UPDATED: The AAR Vice Presidential Election and the Illusion of Choice

I just started (binge) watching the USA show Mr. Robot. It’s good. You should watch it. One thing  really like about the show is that it often turns critical attention the language of freedom and choice in our society. The whole show is really built on the question of how free we are in modern neoliberal late capitalist America. Of course, all of this on a network owned by Comcast. I especially liked this scene from the second episode:

Choice seems like a moment of freedom. It’s agency, right? But choice always happens within regimes of power that dictate the choices on the table. Choice is an illusion. And, as the show explores, it is the illusion of choice that constructs the modern self as consumer, voter, actor, and agent. Yet that self is always hemmed in. Choice is never free. Our choices are always between the things given us.

And so, let’s look at the two options presented by the nominations committee of the American Academy of Religion for AAR Vice President. One the one hand there is David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics and director of a theology center at Mercer University. On the Other hand there is Kendall Soulen, a systematic theologian at Wesley Theological Seminary. Whoever is elected Vice President will serve as VP for a year, then President-elect, and then, finally, President. They will have three years of work within the AAR and one year of important influence as President. They are elected by the AAR membership.

For members of the AAR who, like myself, do not do theological work, who do not engage in constructive work within a religious tradition, who approach religion as social/historical/cultural/discursive construction, and who work within state universities, there is no representative candidate. I am not a theologian.

While there is a lot that could be said about the two candidates–and I encourage AAR members to investigate who these candidates are beyond their brief AAR statements–it is the lack of a real choice that I find frustrating in this situation. Looking back at the last three years, the nominations committee has offered members a choice between a theologian/constructive/ethicist candidate and a more religious studies/historical/cultural studies candidate. Granted these categories are my own invention and imprecise, but a look at the candidates reveals real differences in their approaches to the study of religion. For example, last year Eddie Glaude, a historian in a religious studies department, won against Dwight Hopkins, a theologian in a divinity school. Before that, Thomas Tweed won against Mark Jordan–another historian/religious studies scholar winning election over a theologian (though Jordan’s work is much broader than just theology, in my view). Three years ago bioethicist Laurie Zoloth defeated religious studies scholar Naomi Goldberg. My point here is that for the past three years at least, there has been a choice between two scholars with very different approaches to the study of religion and, one would assume, different visions for the AAR. I don’t know if this has been the case even further back because such information isn’t readily available.

Either way, the decision to nominate two Protestant theologians, one of whom is an ordained Baptist minister, strikes me as major problem. There’s not a real difference between Soulen and Gushee in their vision for the future of the AAR. For example, here’s Gushee on the need for methodological diversity within the AAR:

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And here’s Soulen:

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Both candidates want more theology in the AAR and they want those who do critical work to play nicer with the theologians. That many AAR members would consider a Baptist minister and theologian their subject of study rather than their conversation partner doesn’t seem to strike either candidate as a problem. That critical scholars of religion might not want to “hospitably” “embrace” their data and would rather the AAR spend its energy promoting and supporting critical academic work in religious studies is ignored. “Methodological diversity” is assumed to be a universal good without any fear about how such methodological diversity can lead to institutional and disciplinary incoherence.

How do I defend my discipline to my dean and my students if our major professional organization chooses to build a tent so big it’s incoherent?

More to the point, why has the deck been stacked? Why is the only choice for our future AAR leader a choice between theology and theology? Why even give us the illusion of choice?

But of course, I should know better. Critical scholars of religion should know better. Because this is how institutions work. AAR activities produce AAR members. It is only in this moment of frustration at the AAR election that I really feel like an AAR member and thus the power of the institution is reinforced. In short, it doesn’t matter what the election is, it only matters that there is an election. Because the illusion of choice reinforces the authority of the institution.

Yet, I still wonder why the nominations committee chose these two candidates. Was there a fear that we’d have a third straight religious studies scholar VP? Are there theologians out there complaining?

Only the people on that committee know. And we’ll probably never know. And one of these two candidates will win. And the AAR will go on. And I’ll be there in Atlanta this November and the next year too.

UPDATE: 12:41 pm central time

Aaron Hughes, at the University of Rochester, has published his own open letter to the members of the AAR expressing his fears about the nominations. As he puts it,

The key phrase for me here is “rich diversity.” I do not see any diversity whatsoever in these two candidates or in their visions for what the AAR should be. I think that the Nominations Committee has, thus, failed in its mission of providing members with a real choice of intellectual vision.

