Departments in Peril: How Can the Healthy Departments Committee Help?

Apples lined up on a flat surface; Credit: Isabella Fischer, Unsplash

Photo of David KaplanIn many respects this should be a time of rising attention and support for geography. The concerns of the planet — global climate change, geopolitical turmoil, social and spatial justice — are those that speak to geography’s strengths. Geography scholars have been recognized with Guggenheims, MacArthurs, National Academy invitations and other honors. Geospatial technologies are standard throughout business and government, and geographers are best poised to educate geospatial practitioners and develop new technologies. We are also a STEM discipline, which puts us at a strategic advantage given the priorities of many universities these days.

Yet, while the promise of geography is great and the demand for geography is clear, our overall institutional health is in jeopardy. Consider these two markers. First, as the State of Geography report pointed out, and as I warned in my first presidential column, there has been a steady drop in the number of geography majors throughout the United States in the last dozen years. Lower major numbers reduce overall credit hours in geography programs. Second, several geography programs in the last several years have been eliminated or severely impaired. This has happened at both smaller, teaching-oriented universities and in larger research-oriented flagships. The number of programs in peril is higher than I have seen in my professional experience and constitutes a critical problem for our field.

Those of you reading this column are aware of some of the reasons behind these trends. Most colleges and universities across the country are looking at enrollment declines and entire institutions have been forced to close. Funding support is under threat In the face of stingy state budgets and some legislators casting universities as the enemy rather than emphasizing the benefits they offer to society. Moreover, as an academic discipline within the United States, geography carries its own unique disadvantages. We cannot always count on university administrators being familiar with what we do (how many times have we been called “Geology”?). As a discovery major that most students find only after having taken a class or two, we rely on core-curriculum requirements to bring in our students.

To counter these trends, we cannot afford to rest on our impressive laurels. As I see it, if nothing is done to turn things around, we could be looking at geography becoming a niche discipline at just a few, mostly larger, universities. Several states will have no geography programs within their borders. And as access to geography programs diminishes, ever fewer people will know of its value, leading to a vicious cycle of continued decline.

Unfortunately, there are no straightforward solutions to these challenges. In past years, overall increases in the number of college and university students provided all disciplines with a boost. Merely holding our own was enough to ensure success. The high-water mark was in 2010, when there were 21 million U.S. university students. Since then, the numbers have declined by ten percent; declines that will probably accelerate with falling birth rates. When overall higher education numbers decrease, budgets are stressed, and disciplinary success requires fighting against these larger trends. In a shrinking pool of students, Geography needs to prove its value over and again.

In keeping with this need, many useful ideas have been discussed in journals and in the pages of the AAG Newsletter. A couple of years ago, Stoler and others measured the effectiveness of various terms associated with the names of courses and departments. Several academics have noted the value and promise of the AP Human Geography exam, including Moseley et al and Solem et al, and AAG presidents have weighed in on some ideas to improve departmental health, including building an environment of respect (Lave), enhancing mentorship (Alderman), building community in geography (Foote), and creating a more equitable academic culture (Kaplan).

Fortunately, the American Association of Geographers has long understood the challenges departments face and has endeavored to help. The Healthy Departments Committee (HDC) was established in 2004 as an AAG standing committee composed of well-established professors and administrators from a variety of institutions. The HDC was intended originally to act on any requests from departments or programs threatened with closure. It was also meant as a resource for departments looking for external reviewers or any other form of assistance. Under the able direction of first Vicki Lawson and then Alec Murphy, the HDC has written dozens of supportive letters to university decision-makers. The HDC also initiated workshops for department heads, developed a set of materials for departments to utilize in their own promotion, and facilitated the launch of a department heads’ listserv.

These activities continue to this day, but we need to find ways for the HDC to become more proactive in anticipating the threats that departments face. It is always frustrating to discover that a program is slated for closure in a matter of just days or a few weeks, with no time to turn things around. In some unfortunate instances, closures have been announced out of the blue, but more often there have been warning signs, often in the face of low enrollments and a smaller major pool. As unfair as it might be, administrators will seize on these metrics to justify their actions. A program with large numbers of students and with a dedicated base of alumni, is much, much harder to cut.

The HDC can only be effective if geographers know who we are and what we can do. We are available to brainstorm ways to enhance the resilience of your programs, including course changes, curricular design, expanding outreach to potential students, and working more effectively with administrators. Sometimes a few tweaks early on can make a difference. Certainly, it makes sense for all programs to think carefully about their strengths and weaknesses and consider how these align with institutional guidelines.

In order to get a more granular look at geography programs in the United States, the HDC has been working with the AAG to expand its data collection on matters of relevance to departmental health. Look for a survey to be distributed to all program heads in April which will provide measures of departmental health. Strong participation will greatly improve the ability of the HDC to respond to departments facing significant challenges. We will identify those activities that the AAG can perform on behalf of departments, such as creating more relevant promotional materials and providing help for at-risk departments.

In the lead-up to the release of the AAG Survey and the Annual Meeting in Honolulu, we will be providing more information on the state of Geography and what the Healthy Departments Committee can do. Moving forward, we urge those of you who work in colleges and universities to reflect on your own programs and possible ways to build a more robust, healthier department.

I would be delighted to speak with you further about this. Please reach out at



Making Data Meaningful Or Geography’s Contribution to Data Science

Geography has always been about data. After all, the field was founded and developed over the search for more and better information. It was 200 years ago that Alexander von Humboldt, perhaps the most famous geographer, acquired field observations in the Andes Mountains and used these observations to make a series of connections. In her 2015 book, The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf writes how Humboldt presented data he had painstakingly collected about a mountain:

To the left and right of the mountain he placed several columns that provided related details and information. By picking a particular height of the mountain, one could trace connections across the table and the drawing of the mountain to learn about temperature, say, or humidity or atmospheric pressure, as well as what species of animals and plants could be found at different altitudes . . . All this information could then be linked to the other major mountains across the world, which were listed according to their height next to the outline of Chimborazo. (p. 103)

Alexander von Humboldt: 19th Century Data Scientist

Data continued to power geographical quests and queries.  While many nineteenth-century geographers sought to find novel information about places they encountered, geographers in the twentieth century questioned how to make sense of it. These debates focused on factors of causation, the value of regional synthesis, and the spatial variations of select data.  Later—as geographers came to critically inspect the sources, meanings, and uses of information—data continues to be the engine of our discipline.

So, it was particularly disheartening to hear the governor of Florida dismiss somebody with advanced degrees in geography as not being a “data scientist.” As most of you are probably aware, this remark came as justification for the firing of Rebekah Jones, the architect and manager of Florida’s acclaimed COVID-19 dashboard, purportedly because Florida officials did not like how she was presenting the data. Sadly, this follows along some other attempts at squelching inconvenient truths, like banning the use of the term “climate change.” In justification, Governor DeSantis said that Jones “is not a data scientist” because she has a degree in geography. Whatever the reasons for terminating an employee who had previously been praised and profiled, this is a particularly low blow.

