A Response to My Call to Abolish Conference Interviews

AAR_LogoBelow is a response I received to my last post calling for an end to the conference interview and the Employment Center at the AAR Annual Meeting. It comes from Ryan Woods, a graduate school colleague of mine and currently the Associate Director of Employment Services at the AAR. I post it here with his permission.

Disclaimer: what follows represents my own opinions, and in no way represents any official positions adopted by AAR/SBL.

Dear Mike,

As the Associate Director of Employment Services at the American Academy of Religion, I read your post with great interest. As a veteran job seeker, I sympathize with many of complaints you ventilate. The onerous costs that candidates must assume to interview at the Annual Meetings represent a moral quandary. Your suggestions for reducing these burdens deserve careful consideration as AAR seeks more effective and equitable ways to serve our constituents. However, to make meaningful improvements, we need to disentangle problematic AAR policies from the larger landscape of employment practices in higher education. In particular, progress depends on distinguishing systemic issues from those specifically generated by Employment Services and recognizing the limits of reforming measures.

It is a travesty that, as you observe, “the constituency within the AAR with the least resources, the least funding, and the least institutional support is required to attend the annual meeting with no promise that it is even worth their while.” Indeed, I read an article just this morning that inventoried the high costs of attending the Annual Meetings, and the Chronicle recently ran a feature on how the exorbitant fees of attending a professional meeting of sociologists had deterred members from participating. Another blogger advanced a spirited proposition to abandon conference interviews altogether. Horror stories of unsupported graduate students and penniless adjuncts maxing out credit cards in the faint hope of securing a position on the tenure track have become staples in this literature. But their narratives no longer occupy the periphery; they have come to be emblematic of the bleak realities that a growing population of candidates faces.

I know these difficult circumstances from personal experience. Last year, I was on the market for a second year. Marginally employed, I was not planning to deliver a paper or participate in a panel at the Annual Meeting. Because I had defended my dissertation earlier that spring, I was no longer receiving institutional support to attend conferences. The later I waited to register and make travel reservations, the higher the prices climbed. Financial exigency finally made the cost prohibitive. Consequently, I decided against renewing my membership or registering for the Annual Meeting. Just three days before the Annual Meeting, an employer contacted me for an interview. I informed him that I was no longer planning to travel to Baltimore, but could arrange to meet on campus for a preliminary interview (fortunately, the campus was conveniently located less than an hour from my parents’ house). We convened shortly after Thanksgiving weekend on a windy, leaf-strewn Midwestern campus for a half-hour interview. A few months passed, and then the search chair rang again, this time to inform me that I was a finalist for the opening. In the end, I wasn’t offered the position. But in the process, I came to appreciate the sober calculations that many job seekers and institutions are making this time of year. Given these challenges, many rational actors – like myself – will select from among the products offered by the AAR based on both fiscal and practical considerations. An increasing number of both employers and candidates may choose to arrange interviews outside the Annual Meeting.

In the light of these experiences, I think we should reframe the discussion. AAR and SBL are not so much “charging admission” (since one is not formally required to purchase any of their products) as offering a range of services from which students can select. To understand how and why students select from among these options, it is useful to distinguish the various services offered to employment candidates. There is membership, first of all, which entitles one to view employment listings. Because most tenure-track offerings in the field are advertised on the auxiliary employment website (although it is noteworthy that academic job wikis have eroded this monopoly to an extent), this is a valuable service for job seekers. Membership costs $55 for both graduate students and those who make less than $20,000. This is comparable to dues assessed by peer societies such as the American Philosophical Association or the American Historical Association. To interview onsite at the Annual Meeting, one has to be there. That means that candidates must register for the Annual Meeting, make travel plans, and reserve lodgings. These procedures are connected, since the AAR and SBL negotiate discounted hotel rates based on the number of registrations they have in hand. The size and timing of the registration cohort therefore determines cost. Consequently, the longer a candidate waits to register, the higher the charges rise, for the same reasons that hotel costs and flights tend to increase the longer one waits to make reservations. Finally, for a fee of $25, candidates may register with the Employment Center, which allows them to post their credentials online for employer review and communicate confidentially with employers. None of these services is required, and the first two services (membership and registration for the Annual Meeting) are not exclusively associated with the Employment Center. This invites selective consumption. One might become a member, for example, but choose not to attend the Annual Meeting, arranging for Skype interviews. Alternatively, a member might attend the Annual Meeting but choose not to register with the Employment Center. To be sure, each decision has consequences. Not renewing one’s membership means missing out on other membership benefits as well as potentially missing a job listing. Missing the Annual Meeting entails foregoing opportunities for networking and scholarly conversation as well as interviewing in person. A member who doesn’t register for the Employment Center forecloses on an avenue for exposure: a potential employer might review her credentials and request an interview onsite. As with deciding whether to attend a job fair in a distant city, these deliberations will always involve an aleatory element. Many calculations must be made well in advance of the meeting, with limited resources, and without assurance that these investments will pay dividends.

