Building Vibrant Departmental Cultures, Part Three: Developing more transparent and horizontal governance

Stylized tile wall with "possible" spelled out; credit: Chang Ye, Unsplash
Credit: Chang Ye, Unsplash

Photo of Rebecca Lave

My previous columns in this series described how we transformed Indiana University Geography from a space of personal and intellectual conflict into a vibrant and collegial department. As described in Part One of this series, a key component of our success was abandoning the traditional physical/human-environment/human geography division and replacing it with a problem-focused interdisciplinary departmental structure. A second key component was creating a culture of care and respect for students, staff, and faculty. In this column, I focus on developing more horizontal and transparent governance practices and policies.

Inclusive, horizontal governance

One of the most important factors for us in building cohesion has been buy-in: people need to feel that they have a real, substantive stake in departmental decisions. The trick is how to balance this with respecting the time of Assistant Professors and non-tenure-track (NNT) faculty, whose job security depends on not sinking too much time into service.

Our approach has been to create small (usually 3-4 member) ad hoc committees to investigate and make recommendations on any important policy decision. The chair of the ad hoc committee is a tenured faculty member charged with most of the labor: scheduling meetings, writing agendas, drafting memos to update the rest of the faculty, etc. Thus, the ask for the other committee members is only the substantive parts of the policy-making process: considering potential solutions, deciding how to explain them clearly and succinctly to the rest of the faculty, and recommending a path forward.

Each committee’s recommendations are discussed in faculty meetings. Often it takes two or three rounds of discussion to consider the strengths and weaknesses of an ad hoc committee’s proposal before we are ready to vote. Because of this careful process, and because we include an explicit proviso that we can revisit any decision if it does not achieve what we hoped it would, most of these votes are unanimous.

This approach creates a relatively horizontal governance structure by enabling a lot of substantive input with relatively small investments of time from our structurally vulnerable colleagues. We have used it to gradually change many aspects of our program, from giving NTT faculty all voting rights the university allows them (including voting on TT hires), to allowing public and engaged scholarship to count as up to 25% of promotion and tenure cases, to changing the pedagogy and methods requirements for our graduate program.

Transparent expectations

I started my term as department chair in 2019 intending to focus on our undergraduate program, but meetings with graduate students made it clear that the department had some serious discrepancies in mentoring that needed to be addressed immediately. We created an ad hoc committee focused on mentorship, this time with graduate student members as well. The ad hoc committee’s goal was to clarify our collective expectations for the responsibilities advisors and advisees had to each other and the rest of the departmental community. We felt that this transparency was particularly important for first generation and international students, who often had no idea how advisors were supposed to behave, what advisors could and could not ask of them, or where their funding came from.

In the end, we made three big changes to our graduate program. The most important was a unanimously adopted list of expectations for advisors and advisees that spelled out agreed-upon practices for everything from professionalization and pedagogy training to timelines for replying to emails. This included sections on what advisors should never ask students to do, and on the department’s responsibility to admitted students. The documents we produced went through many more rounds of review than was typical because they touched on almost aspect of department of life.

Guidance for Advisor/Advisee Interactions

The Department of Geography views graduate education as one of its key missions and would like our community to be clear on the central aspects of the advisor/advisee relationship. Graduate education is a form of apprenticeship, but there are basic responsibilities on both sides. Professors expect professional behavior from students and students should receive the same from faculty advisors. Finally, it is important to note that it is the Department, not the advisor, that admits graduate students, and thus the Department also has responsibilities to graduate students as spelled out below. 

Students should:

  • Communicate constructively and respectfully with all members of the department, including office staff.
  • Behave professionally in all academic settings.
  • Work with their advisor to schedule arrival times for drafts of presentations, articles, etc. to enable advisors to provide timely feedback.
  • Meet deadlines agreed to with their advisors.
  • Respond to communications from their advisor during the academic year within three working days for research-related questions, and one working day for AI-related duties unless otherwise indicated in the email, and absent extenuating circumstances (e.g. a health crisis).
  • Nudge their advisor if they do not respond in a timely fashion as defined below.
  • Keep all appointments unless other arrangements have been made.
  • Engage, reflect, and act on their advisor’s feedback and advice.
  • Get in touch with their advisor immediately if they run into serious intellectual or professional issues, or personal issues that affect their research or other academic duties.
  • Help to build the intellectual community in the department through participation in courses, attendance at departmental colloquia, attendance and participation with GGSO, and interactions with other faculty and graduate students.
  • Be aware of what constitutes plagiarism and avoid it.
  • Contribute actively to their own intellectual development, and work to expand their intellectual resources and community.
  • Be proactive about forming an advisory committee, and also about changing the composition of that committee if needed.
  • Meet with their advisory committee annually to discuss their progress towards degree.
  • Fill out an evaluation of their advisor each year using the departmental checklist, and submit it to the Director of Graduate Studies. 

Advisors should:

  • Interact constructively and respectfully.
  • Meet at least bi-weekly during the academic year with students who are in residence, if not on medical, parental or sabbatical leave, and absent extenuating circumstances (e.g. health crisis).
  • Respond to student communications during the academic year within three working days for research-related questions, and one working day for AI-related duties unless otherwise indicated in the email; if not on medical, parental or sabbatical leave; and absent extenuating circumstances (e.g. a health crisis).
  • Respond gracefully and respectfully to reminders from students.
  • Help students understand the substance and methods of their field by providing intellectual guidance and training.
  • Discuss and provide guidance on research ethics.
  • Encourage safety in the field.
  • Encourage a healthy work/life balance.
  • Help students understand the expectations for professional behavior in their field (e.g. how to behave in the classroom, at conferences, etc.).
  • Work with students on the basics of academic professionalization, including:
    • How to prepare an academic CV;
    • How to write a conference abstract;
    • How to give the most common forms of academic presentations (e.g. 15 and 45-minute talks);
    • How to write a grant application (if relevant); and
    • How to apply for academic jobs.
  • Encourage and help students to publish by:
    • Discussing journal selection;
    • Reviewing draft manuscripts; and
    • Teaching students efficient and constructive ways to respond to peer reviews.
  • Provide useful and timely feedback on student work during the academic year, if not on medical, parental or sabbatical leave and absent extenuating circumstances (e.g. a health crisis) as follows:
    • On presentations, within three working days;
    • On article and thesis drafts, within 1-2 weeks; and
    • On dissertations, within one month.
    • Feedback should be constructive and respectfully-phrased
  • Determine the standards for presentations, theses, dissertations, journal articles, and reports.
  • Give students credit for contributions to papers, presentations, or other products.
  • Work with students on non-course specific teaching skills, including:
    • How to prepare a syllabus;
    • How to facilitate class discussions;
    • Fair and appropriate grading; and
    • How to deal with teaching-related problems (e.g., difficult students, misconduct, etc.).
  • Help students connect to other scholars in their field.
  • Discuss alternatives to academic careers and direct the student to relevant resources, such as the Walter Center.
  • Meet with their advisee’s full committee annually to discuss progress towards degree.
  • Fill out an evaluation of their advisee each year using the department checklist and submit it to the Director of Graduate Studies.

Advisors should never:

  • Expect student assistance in non-academic realms (e.g. running personal errands).
  • Belittle or demean a student in person or other media.
  • Deny students access to data they helped collect.
  • Express romantic or sexual interest in a student or commit any form of gender or sexual harassment.
  • Use a student’s work without attribution.
  • Ask an AI/RA to work more than 20 hours/week.
  • Ask a student to write papers or presentations for
  • Ask a student to write their own recommendation letter.

The Department should: [1]

  • Provide students with up-to-date information that includes policies, practices, degree requirements, and resources.
  • Assist students with selection of their advisors as needed.
  • Communicate clearly and comprehensively about funding packages in admissions letters.
  • In cases where conflicts arise between advisors and advisees, the DGS (or the Chair, if the DGS is the advisor) will:
    • Meet with the advisor and advisee to resolve those conflicts;
    • Follow up within 8 weeks to see if the conflict has been addressed;
    • If not, the DGS or Chair will:
      • Assist the student in finding another advisor in the department;
      • Assist the student in finding another advisor at IU;
      • Assist the student in selecting appropriate programs at other universities.
  • Provide pedagogical training and regular assessment of their teaching and other assistantship activities.
  • Review graduate student progress toward their degrees and professional development, including mentoring meetings, committee meetings, exam completions, and other benchmarks appropriate to their discipline.
  • Provide appropriate infrastructure to allow students to complete their education and research in a timely and productive manner, such as office space, computers, laboratory facilities, and equipment.
  • Provide opportunities for professional development that will be relevant to students seeking careers outside academia and/or their research discipline.
  • Establish and communicate policies for emergencies and unplanned situations that may disrupt the work of students and/or faculty.
  • Incorporate these guidelines and recommendations into their departmental policies or handbooks and actively promote their observance.

[1] Modified from Penn State’s Guidelines for Advisor-Graduate Student Interactions

 

With transparent expectations in place, we turned to accountability: trying to identify when we were not living up to expectations so that we could fix issues before they turned into crises. We converted that list of expectations into check-box forms to be completed each year by advisees and advisors and sent to the Director of Graduate Studies (not each other). We also adopted a practice of requiring graduate students to convene their research committee annually to check in on their progress towards degree and discuss any questions or concerns the student might have. As with the checklists, the goal of the annual committee meetings is to catch issues while they are still fixable, but by allowing other faculty members to observe the advisor/advisee relationship directly rather than relying on self-reporting.

Advisor’s Checklist

Advisor: _______________________________                                                   Date: ____________

Advisee: _______________________________

To my knowledge, this student is:

___ Communicating constructively and respectfully with all members of the department, including office staff.

___ Behaving professionally in all academic settings.

___ Working with me to schedule arrival times for drafts of presentations, articles, etc. to enable me to provide timely feedback.

___ Meeting the deadlines we have agreed to.

___ Responding to communications from me during the academic year within three working days for research-related questions, and one working day for AI-related duties unless otherwise indicated in the email, and absent extenuating circumstances (e.g. a health crisis).

___ Nudging me if I do not respond in a timely fashion.

___ Keeping all appointments unless other arrangements have been made.

___ Engaging, reflecting, and acting on my feedback and advice.

___ Getting in touch with me immediately if they run into serious intellectual or professional issues, or personal issues that affect their research or other academic duties.

___ Helping to build the intellectual community in the department through participation in courses, attendance at departmental colloquia, attendance and participation with GGSO, and interactions with other faculty and graduate students.

___ Aware of what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it.

___ Contributing actively to their own intellectual development, and working to expand their intellectual resources and community.

___ Taking their pedagogical responsibilities for the department seriously, and practicing leading part or all of a class session from their third semester until they serve as lead instructor or graduate.

___ Being proactive about forming an advisory committee, and also about changing the composition of that committee if needed.

___ Meeting with their advisory committee annually to discuss their progress towards degree. 

Please explain any areas of concern:

 

Advisee’s Checklist

Advisor: _______________________________                                                   Date: ____________

Advisee: _______________________________

My advisor is:

___ Interacting with me constructively and respectfully.

___ Meeting with me at least bi-weekly during the academic year.

___ Responding to emails from me during the academic year within three working days for research-related questions, and one working day for AI-related duties unless otherwise indicated in the email.

___ Responding gracefully and respectfully to reminders from students.

___ Helping me understand the substance and methods of my field by providing intellectual guidance and training.

___ Discussing and providing guidance on research ethics.

___ Encouraging safety in the field.

___ Encouraging a healthy work/life balance.

___ Helping me understand the expectations for professional behavior in my field (e.g. how to behave in the classroom, at conferences, etc.).

___ Working with me on the basics of academic professionalization, including:

  • How to prepare an academic CV;
  • How to write a conference abstract;
  • How to give the most common forms of academic presentations (e.g. 15 and 45-minute talks);
  • How to write a grant application (if relevant); and
  • How to apply for academic jobs.

___ Encouraging and helping me to publish by:

  • Discussing journal selection;
  • Reviewing draft manuscripts; and
  • Teaching me efficient and constructive ways to respond to peer reviews.

___ Providing useful and timely feedback on my work during the academic year as follows:

  • On presentations, within three working days;
  • On article and thesis drafts, within 1-2 weeks; and
  • On dissertations, within one month.

___ Giving me clear direction about their standards for presentations, theses, dissertations, journal articles, and reports.

___ Giving me credit for contributions to papers, presentations, or other products (see departmental co-authorship guidelines)

___ Working with me on non-course specific teaching skills, including:

  • How to prepare a syllabus;
  • How to facilitate class discussions;
  • Fair and appropriate grading; and
  • How to deal with teaching-related problems (e.g., difficult students, misconduct, etc.).

___ Helping me connect to other scholars in my field.

___ Discussing alternatives to academic careers and helping me connect to relevant resources, such as the Walter Center.

___ Meeting with my full committee annually to discuss progress towards degree.

 

My advisor is not:

___ Expecting me to assist them in non-academic realms (e.g. running personal errands).

___ Belittling or demeaning me in person or other media.

___ Obstructing my access to data I helped collect.

___ Expressing romantic or sexual interest in me or committing any form of gender or sexual harassment.

___ Using my work without attribution.

___ Asking me to work more than 20 hours/week on average for my AI/RA position.

___ Asking me to write papers or presentations for them.

___ Asking me to write my own recommendation letter.

Please explain any areas of concern:

 

Better is Possible

In this series, I have highlighted a few things that I believe have been particularly important in our departmental journey, but there is no blueprint for building a vibrant department. My colleagues here at IU might emphasize different aspects of our collective work, and there are many other excellent approaches to building horizontal and inclusive governance that we have never tried. What I can say with confidence is that we are in a staggeringly better place than I ever imagined in my initial years at IU, working with my head down and my door shut. In dream hampton’s words: “Better is Possible”

This is the third of three parts of a series on culture change at University of Indiana Geography.

Read Part 1          Read Part 2


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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Building Vibrant Departmental Cultures, Part Two: Creating a culture of respect and care for students, staff and faculty

A group of students explores geography with using their sense of smell over drinking glasses filled with liquid.
A group of students explores geography with their senses. UI Geography now prides itself on its environment of trust, respect, and creative inquiry.

Photo of Rebecca Lave

My previous column began the story of Indiana University Geography’s near-death experience in the 2010s and our decade of collective work to transform the department. Walking away from the traditional physical/human-environment/human geography division was a key aspect of that transformation, but creating a culture of care and respect and developing more transparent, horizontal governance were key components as well. In this column, I focus on how we created a more respectful and supportive departmental culture; I will address governance in the third column in this series.

Building respectful and supportive practices

I don’t know when the culture at IU Geography broke down; by the time I arrived to interview in spring 2008, the level of intellectual and personal disrespect within the department was intense enough that I nearly refused the job. In the end, I accepted, thinking that if I could keep my head down and my office door shut the cultural issues would not affect me. But as anyone who has been in a toxic department knows, bad behavior has surprisingly pervasive effects.

Our departmental meltdown in Fall 2011 had many long-term causes, but the immediate catalyst was two physical scientists declaring during a meet-and-greet with our new Dean that their situation was untenable because of teaching load and the presence of social scientists, and that they had independently begun negotiations to merge our department into the Geology Department. The rest of us were shocked and horrified. Our new Dean was unimpressed by our collective dysfunction, to put it mildly.

The year that followed was deeply stressful and upsetting. We were nearly forced to merge into two other units and multiple faculty moved to other departments or left IU. In the end, when the Dean decided to support our continued existence and gave us hires to rebuild, one of our highest priorities was building a more supportive and respectful culture. That took many different forms, but I’ll highlight three here.

The first was a commitment to respectful speech. We asserted, and then reinforced, the importance of treating everyone in the department (students, staff, faculty, colloquium speakers, etc.) respectfully in person and in email. This included an explicit acknowledgement that people in the department employed very different models of scholarship, and that all were worthy of respect.

Secondly, we changed department practices to better support each other’s lives outside of work. The point was not to recast the department as family, but to acknowledge that we are all human: some of us have care responsibilities; others have chronic illnesses or other vulnerabilities. We acknowledged and tried to support that in multiple ways, such as stepping in to cover classes when someone had surgery and moving the timeslot for our colloquium earlier to accommodate childcare pick-up times.

Perhaps the most important of these changes has been our collective commitment to only hire people who treat others well (the “no a**holes” rule).  This rule has been challenged occasionally when one or more of us was starry-eyed about an exceptionally strong CV; so far, though, we have held the line. Those of us who survived the meltdown at IU, or who came in from other departments with toxic cultures, are all too aware of the value of collegiality.

Meal trains as a metric

There are many metrics for assessing attempts to build more supportive and respectful department cultures; mine is meal trains.

Meal trains are a form of mutual aid in which people cook and bring meals to someone who needs support. When my daughter was born at a difficult time for my family, our community in Berkeley brought us dinner every other night for six weeks, getting us through the worst of the transition. Meal trains are powerful symbolically, drawing the recipient into a network of care. They are also powerful practices: there is nothing like preparing a meal with your own hands to ground you in care for another.

When I arrived at IU, there was no tradition of meal trains; frankly, there was only a 50% chance that another faculty member would say hello if you ran into them in the hall. I made a few solo attempts to get the tradition started, but it wasn’t until my colleague Justin Maxwell’s second child was born that we had our first departmental meal train. At first, we organized them only for faculty; then we expanded them to staff. I opened a bottle of bubbly when we voted to extend meal trains to graduate students. The hierarchies in academia are no joke, but it is possible to extend care, respect and appreciation within them.

The topics I’ve called out here are part of a broader set of endemic inequities within geography, both inside and outside the academy, that stem from a range of factors including unequal job security; race, ethnicity, gender, class, and ability; differences in institutional status, including research v. teaching institutions, but also Global South v. Global North; and the increasing dominance of English as the language of academic and professional life. These inequities play out in different ways. Some, like pay, job security, and career support, are obvious. Others, such as the expectations around who will do take on the work of mentoring and advising, and who is allowed to make ground-breaking scholarly contributions v. who is expected to demonstrate the relevance of others’ theories, are less obvious. As you think about how to make your own department a more respectful and supportive place to work, I strongly encourage you to check out AAG’s initiative with the University of Colorado Colorado Springs to identify and strengthen cultures of care within the geographic research community.

This is the second of three parts of a series on culture change at University of Indiana Geography.

Read Part 1

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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Building Vibrant Departmental Cultures, Part One

Dr. Olga Kalentzidou teaches a hybrid course on the geography of Indiana’s foodways. Credit: Kayte Young, WFIU Public Radio
Dr. Olga Kalentzidou teaches a hybrid course on the geography of Indiana’s foodways. Credit: Kayte Young, WFIU Public Radio

Photo of Rebecca Lave

A familiar story with an unfamiliar ending

The Geography Department at Indiana University Bloomington was nearly dissolved in the early 2010s. Neither enrollments nor research productivity were an issue. Instead, we were almost taken down by personal distrust and conflict, and by intellectual disagreements between physical and human geographers.

Thus far, this story is likely familiar: many of the departments that closed over the last few decades were plagued by similar cultural and intellectual issues. What’s different is the next part of the story: a decade later, IU Geography is a cohesive, thriving department. We have built a culture that values and respects a broad range of geographic scholarship, and works to support students, staff and faculty professionally and personally. Our reputation on campus as a collegial, highly functional department has given us credibility and administrative goodwill, and drawn FTE (Full-Time Equivalent) transfers from less collegial departments.

There are many paths to this outcome, but in this and two upcoming columns, I want to share a few things that were most effective for us, in hopes one or more of them might be useful for you:

  • Re-organizing to avoid traditional divides among physical/human-environment/human geography;
  • Building a culture of respect and care for students, staff and faculty; and
  • Creating more horizontal and transparent policies and administrative structures.

Organizing around problem areas rather than traditional geographic divides

With just seven faculty members remaining when the dust settled in 2012, we had a choice about how to move forward: either to specialize in a way that capitalized on the strength of some faculty but would force others out of the department, or to build an interdisciplinary vision that capitalized on all of our strengths. Happily, we chose the latter option.

Our goal was to make the interdisciplinary character of geography a strength rather than a source of conflict. We wanted there be clear intellectual benefits for our hydrologist to have a political ecologist of water in the department, and vice versa. To do that, we abandoned the classic physical/human-environment/human geography divide and instead arranged ourselves by problem areas: cities, development and justice; climate and environmental change; food and agriculture; and water resources (we also have a methods-focused cluster in GIS/RS). In each area, the goal was to include a range of courses and faculty that spanned physical, human-environment, and human geography.

Long-term payoff

No one here at IU Geography would argue that the process of overcoming traditional disciplinary divides is complete. In some areas (e.g., climate and environmental change) we were able to achieve our interdisciplinary vision immediately. In other areas (e.g., cities, development and justice) it took until this year to have the full range of faculty.  But we have succeeded in building ties that bridge physical/human-environment/human divides via grant proposals, courses, and interdisciplinary committees for graduate students. Our undergraduates now draw connections between our classes that we had never considered ourselves.

While we still keep an eye on the balance of faculty across the traditional physical/human-environment/human divide, organizing by topic drops the tension level in hiring decisions and graduate admissions. The topic structure is also far more legible to undergraduates, who may care a lot about food and agriculture but have no investment whatsoever in the divide between physical and human geography.

As a long-term champion of integrating critical biophysical and social research, I will close by noting that IU Geography’s topical organization brings our departmental structure in line with the world around us. If you believe in the core claim of the Anthropocene that our world is now inextricably eco-social, then our intellectual structures should be, too.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0141


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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Reciprocal Research: What Geography Gains from Public and Engaged Scholarship

Map of South America showing priority zones of Indigenous territory and conservation area, as well as proposed and existing development and fossil fuel reserves.
The Climate Alliance Mapping Project was developed by the Public Political Ecology Lab at the University of Arizona, working with Amazon Watch and the Americas-Wide Initiative to Advance Climate Equity, an alliance of environmental justice and indigenous rights organizations.

Photo of Rebecca Lave

There is a strong and growing consensus in geography against extractive scholarship (sometimes referred to as parachute or helicopter science), in which scholars land at their field sites, extract the social and/or biophysical data they need, and leave without building reciprocal relationships to the communities and landscapes they study (e.g., Tooth and Viles 2021, Gewin 2023, Soares et al. 2023).  The scholars benefit via publications, grants, etc., but give nothing back in return.

Reciprocal scholarship, by contrast, describes work that counters extractive scholarship through a wide range of approaches such as honoring communities’ right to refuse that they or their biophysical environment be studied (Liboiron 2021); developing questions, conducting research and analyzing results cooperatively with communities (Lane et al. 2011, Breitbart 2016); and protecting communities’ right to control what happens to data produced about them (Williamson et al. 2023). These public and engaged scholarship practices have many different names, including participatory action research, public science, community geographies, co-production, participatory modeling, and data sovereignty. Some are relatively new; others have long histories.  There are reciprocal approaches across all geographic fields, from physical geography to GIS to human/environment and human geography. And in every place I have visited during my 16 months in the AAG presidential rotation, I have heard from geographers (especially undergraduate and graduate students) that they are deeply interested in conducting reciprocal scholarship.

Despite this enthusiasm, reciprocal scholarship is undervalued in geography.  While community-engaged work by geographers such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the Public Political Ecology Lab, and the British Columbia Caribou Project are lauded as examples of publicly-relevant scholarship, they often do not count when it comes to promotion or hiring decisions. Geography departments frequently classify them as Service rather than Research, which means that reciprocal scholarship does not count towards the body of substantive work that graduate students are required to produce to earn MA/MS/PhD degrees and faculty are required to produce for tenure and promotion. Similarly, public agencies and non-profit organizations that employ geographers rarely take the painstaking work required to conduct effective science communication and community-engaged environmental management into consideration in their internal promotion processes (Kearns 2021).

In response, we have launched the AAG Public and Engaged Scholarship (PES) Task Force, whose members include geographers and our fellow travelers from a range of institutions (academic and professional, community college, liberal arts college, R2 and R1), levels of seniority, and subfields:

Our goal is to protect and value PES by developing:

  1. Recommendations for how AAG can reward and protect public and engaged scholarship (PES) by geographers inside and outside academia;
  2. Sample policies and best practices for incorporating PES in theses, dissertations, tenure and promotion cases, and personnel evaluations outside academia;
  3. Guidelines for external reviewers, funding agencies, and others evaluating PES; and
  4. Best practices for overcoming common institutional barriers to PES, such as compensation for community partners.

I have one immediate request to move our inquiry forward: sometime in the next few weeks, you will receive an email from AAG with a link to a short survey on your involvement in reciprocal, public, and engaged scholarship. Please fill it out so we can document the extent of PES work among geographers.

I will update you on our work as it progresses.

We look forward to hearing your input as we work with AAG to make public and engaged scholarship a more visible and valued area of geography.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0140

 

References

Breitbart, M. 2016. “Participatory Action Research.” In Key Methods in Geography, edited by N. J. Clifford, M. Cope, T. Gillespie and S. French. Sage.

Gewin, Virginia. 2023. “Pack up the Parachute: Why Global North–South Collaborations Need to Change.” Nature 619 (7971): 885–87. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-02313-1.

Lane, S. N., C. Landstrom, and Sarah Whatmore. 2011. “Imagining flood futures: Risk assessment and management in practice.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A 369:1784-1806.

Liboiron, Max. 2021. “Decolonizing Geoscience Requires More than Equity and Inclusion.” Nature Geoscience 14 (12): 876–77. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00861-7.

Soares, Bruno Eleres, Ana Clara Sampaio Franco, Juliana S. Leal, Romullo Guimarães de Sá Ferreira Lima, Kate Baker, and Mark Griffiths. n.d. “Decolonising Ecological Research: A Generative Discussion between Global North Geographers and Global South Field Ecologists.” Area n/a (n/a). Accessed October 4, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12901.

Tooth, S., & Viles, H. A. (2021). Equality, diversity, inclusion: ensuring a resilient future for geomorphology. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 46(1), 5-11. https://doi.org/10.1002/esp.5026

Williamson, Bhiamie, Sam Provost, and Cassandra Price. 2023. “Operationalising Indigenous Data Sovereignty in Environmental Research and Governance.” Environment & Planning F. 2023. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/26349825221125496.


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

    Share

Climate Change and the 2024 Annual Meeting in Honolulu

NASA aerial of the Lahaina fire on Maui.
NASA aerial of the Lahaina fire on Maui.

Photo of Rebecca Lave

This summer has been suffused with visceral reminders of the consequences of climate change: intense and extended heat waves, poor air quality, high ocean temperatures, and the list goes on.  As geographers, we knew climate change was already here, but even so the last few months have caused grief and shock.

The fires in West Maui continue to be particularly upsetting. As I write this column nearly a month after the fire, emergency organizations have confirmed the death of 115 people and have posted the names of another 385 who are believed to be missing. It is one of deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.  And history clearly matters here. The Maui fires were enabled by economic and ecological imperialism, as Kanaka scholar Kamana Beamer explained in a recent piece in The Guardian.

Until the nineteenth century, a dense Hawaiian population thrived in an abundant Lahaina landscape that featured flowing streams, waterways that irrigated taro and other crops, and a fishpond. But this sustainable food system was appropriated, manipulated, and in some cases destroyed to enable extractive plantation monocropping that lasted over a century. When the former sugar plantation shuttered its business in 1999, increased diversion of surface waters and the absence of active agricultural cultivation resulted in overgrowth of invasive non-native grasses, shrubs and trees that fueled the fire. As geographers have been arguing for more than half a century, there is no such thing as natural disaster.

Local resident's tribute of tagging "Lahaina Strong" on a wall beside a road. Credit: State Farm Insurance
Local resident’s tribute, Lahaina Strong. Credit: State Farm Insurance

While there has been an outpouring of public support, other responses to the fires have been profoundly disheartening. Indigenous and environmental groups are contending with opportunists exploiting the tragedy to grab water and land rights. Residents of West Maui have instead advanced post-recovery visions for reducing inequality and increasing the strength and interconnection of human and non-human communities. That is a future worth fighting for (see the Maui United Way’s response to the fires; the Na’Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, a key player in the fight for Kanaka land rights; and ongoing efforts by the Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action).

All this means that climate change and AAG’s role in mitigating or exacerbating it are heavy on my mind.

AAG’s Work on Climate Thus Far

Thanks to the big-picture thinking of the Climate Action Task Force and the efforts of staff, AAG has made some important initial steps in mitigating its climate impacts. The entire AAG endowment has been de-carbonized, so that we no longer financially support the fossil-fuel industry. AAG has moved into a LEED Gold building, notably reducing its day-to-day emissions. The first cohort of the Elevate the Discipline program, intended to increase geography’s impact on public policy, is focused on climate change. Through these and other programs, Gary Langham and the AAG staff have made it clear that they are serious about climate change.

AAG’s remaining climate impacts come primarily from the annual meetings. That means that AAG as an organization and we as a discipline will need to make some hard choices if we are to have any hope of bringing our net emissions down to 0 by 2050 as spelled out in our climate action commitment.

 

Mitigating the Climate Impacts of Annual Meetings

There are multiple options that we could pursue to mitigate the impacts of our annual meetings.

While many other professional societies have backed away from hybrid conference models because they are expensive and logistically challenging, AAG is continuing to make it possible to attend the annual meeting virtually. Thus, one approach would be to eliminate or reduce travel emissions via virtual attendance and the node model pioneered this spring. Nodes would have the added benefit of allowing us to contract with smaller hotel chains and vendors with better approaches to mitigating their impacts.

Another option would be to change the pattern of our annual meetings more radically, holding large in-person conferences every other year. In the alternate years, AAG could organize a set of smaller “hubs” connected by video-conferencing, perhaps linked to the existing regional meetings; an entirely virtual meeting every other year would reduce emissions further. In either case, it would take creative thought to enable the intellectual community building that is such an important component of the annual meeting, but I believe it is doable.

A third option would be some sort of offset. As geographers and others environmental scientists have demonstrated repeatedly, offsets have a terrible track record. Leaders of the Energy and Environment Specialty Group recently suggested instead that AAG make a long-term investment in an alternative energy project that might actually offset some of our emissions, preferably one with a strong social justice component. If it were possible to find a legitimate project, this could be an important component of AAG’s climate mitigation strategy.

Over the long term, we need to pursue some combination of these more interventionist approaches (along with other creative ideas from the Climate Action Task Force and AAG members), if we are to have any hope of moving AAG to net zero. The bottom line here is that AAG is going to have to change, and to change radically.  That means we as geographers will have to, too.

Immediate steps AAG members can take to mitigate the annual meeting’s climate impacts

There are things AAG members can do immediately to reduce the climate impact of the annual meeting: attend virtually and/or help to organize a node.

Attending virtually is one straightforward way to reduce emissions associated with the 2024 annual meeting. We need to work on making virtual attendance more engaging, though. AAG’s data shows that in the past few years, the average virtual participant attended fewer than two full sessions: their own and part of another. Thus, I would encourage anyone going the virtual route to think carefully about viable ways to increase their engagement with the annual meeting. I would also encourage specialty groups to develop at least one virtual networking event for their members.

Another thing members can do to reduce the carbon footprint of the 2024 annual meeting would be to help organize a node. This approach was pioneered last year with a mini-conference that brought together geographers in Montreal, and a watch party for students at Cal State Fullerton.  Both were very successful, but organizing them took a substantial amount of work. If more people volunteered to help organize it would make a big difference. If you are interested in co-organizing a node, please contact Patricia Martin or Betsy Olson, the current co-chairs of the Climate Action Task Force.

Our work to reduce AAG 2024’s impact on carbon and climate change is intertwined with the important work so many are putting into centering Indigenous Hawaiian history, knowledge, struggles, and victories at the meeting in Honolulu. I hope, too, that all virtual attendees and nodes will prioritize attending the talks, panels, and featured sessions that focus on Kānaka Maoli. As geographers, we know that climate change is inextricably social and biophysical: prioritizing one at the cost of another cannot move us forwards.

I am very grateful for Neil Hannahs and Aurora Kagawa-Viviani’s review of and suggestions for this column.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0137


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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Boundaries and Connection: Creating a Meaningful Meeting in Honolulu

Panorama of Menehune fishpond, aka Alekoko Fishpond, historic Hawaii, Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii, USA

Photo of Rebecca Lave

The first of AAG’s webinars in preparation for the annual meeting in Honolulu took place on Tuesday, July 25. Webinar participants Aurora Kagawa-Viviani (University of Hawai‘i-Manoa), Mahina Paishon-Duarte (Wai Wai Collective CEO and co-founder) and Ulalia Woodside Lee (Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i) shared stories, images, and songs to introduce Hawaiian culture and the central role of reciprocity; critiques of the impacts of imperialism and interlinked economic, environmental, and cultural struggles; and tools to help us organize the annual meeting in a way that positively addresses both. More than 130 AAG members attended the webinar, Aloha Aku, Aloha Mai: Aloha Given, Aloha Received.

These webinars are an important piece of AAG’s commitment to centering Kānaka (Indigenous Hawaiian) history, struggles and triumphs (see my July column for details on the other parts of that commitment), and to building a new locally engaged, justice-focused model for our annual meetings in Honolulu and beyond. This new model is an obvious step forward: in retrospect, it seems absurd that Geographers, the academics most centrally focused on space and place, have engaged so little with the areas outside our conference hotels. With the notable exception of field trips, our annual meetings have mostly focused inwards.

Yet this new model raises big questions, which Aurora, Mahina, and Ulalia crystalized for me in their comments on the 25th.  It is relatively straightforward to engage intellectually with Kānaka scholars, and even some local thought leaders, via key notes at the annual meeting. Economically, AAG has committed to waiving fees for Kānaka vendors during the meeting and providing lists of Kānaka-owned businesses to visit. But even a quick look at the chat log from the webinar shows that attendees also wanted to build meaningful relations while they were in Honolulu. How do we enable annual meeting attendees to build genuine connections with local communities without placing burdensome demands on their time and resources? How do we enter communities in respectful ways? In Ulalia’s words, how can we “level up expectations for guests” in Hawai’i?

There are no simple answers to these questions.  My hope is that we will develop a collective response via the webinar series, and discussions among Specialty and Affinity Groups, the local organizing committee, and Kānaka community engagement facilitator Neil Hannahs.  A few initial options mentioned during the webinar were:

  • Embracing our kuleana as guests: carefully considering what skills and connections we can bring to the local community, and being intentional about ways we can be useful and reciprocal.
  • Land engagements: field trips that enable conference attendees to contribute labor and resources to existing workdays for Kānaka community groups (rather than asking for special events for us).
  • Events for school groups: offering workshops for local schools, perhaps at the schools or in the Convention Center.

I look forward to adding to and refining this list in conversation with you to develop new practices for our annual meetings.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0136


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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The 2024 Annual Meeting in Honolulu

Green triangular sign saying "Aloha visitors, please check in at office"

Photo of Rebecca Lave

Over the last year, I have heard from geographers on four continents, voicing concerns about the 2024 annual meeting in Hawaiʻi in relation to cost and accessibility, climate change and carbon emissions, and Indigenous self-determination and legacies of settler colonialism. These issues of economic, climate, and Indigenous justice are deeply important to me, and I love being part of a discipline that foregrounds them and their interconnections. Thus, I deeply appreciate the people who took the time to reach out, and I am dedicating my first column as AAG President to these concerns.

The decision to hold the 2024 annual meeting in Honolulu was made in 2016, long before the current Executive Director, Gary Langham, or any of the current Council members held positions of authority at AAG. That said, we take responsibility for deciding to move forward. Our decision wasn’t made lightly, and it took into account the real costs of cancelling, as well as the inherent responsibilities in proceeding, especially in terms of climate action and attention to the wishes and wellbeing of the Kānaka Maoli, the sovereign people of Hawaiʻi.

I’d like to address these considerations one by one, although they are of course interconnected.

Indigenous Sovereignty

The concern I heard most frequently was about Indigenous self-determination, often citing tweets from Deondre Smiles, former chair of the Indigenous People’s Specialty Group, stating that Indigenous Hawaiians (Kānaka Maoli) did not want visitors to come to Hawaiʻi, and contemplating a boycott of the annual meeting. I reached out to Deondre in response to his statements on Twitter, and we decided the best way forward was to convene a conversation between Indigenous Geographers and AAG. After much consultation about who should be part of that conversation, we met on March 10 with a group of Hawaiian geographers, most of whom were Kānaka. They made two points that changed my thinking about the annual meeting:

  1. Kānaka Maoli are not a monolithic group, and they have a range of views about and relationships to tourism; and
  2. AAG was welcome as long as we were good guests. This second point is guiding a range of actions I’ll describe below, but the key is this: Rather than viewing Hawaiʻi through kitschy-touristic lenses (Grass skirts! Drinks in pineapples! Sun-bathing between sessions!), we need to do the work of learning about and attending to Kānaka history, struggles, and successes.

The geographers in that meeting asked AAG to walk away from typical annual meeting practices which, other than field trips, are only lightly tailored to the place where the meeting takes place. Instead, they asked us to center Kānaka issues throughout the conference, from the vendors to the keynotes. Among the most important things that we have agreed to and begun to implement are:

  • Kānaka vendors will have free space in the Convention Center.
  • Kānaka-owned restaurants and other businesses will be prominently highlighted in our visitor information, so that meeting attendees can support them.
  • Kānaka geographers and local people with a range of knowledge will be engaged directly in developing themes for the annual meeting that center their issues and concerns, such as US militarism, food sovereignty, and colonial legacies.
  • Field trips and events will be paired with these themes to create meaningful experiences of the Island.
  • Kānaka Maoli and other Pacific Basin Indigenous groups can attend the meeting free of charge.
  • AAG will work with interested specialty groups to select Hawaiian keynote speakers and foreground Kānaka themes.
  • AAG will develop a series of webinars to help attendees learn more about these themes in the run up to the annual meeting.
  • The AAG Indigenous People’s Specialty Group will have free space to run its own programming during the annual meeting.

Our discussion also resulted, in this meeting, in AAG hiring a Kānaka event coordinator, Neil Hannahs, the founder of Hoʻokele Strategies LLC, to help with all of the above, to ground us in Indigenous Hawaiian values, and help attendees to be good guests.

Climate Impact

We are still thinking about how to address the climate impacts of holding the annual meeting in Hawaiʻi, but there are a few things we can say with certainty now.

First, given the excellent and damning work geographers have done about the ineffectiveness of carbon offsetting, we know that is not a realistic option.

Second, thanks to the vision and persistence of former AAG President Emily Yeh and the members of the Climate Action Task Force she convened, the willingness of AAG staff to think outside of conventional conference models, and the impressive efforts of geographers in Fullerton, CA and Montreal, we now know that nodes offer a viable alternative to attending the annual meeting in person.

In 2021, AAG released a report to aid in decision making for its meetings. Based on those projections, we know that AAG 2024 in Honolulu could have much higher emissions than typical meetings if no options are provided (35k vs. 16.5k tCO2). Adding additional hubs can reduce emissions impacts dramatically, however, which is why we are seeking to scale up nodes dramatically. The current plan is to have at least 10 nodes next year, offering much lower-carbon and lower-cost ways to view, and even participate in, the annual meeting.

Costs

AAG’s early response to concerns raised about the meeting was to look into the cost of cancelling. Doing so would have cost over $1 million, or about 1/6 of AAG’s annual operating budget. Particularly because AAG has spent millions of dollars over the last few years of virtual and hybrid meetings, there is no way to absorb that cost without laying off staff and cutting back on activities that support and promote geography and geographers. We have opted to instead invest resources—funds and people—in hosting the most robust, ethically responsive, and locally (and virtually) engaging 2024 meeting we can host. As with actions we have had to take over the past nearly four years, AAG’s stance is a thoughtfully risky one.

We know that traveling to any AAG meeting is costly, disproportionately so for our many members who do not have access to departmental or other funds to attend. That’s another reason it is so important to us to keep the virtual option in place, and to do what we can to secure competitively low hotel rates. While Honolulu is one of the most expensive places the annual meeting is held, it’s worth noting that travel costs vary markedly by geography; I heard from geographers from Aotearoa New Zealand who were delighted that they could actually afford to attend the annual meeting this year. For all AAG members, we provide a number of options that can defray travel and registration expenses including the Community College Travel Grants, AAG Student Travel Grants, and AAG-GTU Travel Grants.

Looking Forward

I have learned much by working through the concerns raised by our members, particularly in terms of Kānaka Maoli wishes and sovereignty. I have also been surprised and very pleased at AAG’s response to both criticism and constructive suggestions. Over the last few months, I have shifted from being worried and uncertain about the Hawaiʻi meeting, to actively looking forward to learning more about Kānaka history, struggles and victories. Land acknowledgments, where many organizations stop short, have been criticized (appropriately, in my view) for merely naming histories of dispossession and death; AAG’s planned approach in Hawaiʻi feels like the beginning of an answer to how disciplinary societies can do more.

I hope you will be part of the 2024 meeting, and I encourage you to be in touch with AAG concerning any questions. Email meeting@aag.org,.

*   *   *   *

Join us in learning more. At the annual meeting in Honolulu the AAG will pilot a new approach that connects the conference more strongly to the place where it is held. To do that respectfully and well, we need to learn more about Hawaiʻi before we go. Between July and March, the AAG will be hosting a virtual learning series featuring Hawaiian speakers and perspectives on a broad range of environmental, political, and historical topics including Indigenous ecological knowledge and sovereignty. We are excited by these opportunities and invite you to join us. You can register for free for the first webinar in this series.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0132


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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