Listening to Our Members: Part 2

This is my last column as AAG president and it is perhaps the most important because I seek your input on a very significant matter for Council regarding our flagship journal, the Annals. Last fall we conducted a membership survey; as I reported in the previous month’s column, the purpose of the survey was to, “… understand current member perceptions, to identify areas where AAG is successfully delivering value today, and to uncover opportunities to provide greater value and support to the members.” We posed a number of questions to measure satisfaction with our journals and to explore interest in new publications. In this column I report briefly on the survey findings that then lead to the request for your feedback concerning the organization of the Annals.

Survey Results

Overall, the support for our suite of journals was what I would characterize as tepid. Forty-two percent of members were extremely or somewhat satisfied with the journals compared to 68 percent who indicated satisfaction with the annual meeting. Only about one-quarter of members read an article per issue of either the Annals or Professional Geographer (PG). And as you can see from the graph below, while two-thirds of members are satisfied with the reputation of the Annals, only about one-third find that the content is relevant to their own research interests. I find that worrisome.

When asked, “What single change would make AAG journals more valuable to you?” the two most popular answers were, “New Content,” and “Balanced Content Matter.” These results are a little enigmatic, but when asked what new content members would like to read, the most popular answers were: applied and activist geography; public policy and management; industrial/commercial geography; physical/environmental geography; and social geography. I am surprised at this list since we have an Environmental Sciences section of the Annals and it would seem that these topics would be most welcomed in both PG and Annals.

Perhaps even more concerning is the disparity in satisfaction with our journals in terms of reputation, impact factor, and visibility across the discipline. As illustrated in this graph, physical geographers are less pleased with our publications than others but there appears to be a gap with GIS/cartography/remote sensors as well.

Recognizing that there is some discontent among members, we asked a series of questions to gauge interest in a new interdisciplinary journal focused on environmental change. Sixty-six percent of respondents said yes, they would support a new journal; 24 percent were not certain. The comments related to this question were most telling. The 11 percent who said they did not support the addition of a new interdisciplinary journal to the AAG suite expressed worries that “…yet another journal could dilute and segregate the overall human-environment core of the field.” The enthusiastic comments from the yes group included, “Geography should claim its place at the forefront of environmental research,” and “Campuses are losing interest in geography but gaining interest in interdisciplinary environmental programs, so this proposal matches that trend.” Overall, 71 percent of members said they were likely to read such a journal. Physical and coupled natural and human systems geographers showed strongest support for an environmental change journal, not surprisingly.

These findings give the Publication Committee chaired by Stuart Aitken, San Diego State University, our AAG publication editors, and Council much to consider. How can we make our journals stronger and more valuable to all our members? How do we help our editors to balance content, relevancy, impact, and visibility? Here is where we need your assistance.


On behalf of the Publications Committee and AAG Council, we would like to know your thoughts about a proposal to eliminate the Annals section headings. How is it that we came to the current configuration? The existing format for the Annals was introduced in 1999 to address two perceived issues: 1) long-standing and continuing concerns about the lack of representation of certain aspects of the discipline (especially physical geography) in the flagship journal; and 2) concerns about perceived biases accruing to a single editor. Four sections, representing the breadth of the academic discipline of geography, were created, each with an editor taking responsibility for the subject area: Environmental Sciences; Methods, Models, and Geographic Information Sciences; Nature and Society; and People, Place, and Region. The four editors formed an editorial team.

We are considering removing the section headings in light of the survey findings and suggestions that the sections do not represent changes in the discipline and have the potential of characterizing articles in problematic ways. It is also clear that certain kinds of articles (e.g. papers that transcend the four major areas or papers that reflect on the discipline in general) are rarely submitted to the Annals and that the physical and environmental sciences are still underrepresented. Potential authors have raised concerns about not knowing to which section they should submit their work. Moreover, when two section editorships were advertised last year, more than one applicant stated that they were qualified to edit either section.

The proposal to remove the section headings is made with the understanding that the creation of an editorial team that represents the breadth and integrity of the discipline should continue. It is also understood that several substantive areas of geography can reside within the expertise of each editor but no one editor can encompass the whole discipline. The proposal is to remove the confusion and containment that accrues to the establishment of section headings while maintaining the disciplinary integrity of an editorial team. The proposal is endorsed by the current four Annals editors and the two most recent past editors.

So what do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments here (you will need to use your email address but no remarks will be attributed by name); by using Twitter with hashtag #AnnalsSections, or send your thoughts and suggestions to AAG Publications Committee chair, Stuart Aitken (saitken [at] mail [dot] sdsu [dot] edu) by July 31, 2016. This is important, so do express your opinion.

By the way, I can’t help but point out that in the first graph measuring satisfaction with AAG journals, eight percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the cost of color figures and page charge costs. This is very humorous since we do not have either! Thanks for reading my columns for the last year and your generally kind comments.

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0010


Listening to Our Members: Part 1

For me, one of the best sessions at our annual meeting reported the results of our first membership survey. A stellar crew, including past presidents Julie Winkler and Mona Domosh, assembled to present a few of its key findings. Alas, it was not terrifically well-attended (Lunch time. San Francisco. Who doesn’t want to eat?) so I will follow up in this column and in next month’s with a few findings and an explanation about how Council is using these data to make our organization stronger.

The purpose of the survey, in the parlance of the consulting company we hired to conduct it, McKinley Advisors, was to, “… understand current member perceptions, to identify areas where AAG is successfully delivering value today, and to uncover opportunities to provide greater value and support to the members.” First, the good news: By and large, satisfaction, likelihood to recommend AAG membership, and perceived value of the organization are strong.