Given the costs associated with conference interviewing, one begins to wonder why constituents continue to pay for any of these services. If the logic is so irresistible – if “moving candidates to a central location is wasteful, foolish, unnecessary, and [sic] puts an undue burden on job seekers” – then why don’t more candidates and employers embargo the Annual Meetings? For that matter, why do employers at all learned societies continue to host interviews at their annual meetings and conferences in the age of Google Hangouts? In a time when universities are increasingly wary of their bottom lines, withdrawing from the Employment Center would seem an obvious means of saving money. Candidates could likewise circumvent the costs and game the system by cutting out the intermediaries and communicating directly with prospective employers. Although the inertia of tradition might influence the continued demand for centralized interviewing, it seems inadequate to explain why employers cling to pipe-and-drapes cubicles. Likewise, the observation that “hope springs eternal” seems not to cast much light on candidates’ behavior. Candidates are as aware as anyone of their meager prospects as they populate the flickering pixels of registration forms with their Visa card accounts.

The reason, I think, lies in the intangible benefits afforded by attendance and participation in the Annual Meetings. Employers and candidates prefer to exchange ideas and interview in person at a central location for the some of the same reasons they prefer to teach in person rather than online. Delivering a paper, networking with other candidates and employers, attending employment workshops – all these benefits are hard to communicate virtually. An employer can’t catch a candidate’s presentation if the candidate isn’t attending. Employment seekers like to ask colleagues at a university reception about departmental ethos or gossip about the search chair’s previous appointment with a recent acquaintance from a panel discussion. Most candidates and employers agree that viva voce interviews provide better venues for assessing the “fit” between institutional needs and candidate dispositions than mediated conversations. And as long as employers are attending the Annual Meetings on the university’s dime, it’s convenient for them. So long as those preferences exist, there will always be some demand for onsite interviews.

You maintain that AAR should stop paywalling the advertisements, dismantle the Employment Center at the Annual Meetings, and – failing those two prescriptions – waive registration fees for students and recent graduates (within the past two years). The first proposal has been under discussion for a while. Some other learned societies (such as APA and MLA) do not make membership a prerequisite for viewing employment listings; others (such as AHA) do. To be clear, though, the question is more complicated than just freeing the advertisements. Membership confers privileges aside from access to employment listings. We think it is valuable for anyone in the field of religious studies – not just job seekers – to be affiliated with AAR/SBL, for reasons that transcend the search for employment. But we might be able to do more. A colleague recently floated the “drug dealer” model of membership for graduate students in their first year of studies: for this trial period, one’s membership is free, followed by the resumption of a normal fee structure. It might be useful to waive membership fees as a “graduation present” to newly minted PhDs. Perhaps AAR could further discount the student rate, and lower the corresponding dues for the lowest income bracket in our membership. Personally, I would consider jettisoning the Candidate Registration fee ($25) and make it a membership privilege. The other two prescriptions are less feasible. As long as employers and candidates prefer to attend annual meetings and interview in person, the Employment Center is here to stay. Moreover, there are some advantages to retaining a centralized apparatus with standardized policies and reserved spaces for interviewing. If you’re going to have onsite interviews, the best protection against intoxicated committee members questioning candidates in bedroom suites is to provide a public venue governed by a single code of conduct. Still, it might be worthwhile to consider levelling the playing field for virtual interviewers by providing Skype services in the interview booths. Suspending registration fees for the Annual Meeting is the least negotiable proposition. Because registrations for the Annual Meeting give the AAR bargaining power with hotels and convention centers, waiving these fees might end up costing candidates even more in the larger picture. Even here, though, perhaps we could consider adjusting the financial incentives to be less punitive or discounting registration rates to candidates. It would be worth scrutinizing.