And what is “data science” anyway? The Data Science Association, which ought to know, defines it as “the scientific study of the creation, validation and transformation of data to create meaning.” Accordingly, a data scientist “can play with data, spot trends and learn truths few others know.” This sounds an awful lot like what a lot of geographers do. Of course, I don’t need to tell you about how much data creation and analysis is involved in fields such as climatology, housing analysis, land science, big data, to name just a few. The major scientific development of our field, Geographic Information Science, is built around the manipulation of locationally based data. ESRI has developed a COVID-19 GIS Hub, and geographers have been active in examining COVID-19 in light of vulnerable people, economic data, and the spaces of everyday life.

The Florida governor’s drive-by slighting is yet more evidence of geographical ignorance and insensitivity. We have a long way in correcting for the type of geographical illiteracy that relegates half the world to “sh*t-hole countries” and where many cannot locate North Korea on a map. It begins early, as most school children still lack basic proficiency in geographical concepts. This has real consequences. It causes the public to overstate certain dangers to our security  while minimizing perils at our front door.

We also need to consider how we got to a place where the very essence of what we do can be so easily dismissed. The state of Florida has several fantastic geography programs: strong PhD granting departments, excellent masters, bachelors and community college programs. Yet, the lack of general knowledge about our field still disappoints. It is easy to complain about willful ignorance, but who could imagine people saying that a trained economist knows nothing about trade, or that a botanist provides no guidance on ecosystems. Yet here is where we are. The hope of the AP Human Geography explosion—especially prominent in Florida—is that it will result in a generation of people who know what geography does and why it matters. Any other steps we can take—from responding forcefully to these misstatements, to seeding geographers in public agencies and private companies—will mercifully wash away such unfortunate views.


When I was elected as vice president of the AAG in February 2018, I would have never thought that my presidential term would be quite so eventful.  It began auspiciously, with the hiring of our new executive director and the prospect of new horizons, and it has ended with the upending of society as the pandemic has completely restructured how we live, work, and congregate, while the murder of George Floyd exposes once again the vicious and unrelenting racism embedded in our society.

If there was a theme to my presidential year, it lay in expanding the community of geographers. We have accomplished some terrific things including more assistance to the AAG regions and the prospect of a new international councilor. Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented us from experiencing the remarkable community manifested in our annual conference. This year, we missed the chance to come together in lecture halls, meeting rooms, hotel lobbies, bars, and cafes. We lost our chance to reunite with old friends, mentors, and students, to personally tell a colleague how much you enjoyed her article, to come together and plan further projects. To commune.

Given the circumstances, we have tried to carry forward, with virtual options and laying the groundwork for a return of physical conferences in the near future. We have also developed a remarkable taskforce to address the challenges brought about by COVID-19. My final presidential communication to you, later this month, will feature the results of that taskforce.

In the meantime, I want to thank everybody who has made this year so memorable and meaningful.  The past presidents, especially Glen MacDonald, Sheryl Beach, and Derek Alderman have each helped me find my footing. I look forward to working with Amy Lobben and Emily Yeh in the coming year as we continue to confront the issues of the coronavirus and the desire to move ahead. The AAG staff have been a remarkable backstop. They have all been so wonderful, but I would especially thank Candida Mannozzi, Gary Langham, Becky Pendergast, Emily Fekete, and Oscar Larson for guidance at various key points over the year. And of course, I want to thank you—for trusting me as president, for emailing me your insights, and for helping me through this unprecedented year. Never forget that the American Association of Geographers is your organization.  And never forget that our strength lies in our community.  May we move forward together.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0072


Facing an Existential Crisis or COVID-19 and the Long Term Future of Geography

It does not seem so long ago that people were talking about the compression of space and time, about the “ends of history and geography.” How recent events have obliterated this! The pandemic of COVID-19—with its echoes of the 1918 Spanish Flu and the great contagious scourges of the past—demonstrates again that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And how well this pandemic also affirms geography’s significance! The importance of place, of distance, of context, of networks—all show the enduring importance of geography and how central geographical concerns are in understanding the disease.

Yet while the ideas and methods of geography illuminate the transmission and effects of COVID-19, geography departments have been thrust into peril. Those of us who work in universities have likely heard the same dire budgetary forecasts. States are being hit with a double whammy of declining revenues from mandated shutdowns and an increased need for services. New student enrollments are down, sometimes way down from where they were a year ago.

Colleges have already refunded large sums of money to compensate students for room and board. And while none have rebated tuition, many students and their parents are upset with what they perceive as a true loss of educational value. The promise of true community—making friends, connecting with mentors, enjoying independence and the time away from home—no longer holds.

I can see it myself. My daughter had the last chunk of her freshman year at college snatched away from her. As a bassoon and chemistry double major, there was no way that online learning—however gamely proceeded—could replace what she would have received in a classroom, lab, or concert hall. As a professor, I understand just how faculty have struggled to keep classes going in this alternative format. But as a parent, I also empathize with students who see a diminution of their education.

None of us know now whether colleges and universities will be able to return to in-person classes in the fall. There are many possible scenarios. For those who are curious, The Chronicle of Higher Education provides an updated list. While a small number have announced mostly online plans, the majority of institutions have indicated that they “expect,” “plan,” “hope,” or “intend” to return to in-person classes in the fall. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. As we all realize, higher education will take a huge hit next year; several institutions have already announced major cutbacks in positions and salaries. If in-person classes are not possible, my daughter is considering taking a semester off. This is just the reality and I expect many students would follow suit. Beyond the obstacles in accessing reliable internet connections, those students in less privileged positions may leave and not return—a true tragedy in the loss of human potential.

These are all things out of our control. But Geography departments must also look into doing things that are within our control. In my first presidential column I emphasized just how important the number of majors and enrollments are to our discipline’s health. This year, I have spoken with people whose departments are threatened. There are likely to be many more threats in the new academic year.

Geography departments must figure out the best ways to push against these headwinds. One way is to provide courses that will be most attractive to students. Students will be trying to understand this intrinsically geographical phenomenon, and departments can adjust to make sure that such courses are offered. A second way is to prepare to transition courses to an online or hybrid format if necessary, and make these plans known to administrators. I know that this will compromise a lot of geographical education, as it has already, but our field also enjoys certain strengths that make it more adaptable to a switch. For instance, many of the geospatial courses at Kent State are already taught virtually. If the worst happens and student numbers plummet, university leaders will be grateful for those points of light. The third approach is to ensure geographers are as visible as they can be in the university in responding to this crisis. We already have geographers with direct expertise in the areas of health and disease. We also can muster leadership in the evolving pedagogy, in providing faculty- and student-centered solutions to this urgency.

