Do Look Up

The 2020 Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Credit: Phil Millette, National Interagency Fire Center
The 2020 Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Credit: Phil Millette, National Interagency Fire Center

In a recent review of Don’t Look Up, the terrifyingly close-to-home satire of collective inaction on global warming, Pablo Ortiz of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that one form of “looking up” is to write and share about how climate change is affecting you, as a means of building a larger movement. Granted, this suggestion is pretty tame when some climate scientists are taking direct action, such as chaining themselves to the White House fence after the release of the most recent IPCC report (one Facebook commentator quipped, “Remember when climate scientists were content to do research, publish papers, and issue dire warnings?”). Yet, taking Ortiz’s advice, I begin here by briefly describing one way climate change is affecting the place I live.  

Fire season in Colorado used to be the summer. Not anymore. In fact, there is no longer really a fire season; the landscape burns destructively year-round. On December 30, a once-unthinkable winter grassland fire destroyed more than 1000 houses and caused 1 billion USD in insured losses, just south of my neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. Just three months later, another wildfire led to the mandatory evacuation of 19,000 people living in 8000 homes, including mine. That was March 26. On April 7, as I was heading home from the office, I received a message from my sixth-grade son, “another fire!” This one was very close to the March 26 fire, which was still burning. On April 19, there were four separate fires burning in Boulder County, leading to more evacuations. Half of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have happened since 2018. A new sense of dread now seeps through the pores of everyday life, deepening the enduring exhaustion of the pandemic.   

I want to acknowledge here that crisis narratives about climate change have been critiqued by Indigenous scholars. Even though many of us are experiencing climate change as an unprecedented emergency, Indigenous peoples have already faced climate change in the form of territorial dispossession and displacement to new ecosystems and climates. Moreover, as Potawatomi environmental justice scholar Kyle Whyte reminds us, colonialism has long used perceived and real crises to defend unjust actions. He argues for an epistemology of coordination rather than crisis, one based on the importance of moral bonds or kinship relationships, as necessary for responding to change without further justifying violence. With these cautions in mind, though, I wonder if it isn’t still necessary to treat climate change as a crisis when it comes to the capitalist status quo of corporate profits and the discursive formation that makes us think there is no alternative.  

* * * * * 

This spring, several colleagues and I embarked on a modest effort to “look up,” in the form of authoring a faculty resolution calling on TIAA to divest from the climate crisis and reinvest in climate justice. Through TIAA-Divest!, an organization that works with faculty, staff and students to encourage TIAA to become a more responsible investor, we learned that even though TIAA represents itself as a “leader in responsible investing” and states that “climate change poses long-term risks to investments,” it invests at least 16 billion dollars in fossil fuel stocks, across 77 equity funds. Furthermore, the Brazilian federal land agency and a Brazilian state court found TIAA (and Harvard University’s endowment fund) to have violated foreign land ownership law in its acquisition of half a million acres of farmland, working through opaque corporate structures and shell companies. Though TIAA maintains that it was in compliance with the law, these investments have clearly aided land grabs from peasants and indigenous peoples, and contributed to deforestation and thus climate change.

In the US, TIAA directly financed 35% of the construction costs of Cricket Valley Energy, a fracked natural gas-powered electric generation station in Dover New York, in an economically disadvantaged community adjacent to one of the Northeast’s largest freshwater wetlands. This fracking operation drew protests across New York state. Even the company’s “social choice low carbon equity fund” is 3.17% invested in the oil and gas industry, and 12% invested in deforestation-risk companies across 25 holdings. The list of problems goes on. TIAA is hardly alone: Vanguard has a slightly higher percentage but an order of magnitude more fossil fuel investments. But we opted to focus on TIAA because it is the leading provider of financial services in higher education, and the only administrator of retirement funds available to faculty at my institution, as well as having a reputation as a company committed to social and environmental responsibility.  

Divestment is not uncontroversial. Geographers and other researchers have shown that ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing often amounts to little more than greenwashing, because of its unregulated nature and loose standards, as evidenced by wildly divergent ratings between different ESG rating agencies. The ESG movement is also partly resulting in what geographer Brett Christophers has called the “full-fledged romance between the fossil-fuel economy and private equity.” over the past decade. This is concerning given that private equity is far less accountable or transparent than public companies. More broadly, focusing only on ESG investment furthers capitalist logics of privatization and financialization. Big asset managers reap the benefits when they push governments to de-risk the clean energy transition for their private investments. This diverts resources from what is actually desperately needed for a just transition: public investment. None of this excellent critical work suggests, however, that divestment itself is the problem. When accompanied by calls for greater government regulation of investors and demands for public finance of the infrastructure necessary for an equitable low-carbon economic transition, divestment sends a much stronger message about the status quo than any dialogue that investors might have with corporate boards.  

These arguments for public investment were, however, not the objections that our modest resolution on TIAA encountered. The most vigorous opposition came from a business school faculty member who insisted, “divestment doesn’t work” because there will always be someone who does not care about climate change and who will thus buy divested stocks divested at a low price, and then make a profit when those same stocks inevitably increase in value. The CEOs of those companies themselves might also play this gambit through stock options. Thus, the reasoning goes, we have only rewarded those who we wished to punish. This argument is both a red herring, because financial investors and CEOs are always trying to make a profit, and provides further evidence that regulation, of both fossil fuel emissions and markets, is needed. 

