Past President’s Address Focuses on Thinking Geographically, Globally


Doing No Harm

Eric SheppardThere is a remarkable disconnect between the many forms of violence stalking the earth, and a lack of attention to and critical reflection on violence by geographers. Arguably, at least in the United States, violence is now so pervasive, at every scale, that we take it for granted. For humans, this ranges from domestic and sexual violence, to mass shootings, acts labeled as terrorism, and warfare (to name just a few). For the more-than-human world, human actions also have increasingly violent effects on species and ecosystems. Geography needs to transcend this disconnect: not just to study geographies of violence, but more importantly to examine the role of Geography in shaping violence. This is essential if we are to challenge its pervasiveness in the name of developing a pro-peace agenda.

From its beginning as a discipline, Geography has been valued by politicians and the military for its potential to shape state violence. It was an important tool for prosecuting colonialism, and until quite recently warfare concerned the occupation and control of geographical space. The spatialities of warfare shifted dramatically with the Vietnam War, as military victory came to be seen as controlling hearts and minds rather than land, but they still matter. Geospatial technologies are essential to the targeted killings from smart bombs and drone warfare. They ease consciences by further separating perpetrator from victim, and make possible the capacity of the U.S. administration to ‘surgically’ eliminate even its own citizens deemed unworthy of prosecution for alleged crimes against the nation-state. The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has identified ‘human geography’ as essential to troop deployment—reminiscent of the controversial Human Terrain System project that forced the American Association of Anthropologists to think carefully about how ethnography can facilitate violence. The Cultural Knowledge Consortium, a joint and interagency effort of the U.S. Government and Department of Defense, is exploring the utility of VGI (volunteered geographic information). The recently disclosed massive National Security Agency surveillance, authorized under the umbrella of the Patriot Act, raises profound privacy concerns precisely because communications data now can be geolocated quickly and precisely.

A related set of questions surround geographical research receiving military and defense funding. Some of this may seem benign (I attended two NATO funded workshops in the 1980s with no obvious military application), but this is undoubtedly a slippery slope. The American Geographical Society is collaborating on a recent large grant from the Department of Defense Minerva Project, to study indigenous communities throughout Central America. Funders’ institutional agendas always shape the research questions asked, and thereby the possible answers, with potentially deep implications for affected communities and places. I thus applaud the current AAG practice of not applying for defense or military research funding; this should become AAG policy. Academics face increasing institutional and personal pressure to seek external funding, and the military is one of the very few growth areas of discretionary funding in the U.S. Federal budget. How will such developments shape disciplinary research priorities and their alignment with means of violence?

Notwithstanding inevitable political and policy disagreement about the necessity, goals and tactics of any war, Geography’s entanglement with military agendas, everywhere, raises profound questions for us all as professional geographers. The phrasing could be stronger, but according to the AAG Statement of Professional Ethics: “research should be conducted only after careful consideration of three fundamental principles: (1) Respect for persons and communities…. (2) Equity…. (3) Beneficence: The maximization of benefits and the minimization of harm from research.” How do we square such ethical obligations with research that is bound up with military agendas and other potentially violent actions? This question demands sustained attention from the Association, engaging across the full spectrum of disciplinary expertise and perspectives. It is part of a broader debate, about whether current principles designed to protect human subjects (the ‘common rule’ that determines IRB procedures in the U.S.) are adequate to the task of ensuring that scholarship is consistent with respect for the integrity of human and more-than-human dignity. Indeed, it is time to revisit the AAG Statement of Professional Ethics (revised in 2009, in light of controversies surrounding a previous research project in Oaxaca—see John Agnew’s June 2009 AAG presidential column), engaging also with our Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group’s declaration on research ethics.

More localized forms of violence are much less joined at the hip with Geography, but nonetheless are intensely geographical in nature and consequence. Gun violence is shaped by geographically variegated attitudes toward gun ownership; inter-scalar and inter-jurisdictional variation in regulating the possession and sale of, and access to guns, and where they can be carried (with U.S. mayors leading the current opposition to gun violence); and by the uneven geographies of shootings themselves. Interpersonal violence plays out through the localized geographies of homes and neighborhoods, shaped also by broader spatio-temporalities of gender, sexuality and racial formations. Geographies of more-than-human violence add complex issues of environmental and climate justice and geo-ethics. Geographical research in these various areas has been uneven, with much still to be done.

The goal of geographical research into violence can and should be far more ambitious than unpacking its geographies and ethical dilemmas. Just as research into environmental justice seeks to go beyond monitoring inequities to seek and advocate for alternatives that obviate the problem (e.g., production without toxics instead of Toxic Release Inventories), so research into violence can bring attention to radical alternatives: pro-peace geographies. “Do no harm” seems a little jaded these days, given its association with Google—one of the more surveillant institutions on the planet. Yet Geography is highly unlikely to attain Google’s influence, and it is not a bad starting point for us.

As I sign off, I want to thank you for the opportunity to serve on your behalf this past year. I have enormously enjoyed the opportunity to meet so many of you for the first time through the regional meetings, and I much appreciated your interest in the plenary session on “Emerging Asias” at the Los Angeles meeting. I have particularly enjoyed the opportunity afforded by the monthly newsletter columns to speak directly to the Association, to cajole and occasionally vent, and to read your responses and interchange with a number of you around my musings. See you in Tampa next April!

Let me know what you think.

–Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0011



Geography and the Neoliberalizing Academy

Eric Sheppard

The role of post-secondary educational institutions in our ecology of knowledge production is shifting rapidly. Our Association must pay close attention to these shifts in its upcoming long-range planning process, given its 110 year commitment to representing the interests of academic/professional geographers. These changes, currently dominated by neoliberalization, will challenge Geography’s ability to maintain its distinctive diversity of intellectual traditions, will challenge the ability of new generations of geographers to enter the profession in traditional ways, and may challenge universities themselves as the locus of critical reflection on the world.

In Europe and North America, universities are rapidly moving away from Wilhelm von Humboldt’s model of a state-organized institution for prosecuting the Enlightenment: an institution, divided into disciplines, providing both public education and space for critical reflection. That space always has been one of tension between state agendas and intellectual freedom; when universities become the locus where thought generates protest they often are targeted for oppression. It has also long been a space to which the wealthier have had privileged access. Nevertheless, public support for these institutions underwrites the possibility for an institution somewhat engaged in societal critique.

The U.S. public universities, where so much of our academic Geography is located, are losing that public support. Neoliberalization means that academic knowledge production increasingly is treated as a commodity, whose value is to be determined in the market. Further, the austerity turn in contemporary neoliberalism means that universities can only expect federal and state scale public support to further decline, reinforcing the necessity to raise external funding from students’ pockets, research grants, Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs (they hope), foundations and donors. At the same time our universities no longer see themselves as national institutions but compete globally, ranked annually by world university ranking initiatives and strategizing about how to game and move up these rankings. As in the debate over the U.S. departmental rankings by the National Research Council (whose representatives never responded to my request to discuss how Geography was treated), all suchrankings can readily be criticized on academic grounds—but nevertheless are normalized as those who come out on top trumpet their success. Compounding these vectors of commodification and competition are neoconservative agendas skeptical of any scholarship whose findings do not conform to prior beliefs (or market logics).

We know how this turn to the market is shifting the culture of academic institutions. Salary and wage inequalities (defended on the basis of labor market trends) are increasing—between the “stars” and others within a discipline and department, between disciplines, and between executives and employees. The salary of The Ohio State University’s president exceeds that of his lowest earning employees by the order of 100:1; Penn State University’s departing presidentreceived a golden parachute that was even larger after the Sandusky scandal, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 17, 2013, (tiered subscription model). Part-time academic labor is substituted for full time professors, reducing universities’ wage and benefits costs while enhancing flexibility. Students are thought of as customers to be satisfied, rather than minds to be challenged. The business sector is cultivated, as both a research partner and a customer for those who graduate. The faculty increasingly is assessed for their entrepreneurial acumen: How much grant money have you raised? How many patents have you produced? How many citations have you garnered? How much tuition revenue has your teaching generated? This neoliberalization varies by national context (by comparison to many European countries, U.S. public universities are more insulated from national-scale pressures due to the federalized nature of U.S. post-secondary education), but is pervasive.

What does this neoliberalization of the academy mean for Geography, here and elsewhere? First, it challenges Geography’s academic integrity and distinctiveness. As I have argued in previous columns, Geography is at its best—both for its practitioners and for society—when we make the most of, by engaging critically and constructively across, our diversity to offer critical insight into some of the world’s most wicked problems. Yet the possibility of such mutuality is undermined by neoliberalization. The subfields of Geography best placed to raise (in part because they require) substantial research funds, publishing large numbers of short multi-authored articles, are likely to prosper even as others whither (undermining the status of philosophical, qualitative and cultural geographic research). Further, those in favored subfields face incentives to decamp from Geography altogether to other, better remunerated and less teaching-oriented, areas of the academy.

Second, it challenges Geography’s capacity as a space for critical reflection on future earth. Neoliberalization implies that the wisdom of markets can determine this future—I beg to differ. One of the most exciting features of anglophone geography in recent decades has been the ways in which rigorous scholarship engages with a willingness to raise fundamental questions about society (e.g., climate change and climate justice, and the consequences of globalizing capitalism). But such thinking often challenges the wisdom of markets. As U.S. universities are enjoined (e.g. by the National Research Council) to partner with the private sector and to prioritize job market skills in the curriculum, this reduces the space for such critical reflection.

Third, it challenges Geography’s capacity to reproduce itself. Neoliberalization and austerity have been accompanied by a deterioration of traditional paths to secure academic employment, underwriting intellectual freedom. The U.S. is experiencing a turn to part-time teaching and limited term postdoctoral research positions (postdocs arguably make cheaper research assistants than Ph.D. students). In Germany and Austria, the possibility of advancing from Assistant to Full Professor within a department has all but disappeared. This deterioration discourages the best young geographical minds from entering the academy, also raising questions about the role of our graduate programs.

Finally, it challenges the geography of academic knowledge production. North American and European universities are already outpaced in numbers of graduates by Asian universities, whose hybrid “visible hand” societies still prioritize investment in post-secondary education—albeit prioritizing job skills and professional training. There is an irrepressible desire in the U.S. academy to worry about our “research 1” universities, but it is possible that these pressures to commodify academic knowledge may enable smaller and more peripherally located institutions—whose overburdened faculty connect more directly with the lives of average Americans—to become more open to critical scholarship.

Will colleges and universities even remain the spaces where the most creative and vital knowledge is produced? If not, how will this move beyond the academy?

The neoliberalization of the academy is rooted in broad-ranging processes, discourses and practices, which seem beyond the scope of our Association. It would be a profound failure, however, to consider these as external forces that we are compelled to conform to. Rather, as we consider our future, it will be vital that the Association be proactive in identifying trends inimical to our discipline, and to academic freedom more generally, and work with our members and other academic associations to contest these.

Let me know what you think.

–Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0010



An American Association of Geographers?

Eric Sheppard Naming objects is a time-honored preoccupation among geographers, whether those objects are places, concepts, or discourses. We know that names profoundly convey meaning, reflect the agendas and thinking of those who coin them, and are always contested and occasionally altered (Mumbai/Bombay, Chemnitz/Karl Marx Stadt and Myanmar/Burma come to mind). It’s high time we turned these debates to how we name ourselves. Inter alia, “Association of American Geographers” conveys the sense that we think of our community as composed of American geographers. But the AAG is so much more now, and our name should reflect this.

Our current name made eminent sense in the context where the Association was founded, in Philadelphia on December 29, 1904. (The story is told by Preston James and Geoffrey Martin (1978) The Association of American Geographers: The First Seventy-Five Years. AAG: Washington DC.) William Morris Davis wanted to create an academic association for scholars in the United States who thought of themselves as geographers. Regional groups labeled geographical societies and geographical clubs already existed, as did the American Geographical Society (AGS) and the National Geographical Society (NGS). But these were places where philanthropists and other elites gathered to share their passion for things geographical, rather than gatherings of professional geographers. An attempt to create a sub-group of scholarly geographers within the NGS, “Fellows,” had been rebuffed; it was deemed as implying an un-American class distinction.

After Davis was elected Vice-President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1903, he gave a speech to the AAAS, titled “Geography in the United States.” He advanced the case for a professional society of geographers, which would establish standards for scholarship for a discipline of considerable popular interest. Such a society should restrict membership to persons with a track record of original published research in a sub-field of geography. (The AAAS did have a Section E designated as Geology and Geography, but Davis had experienced this as dominated by geologists disinterested in Geography as a field of scholarship.)

Davis proposed to the AGS that it help form a League of American Geographical Societies as a step toward creating such a professional society, which he proposed naming “the American Geographers Association.” He was rebuffed again, but brought this proposed name to a meeting of potential members convened during the September 1904 IGU meeting in Washington, D.C. The following December, after much debate about who (almost entirely men) would qualify as geographers, an organizational meeting was held at the University of Pennsylvania. At this meeting, it was agreed “at once” to change the name to the Association of American Geographers.

In that context, the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, at a moment when the USA was yet to become a global hegemon and the status of being American was taken for granted, and with Geography marginalized as an academic activity (sounds familiar?), the name made sense. Yet the result was that the moniker American was attached to the members rather than the organization or the discipline. In the name of almost every other U.S. American academic association, “American” is attached to the discipline (e.g., the American Geophysical Union, American Sociological Association, American Anthropological Association, American Historical Association, American Meteorological Society, etc.).

Today, the AAG has become far more than a community of American geographers. Many of our members, even among those working in the United States, are not (only) American citizens. Many more attend our annual meetings from outside the United States as our national meetings have become the gathering place for geographers from across the world. The percentage of meeting participants from outside the United States has risen from just 2.8% in 1982, to one fifth by 2006, to one third this year and last.

It is thus time to consider changing our name to the American Association of Geographers. This renaming is not a new idea. Some of my predecessors have argued this (indeed I find myself channeling many of the arguments in Susan Cutter’s February 2001 presidential newsletter column making a similar proposal). Many members from within and beyond the United States also have advocated such a name change (most recently at the 2013 AAG Business Meeting). This particular renaming is also not ideal: “American” has very different, contested meanings across the Americas, and the use of this self-appellation by U.S. Americans often is regarded by other Americans as an, at best unwitting, assertion of U.S. hegemony. We live in an age when brands matter, however, and retaining the initials AAG (rather than, say, USAAG) is a far easier organizational transition to envisage.

Names are invested with all kinds of identities, and no such action should take place without every opportunity for members to have their say. So, while this idea has the unanimous endorsement of the current AAG Council and of past Presidents with whom I have shared it, let us know what you think. Respond [below] to this column, but also participate in an on-line referendum that the Association will organize in the near future. If there is substantial support from across our membership, the Association’s published procedures for a change to its constitution will be initiated. In the absence of such support, the idea will not be further pursued.

Eric Sheppard
Audrey Kobayashi (Past President)
Julie Winkler (Vice President)
Derek Alderman
Ron Hagelman
John Harrington, Jr.
Thomas Maraffa
Bryon Middlekauff
Marilyn Raphael (Treasurer)
Bradley Rundquist
Grant Saff

Michael Scott
Laura Smith
Karen Till
James Tyner
Elizabeth A. Wentz
Richard A. Wright
Jenny Zorn (Secretary)
Ron Abler (Past President, 1985-86)
Kenneth Foote (Past President, 2010-11)
Janice Monk (Past President, 2002-03)
Thomas J. Baerwald (Past President, 2008-09)

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0008


The AAG and the Coburn Amendment

I am writing with respect to recent concerns expressed to the Association by a number of members regarding the amendment to the US Senate Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, proposed by Senator Coburn (R-OK) to the Mikulski-Shelby Amendment (SA 26) to H.R. 933, and passed on March 20, 2013.  The amendment places unprecedented restrictions on Federally funded social science research by allowing only political science research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

I fully share these members’ concerns about this development: Such actions make very explicit an intention to impose political/ideological conditionality on academic research, which has become an increasingly disturbing trend in the US and Canada. I have been in consultation with Doug Richardson and John Wertman in the AAG DC office (John being our DC liaison), and with the presidents and executive directors of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and the American Sociological Association (ASA), to learn as much as I can about what is being done and what can/should be done.

There is an important context to all of this: The AAG has worked closely for over a decade with colleagues at the AAAS, the AAU, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), and many others, in responding to numerous threats to federal research funding for the social sciences, and indeed all scientific disciplines. These activities, summarized by John Wertman in his initial response to Professor Anna Secor’s inquiry, are reported on regularly in the ‘Washington Monitor’ segment of the AAG Newsletter. It is also important to recognize that the AAG, like its cognate academic associations, has a non-profit status that extremely limits the Association from political lobbying directed at individual pieces of legislation.

Since March 20, AAG actions with respect to the Coburn Amendment include:

  • A central role in shaping the response of COSSA, an advocacy organization promoting attention to and Federal funding for the social and behavioral sciences in Washington. COSSA is very concerned and active on this issue; Doug Richardson is a member of its Executive Committee.
  • Regular communication with APSA, to coordinate efforts. (See the letter attached from Michael Brintnall, executive director of the APSA.) APSA believes that the best way to remedy the situation they find themselves in is to work through the political process to try to gain support for restoring the funding for political science at NSF, and has requested that the AAG urge its members to meet with their local Congressional representatives to make their concerns known.
  • The anticipated result of these actions is a joint response, including a letter to Congressional leaders from dozens of organizations, and a coordinated plan for media and grass-roots activists, in addition to ongoing legislative activities on Capitol Hill
  • A formal statement from the Association, opposing the Congressional actions against political science, will be discussed for action during the AAG Council meeting April 7-8.

If you have any suggestions of further actions and strategies for the Association to consider, please contact Doug Richardson and John Wertman, who I know are keen to hear members’ ideas. Personally, I know too little about beltway politics to say what is most effective there, but I do know something about social activism, and this is where AAG members have the opportunity, indeed responsibility, to do their part in fighting such developments. Effective social action is multi-valent and multi-scalar; local activism does make a difference. Contacting your representatives and senators can be important, particularly when you are not preaching to the converted: There is a reason why online advocacy organizations ask us to make these calls when push comes to shove.  Another local strategy, currently under consideration by the ASA, is bringing local and national social scientists (and if possible a local business leader) to meetings in the district offices of strategic members of congress to discuss why social science research is vital in their terms. Our regional AAG associations could also play an important role in this regard.

No doubt, there are many more smart ideas out there for the Association to tap into, both for this particular challenge, and for future ones. Again, please do not hesitate to make suggestions, but also offer your time and take actions that you think will work in your communities. As for any collective action, in the final analysis the Association’s strength stems from the commitments of its individual members.

Eric Sheppard
Association of American Geographers


Digital Earth?

Eric SheppardAs geographers, we revel in the attention our discipline garners with the explosion of geographic information technologies and georeferenced data. We cannot be complacent, however: digital earth is not simply a digital atlas, nor should we limit ourselves to visualizing its ever-more complex patterns. Digital earth is nothing less than a potential shift in how the earth is inhabited. As scholars of space-time and nature-society relations, it behooves us to critically assess emergent trajectories of digitization and advise on their implications. Failure to make the best of our expertise in this domain may well amount to another disciplinary opportunity lost. I cannot pretend to do more than raise some aspects I am familiar with, seeking to provoke a disciplinary conversation.

We should be attending to how digitization is transforming space-time, often counter-intuitively. Location is increasingly at the forefront of our daily use of digital information, in ways that arguably undermine appreciation of how geography shapes our practices and imaginaries. Glued to the node and link geography of our GPS navigator, the wormhole capabilities of google Earth, or (soon) our wearable devices, we do not need to stop and ask directions. Having thrown away their street or even world atlases, however, people can lose a sense of the broader geographical context shaping these links and nodes. Digital earth creates the capacity to connect in multiple ways with almost any location from seemingly anywhere, reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Yet most peoples’ usage is profoundly local, as my undergraduates demonstrate when I ask them to map their social network and cell phone contacts. Cyberspace evokes the promise of a new, post-scalar flat ontology, the spatial equivalent of net neutrality. Yet access varies dramatically at even the most local scales (geo-digital divides), reflecting the persistent ‘last mile’ problem (that connectivity is determined by the capability of your interface and/or your ability to purchase better connectivity). Further, the actual power-geometries of Cyberspace reinforce pre-existing geopolitical and geoeconomic hierarchies (mapped onto the earth’s surface, cyber-infrastructures display a remarkable similarity to persistent post-colonial geographies of air and sea travel). Digital earth reinforces individuality and segmented worlds as its participants tailor their geographies to their wishes and preconceptions, while simultaneously fostering unexpected, unstable connectivities. Yet it also enables cybersurveillance and panoptic power, ranging from Google harvesting private information during its ‘street view’ drive-bys, to drones with the power to sweep into the micro-environments of everyday life (not only in Yemen but coming soon to your community).

Digital earth entails a two-way relationship between space and society, a socio-spatial dialectic that human geographers of all stripes are equipped to help make sense of. How is digital earth altering spatial behavior, and that behavior shaping digital earth? How is this emergent digital earth co-implicated with everyday cultural practices, in homogenizing and differentiating ways? Geographers have written much, recently, about the financialization of contemporary imaginaries, norms, practices and identities; what about their digitization? How does an emergent, ever-shifting digital earth intersect with geopolitics, state capacities and the spatialities of contentious politics? How is digital earth productive of new economic geographies of server-farms, cables, and ICT clusters and pipelines? How is it altering (and altered by) work relations, geographies of production and consumption, and the commodification of space-time itself? Finally, what about digitized space-time? Cyberspace is a relational space, bound up with faster and more complex temporalities that must also be part of our analysis.

Digital earth is closely co-implicated with shifting research practices and theoretical and philosophical inclinations. The complexity paradigm that has accompanied, and in many ways been made possible by, digitization (the rapid advancement of computing power), has triggered renewed interest in quantitative empiricism. Yet it also has generated renewed interest in dialectical reasoning (also in the physical sciences) while resonating closely with post-prefixed ‘continental’ philosophies. ‘Big data’ are all the rage: georeferenced, quantifiable and requiring the skills of spatially trained analysts to analyze rigorously. Big data draw our attention to the micro-scale, precisely because this is what they make visible: Individual firms, buildings, roads, neurons and genes (all digitally mapped). In so doing, what are the dangers of retreating into reductionist, empiricist science and methodological individualism (the view that all explanation should be built up from the micro-scale)? ‘Small data’ (field work, ethnography, focus groups) seem to represent the opposite extreme, but are also being transformed by digitization. Consider, for example, how long-standing practices of photography, videography and recording have changed, in terms of not only ease of use but also who participates. Indeed, digitization and participatory research paradigms have emerged hand in hand. Big and small data cultures and methodological norms have been brought together in surprisingly productive ways, as in qualitative and feminist GIS. Across this methodological spectrum, digitization is throwing up deep ethical questions, revolving around privacy, access to information and investigator-subject relations, that institutional review boards’ current norms and practices seem ill-equipped to deal with.

Biophysical geography may seem less complexly affected by digitization, but this remains an open question. Clearly, digital earth entails a revolution in observational techniques and possibilities, ranging from new satellite capabilities to micro-sensors and cameras placed in ecosystems, under oceans and on animals. These promise novel insights, albeit running the dangers of reductionism and empiricism noted above. Yet digitization is also affecting biophysical processes and the more-than-human world in ways that we have yet to fully appreciate. These range from the materials extracted from the more-than-human world in order to produce digital technologies, to digital technologies that seek to emulate non-human beings, to GMOs (and their patenting) and cyborgs. Digitization has been promoted as reducing our environmental footprint—e.g., the paperless society—but some research finds the opposite (remember those promises that digitization would ease our work week?).

Digitization is altering space, place, networks, scales, and nature-society relations. For geographers, around the world and in collaboration with academic and non-academic partners, studying this emergent digital earth is a massive research opportunity. But we also bear a responsibility. These are not ‘out there’ processes that society must accept and adjust to. Critical analysis of the emergence and socionatural implications of digital earth will be vital to making it emancipatory rather than exploitative, and geographers should be leading this effort.

Let me know what you think.

–Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0005



The Online Revolution: New Knowledge Geographies?

Eric SheppardLast month, I advocated decentering the production of geographical knowledge. This month, I explore online revolutions in information flows, and the tensions these pose for decentering geographical knowledge. At the heart of these is a tension in the power-geometries of cyberspace itself—which is far from the flat world/global village visions of its most ardent proponents. This is the tension between those advocating net neutrality, envisioning cyberspace as a virtual place of communicative action where all participate and mutually engage, and those seeking an ordered cyberspace, aligned with existing economic and political power: Anonymous vs. a corporate-state complex.

On the visionary end of this spectrum, cyberspace (particularly the increasingly georeferenced Web 2.0) is a massive, online distributed geographic information system—replete with multifaceted, multi-media georeferenced information, connecting seemingly objective data with views of and opinions about the world. Cyberspace problematizes what counts as data, belief and knowledge, empowering all to contribute to such discussions and representations, in ways that are simultaneously emancipatory and problematic. At the other end, are the Intranets that partition cyberspace, surveillance technologies and cyber-warfare. At one end, self-organization, multiplicity and emergence: decentered knowledge production and volunteered geographical information. At the other, a hierarchy, shaped by the usual geographical suspects (powerful Anglophone institutions, concentrated in elite spaces of the global North).

These tensions also characterize the online production and dissemination of academic knowledge. Two aspects have received considerable recent attention: Open access (OA) publishing and massive open online courses (MOOCs). I imagine that, like me, you regularly receive email solicitations from OA publishers and journals, offering to publish your scholarship or pedagogic writing or place you on their editorial boards. Sorting out the merits of OA publishing is a challenge: As for cyberspace in general, crowd sourcing is simultaneously pathbreaking and hazardous. MOOCs have resulted in hundreds of courses with casts of tens of thousands, with Geography virtually absent: I have found just two MOOC Geography courses, on GIS and mapping. On the one hand, is our visceral belief in academic knowledge as a public good (once largely publicly funded) that should be freely available to anyone. On the other, are concerns about emergent hierarchies of knowledge/power favoring those who can position themselves to persuade others.

With respect to OA publishing, we can distinguish between a ‘green’ vision and a ‘gold’ model. In the green vision, digital repositories make scholarly manuscripts immediately publicly accessible at no cost. In the gold model, authors pay an article processing charge (APC) to a publisher that releases the latter’s copyright control so that the publication can become OA: “Pay to say.” The gold model is rapidly trumping the green vision. The UK Government accepted recommendations from the 2011 Finch Report, that all (particularly public funded) published research be OA, preferring the gold model. The UK Research Councils now require this for their funded research, triggering similar initiatives in North America, the European Union, Japan, Australia and Brazil. In response, Anglophone journals are quickly implementing the gold model: The APC for the Annals and The Professional Geographer will be $2,950. Harvard University instituted a policy under which faculty authors grant Harvard the right to distribute their scholarly articles ‘for any non-commercial purpose.’ While the Harvard ‘dash’ repository is green, Harvard’s right to deposit an article published in a major journal may push its faculty to pay APCs. Such moves toward the commodification of open access, shaped by major players in the production and dissemination of knowledge raise major questions: Who has the money to pay APCs? This disadvantages geographers whose research neither attracts nor requires external funding, and less resourced academic institutions. If funding agencies pay APCs (as envisioned in the UK), how will they decide which scholarship deserves such funding? What are the opportunity costs of setting aside money for this purpose? Will this enhance the influence of funders, and the private sector more generally, over academic research?

Here, as elsewhere, commodification challenges academic freedom. Since most academic publishers are already supported by the pro bono labor of authors, referees and (decreasingly) academic editors, one alternative is to invest this labor in journals that are freely available (e.g. ACME), or non-profit (e.g. Human Geography). Yet displacing the highly profitable private-sector journal publishers will remain difficult. This is particularly the case because of the question of determining the quality of information in cyberspace. Here, academics are more comfortable with hierarchies, whereby expertise certifies quality. Yet, as our institutions seek quick fixes to the self-appointed task of measuring (indeed, commodifying) scholarly output, adopting citation and impact scores popularized by ISI Thomson or Google, it is vital to critique and reimagine such measures.

MOOCs have exploded since the term was coined in 2008, exhibiting the same tensions. As originally envisioned, the cMOOC (‘connectivist’) is an open, online educational experience in which all participants contribute knowledge, engaging with and learning from one another. But the xMOOC has come to dominate: a top down educational model, whereby an MIT course, say, (one of the most active providers) is offered to all comers. There are now half a dozen cyberfirms coordinating free xMOOC offerings from an increasing number of universities, worldwide. The challenge, as for OA and cyberspace in general, is making money: xMOOCs have yet to crack the commodification barrier, whereby students would be willing to pay to enroll. Key to this, again, is demonstrating quality, by persuading those institutions currently trusted as quality education providers to endorse or accredit xMOOCs.

What do OA and MOOCs suggest for decentering the production of geographical knowledge? If commoditized models predominate, then order and hierarchy will displace the participatory mutual engagement and learning central to such decentering. The same hierarchies, voices, institutional locations and languages will prevail.

Let me know what you think.

–Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0004


Public Geographies

Eric SheppardHow should geographers engage with the world? Building on an initiative of Michael Burawoy, ex-president of the American Sociological Association, I propose that more disciplinary effort be put into public geographies.

One of the great features of geography is that it is grounded—not just because we study the earth, but in the sense that geography is intimately related to everyday life. Almost everything people (and other beings) do on a daily basis engages consciously or unconsciously with the geographies that both find themselves within, and create. (This is why emergent digital technologies shaping communication and interaction are increasingly geographical: Web 2.0.) As academic geographers, we find ourselves quite removed from these everyday geographies. Our expertise, and social credibility, stem from academic credentials, but self-referentiality and abstraction for abstraction’s sake make it harder to transcend the ivory tower. Some seek to make geography more socially relevant by applying academic knowledge to policy issues. Applied, policy-relevant geographies are important, and we should lament any dearth of these and the lack of impact of geographers’ policy recommendations. But how else can we engage with the world, and to which effect? Policy geographies tend to feed into social hierarchies. Often they are directed toward the socially influential, addressing their agendas, priorities and perspectives on society and nature. As policy geographers know all too well, recommendations that are tangential to the concerns of, or address questions not posed by, those paying for advice, run the risk of being filed away. Yet, even well-intentioned elite priorities and perspectives are often distant from the priorities of what the Occupy movement dubbed the 99 percent. (Consider how peoples’ frustration with politicians has become endemic worldwide, as elected politicians’ actions seem increasingly irrelevant or impotent.) Taking advantage of our groundedness, public geographies would engage directly with such alternative priorities.

Public geographies take many forms, but always involve pedagogy, whether in research-oriented universities, community colleges, K-12 classrooms, or alternative teaching initiatives (like the Experimental College of the Twin Cities and Freedom University). Teaching brings geography directly to the diverse populations making up our societies, a vital opportunity not only to provoke critical geographic thinking about socionature but also for us to learn from these students’ diverse perspectives and experiences. Other important venues for prosecuting public geographies include opinion columns, blogs, video documentaries, and social networking tout court. One neglected geographical opportunity to reach the general public is producing ‘trade’ books that engage with and provoke reflection by the general public. Economists and physicists have had much success and influence this way: Why not us? We also should consider the rapid emergence of MOOCs—massive open online courses—an initiative dominated in the U.S. by universities that do not offer geography.

On the societal end of the discipline, public geographies might also involve revealing peoples’ landscapes of living and protest, erased in the name of development (cf. The Peoples’ Guide to Los Angeles). They might involve narrating more broadly peoples’ geographies as an antidote to official accounts, or supporting community geographers. They might involve participant action research, working with communities and collectivities on issues identified by them, empowering their members as co-researchers. They might involve work about and in conversation with diverse economies, social and environmental justice, indigenous and (more-than) human rights.

For those whose scholarship focuses more squarely on biophysical and nature/society issues, public geographies would contest perspectives shaped by market-friendly, state-oriented and corporate agendas. These might include focusing on the biodiversity of places and the sustainability of species marginalized in dominant societal agendas. They might document the climatic and geomorphological effects of such agendas, assessing their viability or desirability. They might connect with societal issues of environmental justice as well as justice for the more-than-human world. For those focused on cartography and other geographical information technologies, public geographies might include community and critical cartographypublic participation GIS, or the development of alternative geographic information architectures to facilitate the influence and livelihood possibilities of disadvantaged communities.

Undertaking public geographies entails attending to the challenges and opportunities of working in a geographically differentiated world: e.g., those of working with proximate vs. more distant groups; in places that vary dramatically in terms of culture, ecologies, etc.; at scales ranging from the household to the globe (acknowledging the heterogeneity and inequality at every scale); and working through (and shaping) the connectivities linking places and scales together. Public geographies should be well attuned to such differentiations, by their very nature, yet critically engaging across them remains a major challenge. The ambition should be global, but from the bottom-up rather than top-down.

Public geographies cannot stand alone: Academic and applied geographies are every bit as important, each gaining strength from the others. Without a basis in academic geographies, we have little legitimacy to bring to public issues. In my experience, communities look to geographers for expertise as much as we look to them, and our academic training is the foundation for what we can offer. By the same token, applied/policy geographers offer real-world expertise that can be vital for shifting policy agendas toward public priorities, and for facilitating engagement with existing policy priorities.

The time seems propitious for public geographies: In the United States, community-university partnerships and public engagement are all the rage. Nevertheless, there remain few incentives for students and faculty to pursue public geographies. Academic success is tied to research with impact, measured in citations and policy influence, with teaching also shaped by institutional priorities. Elite universities’ rhetoric talks the talk of public scholarship without walking the walk: It remains too often a pro bono activity, to be undertaken in addition to everything else. Here is where smaller universities and colleges have a real advantage: They are often more directly connected with non-elite communities and their students. In my visits to regional AAG meetings last fall, with elite institutions generally conspicuous by their absence, I was impressed by the kinds of public geographies presented there. Advancing public geographies, then, may require leadership from outside the elite geography programs.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0003


Diversifying Geography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2012.0005

See also:

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

Schlemper (2009) Departmental climate and student experiences in geography graduate programs. Research in Higher Education 50 (3): 268-292. DOI: 10.1007/s11162-008-9117-4  

Solís, P., J. Adams, L. Duram, S. Hume, A. Kuslikis, V. Lawson, I. M. Miyares, D. Padgett, and A. Ramirez (2014) Diverse experiences in diversity at the geography department scale. The Professional Geographer 66 (2): 205-220. DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2012.735940 


Geography’s Cultures of Publication

Eric Sheppard

In many ways, Geography mirrors the western academy as a whole, which is why we often seem like misfits within the disciplinary boxes used to organize this academy. How we publish is one of those ways. Our cultures of scholarly publication range from multi-authored highly abbreviated articles summarizing scientific results (particularly physical geographers), to conference proceedings (particularly in GIScience), longer sole- or joint-authored articles, and books of various kinds. Each approach makes perfect sense for the sub-culture involved, also as a way to communicate geographical scholarship effectively to cognate disciplinary clusters (physical science, computer science, social sciences and humanities). Yet what seems natural to some of us puzzles others. Further, geographers’ choices of how to publish are shaped and incentivized by a multitude of forces over which we have limited control. This can pose problems for individual geographers, and the discipline

Consider, for example, the National Research Council’s  (NRC) decision about what constitutes geographical scholarship, when it ranked U.S. graduate Geography programs in 2010. The only geographical publications that counted for the NRC were refereed journal articles for which Web of Science citation data are collected—and for which each author gained full credit on every co-authored article. Of course this favored departments with a multi-authored journal publishing culture, ceteris paribus, disadvantaging departments with a more cultural focus. (These controversial rankings were revised, but this decision was not.) Behind this was not only a blinkered view of the nature of Geography (as an earth and social science), but also the limitations of Web of Science as the selected publications database. Only recently has ISI Thomson extended their database to include books and conference proceedings, and their rules about what to include differ from others such as Scopus and Google Scholar.

The publishing industry has its own priorities, incentivizing publication cultures in other ways. New journals have proliferated, as journals with modest circulation numbers are now profitable. Publishers also offer inducements to edit survey books, encyclopedias, companions, handbooks, etc., also currently deemed profitable. Geography thus has put significant effort into boutique journals (great for energizing a newly emergent scholarly community, albeit at the risk of balkanizing larger-scale communications networks), and state-of-the-art edited collections (helpful for students, but sapping scholarly energy from original research and often duplicating one another). Yet scholarly monographs, particularly by less well-known and marketable geographers, are increasingly difficult to publish. University presses, under market-oriented pressure to become financially self-sufficient, increasingly find themselves thinking and acting like the for-profit industry.

Such pressures concatenate through departmental and disciplinary cultures, as we try and game the ranking systems we increasingly are subjected to and evaluated by. I hear from faculty about chairs suggesting they desist from publishing books, and from authors with papers under review in a journal where the editor asks them to add more citations to that journal (boosting its ISI-defined “impact factor”).

The popularity of journal articles aligns with a contemporary merit evaluation culture that incentivizes short-termism: “fast” scholarship (more frequent, shorter publications, in journals with high citation counts) rather than the “slow geography” of major monographs. The Annals has followed this trend. Its book review editor Kent Mathewson calculates that the number of books reviewed annually in the Annals has fallen from 60 to 25 since 2008, as the backlog of accepted articles lengthened.

Book publishing must remain central to maintaining the diversity of scholarly excellence that is Geography’s hallmark. Indeed, those geographers who have had the greatest impact beyond the discipline frequently achieved this through their books. Within the contemporary academy, much is made of the fact that journals utilize double-blind reviews to ensure quality control. Yet the refereeing process is far from perfect, as some spectacular faux pas in the sciences remind us, and the different vetting process for books can be just as effective. Book editors, with their reputations at stake, can be more exacting than an over-worked journal reviewer. Academic publishers, before investing in a scholarly monograph, solicit multiple anonymous reviews from top scholars prior to issuing a contract (ten in all, for my recent book prospectus).

The AAG is undertaking a new initiative to reinvigorate Geography’s book publishing culture. Working with Taylor & Francis, in spring 2013 the Association plans to begin publishing the quarterly AAG Review of Books (ARB), an online journal free to members. Like Contemporary Sociology and Reviews in Anthropology, the ARB will be devoted to reviewing and debating books of interest to geographers and fellow-travellers. If geographers can induce the NRC to value the diversity of publishing essential to our discipline, bring more attention to geographical monographs from in and beyond the discipline, push the citation counting industry to broaden its remit, and reinvigorate respect for academic book publishing in all areas of Geography, these will be steps in the right direction.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2012.0004