The way we meet now: AAG Executive Committee Meeting on Zoom (Sheryl L. Beach on IPhone)

As many of you have seen, the AAG decided at the Spring Council meeting (held on Zoom of course) that in these extraordinary times it needed to offer an extraordinary response. We therefore have proceeded to develop a COVID taskforce to develop solutions the AAG can provide to its members. We created five separate committees which will work in parallel through the months of May and early June:

  • The Departments committee will look at how the AAG might assist departments as they seek to survive—with some targeted investments and/or repurposing some staff time.
  • The Regions committee will see what we can do now to ensure the health of our nine regional divisions, especially given the uncertainties of next year. The Council just passed a set of proposals from the Regions taskforce intended to strengthen our AAG regions, and this will build on these initiatives.
  • The Members committee will focus on how best we can help AAG members in difficult situations: international members, members who work outside of academia, and precarious members.
  • The Students committee will attend to the additional stresses experienced by student members of the AAG, noting things that our association can do to ease their burden.
  • Finally, the Virtual Connections committee will examine some of the means by which the AAG can help invigorate how we educate, communicate and collaborate outside the physical realm. No matter what happens in the near term, we have crossed the Rubicon into a new world of virtual connections and this committee will suggest how the AAG can be at the forefront.

Once recommendations from the committees are made, a Blue Ribbon panel will be charged with evaluating the proposals and then sending them forward to the Council. At an extraordinary Council meeting, to occur at the end of June, we will come up with a final set of ideas to initiate in July. I will provide all of you with a final report on what we decide.

This has been such a difficult and trying time. It has been positively terrifying for those who have to worry about their health, their finances, their futures, or all of these together. Even those of us who are fortunate thus far have experienced the steady drain of lives lived without the physical contacts we cherish and with a future still so uncertain and bleak. To pretend that all this is not simply awful would be tone deaf and naïve.

But geography is strong. Geographers are resilient. Each and every one of you will do whatever it takes to allow our discipline to thrive. And your association will do everything in its power to help.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0071


Doing Geography in the Age of Coronavirus or How is Everybody Coping?

You hear it from everyone you know: these are strange and frightening times. While most of us have witnessed major disease outbreaks from afar – Ebola, SARS, Swine Flu – it is another thing to encounter something so directly, so personally, so comprehensively. Pandemic: what once seemed part of a grim historical record has smashed into our contemporary reality.

If you are one of the lucky ones, you are reading this inside your comfortable home, self-isolating, dashing out only to gather the most essential items. If you are one of the lucky ones, you are struggling to refit your classroom activities, your research, your office operations, your interactions with colleagues, and your accessibility to other people within this extraordinary era – pushing everything from the physical to the virtual realm. Maybe you also have children at home who want to be with their friends, or now need to be home-schooled. A hassle for sure, but hopefully something we will come through.

Of course not everyone is so lucky. Some are still on the front lines, making this strange new world tenable for the rest of us. Medical care workers of all sorts, people working for essential services or industries, people who must put themselves in the middle of this pandemic every single day. Still others are ill from the disease or care for sickened loved ones. And then there are those who have lost their jobs because of virus-related shutdowns or whose existing precarity threatens to push them over the edge. Poor pupils worried about the loss of their school lunches and struggling without secure internet connections. Students blocked from conducting their long-planned research and who may also be anxious about paying their rent. Job seekers who have just seen their prospects shrivel up. And junior scholars fearing how this might affect their tenure clock.

In my columns I have tried to touch on issues that affect some of us. The coronavirus threat is an issue that affects ALL of us in a way unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. It is important for us to remember that while the effects and the worry are universal, the outcomes are uneven. What for some of us may be an annoying inconvenience can prove to be truly horrific for others.

For those of us leading the AAG, the past two months have been challenging but manageable. As it became clear that the novel coronavirus would be so much more than a small disruption, we made the difficult decision to cancel our annual meeting, the first cancellation since the United States entered World War II. While the decision seems obvious now, we knew that many, many of our members would be seriously disappointed as the annual meeting is one of the highlights of their year.  We also realized that all of the careful planning conducted by the AAG staff and so many in the membership would be upended.

Even before we decided to cancel the in-person meeting, the staff was working on ways to allow some of the existing sessions to be conducted virtually. So far we have 150 virtual sessions ready for the AAG conference week. The platforms that are being assembled should allow for a fairly smooth operation for those who participate and attend. If you have already registered for the Denver meeting, you can attend these sessions free of charge and use your registrations for future meetings, while others pay a nominal fee. We will continue with the AAG council meeting (virtually of course) and hold the AAG business meeting. And we have a prepared a wonderful book, The Rocky Mountain West: A Compendium of Geographic Perspectives, which is available on the AAG website.

Of course there are so many aspects of the AAG annual meeting that cannot be done virtually and several of these will be postponed. Many of the themes for Denver will continue in Seattle (along with some new themes) and participants are invited to continue their sessions as they had already intended. I have reached out to the marquee participants for our Denver meeting and most have agreed to return next year. The presidential plenary will be a joint affair with president-elect Amy Lobben and myself looking at issues of marginalization, accessibility, and expanding the geography community. Past-president Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach will be able to present her address next year. We are working to make sure all of this year’s honorees will get their rightful due at next year’s Awards Luncheon. And the best news is that the AAG will host the annual meeting in Denver after all, in March 2023. It will be an opportunity for us to make good on all the work and preparations conducted by the local arrangements committee and local professionals.

Our annual meetings are so much more than sessions. They are opportunities for us to affirm our place in the geographical community. They provide a way for people to meet and connect with those they have only encountered on paper or online. They give students a much-needed boost in their professional development and networking. And they reignite old friendships and foster new ones. To continue with this, we hope that geographers consider some of the other options offered in Fall 2020. I have long championed the value of regional meetings, and this will be an opportunity for many of us to explore these. While we had intended to provide publicity for the regional meetings in Denver, we will be sure to advertise these over the summer. Other meetings, such as Race Ethnicity and PlaceGeography 2050 and the Applied Geography Conference should go forward as we overcome this affliction.

How this novel coronavirus changes us is open to speculation. But I have no doubt that the modifications to our society and to our geography will be profound, exceeding the transformations wrought by 9/11. Everything from personal hygiene to store design will harbor the possibility of a new pandemic. Right now, geographers can provide the necessary analytics and visual tools to help all of us understand the impact of the virus today. Looking toward the future, there will be ample opportunity for geographers to unpack all of the implications of this unprecedented and devastating disease.

But now is a time to step back. Many people are hurting. Many more are scrambling. First, take care of yourselves and your families. Then take care of those to whom you are directly connected – your students and the people who depend on you – inasmuch as you can do so. Look out for those who may be fearful and alone; there are more like this than you think. Be kind to one another. Keep your physical distance, but preserve and enhance your social community. The world has become a scary place. We need connections – now more than ever. Please help make these connections happen.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0070


Going Global or How Best to Recognize the Internationalization of the AAG; Plus – an Addendum to my Previous Column

We have always been the “AAG” but five years ago the membership overwhelmingly decided to change the full title from the Association of American Geographers to the American Association of Geographers. I remember being part of the Council when this change was discussed. It went beyond verbal tweaking and reflected our best efforts to recognize that the AAG was no longer just an organization of U.S.-based geographers. Instead we had become a community in which geographers from many countries gather.

The value of internationalization was promoted especially by past President Kavita Pandit. In her columns, she recognized that higher education has become more international. With geography leading the way, we must welcome and validate students from around the world and incorporate study abroad curricula in our programs. Kavita was not alone in pointing to the importance of international geography. Past presidents such as Victoria Lawson, Ken Foote, and Derek Alderman, among many others have spoken to the need to extend our reach and our knowledge beyond national borders.