But then—McKinley used responses to sets of questions to develop what they term a Net Promoter Score (NPS), the percent of people who are promoters of AAG less the percent who are detractors. Our overall NPS is 20; 44 percent of respondents indicated they would recommend AAG membership to a geography friend or colleague while 24 percent would not. A worrying 32 percent, however, are considered passive. Indifference scares me. Even more concerning is the distribution of support across membership types: Students, both domestic and international, and retirees are net promoters (above the NPS of 20) while international and regular members are below 20. So called “regular” members score 18, international members 14. Even more worrisome is the score by membership tenure. Members for 20 years or more had a NPS of 45; members in all other categories fell below the average NPS. To know us is to love us? A second significant concern is that the NPS varies by academic focus. Self-identified human (NPS 25); coupled natural and human systems (NPS 31); and GIS, cartography, remote sensing (NPS 20) geographers exhibited higher scores than physical geographers (NPS 12).

The survey showed that satisfaction peaks for AAGers in years three to 10 of membership. Thus, we need to work to hold on to mid-career members. McKinley summarized this situation as, “Understanding the challenges, identifying solutions, and developing resources focused specifically on this key mid-career member segment is an important way to continue to ensure engagement and high-levels of satisfaction throughout the career lifecycle.” I have written before about mid-career faculty issues; we are compelled by this result to think about ways to build involvement and satisfaction in this key demographic in our organization.

In a related finding, networking and access to meetings are the primary drivers in the decision to join AAG. Sixty-four percent of respondents indicated participating in the annual meeting is the most significant factor in joining or renewing membership. We clearly need to be mindful of this as we move forward in selecting new meeting locations, venues, and accommodations to allow the largest number of geographers to participate. In a sobering finding, the survey revealed that only about a third of members felt that AAG valued their opinion. Council is taking this to heart. We have heard the complaints about travel costs and are exploring innovative ways to make the annual meeting more accessible and affordable.

The second most significant factor encouraging membership in AAG was networking with peers who have shared interests; 71 percent of you ranked specialty groups as an important benefit of membership. In addition, specialty groups were ranked highly in terms of member satisfaction, that is, most of you are pleased with the intellectual and professional benefits of being engaged in one or more specialty group(s). It is clear that specialty groups play a key role in our organization in building an essential sense of community. We have more than 60 groups focused on research such as Polar Geography, Remote Sensing, and Latin America as well as affinity groups such as the Stand-Alone Geographers and Graduate Students. While some members are concerned that the large number of specialty groups represents a lack of coherence in our discipline, others see this as an indication of our true interdisciplinarity, eclectic interests, and ability to play well with others.

Students attend an AAG Career Mentoring session at the 2016 annual meeting in which experienced geography professionals, faculty members, and advanced students provide one-on-one and small-group consultation about careers in a variety of industries and employment sectors.

And the number of specialty and affinity groups continue to climb (see instructions on how to start one). We have a group now taking the first steps to organize an affinity group for undergraduate geography majors as a way to develop a life-long sense of community for novices to our discipline. This is a way to take your student geography organizations one level forward. We hope to see a record number of undergraduate students joining AAG at the permanent rate of $39.00 a year and are planning a social event in Boston just for this group. My undergraduate students suggest a bouncy house and human-hamster-ball competitions as a draw.

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0009


Excellence in a Geography Program

One of the best parts of the annual meeting for me, as president, was the Awards Luncheon. It is a privilege to greet and honor the students and distinguished colleagues who receive the acknowledgement of their specialty groups and the discipline at large.

This year, for the first time, the Association bestowed the Program Excellence Award. The award highlights the accomplishments and health of non-PhD-granting departments and acknowledges a critical role in the discipline and the production of geographers that these departments play. The award alternates annually between BA/BS granting institutions (2016) and MA/MS granting universities (2017). The inaugural winner is the Department of Geography, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois. Receiving an honorable mention is the Geography program within the Department of Geography and Geology, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. Congratulations to the awardees and to the AAG Council for initiating this very important recognition. I hope that it leads to positive publicity for these programs and that the faculty in both institutions feel a sense of pride and accomplishment; that is certainly the intent of the award.

AAG President Sarah Bednarz presented Winifred Curran (second from left) and Alec Brownlow (far right) of DePaul U. the 2016 Program Excellence Award and an honorable mention to Dagmar Budikova (second from right) of Illinois State U.

I have asked Derek Alderman who chaired the selection committee and spearheaded the award through Council, Euan Hague of DePaul, and Dagmar Budikova, of Illinois State to share the highlights of their programs. As Alderman points out, both had periods in which they struggled and have re-bounded. There are many lessons to be learned from their experiences for programs facing similar challenges. I have taken the liberty of highlighting a few key strategies for success in the following accounts gleaned from the application materials provided by each program. This is meant to reinforce initiatives related to thriving in a time of disruption in higher education.

DePaul University Department of Geography

DePaul University, located in downtown Chicago, is a Research II institution and the nation’s largest, private, Catholic university. The Department of Geography, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, offers a B.A. in Geography as its highest degree. DePaul’s department has seven tenure-track faculty members: four men and three women. Of these, two are faculty of color, four are foreign-born, and one is a member of the LGBTQ community. Formed in 1948 as a single-person academic unit, in the late-1990s the Department was threatened with closure, having just four tenure-track faculty, two of whom were due to retire. Facing this situation, the Department set out an ambitious plan to both rejuvenate and to diversify its faculty, to attract a more diverse student body, and devise innovative curriculum and programming. The result has been a transformation in the Department’s teaching, research and disciplinary service. Over the past 10-15 years, DePaul’s Department of Geography has:

  • Diversified its faculty membership and student body;
  • Developed a curriculum that centers on urban social justice, community service, and geotechnologies;
  • Promoted the disciplinary perspectives offered by geography both on and off campus in Chicago;
  • Become a leader in the West Lakes division of the AAG (in 2015 eleven DePaul undergraduates presented at the West Lakes meetings) and contributed to national AAG leadership serving on the AAG conference’s Local Arrangements Committee;
  • Engaged in local, national and international scholarly debates and research;
  • Attracted engaged students who pursue graduate study in geography or geography-related careers; and
  • Utilized social media to maintain and advance alumni relations and engagement. Among the most popular features is “Map of the Month” which has raised the profile of the department on campus. See the latest one here.