When I asked what he thought those who cared about unfolding climate disasters should do instead of divestment, our colleague’s response was the pinnacle of neoliberalism: “Try to get other consumers to stop using fossil fuels.” The conviction that atomized individual consumers are the only possible source of change ignores the fundamental ways in which fossil fuels are embedded in our infrastructure, housing, and culture– unsurprising, since as geographer Matt Huber has argued, the history of American oil consumption has itself been central to the rise of neoliberalism in this country. Our business school critic also insisted that divestment is not justified by either volatile short-term fossil fuel equity prices or the impending stranded assets of fossil fuel corporations, since short term performance is meaningless and in the long run, we are all dead (no business retains value forever). Thus, a portfolio that eliminated fossil fuels is, by this definition, inferior since any constraint on investment is inevitably second-best. Presumably, this logic would also justify investing in industries that employ slave labor.  

We argued back with the work of geographers and other scholars on multiple fronts. We quoted Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future: “What’s the monetary value of human civilization? Trying to answer that question proves you are a moral and practical idiot.” I’m happy to report that through appeals to our campus leaders’ stated commitment to addressing climate change, the campus’ “reputational brand” for climate change research (one of the few arguments that spoke to the economists), the injustices of climate change, and our duties as educators, our resolution ultimately passed. Next, we are sending it to TIAA’s CEO and Board of Governors. 

* * * * * 

Research and science alone are not enough to make change. Organizing is always necessary, as we can see in both the TIAA effort and the direct action some climate scientists are now engaging in. It’s clear as well that we need government action — for example, for robust and convenient high-speed electrified rail infrastructure that would allow us to gather in low-carbon ways for scholarly exchange and networking; hopefully, more geographers will become involved in organized policy advocacy in this realm. Lastly, I am keenly aware of the contradiction between the focus of this column and the fact that the in-person component of the 2024 hybrid AAG annual meeting is scheduled to take place in Hawaii, a costly travel destination in terms of both dollars and carbon. This conference location was chosen many years ago and legal structures (of hotel contracts) preclude change. Can a significant number of geographers adopt an epistemology of coordination, perhaps in the form of many local, relationship-building nodes, as an alternative to carbon-costly air travel? Will we look up?

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0109


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

    Share

War, Peace, and the Possibilities of a Shared Future

The 2020 Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Credit: Phil Millette, National Interagency Fire Center
The 2020 Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Credit: Phil Millette, National Interagency Fire Center

In a recent review of Don’t Look Up, the terrifyingly close-to-home satire of collective inaction on global warming, Pablo Ortiz of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that one form of “looking up” is to write and share about how climate change is affecting you, as a means of building a larger movement. Granted, this suggestion is pretty tame when some climate scientists are taking direct action, such as chaining themselves to the White House fence after the release of the most recent IPCC report (one Facebook commentator quipped, “Remember when climate scientists were content to do research, publish papers, and issue dire warnings?”). Yet, taking Ortiz’s advice, I begin here by briefly describing one way climate change is affecting the place I live.  

Fire season in Colorado used to be the summer. Not anymore. In fact, there is no longer really a fire season; the landscape burns destructively year-round. On December 30, a once-unthinkable winter grassland fire destroyed more than 1000 houses and caused 1 billion USD in insured losses, just south of my neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. Just three months later, another wildfire led to the mandatory evacuation of 19,000 people living in 8000 homes, including mine. That was March 26. On April 7, as I was heading home from the office, I received a message from my sixth-grade son, “another fire!” This one was very close to the March 26 fire, which was still burning. On April 19, there were four separate fires burning in Boulder County, leading to more evacuations. Half of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have happened since 2018. A new sense of dread now seeps through the pores of everyday life, deepening the enduring exhaustion of the pandemic.   

I want to acknowledge here that crisis narratives about climate change have been critiqued by Indigenous scholars. Even though many of us are experiencing climate change as an unprecedented emergency, Indigenous peoples have already faced climate change in the form of territorial dispossession and displacement to new ecosystems and climates. Moreover, as Potawatomi environmental justice scholar Kyle Whyte reminds us, colonialism has long used perceived and real crises to defend unjust actions. He argues for an epistemology of coordination rather than crisis, one based on the importance of moral bonds or kinship relationships, as necessary for responding to change without further justifying violence. With these cautions in mind, though, I wonder if it isn’t still necessary to treat climate change as a crisis when it comes to the capitalist status quo of corporate profits and the discursive formation that makes us think there is no alternative.  

* * * * * 

This spring, several colleagues and I embarked on a modest effort to “look up,” in the form of authoring a faculty resolution calling on TIAA to divest from the climate crisis and reinvest in climate justice. Through TIAA-Divest!, an organization that works with faculty, staff and students to encourage TIAA to become a more responsible investor, we learned that even though TIAA represents itself as a “leader in responsible investing” and states that “climate change poses long-term risks to investments,” it invests at least 16 billion dollars in fossil fuel stocks, across 77 equity funds. Furthermore, the Brazilian federal land agency and a Brazilian state court found TIAA (and Harvard University’s endowment fund) to have violated foreign land ownership law in its acquisition of half a million acres of farmland, working through opaque corporate structures and shell companies. Though TIAA maintains that it was in compliance with the law, these investments have clearly aided land grabs from peasants and indigenous peoples, and contributed to deforestation and thus climate change.

In the US, TIAA directly financed 35% of the construction costs of Cricket Valley Energy, a fracked natural gas-powered electric generation station in Dover New York, in an economically disadvantaged community adjacent to one of the Northeast’s largest freshwater wetlands. This fracking operation drew protests across New York state. Even the company’s “social choice low carbon equity fund” is 3.17% invested in the oil and gas industry, and 12% invested in deforestation-risk companies across 25 holdings. The list of problems goes on. TIAA is hardly alone: Vanguard has a slightly higher percentage but an order of magnitude more fossil fuel investments. But we opted to focus on TIAA because it is the leading provider of financial services in higher education, and the only administrator of retirement funds available to faculty at my institution, as well as having a reputation as a company committed to social and environmental responsibility.  

