Disciplinary Associations Should Start Treating Job Seekers With Respect
As has become the annual tradition, the American Historical Association is out with its report lauding the health of the academic job market in history. The report, culled exclusively from job listings in Perspectives (an AHA publication) and Ph.D. completion statistics reported by history departments, shows that there are more available positions than there are historians produced. Other disciplines issue similar reports. While the AHA report may be viewed favorably by some such as scholars in Asian history, the most underpopulated field for historians, for others it reflects a general lack of concern from the association for the untenured and the graduate student. And the problems discussed here apply to many other disciplines as well.
As a national organization and the most powerful entity in the historical job market, the AHA has done surprisingly little to help the newest members of their profession. On the whole, historians pride themselves on their concern for social justice. In 2005, for example, the Organization of American Historians uprooted its annual conference and moved it to another city in a show of solidarity with hotel workers. When it comes to the plight of the discipline’s own working class, the unemployed job seeker, this compassion and concern is absent. In its place is an annual report from the AHA talking about how good it is for some. For others, there isn’t much the AHA can do. I find this lack of action, especially when compared to what is normally shown for the less fortunate, disheartening.
While the AHA can do nothing to overcome the dearth of tenure-track positions (which is a reality that deans, trustees, and legislators control), the association has a great deal of control over two things: job market statistics and the interview process. These areas, which some might say are of secondary concern, have made the job search a very inhospitable place. For one, the association could conduct a statistically sound study of the job market based on an actual survey of departments and job seekers. Drawing attention to the total number of jobs and the number of Ph.D.’s produced in the past year overlooks the fact that visiting faculty and independent scholars are also on the market. A more thorough census would provide better information to AHA members and possibly even a snapshot of many other employment concerns, including how the positions stack up in terms of pay, tenure-track status, and other key factors.
More importantly, the organization could do a number of things to reform the poorly designed hiring process that leaves applicants floating in a limbo of uncertainty throughout much of November and December. The lack of communication between search committees and job seekers is so common that it is now taken for granted along with death and taxes. Job applicants no longer expect any professional courtesy. While this results in a good bit of anxiety for anyone on the market, it can also lead to undue financial hardships that could easily be avoided. As a former editor of the H-Grad listserv and one currently searching for a tenure-track position, I can safely say that these concerns are pressing on the mind of most applicants.
The key to these job market reforms is the AHA itself. As the group most vested in the hiring process, it has done little to actively rectify some of the more egregious concerns with the job market. I have compiled a short list of changes that could be adopted with one vote at a business meeting. And most of these changes would benefit not just the AHA, but other disciplinary associations, especially in the humanities, where good, tenure-track jobs are not widely available. While this will absolutely not correct the disparity between job seekers and open positions, it will go a long way towards making the process a more fair and equitable institution.
1. Take a more accurate census of the job-seeking population annually. There is a glut of history Ph.D.'s. Everyone knows this. Yet for the past three years, the AHA has been trumpeting the idea that the job market is improving based solely on data that have no correlation with the actual situation. The AHA, like other associations, bases its data on job applicants solely on the number of new Ph.D.’s, ignoring the fact that so many of the past few years’ new doctorates remain either unemployed or in temporary positions, off the tenure track and with low pay and benefits. By only counting the new Ph.D.’s, the figures for job-seekers are significantly lower than they should be. The research being produced by the AHA needs to be more accurate so as to guide job applicants and graduate students as to their chances of finding a position. Since candidates who utilize the AHA Job Register at the annual meeting have to be registered as a meeting attendee, the AHA should include a census form with the conference registration. Questions such as "Are you a job seeker?," "What is your area of specialty?," "Have you ever had a tenure-track position?" and “How many years have you been on the job market?” would give a more accurate picture of just how truly dire the job market is. A follow-up survey every April would round out the study and enable applicants to assess their position in the market for the following fall. Job seekers could then make career choices based on tangible facts, rather than hearsay and propaganda.