Drawing from the teachings of St. Vincent de Paul, DePaul University pursues an urban social justice mission, which engages underserved communities. The Department’s faculty research and curriculum are theoretically robust, technologically innovative, and global in orientation and scope, albeit with a distinctively urban emphasis. DePaul’s educational model is small class sizes (capped at 25-40 students) and personal mentoring relationships between faculty and students. The faculty teaching load is six courses per academic year, spread across three 10-week academic quarters. Consequently, the Department of Geography typically offers about 18 courses per quarter and about 50 courses per year. Each faculty member teaches 4-6 different courses annually, and another 4-6 courses that they teach as needed.

In 2011, DePaul dissolved the long-existing and disciplinarily broad College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to create a new College of Science and Health (CSH) and a reconfigured College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. The Department of Geography remained in the latter where it currently serves as the largest deliverer of general education science requirement courses in this science-depleted College. The Environmental Science program is housed in CSH and offers a B.A. in Environmental Studies, resulting in a challenging degree of curricular competition. These institutional developments have encouraged the Department to refocus its mission, both to fit the needs of the University and to showcase the strengths of a geographical perspective. The department reconfigured their curriculum to deliver courses that engage with the local community and center on urban geography, GIS, and critical assessments of human-environment interactions. In the last decade, new courses have been developed strategically so that there is a geography course option that can contribute to every dimension of DePaul’s multifaceted general education ‘learning domain’ requirements. Geography faculty have led efforts to establish inter-disciplinary curricular collaborations ensuring a robust presence for geography courses in the Irish Studies Minor, the Minor in Cities and the Minor in Food Studies, the latter coordinated with Environmental Science and which will begin enrolling students in January 2016. The Department’s collaborative interdisciplinary character has also led to it taking a leadership role in providing faculty to contribute courses to DePaul’s new Master’s in Sustainable Urban Development since 2013.

Illinois State University Geography Program

Illinois State prides itself as the first stand-alone Geography department in Illinois and among the very first in the country, with four buildings on their campus named after geographers. The program is comprised of eight full-time faculty members; since 2010, Illinois State has had the highest or the second highest number of geography majors of any public university in the state. The faculty are routinely recognized for their excellence as teachers and scholars by the university, the community, and the discipline. They share a mission in educating the next generation of traditional geographers, geography teachers, and global citizens through a curriculum rooted in the liberal arts tradition that fosters experiential learning opportunities, including field studies, study abroad experiences, and professional development. The Program’s application emphasized the deep commitment of the faculty to shared governance, collegiality, and diversity.

Since the late 1980s, all of traditional geography majors have been required to complete an internship experience. This commitment has enabled over 80 percent of the program’s graduates to transition into their professional lives in careers related to geography. The geography program has a long-standing commitment to foster “a small college atmosphere with large-university opportunities” by providing “innovative curricular and co-curricular programs, strong student-faculty-staff connections, and superior student services focus on each student as an individual.” They boast a 1:10 faculty/student ratio and average junior/senior level class size of less than 20. This environment gives students opportunities to participate in high impact co-curricular activities including faculty-led research. Since 2010, over 60 students have been mentored by faculty members to produce many (29) professional presentations and numerous (14) peer-reviewed publications with students listed as authors or co-authors, including in prestigious outlets such as the Annals of the AAG, the Professional Geographer, and the Geographical Bulletin. The program is well-integrated in a multitude of programs at Illinois State through various teaching, research, and student mentorship activities and practices; geography faculty members often collaborate on research projects with geologists and work hard to ensure that geography is visible throughout the campus and community. The department maintains close relationships with alumni and have established many valuable relationships on campus, across the Bloomington-Normal community, and the discipline.

Next Award

Council hopes this will be a robust award, building capacity among institutions and providing positive models for geography departments. The upcoming cycle of the Program Excellence Award will honor a department that offers no higher than a master-level degree (MA/MS). Below is a link to the award announcement that fully explains the nomination and selection process, including deadlines. Eligible departments and programs within departments are encouraged to submit a nomination.  Program excellence may reflect the cumulative work of several years or major contributions in a shorter period of time, and criteria for evaluating nominated programs is not limited to a single characteristic.

Nominations are submitted through Regional Divisions and undergo preliminary and final stages of evaluation by the Program Award Selection Committee, the members of which are appointed by the AAG Council. If a Geography department or program is interested in participating, Heads and Chairs should reach out to the Chair/President of their respective AAG Regional Division.  Nominations can only come from Regional Divisions and the submission of nominees from each Regional Division will be the responsibility of the Chair/President of that Regional Division. Colleagues are encouraged not to put this off since preliminary nominations from Regional Divisions are due to the American Association of Geographers by June 30, 2016 to

Dagmar Budikova, Derek Alderman, and Euan Hague contributed to this column.

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0008


What We Do

As I prepare for the upcoming Council meeting in San Francisco at the end of this month, it occurs to me that none of my columns has focused on the actual workings of Council and the talented professional staff of the Association. Many of you are not aware of our activities but this column is an excellent opportunity to provide a few examples and to seek your reactions and engagement.

Example 1: Student Representation on Council

The Council meets as a whole twice each year, once in the fall and at the annual meeting in the spring. The Executive Committee (past president, president, vice president, executive director, treasurer, and secretary) meet a couple of weeks before Council to set the agenda, discuss critical issues, and to ensure that the organization is achieving the goals set forth in our Long-Range Plan (more on that later).