He is boycotting the election.

For my part, I did not cast a vote for the VP or for the At-large member of the board. I did vote in the other elections.

How Not To Be a Senior Scholar

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I remember almost two years ago when American historian Edmund Morgan died. I had read Morgan’s Visible Saints as part of my doctoral exams but, not being a historian by training or researching the colonial period, I hadn’t read much else of his work. But after his death I read a lot about Morgan. I read stories from his graduate students, from his colleagues, and from scholars who had come into contact with the man one way or another. It seemed like every historian of a certain generation had some story about him.

Jill Lepore called him “the E.B. White of the historical profession.” As she put it, “Edmund Morgan liked, especially, to teach his students how to make and sharpen a quill. None were ever so sharp as his.” John Mack Faragher described his experience in a two semester seminar with Morgan in graduate school. I love that moment in the fourth paragraph where Faragher drops from “Morgan” to “Ed.” Because he didn’t know MORGAN. He knew Ed.  Faragher quotes another of Morgan’s students, Karen Halttunen:

“But perhaps the most important thing I learned in Ed’s seminar,” Halttunen continues, “was conveyed silently. From the model of scholarship and teaching he provided, I learned that the greatest of historians–such as himself–do not tolerate intellectual arrogance whether in others or in themselves. To me, this wasn’t simply a lesson in good academic manners; it was an important insight into what makes intellectual greatness like that of Morgan’s. Towards the end of his life, Isaac Newton captured this quality, by likening himself to a boy playing on the sea shore, occasionally finding a smoother pebble or shell than ordinary, ‘whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’ I think Ed conveyed to his students that we were all of us just like Newton’s boy on the beach. Most of us needed to hear this, and most of us, I suspect, have never forgotten it.”

It seems to me there are two ways to be a senior scholar at an elite institution. You can invest in your students and in the young scholars coming after you. You can teach them. You can mentor them. You can serve them. You can love them.

Or, you can imagine yourself too busy, too important, or too smart for that. You can imagine that you don’t have to engage with a graduate student that isn’t “yours.” You can offer “counsel” that doesn’t teach, or build up, or help a younger scholar grow.

At some level, regardless of prestige level, every professor makes this choice, whether he or she knows it or not. Do I serve my students, my colleagues, my field, or do I serve myself? There are two ways to be a senior scholar, be sure you choose the right one. Because when you’re dead, no one reads your C.V. But they do tell stories about you.

Grown up problems

Why I Don’t Blog As Much Anymore

There have been a spate of posts lately about why scholars blog. This is not a new genre. People have been encouraging academics to blog for almost a decade now. But as Russell McCutcheon, Thomas Whitley, Adam Miller, and Steven Ramey show, scholars are still thinking about whether or not they should blog and what it means for their careers.

I have a very different experience when it comes to blogging. I’m really not blogging as much as I did in graduate school. There are a couple reasons for this. First, the returns on blogging diminish as one transitions from graduate student to contingent faculty to the tenure track. In the first two stages it’s important to appear active, to cultivate an audience, to make sure people in the field know what you are doing. For all of these reasons, there is a big upside to blogging for non-tenure track scholars. In short, blogging is an asset before you get a tenure track job. Audiences and attention are part of the coin of the realm for the non-TT scholar.

But once you have that job (Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise) a ton of new things drop from the sky and onto your desk. You dissertation is now a book manuscript, you are developing new courses, you are part of a department and it demands things of you, the administration is counting on you and they want research, and you’ve just moved to a new city and are trying to figure that out too. The coin of the realm has shifted to peer reviewed publications, assessments of your teaching, and becoming someone you department can’t function without. Because these are things that your tenure and promotion depend on. The audience reach, the clicks, the shares, the networks, and all that attention blogging might bring you aren’t worth as much.

In my experience, blogging is something you should outgrow as a scholar. Blog early and often in grad school. Take everything your write in your seminars and turn it into a blog. Get on twitter. Blog this, blog that. Blog it all. Blog your dissertation. Blog your conference papers. Instagram the books you’re reading. Tweet the marginalia of your reading. Put it all out there. Build an audience. And do all of this while you do excellent research, write an excellent dissertation, and gain teaching experience. Because you have to be good at everything these days. Build an audience, meet people, make friends online and off. Become the one everyone thinks of whenever your research topic comes up over drinks….”You know, So-and-so is working on that for her dissertation. I really can’t wait for the book…”

Then if whatever gods you propitiate happen to bless you with a tenure track job, stop blogging.

