David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

End the Conference Interview

Full 09172014 perry

Image: Video telephony in the year 2000, as imagined in 1910. From a French postcard by Villemard, 1910.

Why is it so hard to kill off the tradition of conference interviews? For decades, search committees in many fields have been holding first-round interviews at the annual meetings of their disciplinary organizations. That means the poorest and most vulnerable members of our profession--graduate students, adjuncts, and fixed-term appointees--have to spend a minimum of $1,000 just to get a shot at the next round. No one would call that a just system, and yet, it lives on.

Traditions are hard to change. From the perspective of tenured professors, it’s a system that has functioned reasonably well. We made it through the same process to gainful employment. Moreover, shifting to video interviews feels cheap. In this age of austerity, giving up the conference interview would feel like one more thing that the administration could take away from us.

It doesn’t have to be that way. But rather than rehash all the inequities here, let me offer some positive results that could emerge if we switched our first-round interviews from conference hotels to video screens.

I first wrote about conference interviews last November, after watching graduate students and adjuncts struggle with the decision of whether to book plane tickets and hotel reservations for the big annual conferences. They were waiting to find out whether they would receive a first-round interview. Meanwhile, ticket prices were rising. Hotels were filling. Search committees weren’t calling. What should they do? Frustrated on their behalf, but without much hope for an impact, I wrote two blog posts on ending the conference interview. Those posts were far from the first pieces written on the topic. While my posts sparked a lot of conversation, they had little to no effect otherwise.

A month later, as the winter holidays drew nigh and the meetings loomed large on the calendar, the issue of the conference interview really exploded across higher education media, sparking widespread debate and arguments--not just about the issue itself, but about privilege and civility and appropriate tone if one really wants to effect change.

At the end of all that debate, to my knowledge, not one hiring committee canceled their conference interviews. Of course, committees were unlikely to cancel just a few weeks or even days before the annual conference. Now, however, at the beginning of the fall semester, change is much more possible.

Here’s a vision of how a better system might look.

Imagine that the first round of interviews takes place in shiny, expertly designed, video conferencing rooms with great acoustics and reliable technology, maybe from Polycom, Cisco, or one of the other industry leaders. When a search committee isn’t using the room, graduate students or adjuncts could take advantage of the space for their own interviews. Stable networks, HD monitors, and good (but not expensive) microphones would allow us to move far past the blurry video screens and disjointed sound that so many people associate with Skype.

Best of all, in our imaginary scenario, you paid for this technology with the money you saved by not sending faculty to do interviews at a conference. Maybe your campus already has that technology and you just don’t know it (ask your IT administrator).

Another way to spend that savings would be to invite four or even five candidates to campus. Every hire is so important and you cannot make a real assessment of a candidate in a 45-minute chat in a hotel room or via Skype. Invite them to campus. Hear their work. Get to know them. You’ll figure out what you need to know, and so will they.

The key here is to make the shift from conference to video intentional and faculty-planned, rather than ad hoc, accidental, or mandated by penny-pinching administrators. Calculate the amount of money spent by your department. Then make an active proposal for how those funds could be better spent.

Shifting away from conference interviews would not destroy the big scholarly organizations, though it would change them. Perhaps the Ph.D.-granting departments could use some of the money they save in abandoning conference interviews to send their own graduate students right back to those big annual meetings--but for purely scholarly reasons. Defenders of the conference interview often cite the networking and professionalization that takes place for graduate students at the major conferences. If that is important, then send students to participate in what will undoubtedly become much better meetings. Michael Bérubé, former president of the Modern Language Association, writes, “The convention itself would undoubtedly be smaller, more manageable, less intimidating–-and most amazingly, the people there would actually want to be there. The convention would revert to being an ordinary form of scholarly exchange, unconnected to the job system.”

All of this is to say that the move away from conference interviews does not have to be a retreat, or a surrender to austerity. Instead, it could be the first step toward redefining the function of our most prominent disciplinary organizations, building new infrastructure on our campuses (high-tech video rooms could be useful for all sorts of purposes), and finding new ways to help our graduate students and adjuncts enter the field. It’s a chance to redistribute money from the messy and unjust state-of-affairs that has led us to these awful conference interviews and build something new.

The conference interview was a good idea, once upon a time. It emerged as a progressive way to make the job market fairer and to undermine a “system” in which chairs could just call around to friends and senior colleagues at prestigious departments and pick and choose their candidate (the proverbial “old-boys network”). There is a correlation between increased diversity among faculty and the standardization of the conference interview, though of course many other factors are in play as well.

Once again, times have changed. Although there have been job market crashes in the past, we seem to have shifted into an era of permanent precarity in which we train many more graduate students than there are tenure-track jobs. At the same time, we now have ever-improving technology to conduct video interviews. It can provide a cheap and relatively reliable alternative with the same levelling function.

The conference interview is a small injustice in the grand scheme of the problems we face in higher education, but it’s the rare problem that we can fix with an act of will and some sound negotiations about how to reapportion the money we save. So let’s fix it.

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