Welcoming a New President to AAG: Interview with Rebecca Lave

Illustration of gavel with digital lines and points. Credit: Conny Schneider, Unsplash
Credit: Conny Schneider, Unsplash

Photo of Marilyn Raphael by Ashley Kruythoff, UCLA

For the last President’s Column of her term, President Marilyn Raphael sat down to interview incoming President Rebecca Lave about her experiences within the discipline and her aspirations for her upcoming leadership at AAG. The following conversation offers insight into the new directions for the 2023-24 presidency. 

MR: What brought you to geography, Rebecca? 

RL: I came into geography from a rather naïve understanding that geography was the place that put physical science and social science together, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and think about the political economy of stream restoration and how policy physically changes the landscape. I wanted a discipline where I could really understand and focus on the interaction of physical and social forces. It felt to me like geography was the obvious place to go for that. This was for my PhD; my earlier degrees were not in geography. 

So I applied and I got in, and then I went to my first committee meeting, where they were quite shocked and not pleased that I wanted to do physical geography coursework. But because there were physical geographers in the department and I knew them, I could go to them and ask if I could take their classes, and they said yes. So it did end up working out, but there was an initial shock of discovering that the field of geography was actually more balkanized than I had understood from the outside. 

I think that it’s very helpful that I was 30 when I started my PhD. I took time to do other things between high school and college, and college and my masters, and masters and my PhD. So it meant that when my initial committee said no, I thought, “Well, you’re not the boss of me. (Laughter from both) I’m here for my own intellectual path, and I’m going to figure out how to do what I want to do.” I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do that at age 21—speaking just about myself at 21.  

MR: I had a similar experience from the opposite side when I took a political geography course in graduate school. The human geography professor was very welcoming, and it became one of my favorite classes. My physical geography professors wondered aloud — why was I doing this? I didn’t get the pushback that you did, Rebecca, because I didn’t ask permission, I just signed up. It’s so interesting to see the kneejerk responses from the two sides of the discipline. 

MR: What would you tell students about what makes geography so relevant to the questions and issues of the day? 

RL: The first thing I tell students is that geography is the field that has the most intellectual freedom of any part of the academy. To me the beautiful part about geography is that you have no excuse for ever being bored. Every week, when you go into colloquium, you’re hearing about something totally different and outside of the normal academic arena that you’re used to, and I love that about geography.  

I can’t think of a really pressing issue in the world today that geographers don’t study.  

In addition to the intellectual freedom, geographers are talking about everything from urban environmental justice to migration and immigration to natural hazards to causes of and responses to climate change. I can’t think of a really pressing issue in the world today that geographers don’t study. And that, to me, makes it an incredibly vital discipline. 

MR: Yes, I have to agree with you. What prompted you to run for office in the AAG? 

RL: It was not something I’d ever considered doing. I was quite surprised when I got the email from the nominating committee, asking me to talk to them about running for the presidency. I thought about it for a while and thought it was only worth doing if I had a serious intervention I wanted to make — and in fact, I have two — so on the basis of that, I decided to run. But it was quite unexpected for me. 

MR: Do you want to say more about what those interventions were? 

RL: The first is that for the future of geography as an institution and intellectually, it’s important to have multiple strong bridges that connect human and physical geography. I think we already have one strong one in land change science, but until pretty recently, I would say that land change science hasn’t incorporated the more critical end of human geography. So one of my goals in running for AAG president was to promote more interdisciplinary bridges in geography. 

The second intervention I want to make springs from having heard repeatedly from younger scholars and graduate students that they wanted to do community-engaged work but the penalties for doing so were so strong in terms of time to completion of dissertation, in terms of number of publications for tenure, all these things that stood in the way of doing community-engaged work.  

One of my goals in running for AAG president was to promote more interdisciplinary bridges in geography.

Because those kinds of community-oriented, justice-based work are so important to me, I felt really saddened by that. So my second big initiative is to encourage AAG and anglophone geography more broadly to open up avenues to value and protect public and engaged scholarship. 

MR: What would you say to a member considering volunteering? 

RL: The first thing I would say is, even if you are coming from a department that hasn’t been involved before, the door is much more open than it looks from the outside. There are a number of avenues for getting involved, starting at the task force and committee level, then moving on to Council. I would really encourage it, because the organization is only as strong as the people it involves and the representation it achieves. I have now learned from being involved that it’s worth it, and really important to all of our futures in the field to support the organization that we belong to. 

The second thing I would say is that it’s very interesting [to volunteer for AAG]. That’s another reason to do it! I have learned a whole lot about how AAG works. Also, the other councilors are coming from so many different institutions and regions, and I am learning so much about what geography looks like at other institutions inside and outside academia. That’s been really great. 