By that point you should have an audience. People should already be interested in what you have to say. Everyone now sees your potential. And it’s time to deliver on it. Write articles, write book chapters, and revise that damn manuscript. Hopefully all that blogging will open up some doors for other, peer-reviewed, writing opportunities. Turn that mountain of potential you’ve ginned up into peer-reviewed research that will get you tenure.

Ok, I have to go write now.


How To Use Your Scholarly Society to Promote Young Scholars

The following post comes from my new newsletter. I’ve decided to blog less and use the newsletter for thoughts like these. You should subscribe here to get the goods. 

The North American Association for the Study of Religion, or NAASR, just released its program for the 2015 meeting this November in Atlanta. And it is an excellent example of how to foster the careers of young scholars.

For those who don’t know about NAASR, I’d suggest you read this great interviewwith the new NAASR president (and colleague of mine here at Alabama), Russell McCutcheon. NAASR meets concurrently with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and is an affiliated society within the AAR. As McCutcheon describes it, NAASR is “a small but active scholarly association, that meets annually and publishes peer review research, with an emphasis on the role theories and methodologies play in making scholarship on religion possible, persuasive, and innovative.”

Anyways, this year NAASR totally reimagined the usual call for papers and conference program formula. This year the call for papers solicited abstracts for papers to set up four panels at the annual meeting that would focus around pre-circulated full length papers. These full-length papers would then be responded to by a set of respondents who would think with and through the papers. But here’s the great part. When the final program came out this week it became clear that these respondents were all early career scholars–from graduate students to newly minted assistant professors. I am happy to be one of these respondents. And to make things even better, all the papers and responses from the meeting will become a published anthology.

This is how you grow the field. This is how you encourage good work. And this is how you help emerging scholars become established scholars. Get them involved. Invite them to serve as respondents on dynamic panels “with the grown ups” who have tenure. And get them published.

Kudos to the NAASR organizers for putting this promising program together. In ten years I hope we’ll look back at this program and we’ll all be surprised just how many “established” scholars were “emerging” at this conference.

Stuff That I Wrote Recently

My response as part of a panel on Amanda Porterfield’s book Conceived in Doubt appeared in Fides et Historia. 

I wrote an article about how I use blogging in my classes.

I’m also really proud of this blog post over at Religion in American history about belief and surveillance. I might work on this some more–there’s probably and article to write here.

Also, check out our new design over at Sacred Matters. Very clean.

What I’m Working on Now

I just finished a couple short encyclopedia entries on the India and Hinduism for the Diction of American History, Supplement: America in the World, 1776 to the Present.

I also just wrapped up an article reviewing the various podcasts in the religious studies that have been produced in the past few years. I also get into the question of what podcasting religious studies should look like. That should come out in Religion sometime in the future.

But the big project right now is a chapter for anthology on “the fiscal turn” in American religious history. I was asked to write about Hinduism and Buddhism (surprise) and business/money. Plugging away at that.

That’s it for this one. Now, don’t forget to subscribe!

Four Takeaways from the AAR / SBL Jobs Report

The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature released a new report about the job market based on data drawn from the AAR/SBL job listings for the 2013-2014 academic year. The report builds on previous data that dates back to January 2001.

Graduate programs in religious studies and theology should hand this report to their incoming students. They should email it to everyone in their program. They should have a seminar on it for their first-year students. Make it required reading and spend an hour discussing it. Have the conversation.

Here four takeaways I got from the report.

1. We must redefine what success looks like for a Ph.D. graduate.


Generally speaking, success for a Ph.D. graduate meant a tenure-track job. On one level, that view is backed up in the report. 80% of the jobs listed in the SBL/AAR listings were tenured or tenure track positions.But when you look at who got the jobs, the numbers have an interesting ambivalence.

First off 90% of appointees completed their degree before they started their job. But what does that mean?

The first group of appointees to complete their degrees immediately prior to their start dates comprise almost one third of all appointees (32.7%). The typical candidate in this group would have interviewed in November of 2012, completed their degree in May of 2013, and started their appointment in July or August of 2013. Another 17.1% of appointees interviewed in the year that they completed their degrees, and 11.1% of appointees interviewed the year after they completed their degrees. Finally, the remaining third (34.3%) of appointees interviewed two years or more after they completed their degrees.

