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

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

Photo of Rebecca Lave

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

Inclusive, horizontal governance

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

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

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

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

Transparent expectations

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

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

Guidance for Advisor/Advisee Interactions

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

Students should:

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

Advisors should:

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

Advisors should never:

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

The Department should: [1]

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

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

 

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

Advisor’s Checklist

Advisor: _______________________________                                                   Date: ____________

Advisee: _______________________________

To my knowledge, this student is:

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

___ Behaving professionally in all academic settings.

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

___ Meeting the deadlines we have agreed to.

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

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

___ Keeping all appointments unless other arrangements have been made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please explain any areas of concern:

 

Advisee’s Checklist

Advisor: _______________________________                                                   Date: ____________

Advisee: _______________________________

My advisor is:

___ Interacting with me constructively and respectfully.

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

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

___ Responding gracefully and respectfully to reminders from students.

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

___ Discussing and providing guidance on research ethics.

___ Encouraging safety in the field.

___ Encouraging a healthy work/life balance.

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

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

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

___ Encouraging and helping me to publish by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___ Helping me connect to other scholars in my field.

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

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

 

My advisor is not:

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

___ Belittling or demeaning me in person or other media.

___ Obstructing my access to data I helped collect.

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

___ Using my work without attribution.

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

___ Asking me to write papers or presentations for them.

___ Asking me to write my own recommendation letter.

Please explain any areas of concern:

 

Better is Possible

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

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

Read Part 1          Read Part 2


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

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

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

Photo of Rebecca Lave

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

Building respectful and supportive practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meal trains as a metric

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

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

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

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

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

Read Part 1

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

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Building Vibrant Departmental Cultures, Part One

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

Photo of Rebecca Lave

A familiar story with an unfamiliar ending

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

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

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

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

Organizing around problem areas rather than traditional geographic divides

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

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

Long-term payoff

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

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

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

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0141


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

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Reciprocal Research: What Geography Gains from Public and Engaged Scholarship

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

Photo of Rebecca Lave

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

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

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

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

Our goal is to protect and value PES by developing:

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

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

I will update you on our work as it progresses.

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

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0140

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    Share

Climate Change and the 2024 Annual Meeting in Honolulu

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

Photo of Rebecca Lave

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

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

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

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

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

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

AAG’s Work on Climate Thus Far

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

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

 

Mitigating the Climate Impacts of Annual Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0137


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

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Boundaries and Connection: Creating a Meaningful Meeting in Honolulu

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

Photo of Rebecca Lave

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0136


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

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The 2024 Annual Meeting in Honolulu

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

Photo of Rebecca Lave

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

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

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

Indigenous Sovereignty

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Impact

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

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

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

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

Costs

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

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

Looking Forward

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

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

*   *   *   *

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

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0132


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

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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!  

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0131


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.

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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.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0130


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.

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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.

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