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Beyond the U.S. Academy

September 03, 2012

Eric Sheppard

Our Association has become a “center of calculation” for Geography around the world. Its annual meetings attract more geographers, presenting more research, than the quadrennial International Geographic Union meetings. U.S. geography departments, along with those in the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, dominate the production and dissemination of geographic research, not least through the overwhelming influence of English language journals. Can we do better?

In my experience, scholarly excellence is substantially enhanced by a greater diversity of voices and participants. I spent two decades closely working with a cuttingedge graduate program (now the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change) at the University of Minnesota, whose student body has included 33% non-white U.S. students and 40% from abroad (mostly African, Asian and Latin American). I observed first-hand how such geo-demographic diversity (intersecting with other identities) generated some of the most stimulating and insightful academic exchanges of my career, enabling its young scholars to gain confidence, produce innovative knowledge, and pursue remarkable careers worldwide. More diverse participation also can strengthen geographic excellence. Consider how the increased participation of women in U.S. geography, while far from fully realized, already has transformed how we think and work. Yet elite spaces of the U.S. academy, while powerful and exciting, display limited diversity. Realizing Geography’s full potential will require moving beyond such spaces.

Within the U.S., elite academic spaces are exclusive in both senses of the term. Inequalities in educational resources and opportunity are increasing among U.S. post-secondary institutions (magnified by reduced public funding and higher tuition). Increased reliance on contingent faculty limits these scholars’ access to research opportunities. The community you grow up in has become the most reliable predictor of educational achievement, and thereby the social class you can aspire to—in a country where upward mobility is now lower than in supposedly more class-ridden Europe. The uneven geography of U.S. K-12 education, underwritten by increasing inequality and residential segregation, means that members of disadvantaged communities have limited opportunity to achieve their potential in high school, let alone college. Children from undocumented immigrant families face additional exclusions. These well-documented exclusionary biases are compounded in Geography, where the proportion of African-American, Hispanic and American Indian students remains distressingly small. These exclusions have proven stubbornly resilient, notwithstanding multiple disciplinary efforts to address this problem over decades, currently led by the AAG’s ALIGNED initiative. Perversely, we are more successful recruiting African and Hispanic scholars from outside the U.S. than from within.

Diversifying participation in geographic scholarship within the U.S. also means getting beyond the Ivory Tower. The grounded nature of Geography makes it relevant to everyday life, and attractive to the private and public sector—including military and intelligence activities. Applied geographers work hard to take up these opportunities, some of which prove controversial when they impinge on scholarly ethics. It is important, however, that geographers engage also with civil society. Working with under-resourced communities, organizations and activists is undervalued in the U.S. academy, although this may shift as universities highlight public engagement and community-university partnerships. Geographers have made significant contributions to participatory action research methodologies, targeted toward involving community members as researchers shaping the questions asked, approaches taken and ethical norms. Geographers now appreciate the importance of science by the people—the knowledge produced by and recoverable from communities’ experiences and practices—embraced under such terms as indigenous knowledge and volunteered geographic information. Communities are not simply places from which to extract geographic information, however; there are many circumstances when they should be fully involved as research partners.

Getting beyond the Ivory Tower also can make geography more relevant to ordinary people. Harold Rose once told me that so few blacks study Geography because it does not address issues they find relevant. We cannot await a more diverse cohort of U.S. geographers, assigning them the responsibility to make us more relevant. Geographers should work with partners beyond the academy, developing peoples’ geographies that illuminate and empower the heterogeneous livelihoods pursued by the 99%.

As President of the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy coined “public sociology” to embrace the kinds of engagement I have described. We should aspire to public geography. Yet taking its geography seriously means taking the world seriously by incorporating knowledge and expertise from geographers and non-academics worldwide into debates within U.S. academic Geography. Here, our annual meetings have significant, unrealized potential. We host the world’s geographers, without listening carefully enough to how they can shape our thinking. AAG meetings should be where perspectives from beyond Anglophone geography fully engage with Anglophone counterparts, going beyond simply listening toward mutual, reciprocal critical engagement. As Tom Baerwald once suggested and Henry Yeung recently reiterated, we should think in terms of an American Association of Geographers rather than an Association of (U.S.) American Geographers.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

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