So, only about a third of the jobs went to people fresh out of grad school. The others all spent at least a year doing something else–either outside the academy or in some sort of “contingent” position.

This is the new normal. Most Ph.D.s will spend time bouncing around various positions before they land that tenure-track job. If you don’t get a job right out of grad school you have a better chance of getting one two years or more after you graduate. Success isn’t a tenure-track job, success is a job period. And we might not even be able to measure success until you’ve been out of grad school for 5 years. Why is this?

2. Teaching experience really matters.


The organizations have gathered data on the skills and/or experiences desired or required by hiring institutions since the 2001-2002 AY (Table 17), though unfortunately data are missing for the 2008-2009, 2009-2010, and 2010-2011 academic years. Holding a Ph.D., prior teaching experience, and interdisciplinary teaching or research abilities continue to be ranked highest among the twelve options.6 A majority of institutions required (59.5%) or desired (10.6%) candidates to hold a Ph.D. Almost half of hiring institutions required (29.9%) or desired (18.1%) prior teaching experience, while over one fifth required (9.7%) or desired (12.2%) interdisciplinary teaching or research abilities.

One reason for that 34% of appointees who had been out of grad school for two years or more may be the desire for teaching experience among hiring departments. Those years between graduation and tenure-track appointment are often filled with contingent teaching. Ph.D. departments that want to produce competitive candidates should be intentionally building constructive teaching experiences and pedagogical development into their programs. This does not mean that graduate students should be overloaded with teaching a ton of courses on their own from the very beginning. “Teaching experience” can be an excuse to dump heavy teaching loads on under-prepared and over-worked graduate students. Rather, it means that teaching will be part of a broader professionalization of graduate students.

The data on “interdisciplinary research” is a red herring. As the footnote in the report smartly notes, “the date include no clear definition of ‘interdisciplinary, so the meaning may vary widely.” Indeed, “interdisciplinary” has become a vacuous buzzword in many settings. The takeaway here is not that candidates should be more “interdisciplinary” but that departments should stop putting “interdisciplinary” in their job ads as a meaningless place holder or a euphemism for “we don’t really know what we want.” Candidates should just do interesting and cutting-edge research.

3. You better be able to work in a public institution.


Two of the key findings of the study:

  • The number and share of positions at private not-for-profit (private) institutions in the U.S. has steadily abated since the 2010-2011 AY, while the number at public institutions has remained steady during the same period.
  • Mid-size, private research institutions and the smallest special focus institutions are the locus of declines, whereas the number of positions at private and public Master’s institutions has risen for the past two years.

Mid-size private research institutions, like Emory, are often the places with the best programs in religious studies. Yet, their students are more likely to end up in a public institution, like Alabama. If this trend continues and the number of positions in public institutions continue to grow while private institutions hire less, it could have important repercussions for how we do religious studies. What I do here at Alabama, for instance, looks very different from what many of my colleagues do at private seminaries and religious colleges. More jobs at public institutions means that candidates who approach religious studies as an academic discipline within the secular public university will have better chance at a job. That will have an impact on what directions our field goes methodological and theoretically.

UPDATE: 11/18/14 12:27PM

A friend posted a smart critique of takeaways 1 and 3:

“I’m not comfortable with the way you’ve phrased takeaway #1 or #3: you continue to maintain the very unhelpful status quo idea of “success” as a teaching position. You revise expectations “downward,” I suppose, but you don’t look outside of teaching at the college level as any form of “success.” I think this expected outcome, and the way that graduate programs indoctrinate students into this form of reproduction, is one of the most myopic and harmful aspects of PhD programs in our discipline. We need an entirely different kind of subject formation that has a wider vision of “successful” outcomes.”

I agree that we have to broaden outcomes beyond just teaching positions. However, this report has nothing to say about that. One takeaway then, is that a report like this is too narrow to address the larger question of what counts as success for a Ph.D. graduate. 

4. Course load data is useless.


My biggest critique of the report is that it relies on course load data to measure the teaching work positions require.

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This course load data shows that contingent faculty are teaching more than their tenured and tenure-track peers but it doesn’t tell us how many students any of these groups are teaching. Rather than measure course load, it would be more useful to also measure credit hour production. Are those six courses taught by contingent faculty filled with 100 students, while the tenured have four and a half seminars of 15 students? We don’t know. Course load doesn’t tell us who is really making the donuts in the department. For example, I had a 4/4 course load last year as a contingent instructor but I only had a total of about 100 students. Meanwhile, one section of introduction to religious studies taught by a tenured faculty member had 150 students on its own. See, credit hours and enrollment matter.