Divestment is not uncontroversial. Geographers and other researchers have shown that ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing often amounts to little more than greenwashing, because of its unregulated nature and loose standards, as evidenced by wildly divergent ratings between different ESG rating agencies. The ESG movement is also partly resulting in what geographer Brett Christophers has called the “full-fledged romance between the fossil-fuel economy and private equity.” over the past decade. This is concerning given that private equity is far less accountable or transparent than public companies. More broadly, focusing only on ESG investment furthers capitalist logics of privatization and financialization. Big asset managers reap the benefits when they push governments to de-risk the clean energy transition for their private investments. This diverts resources from what is actually desperately needed for a just transition: public investment. None of this excellent critical work suggests, however, that divestment itself is the problem. When accompanied by calls for greater government regulation of investors and demands for public finance of the infrastructure necessary for an equitable low-carbon economic transition, divestment sends a much stronger message about the status quo than any dialogue that investors might have with corporate boards.  

These arguments for public investment were, however, not the objections that our modest resolution on TIAA encountered. The most vigorous opposition came from a business school faculty member who insisted, “divestment doesn’t work” because there will always be someone who does not care about climate change and who will thus buy divested stocks divested at a low price, and then make a profit when those same stocks inevitably increase in value. The CEOs of those companies themselves might also play this gambit through stock options. Thus, the reasoning goes, we have only rewarded those who we wished to punish. This argument is both a red herring, because financial investors and CEOs are always trying to make a profit, and provides further evidence that regulation, of both fossil fuel emissions and markets, is needed. 

When I asked what he thought those who cared about unfolding climate disasters should do instead of divestment, our colleague’s response was the pinnacle of neoliberalism: “Try to get other consumers to stop using fossil fuels.” The conviction that atomized individual consumers are the only possible source of change ignores the fundamental ways in which fossil fuels are embedded in our infrastructure, housing, and culture– unsurprising, since as geographer Matt Huber has argued, the history of American oil consumption has itself been central to the rise of neoliberalism in this country. Our business school critic also insisted that divestment is not justified by either volatile short-term fossil fuel equity prices or the impending stranded assets of fossil fuel corporations, since short term performance is meaningless and in the long run, we are all dead (no business retains value forever). Thus, a portfolio that eliminated fossil fuels is, by this definition, inferior since any constraint on investment is inevitably second-best. Presumably, this logic would also justify investing in industries that employ slave labor.  

We argued back with the work of geographers and other scholars on multiple fronts. We quoted Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future: “What’s the monetary value of human civilization? Trying to answer that question proves you are a moral and practical idiot.” I’m happy to report that through appeals to our campus leaders’ stated commitment to addressing climate change, the campus’ “reputational brand” for climate change research (one of the few arguments that spoke to the economists), the injustices of climate change, and our duties as educators, our resolution ultimately passed. Next, we are sending it to TIAA’s CEO and Board of Governors. 

* * * * * 

Research and science alone are not enough to make change. Organizing is always necessary, as we can see in both the TIAA effort and the direct action some climate scientists are now engaging in. It’s clear as well that we need government action — for example, for robust and convenient high-speed electrified rail infrastructure that would allow us to gather in low-carbon ways for scholarly exchange and networking; hopefully, more geographers will become involved in organized policy advocacy in this realm. Lastly, I am keenly aware of the contradiction between the focus of this column and the fact that the in-person component of the 2024 hybrid AAG annual meeting is scheduled to take place in Hawaii, a costly travel destination in terms of both dollars and carbon. This conference location was chosen many years ago and legal structures (of hotel contracts) preclude change. Can a significant number of geographers adopt an epistemology of coordination, perhaps in the form of many local, relationship-building nodes, as an alternative to carbon-costly air travel? Will we look up?

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0109


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

    Share

Pathways for Change: The 2022 Annual Meeting, AAG Council, and the Climate Action Survey

The 2020 Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Credit: Phil Millette, National Interagency Fire Center
The 2020 Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Credit: Phil Millette, National Interagency Fire Center

In a recent review of Don’t Look Up, the terrifyingly close-to-home satire of collective inaction on global warming, Pablo Ortiz of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that one form of “looking up” is to write and share about how climate change is affecting you, as a means of building a larger movement. Granted, this suggestion is pretty tame when some climate scientists are taking direct action, such as chaining themselves to the White House fence after the release of the most recent IPCC report (one Facebook commentator quipped, “Remember when climate scientists were content to do research, publish papers, and issue dire warnings?”). Yet, taking Ortiz’s advice, I begin here by briefly describing one way climate change is affecting the place I live.  

Fire season in Colorado used to be the summer. Not anymore. In fact, there is no longer really a fire season; the landscape burns destructively year-round. On December 30, a once-unthinkable winter grassland fire destroyed more than 1000 houses and caused 1 billion USD in insured losses, just south of my neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. Just three months later, another wildfire led to the mandatory evacuation of 19,000 people living in 8000 homes, including mine. That was March 26. On April 7, as I was heading home from the office, I received a message from my sixth-grade son, “another fire!” This one was very close to the March 26 fire, which was still burning. On April 19, there were four separate fires burning in Boulder County, leading to more evacuations. Half of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have happened since 2018. A new sense of dread now seeps through the pores of everyday life, deepening the enduring exhaustion of the pandemic.   

I want to acknowledge here that crisis narratives about climate change have been critiqued by Indigenous scholars. Even though many of us are experiencing climate change as an unprecedented emergency, Indigenous peoples have already faced climate change in the form of territorial dispossession and displacement to new ecosystems and climates. Moreover, as Potawatomi environmental justice scholar Kyle Whyte reminds us, colonialism has long used perceived and real crises to defend unjust actions. He argues for an epistemology of coordination rather than crisis, one based on the importance of moral bonds or kinship relationships, as necessary for responding to change without further justifying violence. With these cautions in mind, though, I wonder if it isn’t still necessary to treat climate change as a crisis when it comes to the capitalist status quo of corporate profits and the discursive formation that makes us think there is no alternative.  