MR: I really appreciate having been able to serve. I think, as you said, service to the organization is really important. It’s for us: the organization supports us, and we support it. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Now, my last question is what initiatives and projects you are most excited about right now? 

RL: I’ll say four things. 

First, I continue to be really excited about the work of the Climate Action Task Force. I’ve become a member of that task force and I will be working on ways to continue to make AAG less impactful on the climate. 

Second, with the hiring of Risha Berry as the new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at AAG, there will be a lot of exciting stuff happening around diversity and inclusion, and I am excited to keep pushing on that and helping support it. 

Then, on things that I am taking more of a lead on, we started a Task Force on Public and Engaged Scholarship six months ago with the goal of doing several things: 

  • Developing an AAG policy in support of public and engaged scholarship as a legitimate form of geography research. 
  • Developing sample guidelines for tenure and promotion and for graduate theses and dissertations that departments could adopt or tailor to their own purposes, that value and protect public and engaged scholarship. 
  • Creating similar documents for non-academic organizations such as research agencies or nonprofits that do that kind of work. How do we better support public and engaged scholarship in personnel reviews? 
  • Reaching out to federal funding agencies who are increasingly encouraging researchers to include some element of public and engaged scholarship in their work but may not be as clear on what a good project looks like. 

Finally, as part of being Vice President, I visited the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and graduate students there suggested having a day at AAG with a stream of events that is just for undergraduates and early graduate students to focus on things like professionalization and the many things you can do with a geography degree. This is a way both to support our students and to build ties across physical-human geography divides because everyone would be in the same workshops and getting to meet people from other campuses. This is a common sort of event at peer organizations, and it seems like something AAG could do. 

MR: Thank you for sharing your vision with us, Rebecca. I know this is going to be a great year. 

RL: Thank you!  

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 raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.


Member Vote to Approve AAG Constitution and Bylaws in July

During the AAG Business Meeting on March 23, 2003, AAG Executive Director Gary Langham announced that AAG members would be asked to vote on amendments to the AAG Constitution and Bylaws. The ballot will be sent electronically to members in early July.

The current AAG Constitution and Bylaws requires changes to bring it into compliance with current legal standards, including updated descriptions of AAG leadership roles. The current documents have been in effect for decades and the AAG Council has voted to approve these amendments to modernize our governance practices and enable AAG to become a more nimble organization. Members who would like to receive a review copy of the proposed changes may send a request to membership@aag.org.


Connecting with Our Community to Bridge Divides and Raise Our Voices

Marilyn Raphael and her panelists Tianna Bruno, Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes and Kelly Kay posed for a photo after the 2023 AAG Presidential Plenary, Toward More Just Geographies. Credit: Becky Pendergast, AAG
Marilyn Raphael and her panelists Tianna Bruno, Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes and Kelly Kay posed for a photo after the 2023 AAG Presidential Plenary, Toward More Just Geographies. Credit: Becky Pendergast, AAG

Photo of Marilyn Raphael by Ashley Kruythoff, UCLA

It is now almost a month since our Annual Meeting in Denver concluded and I can still feel the glow. More than 6,000 AAG members converged on Denver ready to re-engage with their geography family. We were at first tentative about being with people in person, yet eager to restart the social-intellectual experiment that these meetings embody. I met many more members than I would normally — not simply old friends and colleagues, as delightful as that was, but also new members, in particular, early career geographers (students, postdocs). Everyone, from seasoned AAG members to brand-new ones to AAG staff, expressed to me how happy they were to be meeting and to be in conversation with each other.

I’ll mention three (of many) special moments:

There was one conversation that I overheard while having a quiet coffee, in which the members were saying how much they were enjoying the meeting, expressing the excitement of realizing that the author whose work you were citing in your presentation was actually sitting in the audience and that the meeting was totally worth the effort that it took to get there. I couldn’t help myself I had to go over and introduce myself as their President and confess that I had overheard them. They were delighted.

Another experience that I will cherish came at our opening reception on Thursday. I was greeted by a quartet of young African geographers who came together to meet me and be photographed with me. They were so excited that their president was a Black woman, they wanted it on record. Their excitement drove home to me how important diversity and inclusion are to inspiring and encouraging young people, not just in our discipline but in their decisions and ability to persist in their work and lives.

A third was attending [part of] the Bridging the Digital Divide networking session, which brought a number of students to the Denver meeting. I mention this because it is an initiative that AAG created in 2020 in “to quickly address the technology needs of geography students at minority-serving institutions, as COVID-19 disrupted their learning environments.” Actions like these move us towards a Just Geography, and the presence of these students at the meeting drove that point home.

