Then there's the job market--the Darwinian feedlot of history employment. Even if you don't really know where it is in the convention, you can always sense it when you pass through. There's a faint smell of desperation and fear in the air. That odor is tinged with slight undertones of hope, though that emotion gradually gets crushed out as the weekend passes.
There are alot of tired and depressed-looking men and women hanging around. Some camp near the Register itself, watching with hawk-like eyes every move of the people behind the counter. Should an AHA staffer move too close to the bin containing hir folder, the sie will swoop in. "Was that a note for me going into my file? Have I landed an unscheduled interview?" The tone is hopeful on the first day. A bit less so on the second. By the third day the question is routine, almost Pavlovian in its asking. Rejected, the hawk returns to its perch.
If you go to the AHA often enough, you might begin to recognize some of the applicants. Some have been returning to the Job Register for four, six, even ten years. Talk to some and you can't believe they haven't gotten hired somewhere. They have a book out and reviewed in the AHR, and their second book is out to readers. Talk to others and you know they never will get hired. You have to wonder about the role of the graduate advisor in the whole process. Was that person responsible enough to say "What are your goals? Because that's an interesting topic, but you'll never get a job at a four-year institution."
I sat on seven hiring committees in my first six years as a tenure track professor, which meant that in all the different capacities that would bring me to the AHA [employee, job-seeker, search committee member] I missed only one year between 1995 and 2008. After sitting on the hiring side of the table, I came to the simultaneous realization that I couldn't believe that I ever got a job, and I couldn't believe I wasn't hired my first year out. The reasons that people would get excluded from consideration sometimes seemed random and bizarre. On the other side, some of the job interviewees lacked even the most basic social (let alone interpersonal) skills.
But back to the AHA.
The Job Register, and the job market in general, is something that most historians who have a tenure-track job would rather ignore. Sometimes it is more than a passive issue. Note where the AHA places the Job Register. It's usually somewhere out of the way where people won't have to see it. One year the layout of the conference hotel meant that the Job Register would be dead-center for the meeting. To get from one side of things to the other, everyone had to walk through the same space as all those unemployed or underemployed historians. There were quite a few complaints about that, with some essentially saying "I don't want to have to see that." Of course it's much easier to deal with a problem if you don't have to see it.
Many historians will tell you that the Job Register experience was so traumatic that they'll never attend another AHA, unless they have to. That's too bad, because there are many excellent papers presented each year. The best ones I have seen in my career were outside my field. Only the AHA can provide that.
Between the fees charged for the Job Register and those for the Book Exhibit the AHA is able to fund the vast majority of its activities for the year. A good hiring year is a good budget year for the AHA. Last year was a good year, and it seems to be getting better. Likewise the AHA needs to ensure that people will attend the conference and pass through the book exhibit, if they are to lure all those publishers into the conference. That's one reason why annual meetings are held in cold areas like Chicago and New York. Washington is the big moneymaker, of course--no flying out all the staff and equipment.
Lots of people argue that the AHA Job Register stinks. There's so much that's bad about it. And over the years people have put forward suggestions for how to change it. But nothing changes, largely because the job register is convenient for the people with power [departments, universities, the AHA] and the people without power [job-seekers] cannot speak speak up out of a very real fear that any waves they make before they get hired (and then get tenure) will kill their chances at a job.
A story: I few years ago I was down in the job register when a man came flying out of the "tables" area. He was yelling, nearly at the top of his lungs, about how the school he was interviewing with had violated his "constitutional rights" by asking him what his religion was. To anyone who would listen he spelled out how they had asked him, he refused to answer, they asked again, and he got angry and stormed out. This guy was pissed. The reaction around him? The assembled job seekers shrank back, as if a leper had come into their midst.
The AHA staff reacted quickly and professionally. They determined that he was interviewing with a private, religious school that had clearly stated in its ad that people had to follow the faith of the school. But the crowd didn't know that. I suspect that in any other setting that group of historians would have been outraged at someone being asked their religion in a job interview. But the powerless cannot act without risking serious consequences.
But there's also alot that's good about it. It provides a central location and a way of screening both applicants and employers. It's a great place to network with your future cohort--I met alot of people in the job register who I still correspond with and see form time to time at . . . . annual meetings.
So, what is to be done? Frankly, I'm not sure. [After all, the title is "Ramblings," which gives me alot of wiggle room.]