* * * * * 

This spring, several colleagues and I embarked on a modest effort to “look up,” in the form of authoring a faculty resolution calling on TIAA to divest from the climate crisis and reinvest in climate justice. Through TIAA-Divest!, an organization that works with faculty, staff and students to encourage TIAA to become a more responsible investor, we learned that even though TIAA represents itself as a “leader in responsible investing” and states that “climate change poses long-term risks to investments,” it invests at least 16 billion dollars in fossil fuel stocks, across 77 equity funds. Furthermore, the Brazilian federal land agency and a Brazilian state court found TIAA (and Harvard University’s endowment fund) to have violated foreign land ownership law in its acquisition of half a million acres of farmland, working through opaque corporate structures and shell companies. Though TIAA maintains that it was in compliance with the law, these investments have clearly aided land grabs from peasants and indigenous peoples, and contributed to deforestation and thus climate change.

In the US, TIAA directly financed 35% of the construction costs of Cricket Valley Energy, a fracked natural gas-powered electric generation station in Dover New York, in an economically disadvantaged community adjacent to one of the Northeast’s largest freshwater wetlands. This fracking operation drew protests across New York state. Even the company’s “social choice low carbon equity fund” is 3.17% invested in the oil and gas industry, and 12% invested in deforestation-risk companies across 25 holdings. The list of problems goes on. TIAA is hardly alone: Vanguard has a slightly higher percentage but an order of magnitude more fossil fuel investments. But we opted to focus on TIAA because it is the leading provider of financial services in higher education, and the only administrator of retirement funds available to faculty at my institution, as well as having a reputation as a company committed to social and environmental responsibility.  

Divestment is not uncontroversial. Geographers and other researchers have shown that ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing often amounts to little more than greenwashing, because of its unregulated nature and loose standards, as evidenced by wildly divergent ratings between different ESG rating agencies. The ESG movement is also partly resulting in what geographer Brett Christophers has called the “full-fledged romance between the fossil-fuel economy and private equity.” over the past decade. This is concerning given that private equity is far less accountable or transparent than public companies. More broadly, focusing only on ESG investment furthers capitalist logics of privatization and financialization. Big asset managers reap the benefits when they push governments to de-risk the clean energy transition for their private investments. This diverts resources from what is actually desperately needed for a just transition: public investment. None of this excellent critical work suggests, however, that divestment itself is the problem. When accompanied by calls for greater government regulation of investors and demands for public finance of the infrastructure necessary for an equitable low-carbon economic transition, divestment sends a much stronger message about the status quo than any dialogue that investors might have with corporate boards.  

These arguments for public investment were, however, not the objections that our modest resolution on TIAA encountered. The most vigorous opposition came from a business school faculty member who insisted, “divestment doesn’t work” because there will always be someone who does not care about climate change and who will thus buy divested stocks divested at a low price, and then make a profit when those same stocks inevitably increase in value. The CEOs of those companies themselves might also play this gambit through stock options. Thus, the reasoning goes, we have only rewarded those who we wished to punish. This argument is both a red herring, because financial investors and CEOs are always trying to make a profit, and provides further evidence that regulation, of both fossil fuel emissions and markets, is needed. 

When I asked what he thought those who cared about unfolding climate disasters should do instead of divestment, our colleague’s response was the pinnacle of neoliberalism: “Try to get other consumers to stop using fossil fuels.” The conviction that atomized individual consumers are the only possible source of change ignores the fundamental ways in which fossil fuels are embedded in our infrastructure, housing, and culture– unsurprising, since as geographer Matt Huber has argued, the history of American oil consumption has itself been central to the rise of neoliberalism in this country. Our business school critic also insisted that divestment is not justified by either volatile short-term fossil fuel equity prices or the impending stranded assets of fossil fuel corporations, since short term performance is meaningless and in the long run, we are all dead (no business retains value forever). Thus, a portfolio that eliminated fossil fuels is, by this definition, inferior since any constraint on investment is inevitably second-best. Presumably, this logic would also justify investing in industries that employ slave labor.  

We argued back with the work of geographers and other scholars on multiple fronts. We quoted Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future: “What’s the monetary value of human civilization? Trying to answer that question proves you are a moral and practical idiot.” I’m happy to report that through appeals to our campus leaders’ stated commitment to addressing climate change, the campus’ “reputational brand” for climate change research (one of the few arguments that spoke to the economists), the injustices of climate change, and our duties as educators, our resolution ultimately passed. Next, we are sending it to TIAA’s CEO and Board of Governors. 

* * * * * 

Research and science alone are not enough to make change. Organizing is always necessary, as we can see in both the TIAA effort and the direct action some climate scientists are now engaging in. It’s clear as well that we need government action — for example, for robust and convenient high-speed electrified rail infrastructure that would allow us to gather in low-carbon ways for scholarly exchange and networking; hopefully, more geographers will become involved in organized policy advocacy in this realm. Lastly, I am keenly aware of the contradiction between the focus of this column and the fact that the in-person component of the 2024 hybrid AAG annual meeting is scheduled to take place in Hawaii, a costly travel destination in terms of both dollars and carbon. This conference location was chosen many years ago and legal structures (of hotel contracts) preclude change. Can a significant number of geographers adopt an epistemology of coordination, perhaps in the form of many local, relationship-building nodes, as an alternative to carbon-costly air travel? Will we look up?