The highlight of my meeting experience was the Presidential Plenary I led: Its theme, you will remember, was “Towards a Just Geography.” The plenary brought together ideas that AAG, and you as its members, have been working on for some time. The three panelists, geographers at different stages of their careers, suggested directions arising from their own study, experiences, and hopes. They reflected on the spatial and temporal dimensions of justice, the potential of critical physical geography, and the importance of mentoring our early-career geographers. These are only three facets of what is a multifaceted concept. However, the ideas passionately expressed by the panelists demonstrated a renewed understanding of how transformative the work of addressing justice must be, challenging our mindsets, frameworks, and assumptions.

This call for a renewed understanding stayed with me as I sat in on a number of themed sessions over the ensuing days. As I listened to the presentations, I was struck by the urgency of the voices of geographers as they discussed their work. I saw not only the value of their interdisciplinary and cross-cutting perspectives on the grand challenges of the world, but also the real need for the taking those perspectives into the public realm.

To meet that need, AAG has launched a major initiative, Elevate the Discipline, aimed at amplifying geographers’ voices with training and resources for media relations, public scholarship, and advocacy. In addition, AAG recently completed its Strategic Plan for 2023-2026, which features eight areas of innovation and effort. Woven directly into the new plan are the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiative goals, which will receive a significant infusion of members’ input and guidance this year with the launch of seven new working groups. I’d like to tell you more about these areas of AAG’s work and encourage you to get involved.

Apply: Elevate the Discipline program. May 5 is the last day to apply for AAG’s first-ever Elevate the Discipline training cohort. Elevate the Discipline is designed to provide training, learning resources, and a platform for geographers to be heard in the media, as voices for public policies, and in advocating for change.  In addition to the week-long training program this summer, AAG is developing webinars to be provided in 2024, and has curated a free suite of resources available year-round. This year’s theme for the week-long training is “Climate Change and Society,” which is particularly relevant to the focus on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Join: Working Group for AAG’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) initiative. If you attended the Annual Meeting, you may already have had a chance to find out about the seven JEDI working groups that AAG is forming to enable members to advise and collaborate on the AAG JEDI plan. The groups will address governance, communications, focused listening, membership, reports, advocacy, and training. There are still spaces open on some of the committees, and you can use this link to apply.

In an article for ArcNews last year, I called for renewed efforts to suit our methodologies and research to the very real human needs and inequities that the climate crisis reveals: “There is so much more that physical and climate scientists, including geographers, need to learn about how we practice and use our science. We have made great strides in our understanding of the physical nature of climate and climate change. However, our understanding is limited by the fact that we do not incorporate the human element well enough.” Something similar can be said for our efforts to communicate what’s at stake: Do geographers have the tools they need to not only translate their research to public information, but also to connect the science with social impacts and possibilities? Both the JEDI working groups and Elevate the Discipline are powerful, member-driven opportunities to help AAG illuminate and amplify the social and physical dimensions of this current moment on our planet.

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 raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.


AAG Recognized for Diversity and Equity Work by EDGE Geospatial

AAG has received an innaugural Professional Organization Award from EDGE Geospatial.
EDGE Geospatial was founded to “build a diversity, equity, and inclusion-focused network within the geospatial community that increases the exposure, opportunities, and advancement of individuals and companies of ethnically diverse backgrounds.” EDGE provides a job board, community board for geospatial professionals, events and community outreach.

“AAG is a significant partner in finding new ways to create a more representative, just and equitable geospatial industry,” said Keith Searles, EDGE Founder. “Through their annual meeting, reports and guides, initiatives, and many collaborations all year, AAG has truly shown up to support the vision for transformative action to extend and deepen representation in our field. 

“AAG is a significant partner in finding new ways to create a more representative, just and equitable geospatial industry.”

—Keith Searles, EDGE Founder

Keith Searles (left) presents the 2023 EDGE Award for Professional Organization to American Association of Geographers representative and Community Manager Emily Fekete (right). Credit: Kevin Freese
Keith Searles (left) presents the 2023 EDGE Award for Professional Organization to American Association of Geographers representative and Community Manager Emily Fekete (right). Credit: Kevin Freese

The new Professional Organization Award recognizes AAG’s efforts to prioritize and follow through on their commitment, through its Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion plan; its educational and professional programming; such as the ALIGNED project, the Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education (EDGE) in Geography initiative, and the Diversity Ambassadors program as well as past efforts that generated resources (e.g., a few books from the EDGE project) and advanced conversations on these opportunities (e.g., during sessions at our Annual Meeting) in addition to Rapid Response programs such as the $500,000 COVID Rapid Response two-year Bridging the Digital Divide program, with significant funding from Esri, which directly addressed educational obstacles and opportunities for students in historically underserved communities at the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

In addition to the JEDI plan and programming, AAG has supported or conducted research on equity outcomes in geography, notably the State of Geography report; as well as tracking and promoting geography programs at Minority Serving Institutions through its Guide to Geography Programs. AAG has published articles highlighting equity in its regular column for ArcNews and celebrated the specific accomplishments of community colleges in leveling the playing field for many young geographers.