At the fall meeting which coincided with SWAAG in San Antonio, the student representative to Council, Sara Diamond, University of Texas Ph.D. candidate, brought forward a request that AAG consider adopting the student representative position as a formal member of the AAG council with full voting rights. After a brief discussion, we appointed a task force to examine the issue including Councillors Julie Cidell (West Lakes), Patrick Lawrence (East Lakes), and Greg Pope (National Councillor). This group, joined by Brian Williams, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia and current president of the Graduate Student Affinity Group (GSAG), talked via phone in February. Sara and Brian made a persuasive argument; students make up 39 percent of AAG membership (4,546 out of a total 11,735 in 2015) and this number is expected to grow. It is important that there is formal representation of student interests both for council decision making and as a symbol of AAG’s commitment to all of its members. Student perspectives often differ from faculty, and a student voice on the council may provide ideas and ask questions not thought of by current council members. And then they hit the core argument: a formal council position that represents current student voices will help AAG to stay relevant to student and early career members.

We asked questions to clarify goals and procedures. I reported that Doug Richardson, our Executive Director, assured me that individual ballots could be sent to student members (both undergraduate and graduate). The group felt that all students should be represented by a single voting member, assuming that graduate students would have the greatest stake and thus likelihood of election but understanding that whoever was elected would have the responsibility to represent both graduate and undergraduate students.

We eventually agreed that this student representative could follow the same role, nomination, and election procedures as a National Councillor, that is, this could be considered a national councillor particularly representing students. Nominations could be handled just as for other national AAG offices with the expectation that a student member be added and elected to the Nomination Committee eventually. It would be a two-year position, thus nominees would have to be students for at least 1.5 years of the two-year term.

This is proposed as a description of the role of a student councillor that will be taken up by Council later this month:

The AAG Student Councillor is charged to act as a representative, liaison, and coordinator of activities among students at all levels, with Council and the AAG Office; attend and participate in AAG Council Meetings; report AAG Council actions and initiatives to students; and develop ideas for promoting and maintaining student membership in the AAG.

Of course, this means that if approved, the Constitution will have to be amended. Stay tuned for further discussion. And let me and your regional and national councillors know what you think about this issue.

Example 2: Dues Structure

Members may not be aware that AAG dues are only 13 percent of our total income (see the accompanying graphic). We have a very progressive dues structure based on income, but this may disadvantage us in terms of retaining members as they transition from school to initial employment in the public sector or as an assistant professor or a post-doctoral position. This hypothesis is supported by the results of the membership survey conducted by the consultancy McKinley Associates. Building on this finding, vice-president Glen MacDonald asked graduate students in his group to reflect on membership issues and prepare a report. Their conclusion was that the cost of AAG student membership dues and meetings may be too prohibitive for full and consistent engagement with the organization.

When the Executive Committee met in mid-February, we discussed the membership survey and related issues. To what extent are annual student dues a revenue generator for AAG? Can recent graduates be eased gradually into a professional membership fee? Can AAG enhance its travel grants and work-study program to subsidize student participation in the annual meeting? Is this an opportunity to strengthen the intellectual value of regional meetings that are frequently more affordable?

We asked Doug Richardson and Meridian Place staff to carefully examine the dues structure and related issues; the Membership Committee under the leadership of Shawn Hutchinson (Great Plains-Rocky Mountains) is also examining policy changes. We will analyze the data and proposals in San Francisco with an eye toward retaining membership at the lower end of the dues structure while not bleeding those at the upper end. What do you think? And to learn more about the membership survey, please plan to attend the survey session on Friday, April 1, at 11:40 in Golden Gate 1, Hilton. All will be revealed, no joke!

Example 3: Graduate Education

At the fall meeting, Sara Diamond on behalf of graduate students, asked Council and the Association to endorse a series of best practices to guide departments in their relations with graduate students. This is a very interesting idea but Council felt the list of practices as presented needed deeper consideration; some of the requests are beyond the scope of any individual department to provide, for example, access to affordable housing. Sue Roberts, National Councillor, and I are working with Sara to redraft a document consisting of two parts, one for departments to use as guidance when they develop their own programs and one for students to use as they make the decision about where to attend graduate school. These documents should be extremely useful in ensuring that departments are healthy for students as well as faculty. What are your thoughts?

In each of these examples I hope I have highlighted some of the ways Council and staff work to improve our organization and discipline. To conclude, I’d like to refer you to the AAG Long-Range Plan. A copy of this document will be in each bag at the annual meeting. It is our touchstone as we move forward and I wish to highlight it here as another example of the work of once and future Council members.

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0006


Bias and Consideration

Now is the winter of our discontent. I have always liked that line, the first of King Richard III. I know it is not really about winter, but it has always evoked for me the vaguely uncomfortable feeling I have during this season. It is cold, the days are short, and all I want to do is hibernate. But here in Texas we are seeing the first signs of spring. Yes, at the end of January. The robins are back, passing through on their way north; the narcissuses are about to bloom; and the trees are budding. Hope is in the air as I write this column. So let me write about two different topics, hiring and award selection. I promise to end each topic with an optimistic twist.

Budding oak tree, January 30, 2016, College Station, Texas

First, I am conscious of the anxiety and discontent of many young geographers who are completing their dissertations (stressful enough on its own) and applying for academic positions or other employment. Hiring is one of the most important things that a department does and yet we often do it without much reflection or consideration of the applicants. Tradition drives the process and I think we become a little callous. After all, we have been through the process ourselves and survived. In the last few months, as I have traveled and talked to many young people, I have heard incredible hiring stories. The Chronicle of Higher Education has had a series of columns about hiring entitled, “Academic Job Hunts from Hell” that confirm what I have heard, especially about faux searches, that is, searches with a favored internal candidate, and cringe-worthy, uncomfortable job interviews fraught with illegal (and downright offensive) personal questions and comments. It occurs to me that we may not be conscious of how inconsiderate—or inappropriate—we are.

We are also not conscious of the forms of implicit bias we practice in the hiring process. Project Implicit, a research project housed at Harvard, offers a series of tests and resources related to implicit bias. We are all biased, but these tests help us to understand our predilections or shortcomings. The classic study, Why So Slow by Virginia Valian, is a great resource for all geography faculty engaged in hiring. Too often we self-censor our selection process. We think, for example, a single young woman won’t be “happy” in a small, remote college town, so don’t select that person. We reject individuals who we perceive won’t “fit” early in the process rather than leaving it up to the applicant to make a decision. So we have two issues: inconsiderate hiring practices and inherent biases in hiring procedures.