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0109


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

    Share

The Pandemic, the Scale of ‘We’, and the Fortress-Individual: Geographies of Responsibility

In a recent review of Don’t Look Up, the terrifyingly close-to-home satire of collective inaction on global warming, Pablo Ortiz of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that one form of “looking up” is to write and share about how climate change is affecting you, as a means of building a larger movement. Granted, this suggestion is pretty tame when some climate scientists are taking direct action, such as chaining themselves to the White House fence after the release of the most recent IPCC report (one Facebook commentator quipped, “Remember when climate scientists were content to do research, publish papers, and issue dire warnings?”). Yet, taking Ortiz’s advice, I begin here by briefly describing one way climate change is affecting the place I live.  

Fire season in Colorado used to be the summer. Not anymore. In fact, there is no longer really a fire season; the landscape burns destructively year-round. On December 30, a once-unthinkable winter grassland fire destroyed more than 1000 houses and caused 1 billion USD in insured losses, just south of my neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. Just three months later, another wildfire led to the mandatory evacuation of 19,000 people living in 8000 homes, including mine. That was March 26. On April 7, as I was heading home from the office, I received a message from my sixth-grade son, “another fire!” This one was very close to the March 26 fire, which was still burning. On April 19, there were four separate fires burning in Boulder County, leading to more evacuations. Half of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have happened since 2018. A new sense of dread now seeps through the pores of everyday life, deepening the enduring exhaustion of the pandemic.   

I want to acknowledge here that crisis narratives about climate change have been critiqued by Indigenous scholars. Even though many of us are experiencing climate change as an unprecedented emergency, Indigenous peoples have already faced climate change in the form of territorial dispossession and displacement to new ecosystems and climates. Moreover, as Potawatomi environmental justice scholar Kyle Whyte reminds us, colonialism has long used perceived and real crises to defend unjust actions. He argues for an epistemology of coordination rather than crisis, one based on the importance of moral bonds or kinship relationships, as necessary for responding to change without further justifying violence. With these cautions in mind, though, I wonder if it isn’t still necessary to treat climate change as a crisis when it comes to the capitalist status quo of corporate profits and the discursive formation that makes us think there is no alternative.  

* * * * * 

This spring, several colleagues and I embarked on a modest effort to “look up,” in the form of authoring a faculty resolution calling on TIAA to divest from the climate crisis and reinvest in climate justice. Through TIAA-Divest!, an organization that works with faculty, staff and students to encourage TIAA to become a more responsible investor, we learned that even though TIAA represents itself as a “leader in responsible investing” and states that “climate change poses long-term risks to investments,” it invests at least 16 billion dollars in fossil fuel stocks, across 77 equity funds. Furthermore, the Brazilian federal land agency and a Brazilian state court found TIAA (and Harvard University’s endowment fund) to have violated foreign land ownership law in its acquisition of half a million acres of farmland, working through opaque corporate structures and shell companies. Though TIAA maintains that it was in compliance with the law, these investments have clearly aided land grabs from peasants and indigenous peoples, and contributed to deforestation and thus climate change.

In the US, TIAA directly financed 35% of the construction costs of Cricket Valley Energy, a fracked natural gas-powered electric generation station in Dover New York, in an economically disadvantaged community adjacent to one of the Northeast’s largest freshwater wetlands. This fracking operation drew protests across New York state. Even the company’s “social choice low carbon equity fund” is 3.17% invested in the oil and gas industry, and 12% invested in deforestation-risk companies across 25 holdings. The list of problems goes on. TIAA is hardly alone: Vanguard has a slightly higher percentage but an order of magnitude more fossil fuel investments. But we opted to focus on TIAA because it is the leading provider of financial services in higher education, and the only administrator of retirement funds available to faculty at my institution, as well as having a reputation as a company committed to social and environmental responsibility.  

Divestment is not uncontroversial. Geographers and other researchers have shown that ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing often amounts to little more than greenwashing, because of its unregulated nature and loose standards, as evidenced by wildly divergent ratings between different ESG rating agencies. The ESG movement is also partly resulting in what geographer Brett Christophers has called the “full-fledged romance between the fossil-fuel economy and private equity.” over the past decade. This is concerning given that private equity is far less accountable or transparent than public companies. More broadly, focusing only on ESG investment furthers capitalist logics of privatization and financialization. Big asset managers reap the benefits when they push governments to de-risk the clean energy transition for their private investments. This diverts resources from what is actually desperately needed for a just transition: public investment. None of this excellent critical work suggests, however, that divestment itself is the problem. When accompanied by calls for greater government regulation of investors and demands for public finance of the infrastructure necessary for an equitable low-carbon economic transition, divestment sends a much stronger message about the status quo than any dialogue that investors might have with corporate boards.  

These arguments for public investment were, however, not the objections that our modest resolution on TIAA encountered. The most vigorous opposition came from a business school faculty member who insisted, “divestment doesn’t work” because there will always be someone who does not care about climate change and who will thus buy divested stocks divested at a low price, and then make a profit when those same stocks inevitably increase in value. The CEOs of those companies themselves might also play this gambit through stock options. Thus, the reasoning goes, we have only rewarded those who we wished to punish. This argument is both a red herring, because financial investors and CEOs are always trying to make a profit, and provides further evidence that regulation, of both fossil fuel emissions and markets, is needed. 

When I asked what he thought those who cared about unfolding climate disasters should do instead of divestment, our colleague’s response was the pinnacle of neoliberalism: “Try to get other consumers to stop using fossil fuels.” The conviction that atomized individual consumers are the only possible source of change ignores the fundamental ways in which fossil fuels are embedded in our infrastructure, housing, and culture– unsurprising, since as geographer Matt Huber has argued, the history of American oil consumption has itself been central to the rise of neoliberalism in this country. Our business school critic also insisted that divestment is not justified by either volatile short-term fossil fuel equity prices or the impending stranded assets of fossil fuel corporations, since short term performance is meaningless and in the long run, we are all dead (no business retains value forever). Thus, a portfolio that eliminated fossil fuels is, by this definition, inferior since any constraint on investment is inevitably second-best. Presumably, this logic would also justify investing in industries that employ slave labor.  