For me the internationalization of geography and of the AAG has been a godsend. Over 20 years ago I met a number of geographers from Finland who regularly attended the national meetings — resulting in long and fruitful collaborations that continue to this day. I have also collaborated with geographers from France and Italy who regularly partake in our yearly conference. And I am delighted to renew friendships each year with geographers from a whole host of different countries.

Unlike the International Geographical Union (IGU), the AAG is not structured as a super-organization made up of various national geographic societies. But we are growing ever more international and becoming a vital meeting space for geographers from around the world. In 2018, 3,476 members came from outside the United States, comprising 31 percent of all members. This is up from 22 percent international membership in 2013. The following charts show the breakdown by the largest countries and then by broad regions. International membership is led by Canada, China, and the United Kingdom, with over 90 other countries represented. Many of these geographers travel to our annual meeting to present and to network. Here the international presence is even greater, with fully 36 percent of attendees arriving from outside the United States.

This international presence adds tremendous value to our organization. This has been recognized already in several ways. We have implemented the Developing Regions initiative, which provides low-cost membership to geographers in several countries where access might otherwise be too dear. On the editorial side, we just selected two new Annals editors, both of whom work at institutions outside the United States. And about a quarter of our editorial boards are also international. What is more, I have been working with the presidents of the Canadian Association of Geographers and the European Association of Geographers to foster greater collaboration across national geographical societies.

We should move forward to the next level. Now is the time to consider international representation that better reflects our membership and puts force behind the meaning of our name change in 2015. For this reason, I am in favor of adding a dedicated international councilor, somebody who comes from an institution outside the United States. Right now international geographers have little representation. All U.S.-based geographers also belong to regional divisions, with their own regional councilor. Yet, with the exception of a few Canadian provinces folded into these AAG divisions such as NESTVAL, there is no dedicated representation for international members.

Why should we accord international members this special status? As with other groups, we could try to increase international representation through the nominations process, creating a larger pool of non-U.S. candidates for our existing “national” councilor and vice president slots. But this would be slow and unsteady — with few guarantees. In the last 10 years, we have had only two vice president and three councilor nominations from outside the United States. Of these, only past President Audrey Kobayashi from Canada was elected under our standard process.

Moreover, the AAG is intrinsically geographical in its own organization, befitting the nature of our field. Just as we divide the United States into nine geographical regions for the sake of governance, to bring an AAG experience closer to home and to represent the concerns of different parts of the United States, so we should pursue the unique advantages of recognizing the geographies of the one-third of our membership who do not live in any of these regions.

A dedicated international councilor would ensure that the AAG Council always has a representative from outside the United States. And while “international” encompasses the vastness of the world, there are relevant concerns that an international councilor could address and that would be common to members from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Such concerns include the difficulties of access to U.S.-based meetings, potential linguistic issues, visa problems (particularly prevalent in this political environment), and better strategies for linking the AAG to geography societies around the world. I believe that an international councilor would add a great deal to our discussions and provide a hitherto underrepresented perspective.

While we have a team of people working on the particulars, I should emphasize that this reflects my personal views. The details behind creating this position will need to be worked out and approved by Council, and I will not go into them here. We may also consider a trial run, much as we did with our Student Councilor, so that we can see how well this idea works in practice and make modifications if need be. But make no mistake — the time has come to represent the international reach of our organization. The time has come to elect an International Councilor.


As the latest in the lineup of AAG presidents charged with writing a weekly column, I would like to thank all of you who offer praise, reflections, insights, and corrections around the themes brought out each month. February’s column, Beyond the Academic 1 Percent, garnered more than its usual share of comments. Some of you noted omissions in my map of geography programs, which has been quite helpful in revising our comprehensive database of geography programs. Others agreed with the main premise of the column, in the need for greater institutional diversity and sympathy with the basic points.

There were also some critiques related to what was perceived by some as my denigrating geography at elite universities, especially Ivy League universities. My “unpopular” opinion was intended to be controversial and I will stick by my major view: the lack of large Ph.D. programs at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and others has had some drawbacks, especially in regard to visibility — as many have pointed out over the years. But judging from the evidence among other disciplines, it has also had a salutary effect of making institutional geography more equitable. People can disagree about which is more important.

One thing we can all agree on, however, is the value of having strong geography programs at elite private institutions. Like all of you, I would like to see geography as an option for every undergraduate major. Many students tend to pick colleges first and then consider their majors, and it is a serious lapse not to have a geography degree among the options. Strong geography programs at colleges like MiddleburyMacalesterVassar, and Mount Holyoke (to name just a few) should be encouraged and replicated across the country. The undergraduate geography program at Dartmouth College has been a true standout in this regard. Its faculty continue to contribute to the discipline while they introduce geography to legions of highly talented and demographically diverse students, who go on to become leaders in the field. These institutions are truly beacons in our geographical landscape, and our discipline would be a lot poorer without their presence and energy.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0069


Beyond the Academic 1 Percent Or How to Create a More Inclusive and Equitable Academic Culture

Social media can be dangerous. I recently read a post on Twitter, sent by a non-geographer, which seemed to lament geography’s absence from the Ivy League and similarly selective private institutions.

If I could share an unpopular opinion, I’m glad that geography does not have a large representation in the Ivy League. Not because I do not consider geography worthy of Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Nor because I don’t think geography should be available to every college student. Rather I dislike how Ivy League institutions foster elitism in American higher education, in a manner that could distort our discipline. One recent essay argued that “Ivy League mania” warps students. And articles have shown how a small group of exclusive universities produce the lion’s share of professors.

It is an academic 1% who gain influence, prestige, and resources far out of balance with the rest of the higher education workforce. Expanded beyond this super elite class, we also have a group—call them the 10%—of professors who are either tenured or tenure track at Research 1 institutions.1 This is followed by another 6% of tenured/tenure-track faculty at other research universities, 10% at bachelors/masters institutions, 5% at community colleges, and 23% of faculty listed as non–tenure track. The rest—almost half— are relegated to part-time status and may have little control over their professional lives and oftentimes suffer living standards close to poverty levels.

Well, geography does not have places like Stanford or Duke calling most of the shots. Rather we are focused at a number of large state universities, some notable private universities, and a host of smaller public institutions and community colleges. And relative to other disciplines, our balance is good. Yet we still suffer issues of inequality. Just as wealth inequality can build upon itself, providing the lion’s share of benefits to those at the top, so can academic inequality engender a privileged class of the professoriate; folks who reap disproportionate benefits of connection, abundant resources, miniscule teaching loads, and who also enjoy the benefit of the doubt because of where they are located. And so much of it depends on luck! I remember a couple of graduate school friends, both with strong and basically identical CVs. One landed a tenure-track appointment at a prestigious flagship university, while the other has been scraping by in adjunct positions. These random outcomes proliferated, affecting each of their professional lives.