“This recognition by EDGE is all the more meaningful as we see a trend toward more geographers entering degree programs from diverse backgrounds,” AAG President Marilyn Raphael said. “Organizations like EDGE are instrumental in assuring strong career paths and networks for these geographers.”

“It Is an honor to be recognized by EDGE,” said Gary Langham, executive director of AAG. “One of the best measures of the relevance and success of our work is recognition by peer groups that foreground social and racial justice, as EDGE does. Keith Searles and his team are valued colleagues on the path to a more just and diverse geography discipline.”

AAG Community Manager Emily Fekete accepted the award in a ceremony on April 28 at EDGE’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida.


GISCI calls for AAG board representative

white GISCI logo on light green background

Are you a GIS Professional? Help us represent the AAG on the Board of Directors of the GISCI!

The GIS Certification Institute or GISCI provides the GIS community with a complete certification program, leading to Certified GIS Professionals. The GISCI is led by a Board of Directors that includes 2 representatives from the AAG. As one of our representatives is completing their term, we are seeking candidates to fill their position. 

What is the GISCI?

The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) is a non-profit organization that provides the GIS community with a complete certification program, leading to GISP® (Certified GIS Professional) recognition. It was established in 2002 by member organizations: Association of American Geographers (AAG), Geospatial Information and Technology Association (GITA), National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), University Consortium of Geographic Information Science (UCGIS), and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA). 

The GISCI is led by a Board of Directors with 2 representatives each from AAG, NSGIC, UCGIS, and URISA, and one at-large GISP representative. The board meets monthly to ensure the certification process is adapted to new circumstances and effectively administered. To do so, the board keeps track of the continuous innovation to the capabilities of GIS and the growing number of communities and disciplines — beyond Geography, that are gaining interest in the capabilities of GIS. 

As a founding member organization, and with 2 representatives on the board of directors, the AAG helps lead the activities of the GISCI, and does so in alignment with the goals of the community of geographers in mind. 

Learn more about GISCI


Who are we looking for?

We are looking for someone who is a member of the AAG, who earned their GISP Certification from the GISCI, and is keeping their certification active. We are interested in casting a wide net and selecting a member who is genuinely interested in representing the goals and values of our geography community and in being part of the board. 

Once we made a selection of our top candidates, we will also consider whether the expertise and perspective of each top candidate would be a good complement to the GISCI board and to AAG’s representation on the board. For example, the board could use additional perspectives from educators at community colleges and/or from GIS professionals who are currently or have experience in the U.S. government sector; whether at USGS, NGA, the EPA, the Census, or any other government agency that relies on geographers and GIS Professionals. To fill that gap on the board, we think it would be especially valuable if our candidate is affiliated with GIS and geography education, but that also has an important presence and stake in geography beyond academia (government, private, or non-profit sectors). 

What is the role of the AAG representative?

As an AAG representative on the GISCI board, you will meet with the board monthly. All board meetings are virtual, except the annual retreat (typically in August), which is in-person. Board meetings cover discussions to ensure the certification process is adapted to new circumstances and effectively administered. Any emerging topics are also discussed that relate to the continuous innovation to the capabilities of GIS and the growing number of communities and disciplines – beyond Geography, that are gaining interest in the capabilities of GIS. 

You will also check-in virtually with AAG staff 3 times per year to report back about any GISCI activities relevant to AAG members and can collaborate with AAG staff on programs or communications that support the goals of both the GISCI and AAG. 

How long will my term as a representative be?

If you are selected to be one of the AAG representatives on the GISCI board, you will serve a 2-year term (August 2023 – August 2025). There may be a possibility to renew your term on the board up to 2 times, for a total service of up to 6 years. The GISCI retreat will be held Sat-Sun, August 5-6, 2023 (location to be determined), and as a newly appointed board member you will be expected to participate. 

Who are the current AAG representatives on the board and what is their experience thus far?

Photo of Michael ScottMichael S. Scott is at Salisbury University where he serves as the dean of its Richard A. Henson School of Science and Technology and as a faculty in their Department of Geography and Geosciences. Scott earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in geography from the University of South Carolina, and also holds an undergraduate degree in geography. Scott’s research focuses on environmental hazards, particularly sea-level change and flooding, and on local/state government applications of GIS. As a member on the board, Scott brings important institutional knowledge about GISCI, but also a wealth of experience teaching GIS courses at different levels. 