The positive twist here is that there are resources and guides to assist in the process. Nothing will stop some of your colleagues from asking awkward questions or being biased, implicitly or explicitly, but you can work to improve the process for everyone. A recent Chronicle article, The Art of Rejection, offers suggestions about how to write a kind and gentle rejection letter, for example. In addition, the Job Hunts from Hell series, while written from the perspective of applicants, offers sage advice for the interviewers. Finally, the NSF-funded ADVANCE program at the University of Michigan is a treasure trove of best practices in hiring, including applicant and candidate evaluation forms. The use of uniform assessments in the hiring process is one proven way to counter bias.

Second, and related to my comments about bias, I received generally positive responses to my suggestion to initiate an AAG Fellows honors program. Several people, however, expressed concerns about equity and equality in the selection process. How will this not perpetuate existing elites, I was challenged. Can we formulate a program that truly recognizes a range of contributions to our profession? As part of the program proposal development, I have researched other professions’ programs and resources related to equity in selection of professional awards. The American Psychological Association hosts workshops at its annual meetings to assist Fellows nominees and to train selection committees. The University of Michigan provides a particularly useful document outlining both the principles that should guide award selection processes and best practices. The principles include fairness, inclusiveness, and accountability. To ensure equity, if this program is initiated, we will have to ensure that the pool of nominees is as broad as possible, and not just “the usual suspects.” Another key principle will be education to counter bias. We will have to ensure that the group of people making the selection process are prepared to grapple with their personal, academic, and institutional prejudices.

It is here that best practices come into play. We will have to appoint or elect a diverse selection committee, specify clear criteria for selection, and have a process that is open and transparent, with multiple ways for individuals to be nominated. The decision-making process will have to abide by the stated principles, be thoughtful, inclusive, and respect the perspectives of all committee members. I am writing this, which is probably obvious, to let you know that Council will be taking all of these ideas into account when they consider a Fellows Program. So the positive twist is that while prejudice and bias persists, there are strategies and resources to work against their pernicious effects. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0003


New Year, New Name, New Proposal

I am writing this column on the first day of the new year. Effective January 1, 2016, the AAG will begin to operate under the name “American Association of Geographers,” rather than “Association of American Geographers.” The membership voted overwhelmingly in both 2014 and 2015 to make this change. The name “American Association of Geographers” is a registered “DBA” or “doing business as” name. Using a DBA name does not require the AAG to change the association’s prior name, and both names can legally be used by the association. The new name will be phased in over the next year.

I know some members are not happy about the change but it is, in fact, a recognition that our organization has changed. We have substantial membership from outside the United States. Our annual meeting is enlivened with participants from around the world. Our journals invite submissions from geographers everywhere and we publish the abstracts in multiple languages. We are an international organization that is located in the United States. The name reflects who we have become. Of course this means a new logo and some adjustments over time. And it means that at some point we may wish to re-think our systems of representation to acknowledge our growing internationalism. We have regional councillors, national councillors—do we need international councillors? That is an agenda item for another president, not me.

There is always a great deal of chatter among geography departments about our names. The Department Heads listserv had a lively conversation some months ago about re-branding departments through name changes, adding words that resonate today with students such as “environment” and “sustainability.” Sometimes name changes reflect significant revision of degree plans, program foci, and a renewed sense of departmental mission. But too often these are simply superficial attempts to attract new enrollees, via relabeling versus offering an improved program or experience. To return to my presidential theme of healthy departments, any change that takes place in a department should be organic and positive, not reactive, something that inspires cohesion, offers faculty and staff an opportunity to reflect and to develop a shared sense of mission.

A young colleague recently sent me a copy of a column written by John C. Hudson in the Journal of Geography in 1984 (83 (3) 100-101) entitled Geography’s Image Crisis. John’s first line is, “Has there been a time when geography was not in crisis?” He goes on to recount some of the “dire predictions” about academic geography to make the point that geography will persist because of peoples’ natural curiosity about the world, writing, “The subject and its practitioners are not one and the same, yet we nearly always confuse the two when we speak about the future of geography.” To be frank, it is our livelihoods that concern us when we fret about geography. And our concern with the image of geography? Hudson criticizes “new aggressivism” to advance the status of the discipline, and decries attempts to justify our existence based on our value to society. But in a section that I think is prescient, he writes:

Perhaps we go too far in making ourselves subservient to rewards invented to make bureaucracies function efficiently. We confuse good teaching with awards for good teaching. We confuse good research with money given for research, and then mistake publication for evidence of scholarship. We confuse accomplishment with medals our brothers and sisters vote us certifying our accomplishments. When recognition becomes the goal, then we set our priorities accordingly.

Keeping in mind Hudson’s sage observations, we are increasingly measured; awards, grants, and publications count in ways that they did not in the past, collected and sorted through rating services like Academic Analytics. We faculty are benchmarked, discipline by discipline, to compare universities and colleges based on a range of criteria, one of which is “honorific awards bestowed upon faculty members.” This situation places pressure on faculty and departments to seek awards that are included in the Academic Analytic database. It will benefit geographers in relation to our peers if we can expand the number of honors geographers receive. Whether we like it or not—and Hudson does an excellent job pointing out the inherent fallacies in the system—we do have to be concerned about our status as individuals and departments. One can rage against the system, but we must also be clever about working within it for survival. It is self-serving, but it is the environment in which we work. And in geography a paucity of “recognized” awards are available for us to win.

AAG honors its outstanding members in a number of specific categories through an organized nomination and award process overseen by elected members of the Honors Committee. This year we are honoring about 12 individuals, a very small number given our size. Additional awards are made through the specialty groups but the number, types, and prestige of these awards is uneven. Unlike many other professional organizations, we do not have an overarching, broader-based Fellows Program. This places geographers at a disadvantage in relation to colleagues in other disciplines in achieving status at our institutions and, consequently, in national and international organizations such as the National Academies.