The notion of precarity, often affecting those people without stable permanent employment, is worthy of an entire column. As universities shift their hiring away from full-time tenure-track faculty, adjunct labor fills the gaps. Former President Ken Foote has outlined ways that our departments and institutions can support contingent faculty, from offering some degree of stability, to better options to collaborate and contribute to the curriculum and the departmental life. Certainly from an institutional perspective we should find better ways to reward contingent faculty commensurate with their talents.

Professors lucky enough to obtain full-time employment find themselves in a variety of job environments and at different types of institutions with varied research expectations, teaching loads, and opportunity to mentor graduate students. Some geographers stand alone in a department with other faculty; other geographers are part of a large unit with 20 or more faculty and an opportunity to specialize in their specific subfield.

This map displays the diversity of geography programs, based on our development of an extensive database that shows geography programs by highest degree offered.2

The contribution of the smaller departments should not be overlooked. As opposed to many large, research-oriented departments, where much of the focus may be on PhD students, geography at smaller state universities and at private colleges relies on providing a premium student experience with lots of undergraduate engagement, study-away experiences, and tight ties between students and faculty. When attending regional meetings, I often see faculty from these institutions bringing their students to their very first conference. At the same time, a great deal of research gets done by faculty here. They are all expected to publish, many get external grants, and as a bonus, they often share their research experience with undergraduates.

Community colleges are key aspects of our geography universe and they simply do not get the recognition they deserve. We have over 75 community colleges in the United States that offer an associate’s degree in geography (see map). Not only are a plurality of all undergraduate students enrolled in public two-year institutions, but if we are looking at true diversity within our discipline, this is where we start. Undergraduates from poorer backgrounds are much more likely to attend community colleges. African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos also show higher representation at two-year colleges. Beyond community colleges, we should be looking at Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as Tribal Colleges. These too are intrinsic aspects of our geography universe, and we can expand our numbers by welcoming new geographers from all demographic backgrounds.

The AAG recognizes this institutional diversity in some important ways. There are affinity groups for stand-alone geographers and for community college professors. The AAG has established a Program Excellence Award (just won this year by Lakeland Community College!) and special travel grants for community college students. In addition, we have done a good job in terms of AAG governance. Participation at the Council and on AAG Committees could be a bit more representative, but shows a commitment to institutional diversity.

One example of possible improvement within the AAG lies in the composition of our journals’ editorial boards. Geographers at all types of institutions conduct research and editorial boards ought to reflect this. Yet this is not the case. The composition of the editorial boards of four major AAG journals—The Annals, the Professional Geographer, the AAG Review of Books, and GeoHumanities—shows an overwhelming preference for professors from PhD, mostly R1, institutions. Several institutions like Berkeley and Arizona State have five or more. While professors who teach at non-PhD programs make up well over half of membership, they constitute only 20 percent of all AAG editorial boards. The distribution is lopsided enough that a colleague of mine was discouraged from applying for an editorial position because their type of institution was not represented on the editorial board. This is a persistent bias and one I am guilty of myself.

Geography in the United States does not have a 1%. We have no academic over-class gazing down from the Olympian heights of the Ivies and Ivy-adjacents. But we do have a privileged 10–15% slice of tenured faculty at PhD-granting institutions and especially at Research 1 schools. It is important that we recognize the very inequalities that exist within our field. Geography, and the AAG as its premier organization, needs to improve its record on institutional diversity. It means that the field must work harder to expand the community of geography by aggressively including faculty who work at smaller institutions, often as stand-alone geographers, at HBCUs, and at community colleges. It means departments must consider hiring PhD students who come from a variety of institutions, if their CVs warrant. It means that, as with many forms of inequality, people of good will can blindly reinforce the advantages accrued to a very few members of our discipline. It is time for us to acknowledge our privilege and truly open up our field to the widest numbers of geographers.

1 This data is derived from National Center for Education Statistics. The breakdowns by faculty workforce were provided to me by the American Association of University Professors.

Map created by Jessica Reese.  This is based on a database developed by myself and Fiona Allan of all departments providing some sort of geography degree. Some departments are listed as offering a PhD even if it is in a fairly specialized area. Let me know if you see any omissions and I will add these to the database.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0067


The Publishing Paradox or How the Publishing Model May be Broken

Among the familiar litany of New Year’s resolutions, many of you may have promised yourselves that 2020 would be the year to finally finish that book or write that article. In other words: to PUBLISH.

Publishing is a huge part of academic life, the coin of the realm. There may have been some mythical past when graduate students could obtain their PhD and land a decent academic job without having to publish a single thing. When tenure in research universities required just a few thoughtful articles or perhaps a book. And when those in predominantly teaching institutions could get by with producing something once or twice in a career.

Fast forward to our day. Rare is the PhD who lands a job without a CV listing several publications. And institutions of all stripes demand a quiver of accepted articles from their tenure=track hopefuls. It is not unusual to see professors within research universities generating several articles every single year, racking up Google Scholar hits and the citations to go with them. Some twitter posts look like “to-do” lists of publishing projects promised and completed. Working over weekends and holidays has become the norm.

This greater frenzy of publication is borne out by the magnificent growth in journal publications each year. The most recent figure showed some 2.5 million articles published in 28,000 journals. This is driven in part by an increase in articles per capita. The chart below shows the number of scientific publications for full professors at research universities in geography and area studies between 1996 and 2014. It shows that average article generation more than doubled, and this for a group with few worries about tenure and promotion.

Average publications by geography full professors at research universities in 15 countries. Chart from Nikolioudakis et al, 2015 (

All those would-be articles cycle through a publication system that has remained the same at its research core: authors who submit academic papers, other professors who kindly examine these submissions and provide comprehensive reviews, editors who orchestrate the whole process from beginning to end, and an audience of mostly academics ready to consume the scholarly output.

The truly dramatic changes have occurred in the larger publication universe. Two decades ago, there were many publishers such as Carfax, VH Winston, Pion, and Blackwell. In addition, there were still a number of independently published society journals. Many professors would take out personal subscriptions.

Today, most journal publishing has steadily consolidated into five or six big houses. The chart below shows the situation for all English-language journals. For just the social sciences, the top five publishers account for about 70 percent of all articles, compared to 15 percent in the early 1990s. These publishers sell journals to academic libraries as part of a package, but the costs of the packages can be stratospheric. Elsevier was recently embroiled in controversy because European libraries and the University of California felt that it charged far too much per article. Adding salt to these wounds is information that Elsevier makes about a 37 percent profit margin—selling back to academics content that these same academics have already produced. The other publishing houses employ the same basic model of selling to professors what the professors have already produced for free [full disclaimer, I am an editor for two journals published by Taylor & Francis].


Journal title shares by major publishers. Data from International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, 2018 (

Very little of the publishing profits—which can be staggering—dribbles down to the people who are the beating heart of the publication process. To be sure, publishing houses offer major benefits in production, allowing articles to be copy edited, proofread, typeset and put online in a matter of days. The ability of the average scholar to access thousands of titles—crisp and in full color—without ever having to leave her office is nothing short of phenomenal. Archives can be summoned with the click of a mouse. For those who can afford it, these companies expedite the smooth transmission of information. But by acting as consolidators and distributors, journal publishers position themselves to sell scientific knowledge provided to them for free.