Much of this depressing state of affairs lies beyond the scope of AAR’s purview and capacity to change. As you know well, an anemic job market is not unique to the field of religious studies. In fact, it is much worse in other disciplines. A disproportionate number of candidates vying for a dwindling number of full-time positions means intense competition. Institutional bureaucracy and sclerotic hiring procedures extend timelines for contacting candidates, disadvantaging them in the registration process. Employers sometimes insist on personal meetings, or treat virtual interviewers as second-class. Although AAR cannot turn back the tide of these changes in employment practices, we can listen to our constituents and continually reassess our services in view of their needs. Perhaps we can consider reducing some fees for candidates, or collapsing some services into others. We can offer more useful employment workshops. Maybe we can provide financial incentives to encourage institutions to contact candidates earlier, to assume some of the costs of candidates being onsite, or to offer greater consideration for those who cannot interview onsite. But we can only help to improve the experience of job seekers if members and institutions demand it and participate in the process of reform.

Thanks for opening the conversation with your article. It’s a timely issue to consider. But weighty problems are best discussed over drinks at an AAR reception. See you in San Diego, I hope.

Best,

Ryan

The $200 Handshake: Why We Should Stop Doing Job Interviews at Conferences #SBLAAR14

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It is time for search committees to stop interviewing candidates at national conferences. It is time for the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature to dissolve the (un)Employment Center.

Over the weekend I noticed some posts in my Facebook timeline from friends and colleagues who are on the job market about the upcoming American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego. One person was lamenting the $500 she spent out of her pocket for a plane ticket to a conference where she wasn’t even sure she’d have any job interviews. Another was asking when he should arrive in order to be there the right days for any interviews he might get. So, here are two young scholars, not yet on the tenure track, trying to find the time and money to attend a conference for imaginary job interviews they don’t even know about yet. This makes absolutely no sense. The constituency within the AAR with the least resources, the least funding, and the least institutional support is required to attend the annual meeting with no promise that it is even worth their while.

I had the privilege of landing a tenure-track job in my second year on the job market. I was fortunate. But both those years, I did not hear about job interviews at the AAR until a week or so before the conference. Luckily, I was already planning to go because I was presenting papers and involved with programming. Luckily, I had institutional funding to go. But what if I didn’t? What would have happened if I told a search committee chair on the phone, “I won’t be at the AAR, but I’d be happy to interview over Skype?”

Look at the conference fees and the membership dues for the AAR. Even if they register in May (for imaginary November interviews) student candidates will have to pay $140 in registration and membership fees. Someone who has finished their Ph.D. but is still looking for a tenure-track job would pay at least $210 and up to $465 depending on what they make in their non-TT position. These non-TT members are the one’s who are least likely to have funding. On top of these fees you also have to add in travel and hotel costs for an imaginary interview you don’t even know you’ll really ever have.

Why do we charge an admission fee for a job interview?

At the heart of this ridiculousness sits the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  There are two sides to the Employment Center. First, there’s the digital side. These are the job listings that departments pay to have listed. They are only available to AAR members who have paid the membership dues. For an extra $25 ($50 if you do it on-site) candidates can also submit their C.V. to a database, get a sweet printout of the job listings at the conference, and communicate with search committees through an arcane messaging system. I paid to register for this twice and I think it was totally worthless. The other side of the Employment Center is physical. It’s a place. A place deep in the bowels of a conference center. It is a large ballroom divided into cubicles for interviews and a bullpen for candidates to wait until someone emerges and calls their name. It is the most depressing place on Earth. It is unnecessary. The Employment Center is a wast of resources. Rather than force candidates to travel to the national meeting, search committees should take advantage of Skype or one of the many other options for conducting video interviews. Moving job candidates to a central location is wasteful, foolish, unnecessary, and puts an undue burden on job seekers. The constituents of the American Academy of Religion do not need the Employment Center. It is a matchmaker in the time of Tinder.

So, all of that said, what should the AAR do for candidates? Here are two things.

1. Get rid of the Employment Center

2. Take the Employment Listings out from behind the paywall. Free the jobs!

If the AAR can’t do these two things, then it has an obligation to do something else:

No conference registration fees for students and recent Ph.D.s (within the past 2 years).

Students make up about a third of the AAR membership, according to the AAR. I don’t know how much of the meeting attendees they make up but I’d guess a lot. Nonetheless, it’s time to get rid of the $200 handshake. If the AAR won’t stop the conference interview then it should at least make them cheap–as in free. I’m not the first to recommend something along these lines. When you get that phone call from a search committee chair saying, “We’d love to speak with you about our position.” You’re reaction shouldn’t be “How the hell will I pay for that?” It should be:

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UPDATE 2:48 pm 10/20:  I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that I’ve low balled the costs. It’s not just a $200 handshake. This is true. I went with 200 bucks anticipating a “REAL scholars always go to the meeting anyway” response from those defending the status quo. Philip Tite has a great breakdown of the full cost. He sets the minimum at $1525 and the max at over $2400.