I have proposed the development of an AAG Fellows program similar in scope and selectivity to Fellows programs in other organizations such as AAAS and AGU. The purpose of a Fellow Program would be to recognize the significant contributions to advancing geography of a larger group of geographers. The definition of contribution would be very broad and could include service to the AAG; outstanding teaching and mentoring that impacts the profession; innovative administration in academe, government, and industry; novel and sustained research; and outreach that communicates the importance and value of geography to the public. The definition of significant would have to be specified as well, that this exceptional honor is reserved for a limited number of members of AAG.

If we begin such a program, we would simply be following other professional associations. The American Mathematical Society initiated a new program in 2011, partly to “…make mathematicians more competitive for awards, promotion and honors when they are being compared with colleagues from other disciplines.” A proposal to Council is under development. I think it is a good idea but I would like to hear from you. I am mindful of voices like that of John Hudson (who I count as a friend), who concludes his article, “If geography faces a crisis today it is an inner crisis, an impoverishment of the spirit, and one that has come from listening to those who advocate aggrandizement rather than accomplishment.” An AAG Fellows program would have to be about honoring accomplishment.

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0001


A New Year’s Resolution

The fall semester is coming to an end and the new year is approaching. It is the season for reflection and resolution setting. What went well in my classes and research this semester? What do I need to tweak before offering the class again? What resources do I need to keep my research going? What new “thing” did my students come up with that I need to be mindful of as I plan for the spring? These are the ruminations of a seasoned professor. I know some of my younger colleagues are just too panicked about the chaos of teaching (and research and service) to have much time to consider their successes, strengths, challenges, and flaws. We geographers have paid close attention to early career faculty, primarily through the Geography Faculty Development Alliance and three excellent publications Practicing GeographyAspiring Academics, and Teaching College Geography (available through the AAG Bookstore). This has been enormously helpful in producing a generation of young, astute, and savvy geographers. However, a group we have not paid much attention to is mid- and late-career faculty.

This is true across higher education. There is very little professional development to assist faculty after they receive tenure, and little has been written about strategies to support senior colleagues. Mid-career faculty especially face significant emotional and professional challenges. Institutions invest considerable resources to start careers but then, post-tenure, the training wheels are off and faculty are supposed to be successful in obtaining their own research funding. Early career faculty are often protected from service, but then, as associate professors, they are magically expected to become effective, engaged committee members and managers of academic programs. Many crumple under the high expectations placed on them by their departments, complaining that after tenure more work is dumped on them. In some instances mid-career faculty can feel neglected, receiving less attention and feedback, either positive or negative. The initial relief at gaining tenure can lead to dismay, a feeling of ennui, epitomized by the thought, “Now, what do I do?” Setting realistic career goals about the kinds of research to conduct and courses to teach can be daunting. This is a time of change—and there is little support, advice, or counseling available to assist. It is also a particularly problematic stage of career for women and other underrepresented members of faculties. Decisions about family, service, types of scholarship to engage in, and other concerns become more significant. While some faculty are able to embark on the path to the next hurdle—to become a full professor—many drift.

Senior faculty present challenges of a different sort to departments and universities who are tasked with keeping their workforce dynamic and productive. As their fervor to conduct research wanes, many older faculty may not be as productive as they once were. In a traditional sense, they may not contribute to their department’s “metrics” as they did. Many experienced faculty feel free to seek new experiences including different types of teaching; others assume interests in faculty governance and administration. Still others take on the role of the department curmudgeon. And while many senior faculty are still at the top of their game, some face the vagaries of age including diminishing energy, and are, thus, less able to carry on full duties. Unfortunately, few administrators are able to deal with such sensitive circumstances.

Whatever they decide to do, increasingly senior faculty are not deciding to retire. TIAA-CREF reports that while one-third of tenured faculty over 50 years of age expect to retire by a “normal” age, fully two-thirds plan to work past normal retirement age. The implications of this are worth careful consideration. Senior faculty can be divided into three groups according to the report Understanding the Faculty Retirement (Non) Decision (TIAA-CREF Institute 2015): “traditional retirees” who expect to retire at the normal age (35 percent); “reluctantly reluctant” faculty who would like to retire at the normal age but feel compelled to work longer, usually for financial reasons (16 percent); and the “reluctant by choice” who want to work past normal retirement age (49 percent). Interestingly a higher percentage of women faculty are traditional retirees (48 percent to men 31 percent) and many fewer fall into the reluctant by choice category, 37 percent versus 53 percent for men.

So this is the situation. I am not sure why we have paid so little attention to our mid- and late-career faculty but I have begun my own one-person campaign to try to encourage us to begin to invest time and energy into this area. The topic will be on the agenda for the Healthy Departments Leadership Workshop this summer at the University of Tennessee; we will explore promising practices suggested in the literature that does exist. If you are interested in some of these strategies, please contact me and I will share the resources I have with you.

And while managing faculty is a special concern for department heads/chairs and other administrators, it is also something we who care about our colleagues need to be invested in. And that should be all of us. We all play a role in the psychological health of our workplaces. We all need to reach out to our fellow geographers, talk to them, encourage them to develop plans to move forward, to network to gain new skills, to retool, refocus, and restructure their lives as needed. We all need to be advocates for mid- and late-career faculty and to treat them with dignity. How is that for a New Year’s Resolution?

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0001


Undergraduate Education: Let’s Pay Attention

I think the best part about being president of the AAG is attending the regional meetings. I have traveled to East Lakes at Kent State University; West Lakes at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; and the Pacific Coast Geographers in Palm Springs, Calif. Thanks to all of you involved in these meetings for your hospitality and attention. This month I will attend two additional divisional meetings:—the Southwest Division (SWAAG) in San Antonio, Texas, and the Southeast Division (SEDAAG) in Pensacola, Fla. The meetings I missed, RMGP, NESTVAL, and Middle States, have been covered by my AAG colleagues, Glen MacDonald, Mona Domosh, and Melissa Gilbert. Thanks!