Of these, the only person within the research circle who gets paid—maybe a few thousand dollars a year—is the editor, mainly to cover expenses. The authors sometimes have to pay to cover page charges, especially if they want their article to be freely available to the readership. (The promotion of open access, which journals have jumped all over, can be quite costly with fees in excess of $2000 per paper.) In all but rare occasions, the reviewers review for absolutely nothing (and in some disturbing situations will get junior colleagues and students to review in their name), and merit or promotion committees seldom bestow academic credit for this consuming labor.

Added to the morass has been the proliferation of so-called predatory journals. I am sure that every one of you has received a solicitation, perhaps several times a week, asking whether you want to publish in a journal with a fishy title (International Journal of Global Technology and Science Research anyone?). These journals come with all the trappings—submission guidelines and editorial boards—and they promise a lot: super-fast review (within days!) and sometimes offers to write the paper for you. Yet the fees are onerous and the articles themselves rarely get circulated. With so many legitimate journals out there encouraging open access fees, and the pressure to publish, it is little wonder that such journals are seen as viable options.

Of course, there are a host of ethical issues that involve societies like the American Association of Geographers. We have been able to negotiate some lucrative contracts with our publisher, Taylor & Francis, which pay many of our bills. But this also perpetuates the high prices academic institutions are charged for subscriptions, and can put scientific knowledge out of reach for people without access.

So given the fact that journal publishing is not only here to stay but proliferating, how do we make the process better? Some journals have chosen to avoid the big presses: AcmeFocus, and Fennia to name three. Especially if tenure committees can come unshackled from the need for metrics, such publications provide a place for solid and alternative scholarship.

We can also devise better ways to validate the process of peer review. As an editor, I badger experts in various topics to take several hours of their time to provide a critical service to an anonymous someone. There is no monetary compensation for this, nor does it make a mark on most CVs. Yet at least half say yes, and many of the others apologize and promise to review at a different time. The entire edifice of scholarly publishing would crash without peer reviewers, yet they are often as taken-for-granted as wall studs. It would be nice if there was also a way to reward peer reviewers in some fashion and perhaps the whole process might be revamped.

The paradox of publishing is threefold. We require graduate students and professors to publish in academic journals if they hope to advance. Yet authors and peer reviewers work for free and journal editors for very little, while article fees increase and publishing houses accrue the profits. Academic societies such as the AAG rely on contracts with journal publishers to secure some of these profits, essentially benefitting from the free labor of their members.

To abandon the system would mean altering the rewards intrinsic to academia and forgoing the revenues now vital to scholarly associations. But the University of California’s termination of their contract with Elsevier earlier this year demonstrates that this system may not be sustainable in the long term. We all have a stake in the outcome. I hope that geographers will lead the way in developing a fairer and more reasonable model for journal publishing.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0066


Going Local or How the AAG Can Help Enhance its Regional Divisions

The region is one of geography’s main concepts and, true to these roots, regional divisions—mostly within the United States but many including Canadian provinces—developed as an intrinsic part of the American Association of Geographers. The Pacific Coast Division was formed in 1938 and the other regional divisions were established in the 1940s and 1950s. Preston James and Geoffrey Martin credit regions with much of the AAG’s growth during the 1960s, but what else would you expect from a geography organization? Regions are part of our DNA.

Today, regional divisions have distinct membership and governance structures. Several regions run their own journals; others have comprehensive websites and newsletters. And every region hosts a substantial one- or two-day meeting in the fall with field trips, keynotes, sessions, posters and prizes.

We differ in our approach to the AAG regions. Some geographers attend only the regional meetings; for them, these are the best part of the geography community. Others rarely interact with their region, focusing instead on the national meeting. And a few are active at both the regional and national levels. Despite being smack-dab in the middle of the West Lakes region, my graduate program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison had little to do with it, at least at that time. So I was only vaguely aware of regional divisions until I attended my first East Lakes meeting right after I started teaching at Kent State. I later served as division president and regional councilor.

Former presidents Kavita Pandit and Tom Baerwald have eloquently discussed some of the benefits of regions and regional meetings. These assets include a more intimate venue to contrast with the controlled chaos that is the national meeting, more opportunities to highlight geography to local politicians and businesses, the ability to show off geography to administrators, better interaction opportunities for undergrads and grads, lower costs, and more. When I attend regional conferences I notice that, with just two to four concurrent breakout sessions and fewer outside distractions, most sessions are quite well attended with ample questions and an opportunity for presenters to get their ideas across—something that is valued especially by students. And in this day of concern about carbon impacts of attending far-away conferences, regional meetings provide an option much closer to home.

My time as AAG vice president and president allows me to attend as many regional conferences as possible. I have glimpsed the culture of each region and I have enjoyed the vitality of the meetings. But my observations and discussions with regional leaders and meeting participants have also revealed some challenges. These often come in the form of varied attendance and engagement by members. At each regional meeting I attended, some schools were clearly involved whereas some significant programs were virtually absent. For graduate students looking to make contacts with scholars in their area of interest, or for undergraduates looking for information about different programs, such absences are frustrating. What may once have been a launching pad for grad students seeking to give their first paper is now ignored for a spot on the national program. Past president Audrey Kobayashi decried a “huge indifference to regional division activities across the country,” at least among some of the larger universities. This creates division; it creates a sense of abandonment. And frankly it means that the regions cannot function as well as they should. Past president Julie Winkler posed some important questions to ask about the regional meetings: How can the regional divisions strengthen geography at the national level? Is the attendance at regional division meetings proportional to the types of institutions in the region? What are some of the gaps that could be addressed?

So we must incentivize healthier regions and better regional meeting participation in order to bolster the AAG and geography as a whole. To that end, I established a task force—made up of members of each region—to understand some of the problems and point to potential solutions. Thus far, we have been asking regions a lot of questions, gathering information on various strengths and weaknesses, and then thinking of ways the AAG can assist. These suggestions come from the regions themselves and, if implemented, could considerably bump up the value of regional participation.

The first concerns are tied to regional governance. Quite plainly, many regions have difficulty finding enough willing leaders. Regions do not have professional staff and so governance and conference planning falls on the shoulders of volunteers. Some people feel that the recognition is not at all commensurate with the demands of this vital service. To this end, the AAG has pledged to provide more recognition for regional volunteers, enhance opportunities for regional officers to exchange ideas at the national convention and beyond, and perhaps waive the national meeting registration fees for division presidents or chairs.

Second, there is the question of how well the AAG might help with the management of the regions and their meetings. This September we sent out a survey asking if regional officers knew about all of the items the central office can manage: insurance, bookkeeping, a meeting registration license, Zoom account, childcare subsidy, and some others. The responses showed that not all of these services are universally known, yet they could save each region a big headache and some serious cash.