I’m lucky.


My own personal takeaway from the report is that I am both lucky and typical. I am incredibly lucky to have gotten a job in a year when job listings were down. I am incredibly typical because it took a year of heavy teaching as a contingent faculty member to  gain teaching experience that made me a strong candidate.



What the AAR Can Learn from the MLA: The Conference Should Not Be Synonymous With “Job Market”


I was recently listening to the Digital Campus podcast when they did a segment (skip to 38:03 mark) discussing the need, or lack thereof, for the conference job interview. They based the discussion on the recent column from Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the Modern Language Association. Feal makes some really interesting points in the column that I hope other academic societies, such as the AAR can pick up on.

First, Feal argues that the MLA offers interview services because departments want them. Furthermore, she notes that the MLA has no vested interest in the status quo.

Some writers think the MLA has a vested interest in defending the current system, but that is simply wrong. The MLA operates under the assumption that the interests of both candidates and departments must be well served. At times, however, those interests conflict. Cost is a major obstacle for candidates when it comes to attending the MLA convention. Although the MLA has doubled the amount of travel grants in recent years (from $200 to $400) and although every qualified applicant has received one, the expenses involved in attending the convention can be prohibitive to the graduate student or part-time faculty member who may have one interview lined up. This is a huge burden on the candidate, and departments need to adjust their expectations.

I think Feal is right here. As I argued, the cost of interviews at conferences are prohibitive. Feal encourages departments to consider remote conferencing systems and even notes that there are guidelines for doing remote interviews provided by scholarly societies.

Feal also rightly points out that graduate programs have a duty to their students.

Graduate programs have a responsibility to their students. To maintain a PhD program in these difficult times means committing the resources to support students in their nascent careers, whether in academia or beyond. Students should expect extensive assistance in preparing for the job search and in meeting the costs of attending the convention. After all, the MLA convention is much more than an event where interviews occur. It remains the largest language and literature convention in the world, and it offers nearly eight hundred sessions, professional development workshops, networking opportunities, and a host of other activities. Being on the job market is extraordinarily stressful, but there’s a whole convention out there that offers intellectual and professional engagement of a very different type.

I think Feal’s point here is crucial. In my experience, professionalization has meant “preparation for a job” instead of “preparation for a career.” Thus, graduate students see the conference as a place for job hunting and miss out on the larger experience of the conference and all it has to offer. I cannot wait to go to the AAR this year and not be on the job market precisely because I feel like I finally get to go to the whole conference and not just that depressing part with the cubicles. I haven’t been able to do that since my first couple years as a grad student.

I hope the AAR is paying attention to what the MLA is doing because I feel like they are on to something here:

It’s time for us to reconsider how and where we interview and to look to the convention as a renewable source of intellectual energy, created by and for MLA members…Contrary to what I’ve heard being said, the MLA does not count on the convention as a major source of association revenue, unlike other scholarly associations. Our fees are among the lowest, while we provide more services than most.

Side note: How does this compare to the AAR?

It’s an exciting, rich occasion for intellectual, pedagogical, and professional exchange. The convention exists to serve members, and as long as the structures that undergird it are supporting that mission, they should remain. The MLA has no interest in forcing an interview model on the profession if it no longer works. Quite the opposite: the MLA has every interest in documenting and promoting best practices, recognizing that there are many. What if departments always offered candidates the option of a remote interview and treated candidates equally whether or not they planned to attend the MLA convention? Some departments have already adopted this practice, and it sounds wise to me. I very much enjoy seeing graduate students at the convention, hearing their presentations, and meeting them informally. It would be in all of our best interests to make the convention a less tense and burdensome experience for the next generation of the humanities workforce.

I think we can all agree that the conference should be less burdensome. I think we all want a conference that is a “rich occasion for intellectual, pedagogical, and professional exchange.” It should be that way for everyone.

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.



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


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:



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


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?


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.

Journal of Southern Religion
Directions in the Study of Religion- Marginalia
First Impressions- Marginalia

Religious Studies Project
New Books Network

Research on Religion
Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict

The World of Islam: Culture, Religion, and Politics
The Junto Podcast Network: