As the Student Goes, So Goes Geography

This marks my last presidential column. Serving as President of the Association over the past year has been a true pleasure and honor. I have appreciated the opportunity to represent you and the discipline of geography. As someone who first began attending AAG meetings as a young graduate student, I never dreamed that one day I would be allowed to serve in this capacity. I would have never made it this far if not for the generous support of my academic programs, employers, mentors, and professional organizations. Thank you.

For my final remarks, I would like to come back to where it started for me and for so many of us—the student experience. Students are a large and important community within the AAG, constituting over 40% of membership. Recognizing this fact, the Association recently took the long overdue step of creating a Student Councilor position with full voting power on governance issues. Please join me in congratulating Sarah Stinard-Kiel of Temple University, who was just elected to serve in this role.

Our Association is increasingly interested in helping students take full advantage of their membership to reach their educational and professional aspirations. The recent New Orleans meeting saw career mentoring sessions, a networking happy hour, and other professional development discussions organized for students. These programs and the Student Councilor position signal a greater valuing of student voices and experiences than in the past, although there is still more that can and should be done.

In this column, I suggest that we might benefit from recognizing the capacity of students to be an important “compass” for assessing the current health and direction of geography and planning the future of the discipline and the AAG. The concept of compass, while a convenient and evocative metaphor for geographers, is also meant to capture the role that students already play and can play further in helping direct—rather than simply follow—the trajectory of the profession. There are a number of innovative student initiatives within geography that suggest that this leadership is already happening and that perhaps we need to rethink the traditional faculty-student divide in terms of disciplinary impact.

Foundational to my remarks is a firm belief that we need to create more opportunities to listen and respond to the views and concerns of our student members—building upon the strides underway in the AAG. This should be done at the level of individual programs, departments, and knowledge communities as well as the wider discipline and Association. As an early attempt at this process, I solicited feedback from undergraduate and graduate students within the AAG to several open-ended questions. It is impossible to do justice to the many wonderful responses received, but I wish to focus on a few key findings that might serve as points of intervention in the future.

I conclude this column with a “hail and farewell,” welcoming our new AAG President, paying tribute to our retiring Executive Director, and encouraging members to remain vigilant in supporting their colleagues and programs as we continue to move through an uncertain time.

Students decorated a whiteboard with their school logo at the International Reception held during the 2018 AAG Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Student as Compass

It might strike some as strange to think of students as a compass. After all, it is the job and responsibility of faculty and other experienced practitioners to guide, mentor and facilitate the learning and preparation process for students and early career professionals. As I argued in my first president’s column, effective mentorship of those new to the field is crucial to the health and sustainability of geography. But, I also suggested in that same column that mentorship must be a two-way process between junior and senior colleagues; any and all of us can learn from others regardless of rank, reputation, and years in the game.

In my own experiences as a department head and faculty member and in my travels as AAG President, I have seen numerous instances of students being important mentors and leaders in geography. The classroom is an obvious place where our students have a major guiding influence. Graduate student instructors are often well versed in active learning strategies and they increasingly ask their departments and programs for more organized opportunities to hone these skills. It is not by accident that some of our best recruiters of undergraduate student majors and minors are graduate student teachers. Given this fact, it is strange that AAG teaching-related awards appear to be restricted—at least in practice—to faculty instructors.

Students play a compass role in contributing to and protecting the intellectual vitality of geography. They are at the forefront of discovery, collaborating with faculty rather than merely assisting them. And, in many instances, students guide and drive research innovation themselves. They are frequent participants at academic conferences. I would dare to say that some of our AAG Regional Division meetings would struggle to survive if not for student attendees. Students —including undergraduates—have led the organization of their own geography meetings. One of the most impressive of these efforts is the South Dakota State Geography Convention, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2019. Student-led geography symposia are also found at Texas State UniversityUniversity of AlbertaUniversity College London, and my own University of Tennessee.

Students are also our compass in bringing key social and environmental problems and struggles to our attention and challenging us to do something about them. They are important voices of activism in a time when the stakes are high for effective science communication, evidence-based public debate, and social justice activism. The Youth Mappers Network is an impressive effort for cultivating student leaders who can leverage spatial data collection, analysis and visualization to support international development projects,crisis response, and public education about issues.

Students are proving to be passionate and determined advocates for the discipline. Students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently protested a proposal to eliminate the school’s Geography Program. I have been told that this show of geography student support, along with a letters written by alumni, made a real difference in convincing administrators of the need to take Nebraska Geography off the cut list.

Other students, such as Sarah Diamond, have advocated for fairness and consistency in the graduate student experience in geography. In 2015, Sarah proposed to the AAG Council a “best practices” document to guide departments in their relationships with graduate students. Although the guidelines went unapproved by the Council, they hold promise in encouraging geography programs to develop policies to ensure that students receive, among other things, objective progress evaluations, access to formal processes for handling harassment, and clearly defined expectations regarding authorship and ownership of intellectual property.

Sarah’s proposal suggested a best practice worthy of adoption across the discipline—namely that students should be treated as “professionals and junior colleagues.” To see students in this way disrupts the traditional social hierarchy within education that has long contributed to faculty elitism and made students to feel inferior or second class. Thinking of students—even undergraduates to some degree—as early professionals assists us in fully recognizing and realizing the contributions they make in shaping the field. The idea of “student as professional and junior colleague” also communicates the high expectations that we have for this community to take seriously their work and studies in geography—all of which has a direct bearing on the future of our discipline.

During small-group career mentoring sessions at the 2018 annual meeting in New Orleans students gathered to speak with experienced geography professionals and faculty members about creating resumes and cover letters, finding jobs using geography skills, choosing a graduate program and developing networks.


Creating Moments to Listen and Act

The idea of the student as a compass is meant to recognize the value of paying greater attention to the power of students to define agendas and advance conversations within geography, but it is also about being responsive to the personal and professional needs of students as we work with them to plan and build programs, workplaces, and associations. Students are important compass bearings for faculty, reminders of why we teach and the importance of keeping curriculum, technology, and policies current as we prepare and support the new generation of professional geographers.

The prominence and relevance of our discipline is ultimately tied to the personal, social, and career well-being of students. Recent research encourages “timely and ‘actionable’ dialogue around how to better support” this sense of well-being of students. Scholarship by geographers, in particular, highlights the need for departments to create “caring collectives” that move beyond a focus only on the “individual actions of supervisors, or the individual quality of students.” Importantly, these collectives should address the non-academic as well as academic needs of students and mobilize a “distributed responsibility” for the care and support of students and wider disciplinary and academic communities.

One of the first ways of creating supportive and caring environments is to listen to students, using their feedback to think about where the discipline is going and where it needs to go in the future. I reached out several months ago to members of the AAG Graduate Student Affinity Group (GSAG) and the Undergraduate Student Affinity Group (USAG), asking them what anxieties they have about pursuing a career in geography, their perceptions about the effectiveness of their departments and the AAG as well as their ideas for new resources and tools to assist with their professional development. The comments of undergraduate and graduate students are collapsed because of space constraints, but clearly a full reporting would recognize that each group has its own unique perceptions and professional challenges. My hope is that even a brief summary of their comments might inform individual departments, the Council, and AAG staff as we support students and engage in further strategic planning and program development.

Perhaps expectedly, students expressed anxiety about landing employment after graduation, whether that is an academic position or one in another sector of the economy. In particular, among both undergraduate and graduate students, there is concern about finding non-academic employment, especially opportunities outside the area of GIS. There is also anxiety among students about geography being seen as less scientifically legitimate than other fields and hence hurting their employability. Graduate students especially worry about the neoliberal structure of universities, what they describe as a shrinking academic job market, and balancing the demands of work and life. Some students called for the creation of additional professional development seminars and workshops in their departments and at conferences to help them think through and strategize responses to these issues.

Students expressed satisfaction with and appreciation for their current programs and departments, but also note things that they would like to see improved. I used “departmental culture” in my initial prompt and students focused heavily on the things that compromise the culture in their programs. Problems identified include segregation and rivalries between sub-fields; a shortage of sufficient mentoring for students; a lack of engagement with the world outside academia; struggles to achieve gender diversity; and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining students and faculty of color. One respondent wanted her/his department to hold “town halls” in which students can air their concerns openly to faculty and administrators.

When asked about the effectiveness of the AAG, students gave high marks to the Association’s journals, annual meetings, public relations, policy involvement, free childcare at conferences, and networking opportunities. But respondents also had ideas about what needs to improve. Students would like to see AAG regional conferences more important and better attended. Several who provided feedback applauded the collective voice that Association has taken on political issues, but feel we can keep working in this area and make even stronger stands. Students appreciated the job resources provided by the AAG but they would also like to see a greater posting of non-academic jobs on its web site.

While students praised AAG’s ever expanding communication channels, they also asked that the Association use its organizational power to engage in more advertising of geography and getting geographers noticed by the public, other disciplines, and communities. A major concern among several students is the fact that geography remains a mostly white, male discipline. In the words of one respondent: “The AAG should find a way to productively engage this situation, including facilitating discussion on the degree to which it represents a problem, what the root causes are, and solutions.”

Finally, I asked undergraduate and graduate students about what additional resources, programs, or tools they would like to see developed by the AAG to assist them in their professional development and the overall health of geography. Their suggestions included: (1) periodic webinars on job searching, project management and consulting, and best practices in teaching, publishing, and writing grants; (2) podcast discussions with invited guests about timely research or the state of the discipline; (3) a regular column in the newsletter on career development for students and early-career professionals; (4) greater online job application materials, such as samples of cover letters and teaching philosophies specific to geography; (5) opportunities for conference attendees to get in touch with NGOs or other nonprofits in the city hosting the conference each year so that students can offer their services; and (6) more outreach to high schools and middle schools and greater pressure from AAG to have geography represented in state K-12 curriculum.

Many of the concerns identified by students mirror comments we receive from more senior colleagues, suggesting that students have a clear and quite sophisticated understanding of the challenges facing the discipline. Yet, students also identified concerns previously unknown to me. Importantly, they offered some “actionable” suggestions for supporting our student colleagues and improving the health of AAG and its geography programs.

Hail and Farewell

In July, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach of the University of Texas at Austin begins her term as AAG President. Sheryl will do a fantastic job. She brings a great deal of vision, energy, and leadership experience to the post. Sheryl has a highly engaged and conscientious set of Regional, National, and Student Councilors with whom to work. Our Council meeting in New Orleans was especially productive and marked by many hours of discussion, debate, and decision-making.

Like me, Sheryl will benefit from hearing directly from AAG members and learning about your successes, needs, and frustrations. Only by knowing these experiences can she guide the Council and the wider Association to identify and address the issues affecting geographers across a range of institutional and vocational settings. I encourage you to reach out not only to Sheryl but to all AAG Councilors with your views, ideas, and concerns.

Executive Director Doug Richardson recently announced that he is transitioning to retirement; the 2019 AAG meeting in Washington D.C. will be his last in that capacity. A committee in charge of searching for a new executive director has been constituted and will soon begin its work. In his over 17 years of leadership, Doug has helped the AAG achieve great success in growing membership, creating a major endowment, enhancing the profile of the Association’s publications, achieving record-level annual meeting attendance, and advocating for the value of geography in research, education, and public policy circles. Please join me in congratulating and thanking Doug for his tireless and excellent service-leadership.

While we have much to be proud of, we cannot lose sight of the difficulties faced by fellow students, faculty, and other professionals in geography. Some have endured austere budget cuts, crippling natural disasters, the potential elimination of departments and majors, travel bans and inhumane border security, the trauma of harassment and discrimination, and state attacks on academic freedom, science, and progressive scholarship. Please consider lending your aid and solidarity to these embattled colleagues. If just one of us—individually, collectively, or programmatically—is under attack, then the entire discipline is weakened and vulnerable.

Please share your thoughts and experiences by emailing me (dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu) or share on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman

Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee
President, American Association of Geographers
Twitter: @MLKStreet

I wish to express special appreciation to Doug Allen, Lauren Gerlowski, Chris Hair, Shadi Maleki, and Mia Renauld for their assistance in collecting student feedback and preparing this column.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0036


The Difference That an Award Can Make (For All of Us)

One of the greatest pleasures of serving as President of the AAG is attending and participating in the Association’s awards ceremonies, both at Regional Division conferences and at the Honors Luncheon held every year at our national meetings. Words cannot adequately describe the feelings of pride and fulfillment that award recipients appear to experience upon having their scholarship, teaching, or outreach/service recognized publicly.

The AAG sponsors a number of important awards. The number and type of awards, for both individual professionals and even whole academic programs, have steadily grown over the years. While we have no shortage of accomplished geographers to honor and nominees for awards are consistently of high quality, we arguably don’t receive enough nominations for all awards. And in some instances, awards are not given every year because of a lack of submissions. This difficulty in garnering award nominations is not restricted to the Association but appears to be a challenge at a variety of institutional levels, including at many colleges and universities.

AAG staff Michelle Ledoux and Meredith Stone (pictured right) organized for a smooth presentation process the more than 100 awards and grants acknowledged during the 2018 AAG Awards Luncheon.

As I write, the Association is calling for nominations for many of its major honors, including its newly created AAG Fellows Program. I count no less than 40 separate AAG Awards, exclusive of those given by specialty and affinity groups. Some awards have a nomination deadline of June 30 and others having a deadline of December 31. I encourage members to take full advantage of the award nomination process to recognize deserving colleagues. Members might also consider nominating a person previously overlooked or unsung at awards ceremonies but who has given significantly to geography. I suggest in this column that awards make a difference to us, both in terms of the welfare of individual nominee and the wider discipline.

The visibility and recognition that comes with honoring others can have a major impact on their lives, careers, and sense of belonging. The time and energy invested in creating a nomination, which admittedly can be significant, is about lending aid to colleagues and making an intervention in “managing the egosystems” that operate within the Academy. The term “egosystem,” a play on the word “ecosystem,” recognizes that departments and other workplaces are, at their heart, communities of scholars whose self-conceptions and interconnected relations with each other shape the overall health and working environment of the team. These egosystems—if out of balance—can lead to deserving colleagues being ignored and feeling de-valued and under-appreciated, which in turn affects their morale and material well-being. As I noted in my first presidential column, one’s career, although it can feel like a lonely, solitary pursuit, is constantly defined by social relationships with others. The decision to nominate someone is about taking some responsibility for that person’s professional and personal success.

Enhancing our participation in award nominations is also critical to the social project of promoting geography to external audiences and demonstrating excellence in a time of growing academic assessment and accountability. Nominating is decidedly about pushing past one’s self interest and advocating for someone else, which can be difficult in a profession that at times pits us against each other. In the end, however, nominating a colleague for an award is more than a possible victory for that particular person; it is a potential win for all of us as we work to enhance the public image and prominence of the wider discipline. Importantly, a vibrant and advocacy-centered culture of award nomination must also recognize the many different ways and institutional settings in which geographers work and make contributions. I discuss this latter point in the context of a recent Council decision to expand the AAG Program Excellence Award to recognize geographers working in two-year/community colleges.

Managing the Egosystem

Over the past few years, I have increasingly used the phrase “managing egosystems” to capture the difficult but important responsibility that we have in ensuring a healthy and sustainable balance of social relations within our departments, programs, and other workplaces. It will surprise no one when I say that the Academy is composed of strong egos, personalities, and agendas. Arguably, these egos are necessary for competing and having an impact within the marketplace of ideas. But too much ego or self-importance can negatively affect working conditions, create low levels of self-esteem among some colleagues, and even result in the marginalization of other voices and contributions within geography. The very structure and composition of awards can reflect and reinforce an out of balance egosystem. For example, the array of awards within AAG has only a few honors explicitly for non-tenure track scholar-teachers, even though fixed term lecturers, adjuncts, and faculty and staff of practice have a growing presence in universities.

I believe that an expanded and inclusive approach to award nomination can be an effective mechanism in addressing egosystems characterized by inequalities. While everyone likes recognition, it has special meaning in the rigorous Academy, which can sometimes be a tough place for maintaining one’s confidence and sense of value. As a Department Head for five years, I frequently saw what self-doubt could do to brilliant people and how a broad, proactive approach to award nomination can lift the morale of faculty members, staff, and students—especially those from historically under-represented groups or those lacking the following, volume and promotional savvy of other colleagues. Effective department leaders—a term not confined only to those holding formal administrative duties—nominate frequently and encourage those around them to do the same. In some universities, progressive leaders have established entire committees to oversee and assist with the preparation of nominations for their departments and programs.

Importantly, the difference that an award can make is not restricted to the socio-psychological well-being of the person nominated. Rather, awards have material, career-value for many of us positioning for an employment opportunity, merit raises, tenure and promotion, and consideration for other forms of professional advancement.  Receiving an AAG award can significantly enhance a colleague’s professional standing back at their home institution and can be leveraged in making nominations for other honors, on and off campus. In this respect, a lack of nominations for a particular award potentially represents a lost opportunity to increase the security and even survivability of colleagues within their jobs and programs of study.  Award nominations can be one of many mechanisms used to advance the goal of broadening participation in geography and creating a disciplinary “ethics of care” that can recruit and retain talented colleagues.

Awards as Disciplinary Advocacy

And while awards are important to one’s personal sense of belonging and self-worth, I also argue that the nomination process is inherently a practice in disciplinary advocacy, a means of ensuring that the achievements of geographers are recognized by wider audiences—some of whom may or may not fully understand what geography is and what geographers contribute.

As a Department Head, I always loved seeing one of my faculty, staff, or students receive an award. First and foremost, I felt great for the person being honored, especially since I had observed first-hand the amount of work and sacrifice that person invested in her work.  Second, the award became a bragging point for me as I went to my College Dean or University Provost in making the case for why geography deserved more resources, a greater place in the curriculum, or simply a greater amount of public attention. Indeed, news about winning awards should always be included in distributed press releases, alumni newsletters, social media promotions, and student recruitment brochures. Third, for my university and many others, awards have become—for better or for worse—part of the analytics used to assess the productivity of programs and their standing among other units on campus as well as within national rankings. In this respect, not actively participating in the award nomination process can have a detrimental effect on one’s own program and ultimately how geography is rated overall among other fields.

The Program Excellence Award is presented in alternate years to Bachelors Programs and Masters Programs. This year’s Award for Bachelors Program Excellence goes to the Department of Geography at SUNY-Geneseo.


It was this very recognition that awards have a larger institutional context and cache that motivated the Association’s Council to approve four years ago the creation of a Program Excellence Award for non-PhD granting geography departments. The award acknowledges the collective efforts of professors, lecturers, staff, and students in enhancing the prominence of Geography as a discipline.  It is believed that bestowing the awards would allow BA/BS and MA/MS geography departments to demonstrate external recognition of program quality to university officials, prospective students and faculty, and the general public.  In the current academic environment, evidence of excellent standing or distinction can be important to administrators as they make strategic decisions about departments and programs. Indeed, some past departmental recipients of the AAG Program Excellence Award report that they have been successful in leveraging this discipline-wide recognition into greater institutional consideration and investment.

While the AAG Program Excellence Award has attracted stellar nominations, not all regional divisions are participating (every year, each regional division is permitted two preliminary nominations). Granted, regional division leaders do not have to nominate every year (nor in every program category), but I know that each of our regions overflows with excellent non-doctoral geography departments. I stress this point about the broadening base of nominations since we are in a time when even historically strong programs are under the threat of reduction, merger with other disciplines, or even elimination. Can any of us in today’s university afford not to take advantage of an opportunity to advocate for (and nominate for recognition) the achievements of our discipline and its practitioners?

Taking a proactive approach to nominations will grow in importance with the AAG Program Excellence Award now that it has a separate category for recognizing geography programs/departments at two-year/community colleges. Thanks to a proposal brought by Treasurer Julie Cidell, the Council approved at the New Orleans national meeting this expansion, recognizing that more than 150 two-year colleges in the US offer a degree program in geography. Geography departments at these institutions promote geography in their local communities, support (and mentor) high school teachers teaching college credit courses, provide retraining to students returning to school and support life-long learners. Yet, because faculties at two-year/community colleges often do not belong to AAG and they lack funds for Association dues and travel to conferences, it will be even more imperative that our Regional Divisions reach out to geographers at these institutions, get to know them, and advocate for them through the nomination process. Colleagues at two-year colleges are often poorly resourced, strapped for time, and especially vulnerable to administrative pressures. They are an important front line in the discipline maintaining its health and sustainability.

Don’t Expect Someone Else to Nominate

In closing, many of us labor under a dangerous assumption that someone else will nominate outstanding people. Some of us even believe that honors/awards selection committees will no doubt solicit nominations for qualified individuals.  Even if the latter assumption were a valid one, it is realized unevenly. Some awards committees are actually quite passive in their approach, seeing themselves as merely the receivers and evaluators of nominations rather than the cultivators of dossiers. Moreover, committee-solicited nominations rely upon traditional networks of familiarity and run the risk of missing someone operating in different professional, social, and intellectual circles. Bottom line, if you think someone is deserving of an honor, then move forward decisively to work (by yourself or better yet, with others) to nominate that person.

I am interested in knowing from AAG members about their experiences in the area of nominations and awards—whether as a member of an award selection committee, a nominator for someone, or the recipient of a nomination. What difference do you feel that awards make in our careers and discipline and how can we enhance that impact even more. What obstacles, either internal or external to the nomination process at AAG, limit people’s involvement in this important part of our professional culture? Please share your thoughts and experiences by emailing me (dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu) or share on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman
Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee
President, American Association of Geographers
Twitter: @MLKStreet

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0034


Making AAG Meetings More Public

We are just days away from the start of the AAG annual meeting. I look forward to seeing many of you in New Orleans. For most of us, participating in the conference is work. It may be a labor of love, but it represents, nonetheless, a significant investment in terms of money, energy, and time. Please know that your investment and work on behalf of the discipline and the Association at the meeting is appreciated.

We attend the annual AAG meeting for a number of reasons — to present our latest scholarship, to learn about current theories and methods, to mentor and be mentored by others, to network within our specialty groups and knowledge communities, to collaborate on projects and publications, and of course to socialize with long-time friends and fellow alumni. These are all great reasons to attend; however, they tend to reinforce the idea that academic conferences are closed intellectual and social system devoted to cultivating relationships between colleagues and focused largely on building the research and teaching capacities of attendees.

No doubt, conferences should be about the work of building disciplinary bonds and expertise; however, I would suggest our meetings potentially offer an even wider array of professional interactions and benefits that open us to new places, people, and skills. In this column, I discuss the value, but also the challenges, of making our AAG meetings more public-oriented. By public, I mean at least three things.

  • First, what can we do to develop a “public geographic ethics” for our conference host cities and to advance a critical understanding of the places within which we hold meetings, including the social and environmental struggles seemingly far from meeting rooms?
  • Second, what can we do to host and include local voices within the annual conference and even create “community-conference collaborations” at meetings, recognizing of course the social and logistical issues that accompany this public engagement?
  • Third, what can we do to create “conference workspaces” devoted to helping attendees develop skills, competencies, and political-ethical frameworks for carrying out public outreach, not only at the meetings but also back home within their own universities, industry workplaces, and communities?

Although what I have outlined above is a broad vision for enhancing the publicness of AAG meetings, there is already a history of some of these initiatives being carried out by geographers in the past. In addition, a number of AAG members and staff have worked hard to organize public-oriented activities and interactions in New Orleans. I encourage you to take advantage of and support these opportunities, some of which I highlight below. While these activities hopefully will enrich your time in New Orleans, it is my hope that they can inspire even greater strides toward public engagement at future annual meetings.

The Public Geographic Ethics of Attending a Meeting

The New Orleans meeting promises to be an intellectually and socially stimulating conference held in a city that offers geographers not only a place to have fun but also, importantly, a place to learn. Indeed, a number of papers, panels, field trips, and special sessions—including the opening, presidential plenary—are devoted to examining New Orleans’ geographies. The opening session, in particular, will focus on what geographers can learn from the range of racial, ethnic, class, and environmental struggles that have shaped New Orleans and how these struggles must inform any effort to imagine and plan the city in the future. We are very fortunate to have New Orleans Mayor-Elect Latoya Cantrell—the first woman to hold that position—join us at the opening session to issue a welcome and reflect on her own vision of the city’s challenges and future.

More than other types of conference goers, geographers are quite good at venturing outside of the meeting hotel to explore the host city and even collect photographs and personal observations of the area that can be incorporated into teaching modules and ongoing research. I suggest that the value of understanding and engaging with non-conference public geographies goes beyond simply what they give us in terms of information or touristic experience; rather, there is an ethical responsibility to know and care about the wider lived realities of the cities and regions that host our conferences.

As I have suggested in the rationale for my presidential plenary, the host cities for AAG meetings provide more than hotels, restaurants, bars, and other services. They offer important moments to delve into the scientific value but also the social needs of these locations and to educate ourselves about the historical and contemporary forces and tensions that shape their environments, communities and spaces. Doing so not only advances our academic understanding of place and region but also has the potential to create a more responsible and empathetic visitor and academic conference citizen—someone who can appreciate, analyze, and be affected by the people and places that exist beyond travel brochures found in hotel lobbies.

Geographers are no stranger to New Orleans, having contributed a great deal of critical analysis over the years—from the late Peirce Lewis’ classic book to the Clyde Woods’ path-breaking, posthumous volume, from the historical geographic work of Craig Colten and Michael Crutcher to the post-Hurricane Katrina analyses of Alice HuffCatarina PassidomoWe Li and many others. Our honorary geographer for the 2018 meeting, Dr. Robert Bullard—one of the foundational figures in the study of environmental justice—has been a keen observer of the racially and spatially uneven nature of disaster response and recovery, both in the context of New Orleans and more generally throughout the United States. The inaugural Geographical Review lecture at the AAG meeting features Richard Campanella, a geographer with Tulane University and one of the most widely noted authorities on New Orleans landscape history.

Two of the AAG meetings’ featured themes, Black Geographies and Hazards, Geography, and GIScience — while certainly not limited to New Orleans — provide powerful lenses through which we can begin to achieve an ethical and place-sensitive interaction with the city. The 2018 AAG conference program includes, for example, sessions devoted to Critical Race Geographies of New Orleans and Hazards as a Way of Life in LouisianaGulf South Geographies of Freedom is a session that examines this very issue of the ethics of engaging and doing research in and around New Orleans and how such work requires a “sustained commitment” to place. This point prompts us to consider the long-term responsibility that AAG has to sensitize itself to the social and environmental challenges facing conference host cities, especially since the annual meeting tends to rotate among the same, limited number of venues that can accommodate our crowds.

When the Host Becomes a Guest

Especially important in making the annual meeting more public is to complicate the power dynamic of who is the host and who is the guest. It is important to create a two-way flow of engagement between community and conference, one in which local non-geographers can attend our meetings, contribute to discussions and debates, and benefit from participating in the conference and hearing about the work of geographers.

I am happy to report that several New Orleans-related sessions at this year’s conference are hosting local residents, scholars, and officials. This public participation will provide geographers insight into the experiences and perspectives of advocatescommunity leaderspolicy institutesnon-profit organizations, and government agencies and possibly lead to opportunities in which we lend our collaboration and solidarity to pressing local issues. A session is organized to spark discussion between geographers and members of Blights Out, a New Orleans-based group using art, dialogue and action to address blight, housing affordability, gentrification, and housing as a human right. Representatives from the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy will join geographers and other practitioners for a roundtable at the 2018 AAG meeting that addresses how the concept of climate justice is co-produced by public and academic stakeholders and the implications of this work within “sacrifice zones” such as New Orleans.

An excellent example of the New Orleans meeting being used to form community-conference collaborations is the Emerging Workforce Scholars Program—now in its second year at AAG meetings. Under the leadership of Drew Lehman and as part of AAG’s Advancing Diversity initiative, local students and young adults from New Orleans’ ethnically and financially diverse communities are invited to be an integral part of the AAG’s annual meeting. This experiential learning program is designed to introduce local community members to careers in geography and the geosciences and to learn first-hand about job sites and career opportunities for geographers in the local area. The project is a result of partnership between AAG and Limitless Vistas, Inc., a New Orleans community-based organization devoted to helping “young adults obtain the skills and knowledge to become gainfully employed in the environmental or conservation industries.”

Cultivating public participation in the annual meeting involves more than simply issuing invitations and collecting PINs. Time and effort is expended identifying potential public participants (hopefully in consultation with local geographers or other knowledgeable people in the area), clearly explaining one’s expectations for the community partner’s participation, determining how the schedule of the AAG conference might accommodate the schedule of the community member, and building a social trust and rapport with the public partner.

By participating in the AAG meeting, local community partners quite likely will be sacrificing time away from family, pay from work, and some sense of security as they share views in meeting rooms and hallways filled with strangers. These partners may or may not be experienced with how academic conferences work or the conventions of speaking within sessions. Moreover, since Katrina in 2005, New Orleans’ communities have experienced the fatigue and frustration of being continually studied and analyzed by academicians, some of whom promise but fail to deliver on building long-term mutually beneficial relationships with communities they study. It is important, both at the 2018 meeting and beyond, to welcome the local community and treat them as a partner in the process of the geographic discovery rather than simply the subject or object of that discovery.

Also important is ensuring that there is something at the academic conference for the local community member — whether it is special sessions organized around a theme or issue of community interest, a social event in which locals can network with each other along with geographers with resources, ideas, and a willingness to assist and partner with public groups. Just as we use a “speed dating” method at AAG meetings to help connect people with potential employers or article authors with journal editors, our conferences might offer quick opportunities for local community organizations and civic leaders to talk with and receive free consultation from an array of attending geographers representing a variety of specialties and applied realms. A similar contact zone could be created between interested conference goers and area journalists, creating an opportunity for geographers to learn more about local issues but also getting the press in touch with scholars who can place these local issues in national and global context and thus inform public debate.

Public Engagement Skill Development at AAG meetings

The attention devoted at the 2018 meeting to learning about New Orleans and connecting with local voices and lives is related to one of the major goals and featured themes of the upcoming conference — public engagement in geography. Admittedly, engagement is an overly broad label to capture the many diverse ways that geographers communicate with and inform wider public audiences. While public engagement is about advancing broader societal understanding of the discipline through advocacy and promotion, it is also about establishing meaningful, reciprocal relationships with wider initiatives, struggles, and social groups. An engaged discipline also actively incorporates communities — as intellectuals and experts in their own right — into teaching, research, and service-outreach.

One of my goals for the New Orleans AAG meeting and the Public Engagement Theme is to create “conference workspaces” for developing skills and capacities in public engagement within our disciplinary ranks — recognizing that the vast majority of academicians and other geography professionals have never received formal training in this area. With the leadership of a wide array of talented facilitators, we have organized a series of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Engagement sessions to address this void somewhat.

These DIY sessions are not workshops per se but are designed to provide grounded but critical discussions of public engagement and outreach opportunities, strategies, and challenges. Sessions build upon the experiences of panelists/facilitators and the sharing of perspectives from the audience to create a space where geographers can train each other, trade innovations and ideas, and negotiate practical and even political obstacles to public engagement in geography. The sessions, which cover a wide range of engagement arenas, are built upon the idea that geographers with a variety of styles and skills can make meaningful public interventions — whether large or small. The emphasis on Do-It-Yourself recognizes that while public engagement is a part of the Association’s strategic long-range plan, it is also the responsibility of individual geographers and geography programs and workplaces.

Below is a listing of the DIY Engagement sessions held in New Orleans and the details of their themes and facilitators/leaders. Links will take you to the sessions’ abstracts and placement within the AAG program schedule. Consider attending a session that resonates with you; we welcome attendees with limited engagement experience as well as veterans in these matters who can share their experiences and advise.

As our discipline becomes more engaged publicly and our conferences create more opportunities to develop and debate the principles of an engaged geography, it will become increasingly important to rethink and widen the types of professional interactions and benefits we seek from our conferences. The DIY sessions have been organized in highly cooperative ways that stress the value of colleagues working together toward common goals and “coaching up” each other, which is admittedly not the vibe we necessarily get in all traditional sessions where scholars tend to operate autonomously and sometimes in competition with each other. Further development of these types of sessions will require not only a recognition of the general importance of public outreach but also a reconsideration of how the discipline operates socially and the value of further using the annual meeting to build a culture of mutual aid and support among our varied members of the geography public.

I am interested in knowing from AAG members about their impressions of the New Orleans AAG meeting, both in general but also specific to the theme of public engagement, as well as how ideas that geographers and others might have for enhancing the public nature of next year’s conference in Washington DC. Please share your thoughts and experiences by emailing me (dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu) or share on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman
Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee
President, American Association of Geographers
Twitter: @MLKStreet

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0033


Non-Killing Geographies


This column is written with a very heavy heart, coming just several days after the deadly mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The massacre ended the lives of 17 students and staff, injured dozens, and left behind many traumatized survivors, as well grieving friends, families, and community members. Counted among the murdered was Scott Beigel, a geography teacher and cross country coach at the high school, who heroically lost his life providing students with shelter from the gunman’s bullets.

This tragedy, which sadly has become just the latest in now a long and growing line of school shootings in the United States, drew significant expressions of sadness and anger from AAG members, our governing Council, and the wider geography community. On behalf of the Association, I express heartfelt sympathy to the victims of the Parkland school shooting. I also demand in the strongest possible terms that U.S. federal, state, and local government officials be tireless and unflinching in examining what can be done to eliminate the pervasiveness of violence not only in schools but across the nation’s communities. Thankfully the news industry has cast a significant spotlight on the massacre in Parkland, but there are scores of neighborhoods, workplaces, campuses, and other spaces and lives marked by this and other forms of violence, much of it going under-reported and under-analyzed.

Disciplinary response to the Florida murders remains very fluid as many of us in the AAG consider the most appropriate way to memorialize Scott Beigel and all the victims and survivors of the shooting. No doubt, this will be the subject of conversations at the AAG Council’s upcoming spring meeting in New Orleans. There is also considerable ongoing discussion among geographers about the impact that this tragedy will have on broader social discussions and debates about gun reform, school safety, mental health, and the responsiveness (or lack thereof) of some government authorities to the precarity of human life. The outrage and political activism recently demonstrated by the surviving students of Stoneman Douglas High School suggest these debates will remain highly charged for some time and rightly so.

While these aforementioned issues cannot be settled overnight, I do feel responsible as AAG President to reflect upon what these recent horrific events might mean for our discipline and our Association. In particular, I would like to use this column to suggest that while a growing number of geographers are engaged in a critical study of violence, it should become an even more central theme within geographic research, teaching, community engagement, and other disciplinary initiatives.

Throughout my tenure as AAG President, I have forwarded efforts to make Geography REAL, that is, responsive, engaged, advocating, and life-improving. As we work to further enhance our discipline’s responsiveness to critical issues and its commitment to the welfare of people and their social and natural environments, geographers can and should play an important role in better understanding the place of violence—and its many forms, causes, and consequences—within contemporary society and space.

In writing monthly columns, I frequently reach out to colleagues with expertise that I don’t have. In the wake of the Parkland massacre, I reached out to newly selected AAG Fellow, James “Jim” Tyner, who has written several books and important articles on the relationship between space, society, and violence. The position of AAG Fellow is meant not only to honor distinguished scholars but to create a cohort of experts and mentors who can advise on AAG strategic directions and assist in responding to grand challenges. Jim and I are united in believing that violence represents one of those grand challenges.

For the remainder of this column, Jim and I shift, perhaps awkwardly but by necessity, to joining voices in a collaborative way. In particular, we wish to offer some initial ideas of what the discipline can offer or contribute, and then what specific role the AAG and its members might play in the study and prevention of “killing geographies” and the advocacy of “non-killing geographies.”

Myriad Geographies and Victims of Violence

Simon Springer recently argued that violence sits in places—a phrase that effectively captures the myriad geographies of violence. The tragedy in Parkland, Florida has called attention both to gun violence and to school shootings. Sadly, there are innumerable other killing geographies that remain off the radar and thus fail to garner political attention. Existing proposals, however well intentioned, to provide additional security to schools will do nothing to prevent the next ‘Aurora’ or ‘Las Vegas’ massacre. The (impractical) proposal to arm teachers not only will not keep students safe at school; it will in no way afford protection to children from violence that happens when they go to the movies, eat at the mall, ride their bicycles to the park, or simply drive and walk through their policed communities. Nor will any of these measures address the now-routine litany of shooting deaths that take place, by accident or intention, in the home. Domestic violence, as Rachel Pain has argued, is a form of “everyday terrorism” that like global terrorism is related to “attempts to exert political control through fear.”

We must acknowledge also that it is not only our children at risk to ever-increasing forms of direct violence. Our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and co-workers remain vulnerable to premature death. Journalists, politicians, and environmental activists are targets of assassination and forms of violent intimidation. Alt-right attacks on scholars, including some of our colleagues in geography, have resulted in not only criticism and defamation of their research but also in social media trolling, harassment, and even death threats. It prompts a sober discussion, one that has yet to happen among AAG leaders, about what professional societies, universities, and programs can do to safeguard and support faculty and students in the face of this aggression.

Mass shootings, whether at schools, shopping malls, theaters, or open-air concerts, constitute spectacular forms of direct violence. As a discipline, Geography would be remiss to concentrate solely on these moments to the neglect of other forms of structural violence that come from the harm and neglect inflicted by social institutions and governmental policies and spaces. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, for example, has encouraged us to see the role that ever increasing rates of mass incarceration play in inflicting a wider organized, legalized violence and abandonment upon people of color, who are disproportionately represented in America’s prisons. Congressional in-action in the promotion of gun control is matched by a concomitant in-action toward the provision of health-care and welfare. Budget cuts aimed at reductions in food stamps and health insurance prove no less deadly to the human body than a bullet from an AR-15. To date, many geographers have made considerable contributions; but more can and should be done.

A beginning point in the promotion of non-killing geographies is to confront directly the socio-spatial organization of violence: the spaces where violence takes place and those affected. Violence has important geographic consequences; it reshapes people’s perceptions of and interactions with places as well as their survivability and sense of belonging within those places. Violence is produced through social relations and interactions, some very intimate and others more distant. But violence is always social and always coded by dominant ideas and vulnerabilities related to ‘race,’ gender, class, nationality, and so on. To this end, solutions to violence must necessarily address the social milieu of prejudice, hatred, and xenophobia, but also the more banal indifference toward others.

Studying and Preventing Violence as an AAG Initiative

What role can, and should, the AAG perform in studying violence and advocating for non-killing geographies? An obvious call is to promote research. Drawing on a multitude of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, including GIS, participatory mapping, and ethnographies, geographers are well-trained to provide theoretical insight and empirical documentation of wide ranging forms of violence. Recent evidence suggest great potential for such analysis. Geographers at the University of Utah recently mapped and conducted a spatial analysis of hate groups in the U.S., while Kent State’s GIS / Health and Hazards Lab teamed up with officials in Akron, Ohio to study the impact of violence on children in the city.

Geographers can provide a much-needed spatial awareness to violence, namely the scalar connections of violence ranging from the body to the global political economy. The spatiality of violence demands analysis from any number of sub-fields within the discipline, including environmental geographers who could shed significant light on what Rob Nixon calls the “slow,” gradual violence “wrought by climate change, toxic drift, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war.” Devoting one of the featured themes of an upcoming AAG meeting to violence and non-killing geographies would be an ideal place to start building such a focused initiative, organizing networks of collaboration among academics and advocacy organizations, and drafting traditional publications as well as white papers to inform public policy.

Research does not occur in a vacuum, but is positioned within and actively shaped by the social and political conditions that can either facilitate or hinder certain avenues of research. Indeed, detailed understandings of gun violence—to take but one example—have been hamstrung by a lack of sufficient federal support. As The Washington Post and criminal justice professor Lacey Wallace reported in the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting, large scale gun violence research has been largely stymied since 1996, when the National Rifle Association (NRA) pressured congressional leaders to place restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to fund scholarship that would “advocate or promote gun control.” The measure had a “chilling ripple effect” across other federal agencies and private foundations, leaving scholars not to mention lawmakers with “little up-to-date data about what causes gun violence or how it can be prevented or reduced.” As geographers ramp up their research on violence, it is quite likely that AAG’s growing strides in monitoring, analyzing, and making interventions in public policy on Capitol Hill will be important in calling on national leaders to permit and facilitate research on gun control, gun violence, and other violence-related topics, such as intimate partner violence and hate-crimes.

The Association, with its growing support of outreach and communication, is in a key position to help geographers speak with wider audiences about the spatiality of violence and move toward the training of geography faculty and students as “scientists-advocates.” As explained in a recent presidential column, “advancing ‘awareness’ is too passive of an idea to capture the kind of broader and deeper public investment in geography that needs to occur.” It is necessary, following the Past President Glen MacDonald, for the AAG to initiate and support efforts of a “transformative” nature, that is, the promotion of non-killing geographies. This is a tall order—one that entails a sustained commitment to advocacy on behalf of victims of violence and toward the prevention of violence. Specific proposals include the advocacy of non-violence and non-killing geographies during Geography Awareness Week, the greater development of college geography courses on violence, the hosting of workshops and teach-ins not only on campuses, but beyond, to include K-12 institutions, places of worship, and other public forums.

AAG might consider supporting the compilation and dissemination of data and research on violence; such materials, in line with existing efforts by the Association, would include a variety of outreach-related publications, brochures, handouts, and multimedia tools. And we can think bigger: The AAG could establish a clearinghouse on geographies of violence, a repository for journalists, politicians, academics, and activists to learn about the study and prevention of violence as well as what a geographic perspective can lend to such work. From our perspective, the resource would appear to have a natural connection with the Association’s long-time focus on human rights.

Efforts are already underway within the AAG to develop a “culture of mentorship,” including for example the establishment of the Susan Hardwick Excellence in Mentoring Award, the AAG Department Leadership Workshop, the AAG-ESRI ConnectED GeoMentors Program, the Women’s Mentoring Network, and the AAG Fellows Program. There is a rich opportunity for geographers to expand our understandings of mentorship in light of a greater sensitivity to violence and victims, such as partnering with the Scholars at Risk (SAR) program. Scholar At Risk is an advocacy network that provides institutional support to those scholars “suffering grave threats to their lives, liberty and well-being by arranging temporary research and teaching positions at institutions in [the SAR] network as well as by providing advisory and referral services.”

In closing, geographers are encouraged to consider the promotion of non-killing geographies as one of the discipline’s and society’s grand challenges and to reflect on what role they and the AAG might play in studying, preventing, and speaking out against violence. Cultivation of non-violence feels like an insurmountable issue, especially in light of the loss of life and the political debates surrounding Parkland massacre, but there is arguably no more important task confronting Geography. And there can be no greater way to remember the sacrifice of Scott Beigel, a fellow geography educator who gave his life to save his students from violence.

No doubt, there are some readers of this column already making important contributions in scholarly and public understanding of geographies of violence and non-killing. Share these contributions and any other ideas and opinions by email or on Twitter using #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman, AAG President
University of Tennessee
Twitter: @MLKStreet
Email: dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu

— James Tyner, AAG Fellow
Kent State University
Twitter: @Tynergeography
Email: jtyner [at] kent [dot] edu

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0028


Time for a Radical Geographic Literacy in Trump America


Like many geographers, I have a world map hanging in my office. Last time I looked, I didn’t see any “shitholes” on that map. It does not come easy for me to begin my commentary with an expletive (and I apologize to those who I offend), but our current U.S. President really leaves me no choice. I am sure many of you know of the strong allegations that Mr. Donald Trump—frustrated with a bipartisan immigration proposal—argued that America needs more immigrants from places like Norway and fewer from Haiti, El Salvador and African nations, which the President reportedly called “shithole countries.”

More than mere “locker room cartography,” as one late night comic put it, the President’s harmful words project a racialized map of the world that represents Haitians, Salvadorians, and Africans not only as unwelcomed, but also as inferior. By reducing countries and an entire continent to a pejorative label, Mr. Trump denies the complexity, dignity, and richness of life in these countries and the creative resilience and resistant survivability that have always existed amid and in opposition to political oppression and poverty.

Mr. Trump’s “shithole” remark also works to erases, quite likely by design, a consideration of socio-spatial processes and difficult decisions that make migration necessary for many people, along with the very real contributions that immigrants from these denigrated nations have brought (and continue to bring) to the United States. Also obfuscated in the President’s unjust words is America’s own historical and ongoing complicity in destabilizing the governments and economies of some of these derided countries.

As a global leader and the head of a diverse nation, the President had the responsibility to create and communicate a much more informed and inclusive rendering of the world—regrettably, it appears that he chose not to do so.

There is no shortage of organizations, journalists, and individual citizens condemning Trump’s words as vulgar, racist, and unbecoming of the nation’s highest elected leader. I share in their outrage and feel strongly that the President’s remarks—and the ideology that underlies them—strike at the heart of who and what we are as geographers. His maligning of certain parts of the world runs directly contrary to our Association’s core values regarding scientific knowledge, international collaboration, support for developing regions, human rights, and anti-racism.

Before going any further, I want to be clear that this column, like all of my monthly columns, reflects my opinions and mine alone. They do not represent an official stand or position taken by the American Association of Geographers (AAG). At the same time, the AAG can and does encourage its members to speak out to express their own individual opinions about social and policy issues important to them as geographers.

The President’s recent language and policies regarding immigration are open to question on a variety of economic, diplomatic, and social justice grounds. I wish to focus here on the damage potentially done to the “geographical ethics” that we try to create within our classrooms and communities, specifically the intellectual and moral obligation to develop a sophisticated global understanding, to represent the world in just terms, to care about and develop an empathy for others—as much as that is illusive.

Regrettably, Mr. Trump’s “shithole” reference is not an isolated event, but part of a pattern of regularly degrading people and places as part of the process of governing—whether he is offering defamatory portrayals of people from Mexico, African American communities, or those living in certain Muslim nations.

I encourage members of the AAG to consider what this national ethical crisis means for our discipline—especially in terms of raising the already high stakes of geographic education—and I suggest that now is the time for articulating and promoting a “radical geographic literacy” among a public bombarded with harmful images from the White House.

The High Stakes of Geographic Education, Especially Now

When Mr. Trump uses his bully pulpit to portray an entire country as the equivalent of a toilet, he is single handedly damaging what many of us have spent our careers trying to achieve in the classroom. The full damage comes not from a single comment in a single moment, but in how that remark perpetuates a long history of nativism and white supremacy within the United States while also reinforcing centuries old negative tropes about the Global South. In this regard, we cannot dismiss the President’s words as simply political incorrectness or “Trump just being Trump”—they are part a larger historical and contemporary geography of racial injustice.

The President’s stigmatizing of Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries—and the unwillingness of some elected officials to condemn these actions—threaten not only the global outlook and values of our students, but also potentially the very safety of some of these students and other community members. I join other geographers in being gravely concerned about the wider toxic effect that the ‘shithole” controversy will have on patterns of prejudice, public treatment of targeted immigrant groups, the sense of belonging of people of color in general.

While the President has been criticized (and rightly so) by the media and teachers, the truth is that his offensive comments join a tradition among journalists and even some educators of framing African people and places largely in terms of disaster without carrying out a full and responsible historical and geographic analysis and depiction of the region. Indeed, several months before the President’s infamous “shithole” reference, a number of my colleagues who grade AP Human Geography exams contacted me. They expressed outrage this past year in finding high school student AP essays containing damaging stereotypes about Africa along with clear elements of racism, sexism, and classism. There were also concerns from my colleagues about some of the Eurocentric assumptions written into the AP exam questions and grading rubrics.

If the goal of geographic educators are, according to John Finn, to wage a “ruthless” critique of the taken for granted ways we order and fix the meaning of the world, then our job has always been a tough one and I would argue that it has gotten even tougher in the Trump era. This challenge from the White House, while clearly indicating the need for increased advocacy for geographic education, comes at a difficult time in the discipline. While not discounting significant national and international strides made in educational standards, research, and programs in geography, much of it led by the AAG, and the ever growing pedagogical importance of GIScience, the view seen by some geographers is not so rosy.

We are in a time in which some states are cutting or diluting geography within public school curriculum—a baffling decision given the international challenges and uncertainties facing us. And the National Geographic Network of State Alliances—who for thirty years was the “boots on the ground’ in the battle to train teachers and lobby for geography with state legislatures—learned in 2017 that the university-state alliance model will be de-funded by National Geographic Education for a new, and still not clearly outlined regional model of support. Coordinators of some state alliances are quite certain their offices will close—eliminating important allies in the promotion of geographic education at a most critical time.

The dramatic restructuring of the Alliance Movement, the curriculum challenges facing educators and the recent ethical challenges that I have described suggest that the stakes are especially high for a discipline-wide reinvestment in geographic education and championing what I call a “radical geographic literacy.”

Toward a Radical Geographic Literacy

I choose the word “radical” to characterize geographic literacy for two reasons. First, radical signals a profound change and I am calling for a significant discipline-wide elevation and intensification of geographic education-related outreach and advocacy. The radical approach proselytizes the educational and political necessity of having a broad comprehension and appreciation of the world’s complexity and diversity as a means of countering ongoing national efforts to deny that reality. This enhanced promotion of geographic literacy has always been important, especially given the continuing abysmal base of geographic knowledge among Americans, but particularly needed now when our President, a self-identified “stable genius,” appears unable or unwilling to articulate even the most basic understanding of the world mosaic.

To some degree, this radicalism requires geographers to keep doing what they do well, which is offer critical and accessible learning about the world and how it looks, feels, and works in actuality rather than in political rhetoric. Yet, effective teaching may not be enough. Geographers of all sub-fields should consider additional places where they can push back against unethical portrayals of the world and its people. That could be lobbying for curriculum change, designing lessons, training teachers, attending educational conferences, publishing in pedagogical journals, consulting with colleges of education, participating in community teach-ins, visiting K-12 classrooms, or collaborating, while you can, with your state geographic alliance. This radical mode of advocacy is, in my view, a responsibility of all geographers and not solely the job of those who conduct research in the theories of methods of geographic education.

Second, I use “radical” geographic literacy in a deeper way, recognizing the word’s association with revolutionary change. I believe it is time to redefine, for the public and our profession, what we fundamentally mean by and represent as geographic literacy, while also actively considering what role a revamped version of the concept can and should play in advancing a geographical ethics seemingly missing from the Oval Office.

Geographic literacy is not something that I hear many of my fellow faculty members talk about, perhaps because the public, media, and even some geographers identify it with the rote learning of the names and locations of human and physical features on the earth. There are broader and more useful conceptions of literacy. For example, Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (2nd edition) emphasizes the analytical perspectives, content knowledge, and applied skills needed to be a geographically informed person. Within the “In Brief” version of these standards, what is distributed widely to schools and teachers, geographic literacy is defined as being critical to “economic competiveness,” “quality of life,” “sustaining the environment,” and “national security.”

Absent, at least prominently, within standard definitions of geographic literacy is the relationship between geographic education and the promotion of peace, social and environmental justice, and anti-discrimination—the very matters that seem to matter the most at this historical juncture. Importantly and rigtly, Geography for Life suggests that a geographic education enables students to “engage in ethical action with regard to self, other people, other species, and Earth’s diverse cultures and natural environments,” but it stops short of identifying ethical geographical awareness and action as one of the discipline’s core or essential elements and competencies. At best, it would be subsumed under “the uses of geography.”

Strikingly, Geography for Life suggests that geography can assist in protecting the US economy and its position in defense and international relations (a point that I don’t necessarily disagree with), but it does not appear to say nearly as much about extending that concern and responsibility to a worldwide scale or the efficacy of geographic literacy in promoting international cooperation. Drawing from the writings of Barney Warf, an alternative, radical definition of geographic literacy would be more explicit in creating moments to challenge the privileging of that national order. Such a literacy would be key to “widen[ing] geographical imaginations and circles of compassion, to illustrate how students’ lives are connected to distant others, and to inject issues of empathy and caring into geographic pedagogy.”

In contrast to traditional definitions of geographic literacy, which tend to focus largely on the ability of students to process and apply geographic information, a radical version of geographic competence considers more centrally the affective and emotional aspects of developing a basic but critical knowledge of the world. Again, reading from Warf, such an approach promises to “call attention to students’ positionality, highlight their prejudices, and to make explicit the cultural filters with which they perceive those different from themselves, and thus equip them with tools to negotiate the complex terrain of social difference in meaningful and constructive ways.”

It is this very sort of reflexive engagement with values and attitudes, as part of basic geographic literacy, which is necessary for being sensitive to and standing in solidarity with the differences and legitimacies of other countries—something grossly missing from a Trump worldview.   Importantly, a radical geographic literacy does not abandon the need for foundational content and skill development, but it realizes that these geographical competencies are incomplete if not leveraged to examine, critique, and challenge inequalities—including dehumanizing portrayals of countries and regions. Importantly, this radical geographic literacy is not restricted to our colleagues in critical human geography; it can and should be part of the pedagogical DNA of our whole discipline.

Many of you already engage in and advocate for radical geographic teaching, learning, and outreach, but it is time to institutionalize these values within the promotional materials distributed to K-12 schools, universities, and public groups, the learning objectives of our introductory courses, the way we introduce ourselves to strangers, and national geography definitions and curriculum standards. Perhaps a new edition of Geography for Life is in order. Please share your ideas of how to develop and carry out a radical geographic literacy and your thoughts and experiences on the geographic ethics at work (or not) in Trump America by emailing me (dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu) or share on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman @MLKStreet
Professor Geography, University of Tennessee
President, American Association of Geographers

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0026


Creating Safe Spaces at AAG Meetings for All

Hollywood, The Hill, and the nation’s newsrooms have been exposed as spaces of sexual harassment, misconduct, and even assault. Yet, sexual harassment and discrimination are neither unique nor new to these highly public industries and this misconduct is unfortunately common to most workplaces. Indeed, conservative estimates suggest that 60% of all women have been victims of sexual harassment while a Harvard study found that number to be almost 90 percent for women ages 18 to 25.

The academy can and should be an important tool in studying this issue, collecting the stories of victims, and analyzing the frequency, scale, and impacts of sexual harassment. At the same time, however, higher education is also part of the problem. In a 2014 survey of field scientists, a staggering two-thirds of respondents indicated experiencing sexual harassment at a field site, and one-fifth were victims of sexual assault. Female trainees were much more likely to be targets of harassment and assault than males and “their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.” This study also found few respondents aware of mechanisms to report incidents and those who did report indicated being unsatisfied with the result. Reacting to universities’ historically poor record of dealing with sexual- and gender-based harassment and discrimination, “women in academia are beginning to join in the #MeToo campaign, naming predators and speaking out.”

While not discounting advocacy among female scholars, it is not the responsibility of women alone to challenge and transform cultures of inequality and abuse. It requires all members of the academy to adopt diverse and just approaches that are inclusive of gender, race, social class and sexuality. These approaches are critical to the sustained health of the AAG and, importantly, the well-being of our colleagues; they allow us, in the words of past AAG President Victoria Lawson, to develop an ethics of care and responsibility in geography that can enhance relationships, institutions, and professional practices. Now is not the time to be passive or merely reactive about developing and adopting this care ethics. Responsive and proactive institutional and individual interventions are necessary to address this important national moment.

Over the past several months, AAG members have approached both of us to share stories of sexual discrimination and to ask that the Association take a lead against sexual harassment in the academy. In a spirit of joint responsibility and collaboration, this co-authored column seeks to begin what should be a long and committed series of conversations and brainstorming that will allow the AAG, and the larger discipline of geography, to engage with this issue in meaningful and impactful ways.

The purpose of our comments is to highlight the specific importance of ensuring that our annual meetings are “safe spaces” that are free of sexual harassment but also places for raising a larger awareness of discrimination and developing creative advocacy and mentorship initiatives. We encourage members to view the AAG meeting as a place of power-laden social encounters that are consequential to people’s professional and personal development and sense of belonging, safety and security of attendees. The Association has clear expectations about ethical professional conduct at annual meetings, but there is certainly room for further policy and program development.

In an effort to generate discussion about how to bring greater attendee safety and disciplinary understanding of sexual harassment, we review strategies pursued by other professional societies at their meetings while also providing some of our own ideas and suggestions. These suggestions, while requiring action on the part of AAG leadership, rely upon the participation of geographers in regional divisions and individual departments as well as within the national association.

Academic Conferences as Consequential Social Encounters

On the surface, academic conferences appear simply to be about the presentation and discussion of the latest research, teaching innovations, or professional practices. In reality, they are complex social encounters characterized by interpersonal and group exchanges that take place within session meeting rooms and beyond. Indeed, it is this larger cultural milieu of consulting and collaborating with others, participating in fieldtrips and workshops, attending socials and receptions that makes attending a conference enjoyable. However, these encounters—while worthwhile—also carry a vulnerability as junior scholars are put in close contact with senior and powerful scholars while blurring the lines between work and play.

The intellectual, professional, and recreational interactions at academic conferences are part of rather than apart from the inequalities and injustices of daily social life. An online survey of scientific conference attendees reports that sexual and gender-based harassment at meetings includes “catcalling, sexual comments, and other forms of verbal harassment to stalking, groping, and physical assault.” Respondents stated they did not report these incidents for two reasons: they were concerned about the impact to their careers, but secondly, there were no obvious reporting mechanisms at national meetings. Importantly most of this harassment happens in the social spaces of the meeting.

It is important that we are mindful of the contradictory role that annual meetings can play in one’s career. For some of us, the meetings can advance and empower one’s work and self-confidence. For others who face harassment and discrimination, the meeting can be a source of marginalization and isolation, a lasting hit to self-esteem, an obstacle to the freedom to learn and share, and the stunting of career opportunity and security. Attending scholarly meetings and being seen in these social spaces is often critical to the career advancement of emerging scholars who are looking for jobs, pursuing tenure and building their network of colleagues outside of their universities.

AAG Stance on Professional Conduct

To be clear, the AAG has long realized that our annual meeting is a complex operation, socially as well as logistically, and it has been unequivocal in denouncing any form of harassment. According to its statement of Professional Ethics, the Association will not tolerate harassment of any kind, including but not limited to “unwanted sexual advances or demeaning remarks, physical assaults or intentional verbal intimidation and requests for favors (sexual or otherwise) as conditions for recruitment, employment, publication or advancement.”

The AAG also has a Professional Conduct Policy on the AAG meeting web site that briefly but quite clearly expresses the expectation that those attending the conference establish “an atmosphere free of abuse or harassment and characterized by courtesy and respect.” It might make sense to bring greater specificity to issues of sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault within existing AAG conduct policies and ethics statements; nonetheless, the AAG Council and Meridian Place staff takes these matters seriously.

We are happy to report that at the recommendation of the Executive Committee, the AAG Council recently established a Standing Committee on Annual Meeting Attendee Disciplinary Matters. The new committee is charged with investigating and making judgements on violations of the AAG’s Professional Conduct Policy committed by meeting attendees. These violations could conceivably cover a wide range of unprofessional and discriminatory conduct, but would certainly include instances of sexual harassment. Disciplinary action, as determined by the Standing Committee and oversaw by the AAG Council, may include, but need not be limited to, temporary or permanent loss of eligibility to attend future AAG Annual Meetings and/or suspension or temporary or permanent revocation of the membership and eligibility for membership in the Association.

We Need Ideas for Moving Forward

Although professional conduct expectations and mechanisms for investigating misconduct are clearly important, it seems appropriate if not critical to ask if we are doing everything possible to make the national AAG meeting a safe space for all our participants. The question is valid given the nation’s growing awareness of sexual harassment and our own discipline’s white, masculine, and Eurocentric roots and continuing struggles with diversity. Moreover, 41.7 percent of our members are students, a population historically vulnerable to being victims of sexual harassment and assault. It is worth looking to other organizations and within ourselves for ideas on how geography can actively protect colleagues from harassment and discrimination and create opportunities for analytical interventions, advocacy, and awareness building.

Other academic organizations are stepping up their efforts to address harassment at their national meetings. At the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union, two dozen staff members wore badges that said “Safe AGU.” Reinforcing this message were posters throughout the venue that read: “If it is unwanted or unwelcome it is harassment.” Staff members were available to help report an incident but critically to escort a participant through the venue if they believe they are being stalked by another attendee. The Geophysical Union is considering listing sexual harassment as a form of “scientific misconduct” and those found in violation of the Union’s harassment policies will be restricted not just from attending its conferences but also publishing in its journals.

The American Philosophical Association has gone as far as shutting down the open bar at the main reception of its annual meeting and limiting each attendee to two drinks to maintain an atmosphere of professionalism. The Association of Women in Science recommends that every professional society needs to implement anti-harassment policies that cover behavior at meetings and make confidential reporting mechanisms available to participants.

AAG members who have contacted us have suggested a number of good ideas, such as an organization-wide climate survey to see how pervasive the problem of sexual harassment and assault is in the discipline of geography, both in the context of academic conferences and wider workplaces and educational institutions. While the results of such a survey may likely mirror experiences in other associations, it is difficult to move forward and create change if there is not a clear and concrete sense of the scope of this problem and the specific issues that need to addressed. Those contacting us have also asked about the benefits of creating a specific committee or group focused on advocacy. The Geographic Perspectives on Women Specialty Group and the Mentoring Network for Women address to some degree how to navigate harassment and inappropriate behavior in academia. But, there is plenty of room for developing additional spaces at annual meetings and beyond, including at GFDA early career workshops, for sharing of survivors’ stories, creation of networks of support and solidarity, and applying pressure for institutional change. Such a committee could be a highly effective tool for reaching out to and supporting males who have been sexually harassed and assaulted.

In addition to putting safeguards and support in place at annual meetings, a “safe space” approach also emphasizes carrying out wider education and sensitivity training within the field, using not only AAG’s national organizational structure and resources but also its web of regional divisions, departments, programs, and professional workplaces. Geography departments and programs can play an influential role in educating newer scholars and reminding established ones that when they attend an annual meeting, they are operating within this larger ethical and social field of life-changing behaviors and relations. Program leaders and department chairs/heads might consider holding pre-conference orientations that directly address the social encounters that occur at meetings and to enhance community understanding of sexual harassment and discrimination, which include subtle yet harmful micro-aggressions and overt, legally actionable offenses. Offices of equity and diversity on university campuses can be helpful advisors in planning such events. Future AAG healthy department workshops, both at national AAG meetings and during summers, have long held discussions about diversity, but having entire sessions that take on sexual harassment is necessary for preparing department leaders to engage in what can be tough but essential discussions with student, faculty, and staff.

Governing boards of regional divisions of the AAG might consider following the AAG Council’s lead and establish its own committee to respond to professional conduct matters that might arise at their fall meetings. Divisions should also consider sending a strong statement about zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination by composing their own professional ethics policy for their members and regional meeting attendees as well as create formal spaces at these conferences for anti-harassment advocacy, mentoring, and program idea development that could feed and enrich the national organization. At the very least, regional divisions should prominently post the AAG’s professional ethics and conduct statements on their main and meeting-related websites and create active moments to remind attendees of their professional conduct responsibilities, perhaps at the opening session of the meeting, receptions and banquets, or the beginning of World Geography Bowl competitions.

Presidential columns customarily end with a call for readers to share their perspectives, experiences, and ideas. Because we have touched only the surface of what is deep and complex issue, it is especially imperative that members engage in conversations with us, the larger AAG Council as well as with others in their departments and workplaces about sexual harassment and how geographers can take a lead against this injustice. As always, please share your thoughts on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0021

— Derek Alderman, AAG President
University of Tennessee
Twitter: @MLKStreet
Email: dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu

— Lorraine Dowler, AAG National Councilor
Pennsylvania State University
Email: lxd17 [at] psu [dot] edu


Broadening and Caring for the Footprint of Published Scholarship


Making Every Week About Geography Awareness and Advocacy

This column comes to you just a couple weeks before Geography Awareness Week’s 30th birthday. Founded by presidential proclamation in 1987, Geography Awareness Week (GeoWeek) is observed the third week of November each year.

This year’s observance, which takes place November 12-18, highlights the “geography of civil rights movements.” The theme of civil rights fills important voids in school curriculum and geographic education, but importantly it also makes a public statement that geographers care about and have something meaningful to say (and learn) about the struggle for equality and justice—particularly in these turbulent and violent times. During GeoWeek, all donations made to the AAG Enhancing Diversity Fund are to be matched, dollar for dollar, by the Association. If you have not already made plans to celebrate GeoWeek, please consider doing so.

The purpose of my remarks is to reflect on what we might want to accomplish through GeoWeek in terms of not just building an awareness of geography but also advocating for geography. I also wish to use Geography Awareness Week to take stock of the broader, year-around importance of disciplinary advocacy, the specific promotional strategies, successes, and struggles of geography programs and departments, and what AAG is doing (and can do further) to assist in providing resources and funding the development of innovations in public promotion of geography.

Not Just Awareness, But Also Advocacy

Geography Awareness Week’s initial focus was primarily limited to geography as a body of knowledge, the dismal state of geographic literacy among United States students, and the strategic role that a geographically educated citizen plays in national and world affairs. An assessment of the first GeoWeek in 1987 found that while it “generated much media attention and stimulated many celebratory activities, the image of geography as a serious academic discipline in higher education may not have been helped.” More recently, geography educators and proponents have broadened Awareness Week to promote the legitimacy and efficacy of geography as a profession and science.

These current efforts to enhance the efficacy of GeoWeek notwithstanding, there continues to be a need to refine how we think about this special November celebration. To begin with, advancing “awareness” is too passive of an idea to capture the kind of broader and deeper public investment in geography that needs to occur. A GeoWeek formally devoted to advocacy rather than simply awareness would elevate the importance of articulating the value of a geographic perspective to other disciplines and the larger society, which the AAG identifies as a critical goal for the 21st Century.

Without such advocacy, the sustainability, growth, and in some cases, survival of the field of geography is in jeopardy. Even as some geography programs expand, others prove to be vulnerable to reorganization if not elimination. Moreover, we have witnessed the steady dilution of geography curriculum at the K-12 level within many states. My recent discussions with departments and programs across a variety of regions and institutional settings point to the necessity of aggressively “making the case” for geography within higher education and other public arenas.

Building a Departmental Culture of Promotion

Key to creating impactful disciplinary advocacy is building a culture of promotion within and beyond GeoWeek. To learn more about the current state of this culture in geography departments and programs, I reached out to chairs and heads through an AAG-sponsored listserv. The response was superb and I cannot do justice to all of the submitted comments, but allow me to share some of the findings.

Many responding department leaders indicate regularly encountering and battling against academic and lay misunderstandings of geography. Especially irritating for some leaders is finding administrators and colleagues in their own colleges or universities who seem to have little interest in knowing about our discipline. For some programs, disciplinary advocacy is especially imperative given declining numbers of majors and drops in student enrollment. Understandably, department leaders define public promotion largely in terms of student recruitment and retention.

Promotional banner developed by the Department of Geography and Geology at Eastern Michigan University. A growing number of programs use advocacy materials such as this at conferences, job and major fairs, and orientation sessions.

Department leaders provide extensive lists of techniques and tools they use to spread the word about geography. The quantity and quality of this advocacy naturally increases with GeoWeek, resulting in welcome tablesguest speakers, outreach into public schools and community colleges, geography bowls, and film screenings. Yet, most departments carry out recruitment and promotion every week by reaching out to the best students in geography classes to encourage them to consider a degree, redesigning their programs’ web sites and developing promotional materials (newsletters, brochures, banners, flyers, rack cards, swag, etc.), and hosting professionals who can communicate the career opportunities awaiting geography students.

Some department leaders emphasize the importance of reaching out to parents at job/major fairs and orientation sessions, supporting research that suggests that the “perceptions of parents are critical in their children’s decisions to pursue academic majors.” Many programs focus on ensuring that geography has a strong place in the university general education curriculum—although some leaders note that this does not guarantee student recruitment and a larger public respect for the field.

Responses from department leaders reveal a number of effective promotional practices that might be of interest to others wishing to enhance student recruitment and geography’s campus and community image.

Hallway digital signage welcomes students and visitors to the Department of Geography at SUNY-Geneseo. Decorating and “branding” places and spaces of departments often play an important role in promotion as well as creating a sense of community within a program.
  • Update, renovate, and enhance departmental signage and spaces to make geography prominent to students and the visiting public. A program’s spaces can be important for highlighting faculty, staff, and student achievements and marketing what geographers do and contribute. For example, dotting the hallways of the Geography Department at SUNY-Geneseo are “Kudos to Geographers” displays and digital signage that continuously runs promotional images to passers-by.
  • Involve students and geography student organizations in the recruitment processIllinois State University’s geography club participates in community and campus promotional events, write notes to prospective students telling them why they became geographers, and attends general education classes to help faculty recruit majors. For this year’s GeoWeek, the Geography Club of Kutztown University is co-hosting a “Women in Science” panel discussion with prominent local female leaders and geography alumnae.
  • Establish cooperative relationships with university offices that have direct contact with prospective students. Some responding departments host luncheons with their university’s advising office to keep them informed of geography courses and majors. The Department of Geosciences at Fort Hays State University maintains regular contact with those in the recruiting and admission offices.
  • Actively cultivate a social media presence. Temple University’s Geography and Urban Studies Department uses Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to communicate with students, and uses Facebook ads to promote open house events to prospective students. The program just created a promotional poster to send out to area high schools teaching AP Human Geography and AP Environmental Science.
  • Assist and interact with community partners outside the university, whether they are local agencies, schools, non-profits, museums, or the media. Striving to create a culture of engagement as well as promotion, University of Missouri geographers use the Geographic Resources Center to provide spatial data, map making capacity, and educational workshops to public groups. Colleagues at University of Toronto are collaborating with a local school board to offer a workshop for high school teachers.
  • Establish strong and productive relationships with college- and university-level communications and media relations offices. The Department of Geography at University of Colorado-Boulder, for example, recently worked with its college communications office to develop an alumni magazine article entitled “Not Your Junior High Geography.”
Club Geography students “paint the rock” at the University of Tennessee in celebration of 2014 Geography Awareness Week. Students are important advocates and ambassadors of the discipline.
  • Attract public attention and interest with experiential, hands-on learning to explore and understand geography. A number of department leaders report using Augmented Reality Sandboxes (ARS) as part of interactive promotional efforts. Geography programs at University of North Dakota and University of Tennessee are making effective use of ARS on and off campus.
  • Conduct community building with alumni, who can be valuable in promotion and recruitment effortsClark University geographers organize their own “Geography Week” in the spring, which includes alumni speaking about their career in geography. This year, University of New Mexico hosted a “Geography of Beer” alumni event, marking the launch of a new course called the “World of Beer.” University of Delaware also hosts a Geography of Beer event for alumni along with a Geography of Pasta lecture aimed at the broader public.

Finally, effective disciplinary advocacy requires planning and the collective investment of a program. Colleagues at the University of Ottawa and the University of South Carolina have established committees for developing student recruitment strategies. Similarly, geography at Penn State created a committee of faculty to survey alumni, interview advisors from across the campus about their perceptions of geography, and consult with university public relations officials. Augustana College hired an outside consultant to assist with marketing the geography program to prospective students and administrators in light of looming budget cuts. This along with a revised curriculum brought a 68% increase in geography majors in the 2016-17 school year.

What AAG is Doing to Help

Department leaders cite cost, time, lack of faculty experience, and a scarcity of high quality promotional materials as chief obstacles to disciplinary promotion. In addressing the latter issue, the AAG has produced over the past several years a variety of outreach-related publications, brochures, handouts, slideshows, and multimedia tools. Recently, program chairs and heads have called on the Association to play an even greater role in the production of advocacy materials, particularly short promotional videos on what is geography and what can students do with a geography degree.

As a first response to this call from department leaders, Meridian Place staff members have begun inventorying and assessing a wide array of existing advocacy resources, with the hope of providing centralized access to those resources and identifying gaps in geography’s promotional profile. The result is the AAG Multimedia Resources for Geography Outreach and Engagement, which is a new compendium of resources (videos, podcasts, syllabi, documents, websites, etc.) for recruiting students, enhancing academic curricula, and raising geographic awareness among the public at large.

The compendium, which AAG will launch during the 2017 GeoWeek, is searchable by keywords, category (audience), format, and source to suit the user’s needs. Promotional videos created by geography departments and academic centers to recruit students are a chief component of this new compendium. I invite department leaders to share videos and other multimedia resources to help grow the collection as well as provide feedback to the Association on how to improve the compendium. Send resources and feedback to David Coronado at dcoronado [at] aag [dot] org.

I believe that AAG can be a strong supporter of disciplinary advocacy in other ways. At the fall 2017 AAG Council meeting, I will propose and begin working to establish a new grant program for enhancing the public identity of the work of geographers. It will assist in generating and publicizing innovative media, techniques, and program ideas for strongly communicating the everyday, policy, political, and scientific relevance of geography in our modern world. “Innovations in the Public Promotion of Geography” would be a competitive, peer reviewed program that supports newly created tools or approaches with a strong likelihood of being successful and replicated by other geographers. Feel free to share your opinion of this idea with your national and regional councilors.

I am interested in knowing how AAG members plan to celebrate GeoWeek and the broader geography promotional and advocacy strategies taking place within departments, programs, and workplaces. Please share your thoughts and experiences by emailing me at dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu or sharing on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman @MLKStreet
Professor Geography, University of Tennessee
President, American Association of Geographers

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0017


On Finding One’s Voice (and the Voices of Others)

I am pleased to announce that the American Association of Geographers (AAG) is launching the Geography Speakers Bureau. The Bureau is part of the Geography is REAL initiative and builds upon the AAG’s long-time commitment to public outreach, informed and timely communication, and lending geographic research and education to addressing pressing issues and debates.

Open to all AAG members, the Speakers Bureau will serve as an online clearinghouse of scholars, teachers and other professionals willing to share their expertise with not only geography programs and departments but also wider academic, scientific, policy, and public audiences. In the coming weeks, AAG will begin collecting speaker profiles through a web portal and then publicizing the Bureau on the Association’s web site, social media, and other communication channels.

The purpose of this column is to outline the rationale ad organization of the Speakers Bureau and encourage geographers to participate as well as address the resonance and efficacy of their voices as education and advocacy tools. While the Bureau creates a setting for increased speaking, it is also an opportunity for geographers to engage in greater listening and dialogue—both within the discipline and with a broad array of public groups.

Why Establish a Speakers Bureau

A culture of public speaking has long existed within geography. For many years, the AAG-GTU Visiting Geographical Scientist Program has been responsible for bringing many of the discipline’s most prominent speakers to colleges and universities across the USA. A number of geographers are experienced in speaking outside the discipline and within their respective local communities on a range of social and environmental issues.

Through the new Speakers Bureau, the AAG seeks to formalize and enhance what members are no doubt already doing well in the area of speaking while also encouraging others to find and cultivate their own public voices. The intent is for the Bureau to expand the number and reach of speaking opportunities for geographers, broaden the choice of speakers available to geography departments, highlight geographic perspectives on themes of particular public importance, and give our discipline a large institutional and social stage for promoting an understanding of what geographers do and contribute.

Intended Audiences of Speakers Bureau

The Bureau’s participant list will be a helpful reference for academic departments, scholarly institutes, and other university programs in locating visiting speakers for colloquia, seminars, conferences, teach-ins, town-gown partnerships, and other educational outreach. Moving beyond academe, other potential users of the Speakers Bureau may include libraries, museums, non-profits, foundations, community organizations, policy institutes, government agencies, private industry, and activist initiatives. Journalists and media outlets will find the Speakers Bureau useful for locating specialists for interviews for newspaper or magazine stories, radio/television/podcast appearances, and the growing number of online blogs and other journalistic and documentary projects.

Initial Themes of Speakers Bureau

The Speakers Bureau will work to represent the intellectual and social diversity of our discipline, being open to geographers from different sub-fields, stages of career, and institutional/professional settings. A passion and skill for effective public speaking and engagement comes from all quarters of the discipline. Initially, the Bureau will highlight three major themes that reflect the intellectual richness and saliency of the field and the foci of ongoing AAG policy work. These themes are:

  • Climate and Environmental Change
  • Power of Mapping and Geographic Information
  • Social and Spatial Justice

The identification of special themes within the Speakers Bureau will be a fluid process that adapts to evolving trends in the discipline and changing pubic needs and interests. The Bureau’s themes will no doubt grow and shift in the future. These initially chosen themes currently represent highly charged areas of debate and likely points of intervention for geographers. Within these turbulent political times, we have seen significant legal/policy and social challenges to civil and human rights, climate science, and the GIS profession.

