information about employment opportunities, helps ensure equal opportunities for all historians, and helps set guidelines for professional ethics. The division does not, however, adjudicate cases (see bit.ly/1sLYZN6 for more on why).

Members of the division are Catherine Epstein (Amherst College), Mary Louise Roberts (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Andrew Jon Rotter (Colgate University), and Philippa Levine (University of Texas at Austin, and vice president, Professional Division).


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