The Fate of the "AHA Interview"Historians in the News
tags: AHA, history, academia, job interviews
John R. McNeill is president of the AHA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thousands of historians, young and old, know the anxiety of interviewing for a job at the AHA annual meeting. For a half century and probably longer, the meeting has served as the primary site for preliminary job interviews, held in hotel rooms and suites as well as a designated space upon which generations of job seekers have bestowed not-so-nice nicknames. I remember it as “the pit.”
In the months ahead, the AHA’s Professional Division will take up the question of whether the AHA should continue in this tradition or exit the interview business entirely. Convention interviews once seemed to make the job market less unfair. They replaced a system based more heavily on personal contacts and phone calls from influential doctoral advisers. Nowadays, more and more preliminary interviews take place via videoconference anyway. So is in-person interviewing at the annual meeting worth continuing?
From my own experience—vast, if I do say so myself—I can see both sides of the question. For three straight years in the 1980s, I went to AHA annual meetings to interview. Like many people, I found it disagreeable, although I doubt I ever pondered the validity of the practice. The memory most searingly etched into my mind came in 1983, in Washington, DC. I had an interview scheduled in a suite in one of the two Woodley Park hotels. I went up to room 1328 (I believe it was) and, at the appointed hour, knocked repeatedly on a door without an answer, before it dawned on me that I might be in the wrong building. I sprinted to the other hotel, arriving 20 minutes late. I put my ear to the door, heard voices, debated with my frantic self about whether it was worth it, and knocked. A shortened interview ultimately led to an appointment at Goucher College—for which I am forever indebted to professors Jean Baker and Julie Jeffrey, the voices behind the door who overlooked my manifest failings. Perhaps I appeared more at ease than in other interviews because I was sure I had sabotaged whatever chance I might have had.
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