“I have been an AAG representative on the GISCI board since 2013, and the opportunity I was afforded to represent the AAG on the GISCI Board as we shaped the direction of GIS certification was an honor and a privilege” shared Scott. “The members of the Board are deeply committed to advancing the GIS profession, and doing so in a way that continues to center Geography. During my tenure, I am proud to have witnessed many accomplishments at GISCI including the implementation the GIS Fundamentals Exam, the establishment of an annual fee model for maintaining one’s certification, the complete revamp of our financial reporting system, and a change in our bylaws to add an elected Board member. There will be many more opportunities to grow the GISP certification in the coming years and I hope those who want to commit to that work decide to apply.” 

Photo of Clancy WilmottClancy Wilmott is at the University of California at Berkeley where she serves as an Assistant Professor in Critical Cartography, Geovisualisation and Design in the Berkeley Centre for New Media and the Department of Geography. Wilmott received her PhD in Human Geography from the University of Manchester and also holds undergraduate degrees in Communications (Media Arts and Production) and International Studies (Italian), as well as a postgraduate degree in Cultural Studies from the University of Technology, Sydney. As a member of the board, Wilmott brings experience applying GIS to a variety of projects and by her experience teaching GIS to students from different disciplinary communities, through which she developed an understanding of the newer challenges in the profession and of the importance of training and awareness GIS Professionals require today.   

“I have been an AAG representative on the GISCI board since 2020, and this has been an incredible opportunity to both represent the voices of geographers in the field of GIS, while also learning the ins and outs of the professional GIS world” shared Wilmott. “During my time at GISCI, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with colleagues from a broad range of industries, as well as different levels of government, to build a certification that is robust, adaptable and ethical as a standard of professionalization.  

What is the application process?
  • On or before Monday, May 22, 2023, please submit your application to become an AAG representative on the GISCI board.
  • By Friday, May 26, we will review all applications and select about 3 final candidates. You will be notified of our selection during the week of May 29, and we will schedule an interview with each of the final candidates, which will also offer candidates the opportunity to ask questions. 
  • By Friday, June 30, we will notify all candidates of our final selection. 
  • On Saturday-Sunday, Aug 5-6, 2023, the GISCI is holding their annual retreat (location to be determined), which will be the first meeting the new AAG representative will be expected to participate in. 

AAG 2023 Annual Meeting PDF Program


AAG Welcomes Spring 2023 Interns

Two new interns have joined the AAG staff this semester! The AAG would like to welcome Iman and Allison to the organization.

Photo of Iman SmithIman Smith is a junior at the University of Maryland, pursuing a B.S. in Geographical Sciences and a minor in Geographic Information Systems. Her areas of interest include agricultural monitoring and crop management, and global food security. In her spare time, Iman likes to travel, crochet, make pottery, and she also hosts a college radio show.

Photo of Allison RiveraAllison Rivera is a senior at the University of Connecticut pursuing a B.S. in Geoscience and a minor in Geography. She is mostly interested in geomorphology and physical geography and is currently completing a senior thesis on such topics. After graduation, Allison hopes to attend graduate school and pursue further research in the field of geomorphology. In her spare time, she enjoys watching cartoons, going for walks, and reading.

If you or someone you know is interested in applying for an internship at the AAG, the AAG seeks interns on a year-round basis for the spring, summer, and fall semesters.

Learn more about becoming an AAG intern

In Denver and Beyond, Moving Toward More Just Geographies

Aerial view of downtown Denver with mountains in the background. Credit: CANUSA Touristik via denver.org
Aerial view of downtown Denver with mountains in the background. Credit: CANUSA Touristik via denver.org

Photo of Marilyn Raphael by Ashley Kruythoff, UCLAOur annual meeting is just around the corner, and I am excited. This is our first opportunity to meet in person since 2019, and AAG members are showing up! In March, more than four thousand geographers are going to descend on Denver, CO, the Mile High City, bringing with them the “spirit of Geography” More than fifteen hundred geographers will join remotely. Together, this means that well over 50% of our membership will be gathering to share research, ideas, and catch up, with one another for our largest gathering since 2020.

The theme of the meeting, Toward More Just Geographies, sprang from the ideas espoused in my nomination statement, back in 2020 when I talked about what we needed to do to create a stronger, more just AAG and discipline, and in the process, make Geography a force for positive social change. The heart of the theme is that the reality of a just geography is on the horizon, something that we must work towards, continually, but perhaps something that we never fully achieve. This is not setting us up for failure but a recognition that justice is not a finite, unchangeable thing, rather it is something that is constantly evolving towards an ideal. Hence, it’s towards a just geography. Member response to this theme has been heartwarmingly high — 471 of our 1,283 sessions are Just Geography themed.