2. Make the Job Register service a privilege that has to be earned. The AHA has a good deal of influence on the job market but has yet to utilize it in any significant way. Since most tenure-track positions are advertised in the AHA Perspectives and interviews are conducted at the AHA annual meeting, the AHA should mandate certain conditions that must be met before interviewing and advertising space is sold. If those conditions are not met, the AHA should deny departments the right to use their facilities and their ad space, thus adding substantial cost to the interviewing institutions. University HR departments and academic deans, often cited as the reason search committees are unable to communicate with applicants, would either allow the departments to comply with these provisions and foot the bill for a more expensive interview process. Lack of communication and the posting of identical positions without a hire for three or more years are two of the problems that stand out at the moment, but the usage could be expanded in future years to address new situations as the AHA sees fit.
3. Require that search committees inform applicants of their interview status via e-mail 30 days before the annual meeting. Graduate students, visiting lecturers, and independent scholars are, on the whole, not independently wealthy. Traveling across the country to stay at an upscale hotel in a major city just after the holiday season is a lot to ask, especially if a candidate has no interviews. Applicants, though, are at the mercy of the search committees, some of whom notify interviewees a week or less before the annual meeting. Applicants are forced to either keep their rooms and plane tickets past the cancellation date in the hopes that their phone will ring or pay higher airfares and higher hotel rates for last-minute bookings. Letting candidates know their interview status a month in advance would alleviate that situation and prevent the least paid of the profession from shouldering the heaviest and most burdensome travel costs. The AHA should set guidelines that search committees must let all job applicants know whether they will have an interview at the AHA 30 days before the annual meeting or face some sort of Job Register sanction up to suspension from its benefits for a set period of time as determined by the AHA.
4. Establish a general listserv for search committees and job seekers. Search committees are notorious for their lack of communications. Job seekers have pooled their resources into a number of academic career wikis, but these can be misused and are dependent on the truthfulness of the poster. The AHA can alleviate this uncertainty by creating a listserv and mandating that those who use the Job Register would agree to notify the AHA by e-mail at important phases of the job search process. Which steps those are would be open for negotiation, but everyone, committees and candidates alike, would know what those benchmarks are ahead of time. The AHA, and this is the critical step, would aggregate these notifications and send them out via a daily listserv to all job applicants who choose to subscribe. Under this system, for example, all who applied for the position in Pre-Modern China at Boise Valley State could know that the search committee has made AHA invitations, has made invitations for on-campus interviews, or that Dr. Damon Berryhill had accepted the position. Job applicants, who usually have no idea how the searches are progressing, would be more informed when fielding other offers and would no longer need to contact each institution directly for updates. Participation would also be in the hiring institution’s best interests, as it would reduce the need to communicate one on one with job candidates (a very time consuming task for search committee members) but still create a much more open system of communication for job seekers.
It is frustrating to me when scholars who have spent years examining the forces of reform and progress will take no action to better the lives of their fellow historians. Individuals who have studied the great reformers and crusaders of the past will simply throw up their hands and exclaim “its just the market!,” when confronted with horror stories of graduate students and visiting faculty on the hunt for tenure-track jobs. These people do nothing as if, by some sort of divine incantation, the injustices of the hiring process are set in stone and beyond human control. This is the attitude that needs to change the most.
It is worth mentioning that graduate students make up the largest constituency group of the AHA membership. As the H-Grad listserv and the academic careers wiki continue to gain popularity, it will not be much longer before job seekers figure out how to organize themselves and make their voices heard one way or another. One anonymous poster on the job wiki for American historians has already suggested that all job seekers flood this year’s business meeting and vote no on every provision until the AHA takes up job market reform. The leadership of the AHA should adopt these reforms, or at the very least make a reasonable effort to study them, in order to make the job market a more tolerable place for the profession’s newest members and to take the first steps toward a more equitable and open hiring process.
Michael Bowen is assistant director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and a visiting lecturer in the history department at the University of Florida.