AHA Interviews, Good Intentions, and Unexpected Consequences
At its June meeting, the AHA Council voted to end the Association's practice of supporting job interviews at the annual meeting, after some 70 years. This decision, we hope, will have a positive effect on the atmosphere at the January 2020 gathering in New York, evident to everyone familiar with AHA meetings of the recent or distant past.
Interviews might still take place. The AHA's power to command or ban behavior is small, and it cannot prevent people from holding interviews in coffee shops or hotel rooms.
But it can, does, and will discourage the practice. In the short run, that means that starting in 2020 the space formerly devoted to interviews at annual meetings will be used in other ways. In only a year or two, I expect, the convention interview will go extinct. Like many historians, I will remember a couple of my interviews as long as I live, but one day the conference interview will be a forgotten ritual.
Few of us seem to be mourning its passing. When, in an earlier column, I noted that the AHA was considering this change, advocated it, and asked for opinions from AHA members, about 50 people wrote to register their views, and sentiment ran overwhelmingly in favor of ending AHA support for interviews at the annual meeting. The Professional Division and the AHA Council took this informal polling of membership into account in making their decisions.
Like many historians, I will remember a couple of my interviews as long as I live, but one day the conference interview will be a forgotten ritual.
Within three days of announcing the decision on social media, some 400 people offered responses, overwhelmingly endorsing the decision. Some said it was overdue. Many of the tweets came from people in other disciplines, expressing the wish that their professional associations would follow the AHA's lead—in at least one case clearly unaware that their association was ahead of the AHA and had already done so. Since the announcement, a few people have written me as well to express gratitude for the change in policy (although credit belongs to the Professional Division and the Council). It seems that the AHA has done the right thing.
I do wonder, however, whether down the line there may be consequences of this decision that we failed to anticipate. As someone who pays attention to environmental and international history, I am an aficionado of unintended consequences. So what might we watch for in the future?
To begin with, it's possible that attendance at the annual meeting will fall. The AHA will need to reconsider the purpose of the meeting, and the incentives for attendance. This reconsideration has already started to happen, however, and in the long run, attendance might actually increase, because fewer people will associate the annual meeting with donning uncomfortable clothes, waiting nervously for the appointed hour, and worrying anxiously about how best to present themselves.
I am concerned about one thing: that eliminating the seasonality of academic hiring will work against job candidates. For seven decades academic hiring has been temporally anchored by the AHA annual meeting. Before the rise of videoconferencing, academic search committees conducted preliminary interviews at "the AHA," typically brought candidates to campus in late January or February, and made offers in late February or early March. Normally, committees that lived up to their professional responsibilities let candidates know their situation by mid-March. The synchronization of the hiring process worked to the advantage of the fortunate few who got more than one offer, enabling them to make informed choices.
I look forward to annual meetings where everyone present is happy to be there and no one is feeling fretful about interviews.
The rise of the videoconference interview has weakened the metronomic power of the annual meeting. It seems likely that structure will disappear entirely. Search committees henceforth will be constrained only by the internal calendars of their institutions—at colleges and universities, this means the time when deans and provosts authorize a search. Interviews, decisions, and offers will be spread out in time, although summer will likely remain quiet. Candidates fortunate enough to be offered a position will have to decide to take it or not without much knowledge about other options. Employers, especially those who calculate that they might make offers to people who will appeal to other employers, will require decisions from candidates who know little about what else they might have a chance at. This is often the prevailing situation outside the United States. I expect it to become the norm here with the pending extinction of the convention interview. Successful candidates—if all this comes to pass—will be in weaker negotiating positions.
This comes with a corollary. It is (I believe) surpassingly rare in our profession for people to accept an offer and then subsequently break that agreement in order to take a different offer. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, has been the synchronization of the hiring process. The new regime will, I suspect, create more situations in which job seekers accept a job and then, a couple of months later, find out they have a preferable option and are therefore tempted to break their word or even their formal, written agreement. If this happens, how will employers try to protect themselves against it?
This concern, even with its corollary, is not worrisome enough to make me reconsider my support for the policy shift. I still agree with the wisdom of the Twitterverse on this one, especially given the small likelihood of candidates getting multiple offers. I look forward to annual meetings where everyone present is happy to be there and no one is feeling fretful about interviews.
Unintended consequences can also be favorable. If indeed seasonality evaporates in academic hiring, there will no longer be better and worse times of year to finish a PhD for those seeking academic employment. No PhD students will be tempted to rush to completion in the winter or to delay completion from May to November so as to hit the market with a fresh degree.
The scenarios I've sketched may or may not happen. But there probably will be unexpected consequences. Please let me know if you envision any unwelcome effect of the shift in policy. The AHA should be on the lookout for unintended consequences of its actions, and that task will be easier if it knows what to look for. The AHA will need to, and will be happy to, revise its guidelines on hiring (historians.org/hiring) as the procedures in our profession evolve.
John R. McNeill is president of the AHA.
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