Set against a backdrop of the numerous responses submitted to the appeal for member ideas on what a just geography means to them, the Presidential Plenary, scheduled for Friday, March 24 at 6:30 PM Mountain Time, is structured as a panel, featuring Tianna Bruno of UT-Austin, Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes of Pomona College, and Kelly Kay of UCLA. Our speakers will reflect on how we can approach a Just Geography in the tools that we use (GIS), in the framing of our research questions, and in our mentoring of students and early-career geographers. These reflections are not intended to represent the only ways in which we can approach a Just Geography, indeed, the member responses are rich with ideas on that subject.

Our intention is for these discussions to continue beyond the time allotted to the plenary and across all the days of the meeting. To facilitate this, AAG staff are creating at the meeting site, space where a curated set of the ideas discussed at the plenary as well as those contained within the member responses to the appeal are projected so that people could come in, sit or walk around and see the statements and spark conversations.

And there’s more! Beyond the immediate Presidential Plenary plans, in this meeting there are clear examples of the ways in which the AAG is moving towards a Just Geography. We are changing the way in which AAG’s conferences interact with the community, becoming less extractive while moving towards long- and short-term community engagement. This goes beyond the customary, popular offerings among our members to encourage mentoring, career development, and professional celebration and recognition. This year AAG also moves to connect with our host community, for example by once again offering a land acknowledgment on our website and during the meeting, and for the first time providing free registration to any member of the 48 tribes and nations with ancestral ties to the land defined by the state boundaries of Colorado. Several participants have taken up this offer. AAG works with and will make a monetary contribution to the work of the Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC), which works to protect the rights and serve the needs of Native American and Alaskan Native families in the Denver area. The DIFRC will also be on a panel of other Indigenous-led Denver advocacy groups on Friday, March 24 at 11:45 AM MT to discuss Denver as an Indigenous place. This session is co-sponsored by the Indigenous People’s Specialty Group.

The move towards justness is everywhere in AAG 2023’s programming. As noted above, one in three sessions is devoted to our theme of Toward a More Just Geography. A focus on just geographies is also a factor in our choice of honorees such as this year’s Honorary Geographer, Rebecca Solnit, who has worked conscientiously from an intersectional view of activism for climate action. AAG has given one of its highest recognitions to a person whose work arguably centers on justness. You can see Ms. Solnit alongside AAG members Farhana Sultana and Edward Carr on Saturday, March 25, at 10:20 AM MT, discussing the new book to which Sultana and Carr are contributors, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Narrative from Despair to Hope. Ms. Solnit will deliver the Honorary Geographer lecture on Sunday, March 26, at 11:45 AM MT. Local independent bookseller Boulder Book Store will sell copies of Ms. Solnit’s books onsite for signings.

Reducing our carbon footprint: Working with AAG’s Climate Action Task Force, we are applying the lessons we’ve learned to a less carbon-intensive meeting this year. The past three years have forced us to become more adept at organizing the virtual experience and now we are learning how to manage a more travel-intensive experience while continuing to reduce our carbon footprint. This is in line with a key commitment made by the AAG in 2020 to estimate and report the carbon footprint of the annual meetings, using the baselines that were established then. Our goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of our meeting by 45% by 2030, relative to 2010 values. Our meeting in Denver is likely to be on track for meeting that goal, something that unfortunately, is not as likely with our planned meeting in Honolulu. As laid out by AAG executive director Gary Langham recently, this is another aspect of the work we have been doing, which includes divesting from fossil fuels as well as making sustainable choices for our management and office space.

This year, AAG is investing significant resources in making the Denver meeting hybrid, increasing accessibility to members. At a time that many other organizations are pivoting back to in-person-only meetings, AAG has made a commitment to continue to offer virtual and hybrid experiences so that presenters and participants could take part without traveling to Denver, thereby increasing accessibility to the meeting. AAG has worked with other institutions to test “nodes,” the most active of which will be at Montreal, but there are others forming in other locations, such as UC-Fullerton in California. The organizers of these nodes are trailblazing for future meetings; as technology improves and costs drop over the years, we can look forward to these approaches becoming the norm for AAG meetings. Find out more about this year’s nodes.

Personal choices also matter. AAG is encouraging our meeting participants to make low-carbon travel choices to attend the meeting, and low-carbon transportation choices on the ground. We encourage you to signal us about your travel decisions using the #AAG4Earth hashtag, or to reach out to us at helloworld@aag.org.