We argued back with the work of geographers and other scholars on multiple fronts. We quoted Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future: “What’s the monetary value of human civilization? Trying to answer that question proves you are a moral and practical idiot.” I’m happy to report that through appeals to our campus leaders’ stated commitment to addressing climate change, the campus’ “reputational brand” for climate change research (one of the few arguments that spoke to the economists), the injustices of climate change, and our duties as educators, our resolution ultimately passed. Next, we are sending it to TIAA’s CEO and Board of Governors. 

* * * * * 

Research and science alone are not enough to make change. Organizing is always necessary, as we can see in both the TIAA effort and the direct action some climate scientists are now engaging in. It’s clear as well that we need government action — for example, for robust and convenient high-speed electrified rail infrastructure that would allow us to gather in low-carbon ways for scholarly exchange and networking; hopefully, more geographers will become involved in organized policy advocacy in this realm. Lastly, I am keenly aware of the contradiction between the focus of this column and the fact that the in-person component of the 2024 hybrid AAG annual meeting is scheduled to take place in Hawaii, a costly travel destination in terms of both dollars and carbon. This conference location was chosen many years ago and legal structures (of hotel contracts) preclude change. Can a significant number of geographers adopt an epistemology of coordination, perhaps in the form of many local, relationship-building nodes, as an alternative to carbon-costly air travel? Will we look up?

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0109


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

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Fraught Times

In a recent review of Don’t Look Up, the terrifyingly close-to-home satire of collective inaction on global warming, Pablo Ortiz of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that one form of “looking up” is to write and share about how climate change is affecting you, as a means of building a larger movement. Granted, this suggestion is pretty tame when some climate scientists are taking direct action, such as chaining themselves to the White House fence after the release of the most recent IPCC report (one Facebook commentator quipped, “Remember when climate scientists were content to do research, publish papers, and issue dire warnings?”). Yet, taking Ortiz’s advice, I begin here by briefly describing one way climate change is affecting the place I live.  

Fire season in Colorado used to be the summer. Not anymore. In fact, there is no longer really a fire season; the landscape burns destructively year-round. On December 30, a once-unthinkable winter grassland fire destroyed more than 1000 houses and caused 1 billion USD in insured losses, just south of my neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado. Just three months later, another wildfire led to the mandatory evacuation of 19,000 people living in 8000 homes, including mine. That was March 26. On April 7, as I was heading home from the office, I received a message from my sixth-grade son, “another fire!” This one was very close to the March 26 fire, which was still burning. On April 19, there were four separate fires burning in Boulder County, leading to more evacuations. Half of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have happened since 2018. A new sense of dread now seeps through the pores of everyday life, deepening the enduring exhaustion of the pandemic.   

I want to acknowledge here that crisis narratives about climate change have been critiqued by Indigenous scholars. Even though many of us are experiencing climate change as an unprecedented emergency, Indigenous peoples have already faced climate change in the form of territorial dispossession and displacement to new ecosystems and climates. Moreover, as Potawatomi environmental justice scholar Kyle Whyte reminds us, colonialism has long used perceived and real crises to defend unjust actions. He argues for an epistemology of coordination rather than crisis, one based on the importance of moral bonds or kinship relationships, as necessary for responding to change without further justifying violence. With these cautions in mind, though, I wonder if it isn’t still necessary to treat climate change as a crisis when it comes to the capitalist status quo of corporate profits and the discursive formation that makes us think there is no alternative.  

* * * * * 

This spring, several colleagues and I embarked on a modest effort to “look up,” in the form of authoring a faculty resolution calling on TIAA to divest from the climate crisis and reinvest in climate justice. Through TIAA-Divest!, an organization that works with faculty, staff and students to encourage TIAA to become a more responsible investor, we learned that even though TIAA represents itself as a “leader in responsible investing” and states that “climate change poses long-term risks to investments,” it invests at least 16 billion dollars in fossil fuel stocks, across 77 equity funds. Furthermore, the Brazilian federal land agency and a Brazilian state court found TIAA (and Harvard University’s endowment fund) to have violated foreign land ownership law in its acquisition of half a million acres of farmland, working through opaque corporate structures and shell companies. Though TIAA maintains that it was in compliance with the law, these investments have clearly aided land grabs from peasants and indigenous peoples, and contributed to deforestation and thus climate change.

In the US, TIAA directly financed 35% of the construction costs of Cricket Valley Energy, a fracked natural gas-powered electric generation station in Dover New York, in an economically disadvantaged community adjacent to one of the Northeast’s largest freshwater wetlands. This fracking operation drew protests across New York state. Even the company’s “social choice low carbon equity fund” is 3.17% invested in the oil and gas industry, and 12% invested in deforestation-risk companies across 25 holdings. The list of problems goes on. TIAA is hardly alone: Vanguard has a slightly higher percentage but an order of magnitude more fossil fuel investments. But we opted to focus on TIAA because it is the leading provider of financial services in higher education, and the only administrator of retirement funds available to faculty at my institution, as well as having a reputation as a company committed to social and environmental responsibility.  

Divestment is not uncontroversial. Geographers and other researchers have shown that ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing often amounts to little more than greenwashing, because of its unregulated nature and loose standards, as evidenced by wildly divergent ratings between different ESG rating agencies. The ESG movement is also partly resulting in what geographer Brett Christophers has called the “full-fledged romance between the fossil-fuel economy and private equity.” over the past decade. This is concerning given that private equity is far less accountable or transparent than public companies. More broadly, focusing only on ESG investment furthers capitalist logics of privatization and financialization. Big asset managers reap the benefits when they push governments to de-risk the clean energy transition for their private investments. This diverts resources from what is actually desperately needed for a just transition: public investment. None of this excellent critical work suggests, however, that divestment itself is the problem. When accompanied by calls for greater government regulation of investors and demands for public finance of the infrastructure necessary for an equitable low-carbon economic transition, divestment sends a much stronger message about the status quo than any dialogue that investors might have with corporate boards.  