I say this is the best part because it has given me the opportunity to talk to a wide range of geographers—faculty, of course, but also undergraduate and graduate students, representing a broad spectrum of institutions, from community colleges to private undergraduate institutions to Research 1 schools. When I talk to faculty we usually share a number of concerns related to the theme of survival in a time of disruption in higher education. On a daily basis, I observe my colleagues across the country deal with external and internal pressures related to recruiting and retaining students, building strong programs, harmonizing personal and professional demands, balancing research and teaching, and coping with having to do more with less. I have thought of this as a listening tour, trying to sense what members across the spectrum need from our organization. This is a serious endeavor, and I have tried to interact and reflect as much as possible. Many of our fellow geographers are thinking deeply about our discipline, higher education, and best ways to situate ourselves in a shifting landscape.

When I talk to students, however, I get a huge blast of energy. It is refreshing because the students who attend regional meetings are so enthusiastic, idealistic, and yes, refreshingly naïve. They are happy to be geographers, to have a sense of the importance and power of their major, and to belong to a discipline and organization that cares about them. The student paper and poster presentations have been impressive; and while I am not enthusiastic about academic competitions, many students seem very motivated by relatively modest monetary awards for “best.” Kudos to the faculty who nurture these students (particularly undergraduates), who bring them to regional meetings, who carefully mentor them on how to get the most from a professional academic meeting; and who have to supervise them while away from campus. You are heroes!

Our association has done ground-breaking work promoting the study of graduate education over the last decade; research by Foote, Monk, Schlemper, Solem and others has assisted in reforming conditions of postgraduate studies. This work has helped to position us well vis-à-vis the challenges geography faces around the world in preparing M.S. and Ph.D. graduates. A recent issue of GeoJournal ( critically examines the status of the Ph.D. degree in geography and suggests trajectories for the degree (shameless plug: it will serve as the basis of a panel discussion at SWAAG in which I will participate). Paying attention to advanced degrees will continue to be important to geography and all higher education, especially as B.S./B.A. degrees lose their value in relation to M.S./M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in terms of employment and compensation. However, I think it is time to draw some attention to undergraduate education in geography.

Why undergraduate education? There is a rich and lively research literature about undergraduate education both in the liberal arts and STEM fields. Much of it is often alarming and captures public attention; consider books like Academically Adrift (Arum and Roska 2011) and How College Affects Students (Pascarella and Terenzini 2005). But even without being sensationalistic, there are a number of significant questions for which we have few answers: What do students learn in college? Is it worth the investment to send a student to college? Can we make claims that students learn to think critically, or become more qualified citizens, or are more employable, as a result of their education? We have ideas obtained from explorations of some disciplines, but nothing concrete to report for geography. What is the value added of a geography degree? Who decides to become a geography major—and why? Are we an open and accessible major or do we discourage inclusivity in some instances. Why are only about 30 percent of the graduating geography B.S./B.A. majors women? And in terms of other diversity measures, where are we and what can we do about it?

I believe we need to pay careful attention to undergraduate education in geography to strengthen our research base and to make the case to students, their parents, administrators, and others that geography is a worthwhile investment, financially and intellectually. AAG has inaugurated a special award to recognize outstanding undergraduate- and masters-level geography departments. This might be an ideal place to start. A number of B.A./B.S. programs have been nominated from the Association’s Regional Divisions: what can we glean about preparing successful students and best practices from these nominations? I asked Derek Alderman, University of Tennessee, who is chairing the award process. He writes:

“Exemplary programs are often united in providing their undergraduate students with opportunities for public partnerships, internships, and service-based learning that address social and environmental issues near and dear to their local communities. The faculty of nominated programs frequently engage students in travel and study abroad, demonstrating that geography plays a critical role in the ongoing internationalization efforts of today’s campuses. A hallmark of outstanding undergraduate-focused departments is how they embrace the development of students as professional leaders, often using their connections with alumni, industry, public agencies, and other universities to cultivate internship placements, job opportunities after graduation, and scholarship and fellowship opportunities. Importantly, excellent programs do not focus simply on teaching but maintain a balance between the pursuit of scholarship and student learning mentorship, and these departments are frequently characterized by a culture of undergraduate research experiences.”

What do you think? As President Obama just wrote, “If you’ve got thoughts on this topic, I want to hear them.”

DOI: 10.14433/2015.0027



AAG at the Forefront of Geography Education Change

I will keep this column relatively brief because I want you to read a companion piece by Michael Solem, Director of Educational Research and Programs for AAG. In my August column I identified eight actions that I see as key to healthy geography departments: teach, promote, build, innovate, nurture, manage, reflect, and envision. In my September column I wrote about the essential need for us to teach effectively. Since then, an article published in the New York Times Sunday Review summarized research on the positive effects of active learning (defined as “…increased structure, feedback, and interaction prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.”). This article, engagingly entitled “Are College Lectures Unfair?” generated a fair amount of buzz and comment from the public and from my geography friends on Facebook and other social media. People care about good teaching. In a time when higher education is under close scrutiny, this is important to remember. It is good to reflect on one’s teaching practices, in both undergraduate and graduate courses, and try new strategies. It is also important to communicate clearly with our constituencies that we do care about our teaching as much as our research. It is part of promoting ourselves.

And promotion is the theme of this column—and many more to come. I want to begin a conversation about ways to promote our discipline. It is not likely that we will see an editorial like this that appeared in The Guardian on August 13, 2015 in the United States. It calls geography, “a subject for our times” and presents a rich and nuanced description of the range of things geographers do, noting particularly, our employability. So we need to start the buzz on our own. Linking employability with cool spatial technologies may catch the attention of the public.