Finally, how might the AAG support and improve attendance at the regional meetings? In addition to the services listed above, we are committed to creating more incentives. We already established the AAG Council Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Paper at a Regional Meeting. This award of $1,000 that goes toward attendance at the national meeting is prestigious and profitable; I believe it has led to more students attending regional meetings. Other awards could be created—for outstanding undergraduate students or for faculty mentors who shepherd several students to regional meetings, for example. We could look at discounting the cost for students to participate in regional meetings. And for the regions themselves and for the hardworking people who put together a regional meeting, we are exploring various financial and non-financial areas of support. We will strive to establish more of an AAG presence at each meeting, going beyond the president giving the keynote. Perhaps most promising of all, there will be much more publicity for the regional meetings: at the annual spring meeting, on the AAG website, and on social media.

All these incentives must be matched with additional things that regions can do. The onus of putting together a regional meeting falls on just a few people. A manual of best practices, available to everybody, would be useful to see what has worked and what must be done and at what time. Another suggestion is to think about ways to combine a regional meeting with another meeting. Sometimes joint regional meetings can make a lot of sense. Other times, the meeting can be held concurrent with a specialty organization that attracts people from across the world. One promising avenue is to pair some of these meetings with a set of interested specialty groups. Could there be value in getting a dedicated geographical specialty conference that would share work, costs, and revenues with a regional division? This could create a bigger playing field.

Every region has a devoted core of people who participate in regional governance and regularly attend their fall meeting. But we can move beyond these mainstays to create a more robust level of participation: creating real incentives for people to work with their regions and to participate in regional meetings and making people feel that they and their students will obtain something of value at the regions which they cannot get elsewhere. These can be accomplished and, if they are, our regions will grow stronger and the American Association of Geographers as a whole will thrive.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0065


Finding your Parachute or The PhD is Not Just for Academics

Graduate students are haunted by the specter of future job uncertainty. Many Master’s students wonder what they will do with their degree. For PhD students, the period between becoming ABD and completing the dissertation elicits a queasy feeling. What will the academic job market be like? Will I land a job in my specialization, will I get a visiting position somewhere, or will I miss out entirely, forced to eke out a living until the next year’s job ads come out? These fears are well founded; academic job commitments for doctoral recipients are under 50%.

The picture is a bit better in geography. This chart compares the number of U.S.-based entry-level, full-time, permanent academic jobs posted on the AAG website with the number of completed doctorates for the last few years. That still leaves a pretty big deficit between eligible applicants and job availability and does not account for already employed professors on the hunt for something new.

This chart is based on data from the AAG’s Jobs in Geography Master List. All permanent full-time entry-level academic positions and post-docs based in the U.S. were aggregated for each year. Dissertation data comes from an ongoing database maintained by Dave Kaplan and Jennifer Mapes. Details on database construction are available here:

While there will always be job anxiety, part of it stems from the idea that the PhD must inexorably lead to an academic, preferably tenure-track, position. To many, it carries the same connection as MD to physician or JD to attorney. A doctorate is training for academia, so the thinking goes, but not a whole lot else. Departmental culture can bolster this viewpoint as well, exalting those students who land an assistant professor position and ignoring all other job prospects. Graduate school is viewed as an apprenticeship to a singular vocation.

Yet we know that many PhDs do work in non-academic posts, and that such jobs can bring fulfillment, stimulation and financial stability. The NSF’s Survey of Doctoral Recipients shows that half or more of all recent PhD recipients work in business, government, or some other form of non-academic employment We need to say loud and clear that non-academic careers are just as valuable as academic careers. These jobs usually pay better and the level of job satisfaction can also be higher. A popular book on careers outside of academia (Basalla and Debelius 2015) uses anecdotal evidence to show how non-academic positions present interesting challenges, stimulating colleagues, and often less guilt and more accomplishment than their academic counterparts. My last three PhD students have gone on to rewarding careers in government, nonprofits, and business. Such jobs also bring geographical flexibility, allowing them to live with their partners, stay in a place they like, and not follow the holy academic grail across the country and the world.

Beyond this, the demand for the kinds of critical skills achieved by advanced geographers only continues to grow. A recent report by the World Economic Forum touting the “4th Industrial Revolution” forecasts greater demands for creativity and originality, critical thinking, systems analysis, technology programming, and the like. Geography not only gives students the human (creativity, critical thinking) and technical skills predicted to be more valuable—it synthesizes them. Past President Sarah Bednarz has described “Geography’s Secret Powers” as the thinking that harnesses spatial concepts, spatial representations, and reasoning as well as applies this knowledge to using various geospatial technologies. Geography Masters and PhD students come out of universities prepared with spatial and geospatial thinking—ready to take on the future of work.

Students wishing to pursue alt-academic professional opportunities have to change their job search strategies. Getting a tenure-track job is a bear, but it is relatively straightforward and transparent. You need only go to your friendly AAG Jobs in Geography, see the jobs that apply to you, and follow the directions. The types of materials needed—cover letter, CV, letters of recommendation, perhaps a couple of published articles—are also pretty standard.

There are many places to look for jobs outside the halls of ivy, but no single place to look. Positions may be widely advertised or may rely on personal information. Employers are unlikely to ask for a specialty in “global urbanism” or “biogeography” but be more inclined to seek a set of skills and experiences relevant to the job at hand. The emphasis is less on your prospects as a rising professor and more on how well you fit the organization. Companies or agencies may not care about your dissertation or your articles, and will request a 1–2 page resume instead of a multi-page CV. And while academic positions can bring in up to 100 applicants, jobs on the outside can see even more competition, requiring an even greater ability to stand out.

So how can our community facilitate these options? We advisors are remarkably good at instilling geographical skills in our students but not so good at showing them how to market these skills outside the world of colleges and universities. While for some academia is a second career, most of us marched straight into tenure-track jobs after earning our PhDs. University life is all we really know. My fluency in charting the trail to an assistant professor position falters when I try to prepare a student for something that deviates from this very narrow path. Moreover, students may feel anxious about telling advisors that they do not wish to pursue an academic career. This requires a certain degree of sympathy on the advisor’s part, a willingness to acquire knowledge, maybe even participating in and establishing PhD career fairs—in other words, a more sophisticated version of what we do to enhance job prospects for our undergrads.

The department or university can provide resources to their students. One such option is a subscription to Versatile PhD – a website providing examples of jobs, resumes, pep talks, and lots of other material. Some of this is free, but the paywall comes up fast. Developing a network of alumni who have successfully gone into worlds beyond academia could be a fantastic resource, and one that could allow for some early-stage mentoring and connection-building in a chosen field. Knowing somebody in the right place at the right time works. Bringing in geographers in these careers who can talk about them as part of a speaker series or some other event provides insights into potential opportunities.

And let’s not forget our Master’s students. While much of the angst is focused on the doctoral student in search of a job, graduate programs include many people who want to further their love of geography by getting a Master’s degree. Where I went to graduate school, there was an impression (at least I felt it) that the Master’s was just a way station to the doctorate. Some geography departments don’t even require a Master’s and encourage their students to go straight to the PhD. Yet we have far more MA, MS and now MGIS students than PhD students, and the majority do not want a PhD and the academic life. Focusing on this group and their career options after graduate school is a beneficial exercise as several of the strategies used to help them along can also apply to PhD students.