These arguments for public investment were, however, not the objections that our modest resolution on TIAA encountered. The most vigorous opposition came from a business school faculty member who insisted, “divestment doesn’t work” because there will always be someone who does not care about climate change and who will thus buy divested stocks divested at a low price, and then make a profit when those same stocks inevitably increase in value. The CEOs of those companies themselves might also play this gambit through stock options. Thus, the reasoning goes, we have only rewarded those who we wished to punish. This argument is both a red herring, because financial investors and CEOs are always trying to make a profit, and provides further evidence that regulation, of both fossil fuel emissions and markets, is needed. 

When I asked what he thought those who cared about unfolding climate disasters should do instead of divestment, our colleague’s response was the pinnacle of neoliberalism: “Try to get other consumers to stop using fossil fuels.” The conviction that atomized individual consumers are the only possible source of change ignores the fundamental ways in which fossil fuels are embedded in our infrastructure, housing, and culture– unsurprising, since as geographer Matt Huber has argued, the history of American oil consumption has itself been central to the rise of neoliberalism in this country. Our business school critic also insisted that divestment is not justified by either volatile short-term fossil fuel equity prices or the impending stranded assets of fossil fuel corporations, since short term performance is meaningless and in the long run, we are all dead (no business retains value forever). Thus, a portfolio that eliminated fossil fuels is, by this definition, inferior since any constraint on investment is inevitably second-best. Presumably, this logic would also justify investing in industries that employ slave labor.  

We argued back with the work of geographers and other scholars on multiple fronts. We quoted Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future: “What’s the monetary value of human civilization? Trying to answer that question proves you are a moral and practical idiot.” I’m happy to report that through appeals to our campus leaders’ stated commitment to addressing climate change, the campus’ “reputational brand” for climate change research (one of the few arguments that spoke to the economists), the injustices of climate change, and our duties as educators, our resolution ultimately passed. Next, we are sending it to TIAA’s CEO and Board of Governors. 

* * * * * 

Research and science alone are not enough to make change. Organizing is always necessary, as we can see in both the TIAA effort and the direct action some climate scientists are now engaging in. It’s clear as well that we need government action — for example, for robust and convenient high-speed electrified rail infrastructure that would allow us to gather in low-carbon ways for scholarly exchange and networking; hopefully, more geographers will become involved in organized policy advocacy in this realm. Lastly, I am keenly aware of the contradiction between the focus of this column and the fact that the in-person component of the 2024 hybrid AAG annual meeting is scheduled to take place in Hawaii, a costly travel destination in terms of both dollars and carbon. This conference location was chosen many years ago and legal structures (of hotel contracts) preclude change. Can a significant number of geographers adopt an epistemology of coordination, perhaps in the form of many local, relationship-building nodes, as an alternative to carbon-costly air travel? Will we look up?

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0109


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

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On AAG Regions Connect, and the Geographies of Infrastructure

On October 14-16, six out of nine AAG Regional Divisions, the Applied Geography Conference, and the AAG are collaborating to put on an innovative event: a simultaneous, networked conference of annual meetings with in-person, hybrid, and virtual components. Anyone can sign up to give a paper/poster in person at one of the three in-person meetings (the others will be held only virtually due to COVID19), or online, as well as to access virtual content from other regions, virtual professional development workshops organized by AAG, and streamed keynote addresses. This event, AAG Regions Connect: A Joint Climate-Forward Initiative, has two key aims.   

The first goal is to experiment with one potential model for future national AAG meetings, in which participants would be able to take a train, bus, or carpool to a location significantly closer to home than the average national meeting. These would allow for in-person interactions between attendees, while also creating a sense of broader community through streaming of coordinated, higher-profile events such as keynotes and plenaries, happening at different nodes but broadcast to all locations. Current research shows that cars with two or more passengers produce significantly fewer carbon emissions per passenger mile compared to traveling the same distance by commercial flight.   

The possibility of future international nodes could also address barriers to travel across national borders, as well as having very significant CO2 reductions.  In fact, a 2020 commentary published in Nature examined attendance patterns for the 2019 annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. The authors, including AAG member Debbie Hopkins, find that a three-hub meeting held simultaneously in Chicago, Tokyo, and Paris, could, along with 5% virtual attendance, reduce carbon emissions by 79% compared to that meeting (see graphic). Here, the modeled savings are due to the elimination of many intercontinental flights. Indeed 36% of the attendees took intercontinental flights that accounted for about 75% of the 2019 AGU meeting’s travel-related emissions. To see the spatial visualization of attendees’ originating locations, view this graphic by climate physicist Milan Klöwer. 

Image source: Milan Klöwer, “An analysis of ways to decarbonize conference travel after COVID-19,” by Klöwer, Hopkins, Allen, and Higham. Originally published in Nature 583, 356-359 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02057-2.

The second major aim of AAG Regions Connect is to raise the profile of the regional divisions and encourage more North America-based geographers to attend their meetings. The AAG is one of a minority of professional organizations with regional divisions (most, like AGU and the American Anthropological Association have thematic or subfield-based sections; the International Studies Association also has regions, however). Much proverbial ink has been spilled in newsletter columns by former AAG presidents about the benefits of regional meetings and the ways they advance Geography, but also the challenges they face. Recent Past President David Kaplan established a Regional Divisions Task Force to address issues such as governance, related to regions’ dependence on volunteers rather than paid staff; meeting management; lack of recognition for regional leaders’ service; and attendance. The Task Force’s recommendations were accepted by Council and are being implemented, including through AAG Regions Connect.  