All of these steps towards making a meaningful and memorable meeting, while small individually, move us along the path towards a Just Geography.

Visit the AAG 2023 website to learn more, register, or plan your participation.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0127

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 raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.


The State of Geography: Patterns and Trends by Racial and Ethnic Identity

In December, AAG released the State of Geography report, which provides an overview of broad trends in degree conferral at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both within geography and in comparison with general trends in other social sciences and in academia overall.

Last month, we examined the data for trends and indicators in terms of gender identity. This month, we look at how well graduation trends are doing in terms of representation of students across racial and ethnic groups that have been historically excluded from geography. 

As President Marilyn Raphael noted in her February 2023 President’s column, “The [State of Geography] report confirms some of the concerns about our field’s lack of diversity, offers signs of change, and leaves us with important questions about the nature and constraints of the data,” which is drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics, Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes.  

In the report and this article, AAG is using the term “historically excluded populations” to designate the students in these categories. American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Student Visa Holder, Race/Ethnicity unknown, and Two or More Races. We also used the term to follow the practice of AAG’s JEDI committee, which uses the term intersectionally, acknowledging that multiple modes of discrimination can combine (e.g. racism, sexism, ableism, classism), and describing the persistent barriers of the discipline, be they formal or perceived:  

“Geography is not perceived as a welcoming discipline for women, queer and trans people, oppressed racial/ethnic groups, and other individuals from historically excluded populations. There are several interconnected reasons for this. First, modern geography’s roots in white, Western, patriarchal, settler colonial, and cis-heteronormative understandings of the world mean that the discipline has long reflected and perpetuated systems of oppression. Second, there are systematic and structural barriers that limit the recruitment and retention of diverse faculty and students. Third, marginalized faculty and students do not necessarily see geography as relevant or reflective of their realities, and as a result, they do not see in it prospects for a well-defined, practical, and impactful career. Together, these elements create impressions of geography that range from antiquated to hostile. While these perceptions exist today, they should not mark geography’s future. Receptivity will only improve if we become intentional about embedding JEDI into standard practices within the AAG and the broader geography discipline.” [Source: AAG 3-Year Justice Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Plan, 2021] 

The State of Geography report is among AAG’s efforts to embed JEDI into standard practices within our organization and to encourage their adoption throughout the discipline. 

Signs of Promise  

Even as growth in overall degree conferrals has dropped in geography for roughly the past decade, the graduation rate of students in historically excluded populations has grown during the same time. In fact, during the past 25 years, the percentage of degree-earning geography students who are from historically excluded populations has more than doubled, from 14.8% in 1994-1995 to 36.4% in 2020-2021. The trend is most pronounced in graduate studies, particularly PhD programs. Our analysis included student visa holders among the categories because NCES counts them among the race and ethnicity categories they track. This group of students makes up a large proportion of students at the graduate levels, and themselves form a diverse cohort of many racialized identities within and beyond an American context, although it is hard to identify specific racial or ethnic groups in this category.  

At the bachelor’s degree level, the proportion of students in many racial or ethnic categories increased, with the greatest gains among students of more than one race and Latinx or Hispanic students. There was little growth in bachelor’s degree conferral among American Indian and Alaska Native students or Black/African American students.  

In fact, there appears to be almost no growth in bachelor’s degree conferrals for Black students since 2010. Given total growth, the percentage appears to be declining for percent growth of Black students, a phenomenon that adversely affects the number of Black PhD graduates and, consequently, Black geography faculty.   

Trends in Geography Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred by Race and Ethnicity 
Figure 22. Trends in Geography Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred by Race and Ethnicity


At the master’s and doctoral levels, U.S.-based diversity drops dramatically, while student visa holders become a significant proportion of degree recipients. The increase in student visa holders, proportional to other student groups, during the past decade suggests that international students–who often have quite different understandings and experiences of race—may be more attracted and welcomed to U.S. geography than U.S. students of color. 

There appears to be an inverse correlation between the level of degree and the diversity of the students pursuing the degree. Diversity is greatest at the undergraduate level, drops at the master’s level, and drops still further at the doctoral level. 

Figure 24: Trends in Geography Master’s Degrees by Race and Ethnicity


Figure 26: Trends in Geography Doctoral Degrees by Race and Ethnicity
Figures 24 and 26: Trends in Geography Master’s and Doctoral Degrees by Race and Ethnicity


How Geography Compares Among Disciplines 

Because geography is an interdisciplinary science, we compared student choices of major among several social science and physical science disciplines. As a graduate degree sought out by students from historically excluded populations, geography holds its own among the social sciences at the master’s level, with slightly better representation at the PhD level than most other social sciences (with the exception of economics). At the bachelor’s level, however, geography has a lower rate of representation among these students than most other social sciences, except for history. 