And finally, can the AAG do more? As an academic, one of the nicest aspects of the annual meeting is the opportunity to catch up with old friends. This especially includes former PhD students and MA students who did their PhDs elsewhere. But for geographers who did not go into academia, the incentives are often gone. They may not get money or time from their organization, they may feel like the overall vibe is far too “academic” and ignores their needs, and they may feel more and more cut off from their professor friends. I appreciate the specialty groups—notably the Business SG, Applied SG and the Public/Private Affinity Group—for promoting the non-academic world. But the fact remains that less than 11% of our members come from outside higher education. Data from McKinley showed that AAG members in the non-academic world were far less likely to attend the annual meeting, and those who did attended, did so less frequently. If we confine our appeal to only academic-bound geographers, we risk limiting the reach of the AAG and cramping the opportunities for current AAG members.

Geography is larger than just colleges and universities. The AAG should reflect the entire spectrum of geographic careers.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0062



A Golden Opportunity for Geography or How Can We Harness the Growth in AP Human Geography?

I am from a generation when high school classes (at least in my urban public school) were not terribly challenging. This was through no fault of the teachers, who had to contend with a broad range of students and overcrowded classrooms, but it meant that many of us coasted through high school, only to be stunned by the difficulty of our first college classes. As for geography—Fuhgeddaboudit! Geography was not taught in my high school and I expect that was true in much of the United States.1

Things have changed. Dual enrollment programs now allow high school students to attend their local college or university and receive credit at both institutions. This used to be a major hassle and now is a breeze. And high schools themselves offer many more Advanced Placement courses and exams. The AP program was still pretty small potatoes in most school districts until the 1980s and 1990s when the number of schools providing at least one AP course doubled and then tripled. AP courses are now available in well over half of US high schools—an outlet for students wishing to take rigorous courses plus obtain college credit if they score well on the AP exam.

The foresight of a few geographers and the extraordinary assistance of the AAG enabled us to develop an exam for AP Human Geography in the 1990s.2 Today AP Human Geography is the fastest growing AP course, increasing five-fold over the past 10 years. It is one of the 10 highest enrolled of all AP subjects. No longer folded into “social studies” or “earth science,” geography—at least human geography—finally has a place of its own in the secondary school curriculum.

AP Human Geography introduces whole cohorts of K–12 educators to geography, perhaps even expanding the numbers of education majors who decide to concentrate in this discipline. It provides a bit of extra pay and fellowship for the nearly 1,000 geography teachers, professors and grad students who descend on Cincinnati every June for the annual APHG grading. This event and others foster greater interactions between high school teachers and college faculty, expanding the community of geography.

That being said, the AP program and APHG has come under its share of criticism, and I want to address two points here. The first questions whether the AP Human Geography curriculum is as rigorous as the same course in college. Not surprisingly, this is echoed for all AP courses; some universities have even refused to accept AP credit as a consequence. I believe that such concerns are unfounded. True, many AP Human Geography teachers did not major in Geography, but the same could be said of many instructors brought in to teach at the college level. The textbooks are the same, and the AP Human Geography curriculum is well thought out and comprehensive. In addition, AP Human Geography courses are taught over an entire year, allowing for a great deal more content. In order to obtain any college credit at all students must score a 3 or better on the AP exam. In 2019, only about half of all students who took the APHG exam scored a 3, 4, or 5—scores required to get college credit. The other half of test-takers effectively “failed” the exam. Show me a college class where half the students fail, and I will show you a class where the instructor has been replaced. AP tests are tough, and the grading is far tougher than what students experience in college. Research results show that these AP students performed better in subsequent geography courses than did those students who took Human Geography in college.

The second critique has to do with whether AP Human Geography effectively cannibalizes college geography courses, as incoming students no longer need human geography as part of their distribution requirements. This may deserve some study and practice on how to move these students into other geography courses. But this possibility may be more than offset by using this one course to spearhead a Geography major or minor. Research for other AP subjects has shown a strong relationship between how well students perform in an AP subject and their likelihood of majoring in that subject in college.

In a previous column, I spoke about trends in Geography majors. Given this spectacular growth in AP Human Geography we would expect a similar trajectory for Geography majors, with a 5–7 year lag. But this is not the case. The number of Geography majors has remained flat even as successful APHG test takers have zoomed. One reason could be the preponderance of APHG as a 9th grade subject, as students who take it go on to other fields because the high schools offer no additional geography opportunities.

This is probably not going to change. But it represents a path of opportunity for all colleges and university Geography departments. At the larger level, inviting AP Human Geography teachers to special conference activities can be eye opening and inspiring for all. Since 2015, the American Geographical Society has held the Geography Teacher Fellows Initiative that, among other things, invites Human Geography teachers to their annual Geography2050 Symposium in New York, including special workshops and year-round activities to continue the engagement. The AAG has also initiated an APHG meeting at the AAG annual meeting. This comes with a special price for teachers to attend and allows for more workshopping and networking. We are now also introducing some of these workshops to regional meetings, with a few to be piloted this fall and hopefully a more comprehensive roll-out in 2020. There has been more energy around this issue than I have ever seen before, and it can help provide training, connections, and a sense of community for all Human Geography teachers.3

Beyond these initiatives, I propose taking steps at a smaller level. All geography departments are situated among numerous high schools, several of which teach AP Human Geography. The map below4 shows the numbers and relative percentages of students earning credit in the course by state. Clearly some states—notably Texas and Florida—have robust programs, mainly because they require more of their students to take AP courses. But many other states are catching up. The high school closest to me just initiated an AP Human Geography course three years ago and it is quite popular.

While these data are quite general, there are a couple of ways for interested faculty to acquire information more specific to them. One option is to look up the high schools teaching APHG in your state, and create some connections between the teachers, their class, and your department. Perhaps invite teachers and students to come over for Geography Awareness Day, or ask if you can talk with their class about what a geography degree has to offer. One PhD student has already piloted such a program to connect AP Human Geography high school teachers with Geography departments from local colleges and universities. Since many colleges and universities gain their students from neighboring communities, this early intervention could yield benefits further down the line.

Another option is to find those students who have completed APHG at your institution and then invite them to come to departmental events and to consider becoming a major or a minor. These data are not available publicly, but the names of such students can be requested from the Registrar’s office. I tried this myself, and while it required a bit of paperwork, it was ultimately successful.

Not one of these ideas is a magic bullet. Building up connections and enrollment can be a long and drawn-out process. But small steps might allow us to take advantage of something truly spectacular. We can seize this golden opportunity and invigorate geography throughout higher education. In this instance, I would love to hear of any successes AAG members have had with connecting to AP Human Geography.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0061

  1. In those more enlightened education systems outside the US, geography was and continues to be a vital subject in secondary school.
  2. A few useful sources relating this history and current prospects: Murphy (2000), Scholz (2014), Lanegran and Zeigler (2016), Bednarz (2016)
  3. This only applies to Human Geography, but we may also consider how to engage teachers of AP Environmental Science.
  4. Map created by Jessica Reese, based on data from the College Board and the US Census. Inspired by the maps and analysis in Jones and Luna (2019).