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June 12, 2014

The beige hotel-cum-interview rooms, the nerves, the sudden feeling of kinship with cattle -- job interviews at academic conferences can hardly be described as comfortable. But the American Historical Association is trying to make the experience a little more “humane,” and recently decided that hiring committees can’t videotape or otherwise record interviews.

“One of the big issues has always been the anxiety level of people on the job market at our annual meetings,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. “We do everything we can to bring that down to a reasonable level.”

Past adjustments in favor of interviewees include offering hiring committees less expensive “subletted” suites (rented by AHA), to make the experience of interviewing in a hotel room a bit less awkward, he said.

More recently, there were reports of graduate students being recorded by hiring committees, adding to their stress.

Consistent with AHA’s other policies about recording, including conference panelists, the association’s initial impulse was to require permission to record interviews, Grossman said. “But someone very astutely pointed out that if you’re a job candidate, you can’t say no.”

So AHA’s Council recently approved an addition to the organizations’ Guidelines for the Hiring Process saying that “The AHA considers it unacceptable to record or videotape any employment interview activity that takes place in conjunction with the AHA’s Annual Meeting.”

Grossman said reports from aggrieved interviewees about videotaping were few, and that the practice was not widespread in general. (He said hiring committees might attempt it if a professor can’t attend an interview, for instance).

But he hoped that the new measure would help “preserve people’s spontaneity” during a 20-minute preliminary interview.

Joshua L. Reid, an assistant professor of history at the University Massachusetts at Boston who is co-chair of AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee and AHA Council, said -- as a recent job-seeker -- that he personally appreciated the move.

“I would have felt pressured to say ‘yes’ to this request if this had been made during any of my interviews at the AHA annual meeting,” he said via email. “Although I myself might have not been troubled by this request (but I don’t know; it might have thrown me off at the time), I can see how some candidates would be uncomfortable with it.”

Reid continued: “AHA interviews are stressful enough without introducing additional dynamics that might increase anxiety.”

And as a recent search committee chair at Boston, Reid said he didn’t see the policy as any kind of inconvenience, or how taping an interview would enhance its value.

“Basically, I walk out of the AHA interviews ready to narrow the list down to those to invite to campus -- my votes for whom to bring to campus go to candidates I want to continue the conversation with,” he said.

Rosemary Feal, executive director for the Modern Language Association, which hosts similarly large hiring conferences each year, said her organization has a "no photos where individuals are identifiable" policy for the interview area and interviews in the Job Information Center.

“The rationale has to do with respecting and protecting members' privacy,” she said via email. “Candidates being interviewed may not wish to broadcast that they are being interviewed with specific institutions.”

MLA has no policy regarding taping individual, private interviews but Feal said she understood AHA’s desire to alleviate candidates’ anxiety about the process.

“Anything scholarly associations can do to make high-stress situations like job interviews more comfortable seems the right way to go,” she said.

Ervin Malakaj, immediate past president of MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus and a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic languages and literature at Washington University in St. Louis, said the idea of taping candidates -- possibly to have a “go-to” reference after the interview -- “seems rather unethical" in that is "another imposition on interviewees given the high-stakes and high-stress scenarios of the interview setting.”

Malakaj noted that there have been calls to end interviews at MLA altogether, and that many institutions now use Skype to conduct preliminary interviews traditionally conducted at the conference.

 

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