Why I’m not a member of the American Historical Association and speech codes

Since October 7th’s Cliopatria blog entry by Ralph Luker about the anti-speech-code resolution he and David Beito are sponsoring for January 2007 meeting of the American Historical Association, I’ve been wondering how to respond. It wasn’t about the resolution itself (about which I’ll talk later) but the fact that I haven’t been an AHA member for years, and why I haven’t.

It’s the Job Registry, also known as the Professional Respect Abattoir. I don’t mean that search committees kill professional respect.  Outside the Job Registry (and similar institutions at the American Philosophical Association and other professional organizations), they’re as good as they can be (though I have heard my share of horror stories from colleagues about their job searches).  And inside the Job Registry, they do their best laboring in a structure that is guaranteed to treat applicants as scam victims.

Let me start with the AHA’s own guidelines for the hiring process: “Interviewing and hiring should be based solely on professional criteria.” But that’s not what happens at the Job Registry, which weeds out starving grad students and other applicants who cannot afford to travel to the AHA.  To interview at a campus, an applicant needs to have sent in an application, prepare a job talk and several things if there is a teaching exercise, have appropriate professional attire, and go. To interview at the Job Registry, an applicant needs to do the above, pay the registration fees, housing costs, and then travel and eat in an expensive convention-hotel area.  Because search committees don’t contact applicants until late in the fall, after the best airfares are often gone, those who are on a job search generally have to make plans (and pay for travel) before hearing whether they’ll actually be interviewed.

And then there’s the environment of the job registry itself.  From a 1972 report of the AHA:

Too often graduate students have been forced to think of the annual convention as, indeed, a slave block, and the arrangements provided have done nothing to diminish that impression. As employment opportunities have decreased, this sense has become even more acute.

I wrote about this in 1998 and 2001, but if you don’t believe me that the registry is doomed to have a graveyard stench, take a more recent gander of the sense of Another Damned Medievalist (from 2004):

People were right. The meat market set-up tends to create a group of job-seekers who exude fear, paranoia, jealousy, and hatred.

What I wrote more than five years ago is still true: I am certain that AHA officials have gone to great efforts to make an essentially humiliating experience a tad less like a meat market. Maybe it’s now a quieter abattoir. Departments continue to spend hundreds of dollars to send exhausted faculty to places where they get headaches listening to desperate graduate students or Ph.D.s who spent hundreds of dollars getting to the AHA for the sole purpose of the job registry. Why? Because that’s how history departments “have always” conducted searches since the change from old-boy networks to advertised searches with bureaucratized procedures. Having interviews at the AHA has an opportunity cost, given fixed costs for searches: reducing the number of candidates invited to campus. I’m not saying that academic searches in fields without a similar forum are more ethical or less painful for the unsuccessful applicants. However, they are less expensive for both applicants and the searching campus. In today’s environment, with the capacity to have teleconferencing at a relatively low cost to an institution (given the existing infrastructure), and where grad students and independent scholars can participate in such virtual interviews at low cost to them, it’s inexcusable to use “the way we’ve done it in the past” to justify the continued existence of the Job Registry.

So, back to the AHA resolution on speech codes.  See more from Michael Berube, Hiram Hover, Luker’s response, and Hover’s rebuttal. I’m surprised that Hiram Hover refers to the AAUP statement on speech codes, since it uses the term in precisely the way that HH thinks is sloppy and is forceful in a way that HH doesn’t find justified.  But no matter: if you are going to quibble about the terminology (which I think is essentially what’s going on), then suggest alternative language.  Since the AHA passed the resolution on the misnamed Academic Bill of Rights last year, it’s perfectly appropriate to push something on speech codes.

Also, the AHA is in Atlanta on a weekend where there’s another event I frequent, so I could combine business with pleasure (I’m not sure which would be which).  But if this resolution passes, maybe I’ll become active, if only to shut down the Job Registry once and for all.  Anyone want to help me with the logistics of getting a resolution to the floor removing the Job Registry?

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