Geography fares similarly to other physical sciences in the amount of representation from historically excluded groups in bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and PhDs. Representation increases from bachelor’s to master’s to PhD. 

Overall, geography is behind virtually all other fields of study we examined across all degree types, in terms of racial and ethnic representation. From 1997 to 2019, Jordan et al. (2021) found that “geography [doctorates] consistently trailed the social sciences and the academy,” a gap that has been widening.  More than half of computer science degrees, to cite one example, are conferred on students from minoritized backgrounds—across all levels of degree. This indicator has relevance for GIS studies within geography: computer science and data analysis, perhaps data visualization, are a popular degree for students of many backgrounds, and GIS programs can leverage this popularity, combined with greater efforts to attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds. 

Detail from Figure 20. Minoritized students (in red), as an overall proportion of bachelor’s degrees in (L to R) geography, business management and related services, and computer science. The values rise from left to right.
Detail from Figure 20. Minoritized students (in red), as an overall proportion of bachelor’s degrees in (L to R) geography, business management and related services, and computer science.


Concluding Thoughts 

The growth in geography degrees among students from historically excluded populations is good news for the discipline: it is they who have contributed any new, positive growth to the field in recent years. That growth is nowhere near the levels needed for full, representative equity, however. While it offers a signpost to a more diverse geography, the overall lack of diversity is also a reminder that we must redouble our efforts. 

In developing the report, we encountered several unknowns, such as the “race/ethnicity unknown” category and the student visa category. As noted in our article on gender, qualitative information is also not available. Gaining qualitative insight is crucial because an increase in graduates from groups previously excluded does not mean that racial bias and inequality do not exist. Jordan et al. (2021) identify four drivers of inequity in doctorate programs: 

  1. lack of dedicated funding for underrepresented minority doctoral students,  
  2. minimal prior exposure to academic and professional geography,  
  3. passive recruitment strategies, and  
  4. pervasive whiteness of departments. 

[Exploring Persistent Racial and Ethnic Representation Disparity in U.S. Geography Doctoral Programs: The Disciplinary Underrepresentation Gap] 

In her 2002 article “Reflections on a White Discipline,” geographer Laura Pulido looks at her own experience as a student and faculty member of color within geography programs. Finding that “the study of race is both marginalized and fragmented within geography,” she ultimately moved from geography into a newly organized American studies program that acknowledged ethnicity and race. She writes, “Although other issues also existed, comfort and intellectual community were the key reasons I made the move.” These studies indicate that pragmatic factors such as funding and active recruitment should be coupled with a strong commitment and follow-through for the representation of many identities, and a welcoming and supportive intellectual environment for engaging critical questions around race, ethnicity, and identity. 

As we previously noted in our article on gender identity and degree conferral, NCES data do not lend themselves to being examined intersectionally, that is, with an acknowledgment of the complex ways discrimination and marginalization can function across multiple identities. Separating out race and ethnicity from gender cannot be done: we are all a combination of various identities and experience our lives through the lenses of those identities, including our experience of exclusion. Quoting the JEDI Committee once again, “…there are systematic and structural barriers that limit the recruitment and retention of diverse faculty and students [and] marginalized faculty and students do not necessarily see geography as relevant or reflective of their realities, and as a result, they do not see in it prospects for a well-defined, practical, and impactful career.” Although the numbers indicate that more students of differing identities are finding their way to geography, especially for advanced degrees, we must find ways to build on this positive trend: to actively working toward structural change in the discipline and to find out more about what attracts students of differing identities and experiences to geography, and what contributes to their decision to pursue advanced study.  

Get Involved in the Next State of Geography Report:

We look forward to further expanding on our findings in the State of Geography Report in the future, with data from a variety of sources, including NCES, AAG surveys, and AAG member expertise. We welcome questions, ideas, or suggestions about the findings at data@aag.org.   

Read the full report
Further Reading

Peake, L.J. & England, Kim (2020). (What Geographers Should Know About) The State of U.S. and Canadian Academic Professional Associations’ Engagement with Mental Health Practices and Policies, The Professional Geographer, 72:1, 37-53, DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2019.1611455 

Brinegar, S.J. (2001). Female Representation in the Discipline of Geography, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25:3, 311-320, DOI: 10.1080/03098260120084395 

Kinkaid, E. & Fritzsche, L. (2022). The Stories We Tell: Challenging Exclusionary Histories of Geography in U.S. Graduate Curriculum, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 112:8, 2469-2485, DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2022.2072805 


AAG 2023 for Students