How To Rid Yourself of a Constructivist Argument in 3 Easy Steps

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Step one: Assert that the constructivist is saying nothing new.

A constructivists’ criticisms are obviously true and we know this already and we’ve already incorporated them into our work and so all this is old news

Step two: Assert that the constructivist is wrong.

These criticisms are obviously false because they misrepresent how real people (ie., not academics) understand religion themselves

Step three: Assert that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter whether these criticisms are true or false because we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing anyway and so all this critique amounts to is time-wasting navel gazing that distracts us from doing the real work that we’ve already decided to do. For this last reason, deconstructive critiques that tell us that work in religious studies is analytically incoherent are not helpful because they might prevent scholars of religion from doing the analytically incoherent work that we will inevitably do because, hey, no one’s perfect.

(Thanks, Finbarr.)

What Podcasts Do You Put in Your Ears?

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I’m working on a review essay that covers the various academic podcasts about religion and religious studies  that have appeared in the past few years. I’m limiting myself to academic podcasts, or at least podcasts that feature academics. So, I’m not including things like Interfaith Voices or On Being. I am interested in podcasts not necessarily in religious studies but that have scholars discussing religion, such as the Junto Podcasts. Here’s a list of what I have so far.

What am I missing?

Let me know in the comments or on Twitter/Facebook/Morse code/carrier pigeon/YO.

Publications
Journal of Southern Religion http://jsr.fsu.edu/new-media/
Directions in the Study of Religion- Marginalia http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/category/interviews/
First Impressions- Marginalia http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/category/interviews/

Groups/Projects
Religious Studies Project http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/
New Books Network http://newbooksnetwork.com/

Universities/Centers
McGill http://podcasts.mcgill.ca/tags/religious-studies/
Oxford http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/keywords/religion
Research on Religion http://www.researchonreligion.org/
Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict https://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/religion-and-conflict/id383721017?mt=10#ls=1

Subfield
The World of Islam: Culture, Religion, and Politics http://aminetais.podbean.com/
The Junto Podcast Network: http://earlyamericanists.com/the-junto-podcast-network/

Hindoos, Hindus, Spelling, and Theory

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about “Hinduism in nineteenth century America.” But it’s really not. It’s not about Hinduism at all. It can’t be because the idea of “Hinduism,” a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. That’s kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term “Hindu” to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term “Hindoo.” Hindoo–that double O of colonialism.

So, here’s the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

On the one hand, you could argue that though the sources read Hindoo, it makes sense for the scholar today to write Hindu, even when talking about the 1820s. There are all sorts of terms that we alter when we bring them into the present from the past. No one puts the long S in their scholarly prose, for example. So, maybe Hindoo to Hindu is just like taking that long s out of Congress in the Bill of Rights?

The long s in "Congress" from the Bill of Rights

The long s in “Congress” from the Bill of Rights

But maybe it’s not. It seems to me a Hindu is actually someone quite different from a Hindoo. That is, a Hindu is someone tied up with this world religion called Hinduism. There is the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or World Hindu Council), and the Pew Research Center tallies up the number of “Hindus” in America. But in the early nineteenth century, a Hindoo was a product of the American and British imagination. When I discuss what Americans thought about India and the people who lived there and these things they did that Americans thought were religion, I am not talking about people in South Asia. I’m talking about representations of people in South Asia. These Hindoos are imaginary. “Hindoos” and their religion were invented by Europeans and Americans. During this period, people in India did not present themselves to an American audience. Rather, they were represented by American and European authors to an American audience and in that process they were represented as Hindoos.

Perhaps the one exception to this would be the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy who wrote in English to an American and British audience. However, Roy self-identified as a “Hindoo,” as in his work “A Defence of Hindoo Theism.” Swami-Vivekananda-Hindoo-Monk-posterEven as late as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Americans represented Swami Vivekananda, the South Asian who garnered an audience throughout America, as a “Hindoo Monk.” Vivekananda and Rammohun Roy served as transitional figures as Hindoos became Hindus. That is, as South Asians went from imagined representations to immigrants representing themselves in American culture. In 1893 Vivekananda was a “Hindoo monk” but by 1930 he is part of a “Hindu Movement” in Wendell Thomas’s book Hinduism Invades America. Vivekananda goes from Hindoo to Hindu, from a South Asian represented by Americans in Chicago to the founder of a movement representing itself in America.