The Power of Speaking

The Speakers Bureau prompts us to consider important questions, namely what role can the human voice play in advancing geography and what strategies should we pursue in ensuring that we speak as clearly, powerfully, and responsibly as we can with communities? Speaking publicly about one’s work and our discipline is not merely a transmission of information but the creation of a place of learning that can either open up or close off certain lines of understanding. As Anja Kanngieser reminds us, voices have social and political consequences in how they affect our capacities to speak and listen to one another.

Many of us focus intently, and rightly so, on communicating through the written word and visually through photographs, graphics, and maps. Yet, there is also power in vocalizing knowledge and relaying one’s disciplinary and personal point of view, especially when one’s speaking can move and inspire decision-makers. Inspiring audiences can be tough work. How we present to colleagues at professional conferences does not necessarily translate well outside of those meetings. Even for the most experienced colleague, there is always room for assessing and refining pubic speaking skills.

Making the Geographic Voice Resonate

There are a number of online resources available to assist academic speakers. General advice on speaking is often prescriptive, but it is important to know that one presentation style does not fit all speakers. You should actively develop a style that fits your strengths and temperament. Being an effective speaker is not about being a perfect speaker. One’s speaking voice does not necessarily have to sound the same as one’s writing voice.

Ultimately, what is important is finding a presentation style that allows you to make a basic, human connection with the audience. Making eye contact with the audience is highly important, whether you are reading your presentation or talking from PowerPoint slides. Effective speaking is not about overwhelming the audience with your intellect but it is also not about lowering the rigor of your ideas; audiences yearn for understandable communication that challenges them to think. Many presentation coaches suggest that speakers avoid all jargon, but the use of specialist language is appropriate in some situations. Always define unfamiliar terms for audiences.

For me, effective speaking is about telling a story. Storytelling is not simply about entertaining audience members but leaving them with information and a perspective not quickly forgotten. Memorable presentations evoke strong mental pictures, curiosity, and feelings from the audience. Storytelling contextualizes, and sometimes even personalizes an issue and then applies distilled ideas, research findings, and experiences to interpret that issue. This interpretation should resonate with meaning to the audience, even if audience members hold views different from the speaker.

Think about how you as a speaker can tell the story of your work to demonstrate why it matters, for whom it matters, and how it will continue to matter in future discussions and debates. Do not forget to tell your story, how you came to do the work and become a geographer, why the field and topic is your passion, and what your positionality or identity is relative to the issue at hand. A detached reporting of facts, figures, and methods can be dry and uninspiring, even if it has the feel of being scientifically objective.

For some of us, it is important to use our speaking voice to challenge dominant policy positions or public opinions, especially when they fly in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence or notions of social equality. Some geography speakers are effective in making sure that the voices of traditionally ignored social actors and groups have a prominent place in their public remarks. I especially admire my colleagues who are able to navigate the difficult terrain of speaking in solidarity with these marginalized communities versus speaking for them.

Creating a Dialogue, Not Just a Monologue

The AAG Speakers Bureau is an opportunity to think about and realize the importance of vocalizing and demonstrating a geographic perspective, but it also prompts us to consider the value of listening as a disciplinary practice. Geographers are encouraged to speak in ways that offer opportunities to engage in a dialogue rather simply a monologue with their audiences. Speakers should design presentations to leave sufficient time for public feedback and questions and take an active hand in finding and hearing from a wide range of voices in attendance. Creating this dialogue is not just about being polite; rather, it is critical for creating shared understanding between the scholar and the public.

Listening is not a passive process but actively involved in the construction of meaning. Being a good speaker is also about being a good listener. When a speaker is an active listener, s/he also shares the power and authority to speak with others. As geographic researchers argue, publicly engaged science is more than one-way relationship of experts simply handing down “certified” insight and research findings. Rather, by creating spaces of dialogue that blur the expert-lay divide, speakers can co-produce knowledge with public groups. At the very least, effective speaking and listening can be moments where the professional learns how people in the world outside of universities, research labs, and workplaces view and interpret science as well as how they create, use, and justify their own knowledge and expertise.

The Speakers Bureau also prompts us to consider the “politics of voice,” how different voices within our discipline are valued differently and oftentimes given less authority within our society based on race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and other lines of identity. I hope the Speakers Bureau can help guide geography departments and other academic and public initiatives to increase the diversity of voices invited to give talks and to ensure that geographers from historically under-represented groups have an opportunity to speak on behalf of the discipline and their own work and experiences. In these instances, speaking might generate opportunities to mentor students, staff and faculty, address inequality inside and outside the Academy, and talk frankly about the diversity and inclusion plan of a university and department.

Please consider participating in the new AAG Speakers Bureau. If you have a public speaking experiences you would like to share, particularly something that works in making the voices of geographers resonate, then let me know through email (dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu) or on Twitter using #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman @MLKStreet
Professor Geography, University of Tennessee
President, American Association of Geographers



Moving at Twitter Speed

The title of my column comes from a recent NPR story on the NAACP. The storied civil rights organization is undergoing a wholesale “retooling” of its structures and tactics in an effort to regain relevance among younger generations of activists and to enhance its efficacy in anti-racism advocacy and education. In adapting to a dramatically changing political and media environment, former NAACP president and CEO Cornell Brooks said: “All of us have to be prepared to respond, not with telegraph speed but with Twitter speed.”

Moving at “Twitter speed” has special meaning to the NAACP, criticized recently by social media-deploying Black Lives Matter movements. Yet, this emphasis on readiness, speed, and communication has applicability to any organization seeking to affect how public groups think about and debate today’s issues. Moving quickly is not about rushing in unprepared, but laying back too much misses important opportunities for civic engagement and public education.

The AAG as of late has been especially mindful of staying current with and taking advantage of a wide array of communication and social media platforms as it promotes the work and interests of geographers and provides virtual places for community interaction and awareness. The purpose of this column is to discuss a few of those exciting ongoing developments at Meridian Place and elsewhere.

My intent in this column is also to encourage geographers to consider the potential benefits of using social media, which includes but is not limited to Twitter. More broadly, moving at Twitter speed is my call for geographers to be nimble, responsive, and strategic public intellectuals not confined to the traditional reach and pace of academic discourse and dissemination. Effective media engagement requires, however, a sober consideration of opportunities, challenges, and strategies. This column ends by conveying the sage advice that a group of AAG members provided me on this issue.

AAG’s Expanding Social Media and Public Outreach Agenda

Many organizations are developing or expanding their social media presence. It is increasingly common to see academic journals appointing social media editors to their ranks, for promotional purposes and in recognition that social media is a fertile area of research in its own right. Academic geography departments have established active profiles on TwitterLinkedInFacebook, and other platforms to assist with student recruitment, program marketing, and maintaining a sense of community among alumni, faculty, students, and staff.

The AAG is no different and over the past few years has enhanced its social media profile and larger public outreach efforts. It has a substantial communication plan for reaching multiple audiences. The Association tailors the scale, frequency, and tone of communications relative to the intended audiences and the media platforms used. Executive Director Doug Richardson continues to make important communication staff hires, including in social media, while also developing a number of new communication channels.

The AAG joined Twitter in 2009, establishing an account (@theAAG) that serves primarily as a news and informational feed for its almost 10,000 followers. Over the past year, Meridian Place staff have hosted Twitter Chat sessions (#AAGChat) on topics such as Careers in Geography, Geography and the New Presidential Administration, the AAG Awards Program, and Geography Awareness Week. These chats, which will continue this year, are valuable opportunities to have a dialogue with the AAG and learn from each other’s questions and comments. If you have not yet participated in one of these Twitter Chats, I encourage you to do so.

The Association has recently added an Instagram account. Instagram is a photo and video sharing service, and its visual nature is a good fit for many geographers who create and analyze maps, images, and other representations. The AAG is currently using Instagram to connect with and feature the work of undergraduate and graduate students. Some of you may have noticed the Instagram call for students to share pictures and videos related to their summer research. The AAG anticipates that the new Instagram channel will engage and capture new generations of geographers, highlight the importance of mentorship and faculty-student collaboration in the discipline, and inspire students to present their research at annual meetings. Students represent 40 percent of our members, and it is important to help them make the most of their AAG membership and wider experience as geographers. In this respect, social media is critical to sustaining the discipline.

Innovations in social media development are also evident in a number of specialty and affinity groups and among some of our AAG regional divisions. In SEDAAG, the editors of Southeastern Geographer, Hilda Kurtz and Deepak Mishra of the University of Georgia, use Twitter (@SEGeographer) to publicize papers as each issue of the journal is published. Hilda and Deepak tweet announcements of articles, tagging the author’s home institution as well as public broadcasting outlets in the author’s home media market and the site of the paper’s case study or empirical focus. It is my hope that our flagship journals, Annals of the AAG and Professional Geographer, can soon participate in a similarly targeted and aggressive use of social media promotion.

Opportunities, Challenges, and Strategies on Twitter

To move quickly and effectively in the area of public outreach is not simply the job of AAG, but an important responsibility for all of us individually and collectively. Engaging social media requires a thoughtfulness that we often do not see among our politicians and celebrities. Some of you might be reluctant, and rightly so, to venture out beyond traditional academic communication without an understanding of what social media may offer, its possible pitfalls, and how best to navigate the new(ish) medium. I asked several Twitter-active AAG members to share their impressions with me. Below is a summary of those impressions, which I have limited to their professional use of social media.

When asked about the benefits of participating in Twitter, our colleagues consistently emphasize how social media allows them to expand their scholarly networks and thus facilitate research and teaching. One can follow and engage established and emerging major thinkers in the field, although not all are social media active. Some of my respondents note that contacts made in the Twittersphere have led to “real world” introductions at conferences and later even collaborations. Social media allows many geographers to hear about new publications, ongoing projects, forthcoming meetings, fluid national and international political crises, and natural disasters (e.g. recent flooding from Hurricane Harvey).

In addition to what Twitter can provide in information and networking, it has proven especially powerful in spurring discussion and debate and gaining access to a wide range of perspectives on issues important to one’s work. The capacity of Twitter to assist people to view a situation or issue from an alternate perspective depends upon the diversity of people and organizations one follows. As one colleague points out, a “confirmation bias” is prevalent among users, meaning that we tend to follow Twitter accounts that conform with our interests and point of view. To assist in understanding an array of perspectives, another colleague suggests that we follow a variety of people and organizations on Twitter, including those with whom we disagree.

There is an important subjectivity at work in Twitter as users fashion and project a public identity as well as critical voice. Advocacy work is increasingly important to geographers from many sub-fields, especially in these disruptive times. Social media is also an important vehicle for greater visibility and recognition of one’s work, leading to inquiries from journalists or catching the attention of non-geographers who we hope will cite and build upon our ideas and research findings. Self-promotion, although open to narcissistic abuse, is not negative if deployed for advancing larger academic and public conversations and ensuring that geography is included rather than excluded from those debates. Some geographers use Twitter to promote the achievements of their colleagues, students, and programs—a nice counterpoint to the zero sum politics found in many universities.