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Diversifying Geography

December 19, 2012

Eric Sheppard

In my first Newsletter column, I wrote about how important it is for U.S. Geography to diversify the voices that con­stitute our scholarship. At this time, when departments with graduate programs are deciding on who to admit for 2013, I remind you of one of the main recommendations from the 2006 AAG Diversity Task Force Report: “Each Ph.D.-granting geography department should develop a recruitment program with the agenda to recruit and fund annually (via a graduate assistantship or a fellowship) at least one minority student.” (The Task Force also made recommenda­tions about undergraduate recruitment.)

Diversity is a complex issue. The Task Force defined “minority” in terms of non-white racial groups, using the taken-for-granted categories of the U.S. Census. We know, of course, that these categories are social constructs that reflect U.S. racial for­mations and discourses, artificially separat­ing individuals whose hybrid genetic racial make-up shows more commonality than difference across such racialized categories. Beyond this, are many other ways in which individuals may find themselves marginalized or excluded from the social and academic mainstream, including gender, sexuality, geographic origin, disability, undocumented status, religion and social class. Some of these are immediately visible traits, engen­dering visceral responses; others are easier to disguise but no less trenchant in their effects. Some are subject to legal protection, others (notably class) are not. Furthermore, there is the challenge of what feminist scholars call intersectionality: Our individual identities locate us simultaneously with respect to multiple socio-spatial positionalities, which intersect with one another in compound ways. The marginalization faced by someone who is, say, black, female and heterosexual is much more than simply the additive effect of being black, being a woman and being het­erosexual. Finally, diversity is increasingly represented as simply a variety of identities to be counted and celebrated. Yet, as Audrey Kobayashi argued in last May’s Presidential column, “before we can celebrate diversity we need to address the ongoing, real, and socially damaging effects of racism” (and, of course, other forms of exploitation and discrimination).

The AAG is undertaking important NSF-funded research under its ALIGNED project (www.aag.org/diversity), some already published, comparing the diversity of U.S. Geography departments with that of the institutions in which they are located, and of U.S. academia in general. Importantly, as noted by the 2006 Task Force and researched subsequently by the AAG, the landscape of diversity varies substantially by regional, urban/rural and institutional location. Geogra­phy’s unequal presence across such contexts must be accounted for in any analysis, as this research does. Further, such variability means that uniform diversity goals are unrealistic and unreasonable—Geography matters here, also. Such quantitative assessments are necessarily much blunter and narrower than the conceptualization of diversity above. Data are limited to race, male/female and US/international origin, and intersectionality is not readily quanti­fiable, reducing diversity to demographic counts (other qualitative ALIGNED and EDGE research attends to these other com­plexities). Nevertheless, the results compel disciplinary reflection and action. I will not bore you with the numbers, but Geogra­phy Departments have a greater proportion of non-Hispanic whites (80-90%) than do the institutions in which they are located (or U.S. academia in general), by ten or more percentage points. Relative to all U.S. students, the median percentage of Geography students who are U.S. students of color is less than half the median percentage for students in the universities where these departments are located (with the exception of Asian-American graduate students). The median percentages of women are also well below those institution-wide or nationwide.

It should be no surprise that we have much to do to further diversify Geography, also beyond these visible demographic cat­egories, and departments are key locales for such initiatives. As I have learned from working with diverse U.S. and international students at Minnesota, including an inter-disciplinary graduate program exemplifying how diversity enhances excellence, structural factors are crucial to successful diversification. Attending to these is vital to taking up the three R’s of recruitment, reten­tion and reproduction.

The Task Force recom­mendation I quoted at the beginning addresses recruit­ment, a pragmatic response to what has been a very long and difficult process for the discipline. Efforts by the Asso­ciation and its members to expand the pool of applicants date back to Saul Cohen’s appointment as AAG Execu­tive Director in the mid sixties. Only in the past decade, through ALIGNED and EDGE, has funding again been raised by the AAG for research into the palette of strategies for recruiting expanded pools of applicants (see 32 Ideas to Enhance Diversity: www.aag.org/ diversity). Some programs are making exem­plary efforts, others much less so, and more needs to be done to overcome such struc­tural challenges as the uneven geography of K-12 education, the balkanization of non-white students into under-resourced colleges unable to fund Geography, and perceptions of its irrelevance to the lives of under-represented students. In the meantime, we can only maximize the limited opportuni­ties presented by the available diversity of applicants, as this recommendation suggests.

Recruitment efforts are likely to be wasted, if the right local conditions are missing to enable retention. These include mentors, the willingness to appreciate and work through the capabilities and desires of under-represent­ed students, an actively welcoming climate in the department and institution, courses across Geography addressing race and gender, and the presence of a diverse group of students and faculty. Students arrive with many ques­tions about their place in academia, and will take up other options (at our collective cost) if these are not constructively addressed. For example, EDGE research indicates that non-white and female students are more likely to seek a career where they can affect social change, but PhD programs still expect good students to pursue the academic route to a tenured professorship in the Ivory Tower. Likewise, students look for opportunities to undertake collaborative research, whereas human geography, in particular, continues to prioritize the lone scholar model in which they are expected to prove individual worth (even though many faculty propound the power of collective action).

Reproduction of a diverse community of geographers is impossible, of course, if recruitment and retention fail. The racial diversity of many Geography graduate programs, and new faculty appointments, largely stems from recruiting graduate students from outside the first world. Incor­porating these voices into US geography benefits us all, but this cannot suffice. Tol­erance of diversity can never suffice: It is everyone’s responsibility, notwithstanding any intellectual reservations about the term, to actively diversify Geography.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

See also:

Darden, J., S. Attoh, A. Coleman, L. Estaville, V. Lawson, I. Miyares, J. Marston, D. Richardson, T. Rogers, M. Solem, P. Solís, C. Souch, R. Sumner (2006) The AAG’s Diversity Task Force final report: An action strategy for geography departments as agents of change. Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers. http://communicate.aag.org/eseries/ Diversity/DTF_FINAL.pdf.

Solem, M., J. Lee, and B. Schlemper (2009) Departmental climate and student experiences in geography graduate programs. Research in Higher Education 50 (3): 268-292.

Solís, P., J. Adams, L. Duram, S. Hume, A. Kuslikis, V. Lawson, I. M. Miyares, D. Padgett, and A. Ramirez (forthcoming) Diverse experiences in diversity at the geography department scale. The Professional Geographer.

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