Here’s the shift from Hindoo to Hindu in one handy Ngram. The lines cross in the year 1884:

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For most of my brief career I’ve fallen back on the term “Hindu religions” to describe whatever it was that Americans and the British were trying to describe in their writing. But I’ve decided to eject that term from my work going forward because it implies that there is something there that is essentially “Hindu” before someone labels it as such. There is no there there, however. There is only the discourse about whatever people in South Asia seem to be doing to Europeans and Americans. So, I’m going back to Hindoo, colonial Os and all, to emphasize that nothing is “Hindu” or “Hindoo” until someone categorizes it as such. And then, once categorized, my job is to unpack the conflicts, arguments, ideologies, claims, and competitions behind that categorization. But I am curious to hear from others on this question–and similar questions about, say, “evangelical” or other such categories. Is this all simply a word game?

 

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Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion

The Buddha, as many in the West understand him, was invented in the nineteenth century, says Donald Lopez.

This Europeanized image of the Buddha emerged after hundreds of years of Christian misconceptions about the Buddha, argued Lopez. During visits to Asia, Europeans had seen different images of the Buddha, represented in the various artistic styles of places such as Thailand, India, China, and Japan. In each country, the Buddha also had different names that were translations of Indian names and epithets into the local languages. Seeing different images and hearing different names, Christian writers assumed that Buddhists worshipped multiple gods, and that the representations of the Buddha were idols of several different deities.

Eventually, European scholars gained the skills to translate Buddhist texts, and European readers began to have a better understanding of Buddhist thought and beliefs. At the same time, however, the Buddha became more European.

Lopez’s point about the various representations of the Buddha that European (and American) missionaries encountered is well taken. It took a long time for Europeans and Americans to unite “Lamaism” in Tibet and “the religion of Foe” in China and those texts and statues they found in India under the term “Buddhism.” In A Dictionary of All Religions, Hannah Adams scattered what we now call Buddhism among various groups including: “Birmins,” “Budso,” Chinese, and “Thibetians.” And, of course, all of these fell under the larger rubric of “heathens.”

But I do take issue with the idea of “misconceptions” and a later “better understanding.” Hannah Adams did not necessarily get it wrong. There’s good reason to treat what folks are doing in Burma or Thailand as something very different from what they are doing in Japan or Tibet. There was no essentially real Buddhism out there to be misconceived or better understood. As Tomoko Masuzawa wrote in her excellent chapter on Buddhism in The Invention of World Religions:

In effect, the scholarship on Buddhism was from the beginning constructingor “discovering,” as one might prefer to put it–a decidedly non-national religion, a qualitatively universal(istic) religion, that is to say, a Weltreligion, or world religion.

Europeans and Americans conceived of Buddhism as a world religion not because of “misconceptions” that were corrected by “better understandings,” but because it served their purposes within a growing discourse of “world religions” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Buddha became European because Europeans imagined him in their own image to server their own purposes. The “Europeanized image of the Buddha,” is not a misconception of a pan-Asian religion, but an example of a European construction of religion that can reveal something about what was on the mind of nineteenth century European and American scholars of religion.

Incidentally, I’m teaching a class along these lines in the fall.

“Diverses Pagodes et Penitences des Faquirs.”

“Native” is not a native term

A colleague on categories of practice and categories of analysis:

That this distinction between practice and analysis is itself a form of identification for that thing we come to call the academy is certain (for we can indeed study the social practice of scholarship itself, no?), but I would argue that the result of these practices, the social formation that we call the academy, is comprised of interests different from those of the people whose lives its members describe. This difference cannot go unnoticed, however, all depending on the degree of affinity the scholar may feel for the lives of the people he or she may study. But we must never forget that defining and studying their culture is our culture, no matter how sympathetic or empathetic one aims to be in carrying out that role; for it is hardly a compliment to the people they may happen to study for scholars to fail to see that their own lives are rather different from living the lives of those others who have no benefit of the critical distance and time for reflection, reconsideration, writing, reading, and discussion that scholars may take for granted.

So, “native” isn’t a native term. That is, there is no “other” out there in the world without first an “us” to posit them. This is what I’ve seen in my study of American encounters with India during the nineteenth century. For American Protestants, the “Hindu” and “Hinduism” came into being through a process of categorizing everyone that wasn’t “American” or “Protestant.” So it was that the “heathen” in the late eighteenth century became a “Hindu” in 1893.