AAG is leading two initiatives to promote geography at the intersection of geospatial technologies and education. The first is the AAG GeoMentors Program. The program, a partnership with Esri, creates a network of knowledgeable GIS users and educators to support the White House’s ConnectED Initiative. The overall goal of ConnectEd is to provide every school in the United States with high speed wireless connections and new technologies to enhance learning. To support ConnectED, Esri is donating ArcGIS Online access to all K-12 schools in the United States. But teachers and curriculum supervisors need support to integrate this powerful geographic tool into the classroom. GeoMentors volunteer to provide this support, working with their community’s schools. Doug Richardson, AAG Executive Director, has written a series of four columns for ArcNews outlining the GeoMentor Program and encouraging geographers and others to “Give Back” by helping to mentor the next generation of geographically literate citizens. As Doug and AAG project manager Candice Luebbering have pointed out, this program is flexible.

Current GeoMentors Network; Source: Esri

As a GeoMentor you may advocate for inclusion of GIS and related geographic concepts in science and social science curricula in your local schools by speaking at a School Board meeting or working face-to-face with a team of teachers and their students on a field-based project using GPS and GIS technologies. The program will provide support and educational resources so you can learn from other GeoMentors and program facilitators. Please consider adding your expertise in geography to promote this effort and our discipline. To become a GeoMentor, go to

The second initiative to promote geography is a Geography Education National Implementation Project (GENIP)-funded initiative to develop an Advanced Placement® Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIS&T) course. Advanced Placement® Human Geography (which I have written about before) is a huge success story. Last year more than 163,000 students took the course and the exam; about half scored well enough to get college credit. They will be coming to your institutions in the next few years seeking additional geography classes. College Board is very interested in expanding its offerings from traditional topics such as Chemistry, English, and United States History and moving into more technical fields. Next year, a new AP® course, Computer Science Principles, will launch. An offering in Engineering is under consideration. Certainly a GIS&T course would be a brilliant way to promote geography. Michael Solem’s article presents the case and outlines the first steps taken in this direction. Please read it.

My last thought: this initiative illustrates the way AAG is taking an active (and proactive) role to promote geography. I look forward to hearing from you about ways you are promoting geography in your institution or community and ways you think AAG as an organization can assist.

DOI: 10.14433/2015.0025


Do The Right Thing

It is that time of the year again. I hear the scurry of my colleagues sorting through old folders, re-organizing class notes. The copy machine is chugging along, spewing syllabi. The line outside the IT staff office is long with instructors seeking assistance in posting to their websites or the campus learning management system. The odd student is lurking, interested in changing his or her schedule or seeking advice on courses to take. Anticipation is in the air. A fresh start. The angst of the first class.

Alas, for too many of my fellow geographers the start of the teaching season is greeted with groans. It means less time for research. Earlier this year I read a particularly bitter yet entertaining commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jacques Berlinerblau entitled Teach or Perish. In his broad ranging rant about higher education, Berlinerblau makes a few points that resonate with me. First, he writes, “Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students. The decision…has resulted in one whopper of a contradiction. While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.” He proceeds to explain that teaching is often considered “a burden” and concludes, “…we need to demonstrate that professors are deeply invested in, and committed to, the minds of undergraduates.” I cannot agree more.

As I recounted in my previous column, this is a time of disruption in higher education. I identified eight actions key to the health of geography. The first was teach. By teach, I mean departments and individual faculty must become fully engaged in the teaching mission of their organizations. We need to care about what we are teaching (see Mona Domosh’s previous presidential column on curriculum, how we are teaching, and the impacts of our teaching. This is an essential element to establish a healthy reputation in your institution; deans love robust enrollments.

One of the principles of teaching and learning is that students enjoy learning and, perform better, when they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated to achieve. The same is true for instructors. It should be a matter of personal satisfaction to know that what you are doing with your students is important, positive, and rewarding to both you and them. Recently, a Gallup survey revealed that a college graduate’s satisfaction in, and engagement with, their career is related to the nature of their engagement in college, specifically whether they perceived an instructor cared about them, motivated them to learn, and encouraged them to follow their dreams. I don’t think we realize the effects we have on our pupils. Often only in the twilight of our careers do we get positive feedback from former students. But the Gallup research indicates that the experiences we shape for our students influence them for the rest of their lives. The implications are enormous for us as educators. But they are also relevant to individuals engaged in fund-raising and department development initiatives. Graduates who reflect fondly on their college intellectual experiences are more likely to recommend your program to others or contribute time and money to your institution.

A second argument for making teaching valued is reproducing ourselves. Despite small increases in first-time-in-college students entering geography programs, we are still a discovery major. We will survive only as we are able to attract the best and the brightest students through excellent, exciting, and challenging teaching. We need to intentionally capture students in the general education classes that for many of us are the bread and butter of our programs. And as we teach we need to be mindful of the values of a liberal education, defined by the AAC&U as an, “approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society), as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.” This sounds like an argument to require geography in every general education program to me.

Teaching is both an art and a science. We know what works (and what doesn’t) to facilitate student learning. There are a number of carefully researched, evidence-based initiatives to improve undergraduate teaching and learning, particularly in the sciences. But their findings are applicable to good teaching in the social sciences and humanities as well. Most recently, in a comment in Nature, a group of educational leaders reported on the results of an AAU initiative to improve undergraduate science education. I urge you to peruse this article. The list of concrete strategies to improve practice begins by asserting the importance of a bottom up approach, “Effective teaching begins with faculty members who maintain significant autonomy over their practices. Most care deeply about teaching, in addition to their strong interest in research.” Other recommendations include increasing scientific and reflective teaching and student engagement in learning; making teaching count for promotion and tenure; and recognizing and rewarding good teaching.

And there’s the rub. We geographers must press for a true valuation of teaching; it is good for us personally and professionally for the reasons I outlined above. At my own institution we have prestigious professorships in teaching excellence. However, these do not accrue the same status as distinguished research professorships. It is hard to understand. Or maybe not. In any event, at the beginning of a new school year, perhaps we should all think about how important teaching is, and remember Da Mayor’s admonition, “Always do the right thing.” Teaching well IS the right thing.

DOI: 10.14433/2015.0024