Probably the most challenging issue identified by both the task force and many former AAG presidents is the lack of engagement by members of larger departments, particularly those in major research universities, in many regions due to myriad factors including competing demands on time, department cultures that do not prioritize these meetings, and inertia based on past practice. Indeed, I am one of these people; neither my graduate department nor my current department expected or encouraged attendance at regional meetings. As a result, until last year, I have not. As with all conferences, the more people in one’s subfield or professional circle who attend, the more momentum builds, and the more likely attendance is. And yet, there are clearly a lot of inspiring things happening at regional meetings.  

If we as geographers are truly serious about significantly enhancing participation at Regional Division meetings, I believe one of the best ways to do that may be to make such meetings the only option in any given year. That is, attendance at one’s regional divisional meeting, in a networked conference, becomes the national meeting itself, once every two or three years. Of course, this would only be worth trying if Regions are interested – and different Regions may have different stances given their quite varied sizes, histories, and circumstances. There would be many logistical questions to work out, such as whether session organization and calls for papers by specialty groups can be coordinated across regions, and how much content should or could be streamed or virtual versus in-person only. Still, it is one scenario that could build on this year’s AAG Regions Connect initiative to meet dual goals of reducing meeting-related carbon emissions and increasing participation in regional meetings. If you are reading this and haven’t signed up for AAG Regions Connect, I hope you will consider doing so!  

* * * 

Virtual and hybrid conferencing are of course dependent, like our entire past year of learning and teaching through the COVID19 pandemic, on digital infrastructure. Yet, we also know that access to basic infrastructure – from indoor plumbing for safe drinking water to the internet – is highly uneven globally and within the United States. As the U.S. House of Representatives debates an infrastructure bill, it seems worth revisiting some basics of the digital divide and discussing how AAG has tried to respond to it.  

Maps highlight the spatiality of the digital divide, including the lack of access to adequate broadband in rural areas and especially in Tribal lands. Indeed, about 27% of households in the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American territory, do not even have access to electricity, making up about 75% of the unelectrified households in the U.S. Over half of Navajo chapters lack broadband access, and more generally about 35% of residents of tribal land in the US do not have access to broadband. Even where it is available, it is significantly more expensive than elsewhere – putting it out of reach for often-impoverished tribal citizens – a result of internet provision being treated as a profit-driven industry rather than as basic infrastructure that is now fundamental to everyday life.   

As an aside, as someone who has done research in a very sparsely populated place (the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in the PRC had an average population density in 2010 of 6.7 people/square miles, comparable to the Navajo nation’s 6.3 people/square miles that year), this seems particularly unacceptable. When I was a graduate student studying Tibetan in Lhasa about two decades ago, dial-up internet was just making an appearance, and was extremely slow and expensive. Today, 99% of TAR villages are covered by 4G, fiber-optic internet with low service fees. I have had better luck being able to access my email traveling around rural Tibet than I have camping not too far from my home in Colorado. Leaving everything else aside, I bring this up simply to state that the current lack of infrastructure in the US is ultimately a choice, not a fact of nature.   

“…the current lack of infrastructure in the US is ultimately a choice, not a fact of nature.”   

Digital inequalities are also severe for Blacks and Latinx Americans, affecting adults and children alike. Disasters such as the COVID19 pandemic both reveal and exacerbate inequality and vulnerability. The switch to remote learning as a result of COVID19 thus produced severe problems for many students at Tribal Colleges & Universities (TCUs), Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs), and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) who do not have access to the computers, software, and internet they need to be able to feasibly complete their coursework.  

This is a national problem that can only be addressed at the national scale. Hopefully, the infrastructure bill currently under consideration, which allocates 65 billion USD (down from the original 100 billion), will make real progress. However, that does not mean there is no role for geographers to play. In mid-2020, AAG Council approved – as one of nine projects selected by the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force – the Bridging the Digital Divide initiative directed at students most vulnerable to missing out on their geography-related education. This initiative invited faculty who teach Geography classes at TCUs and HBCUs to apply for funding for their students. A small committee, which included faculty from TCUs and HBCUs, selected 23 applications (from 8 TCUs, 14 HBCUs and 1 predominantly Black institution). At a total cost of $238K, the initiative helped students access laptops, internet connections (WIFI hotspots and service), software, and other equipment, while enabling faculty to offer socially distanced classrooms and virtual fieldwork experiences.  

Despite what we all wish, the COVID19 pandemic is far from over, and the first year of the Bridging the Digital Divide initiative confirmed the extensive nature of infrastructural needs. It also demonstrated some other things. Among them, there are very few TCUs or HBCUs with Geography majors. On the other hand, there are many GIS classes and certificates even in the absence of a major or minor, including at 25 out of 37 TCUs. Several faculty members at HBCUs also explicitly articulated the need for more support for geospatial education from college administrators, and observed that the cancellation of internships during COVID19 had a disproportionately significant impact on minority students who cannot rely on other networks for job leads.  

Esri has agreed to partner with AAG to provide additional funding for equipment and licenses through Bridging the Digital Divide. AAG Council has also approved a second round of funding, the call for which will go out soon. Of course, entrenched inequalities are not easily undone, nor can they be approached without humility and reflexivity. Still, as more and more geographers are turning to the study of infrastructure, it is also appropriate for AAG to try to play a part in addressing the digital divide as it concerns geography educators and their students. 

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0100


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

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Geographers and Redistricting

When I taught my Geography of China class in fall 2019, I had a student from the PRC whom I remember as being particularly open-minded and eager to learn.  One day, after I lectured about the massive Hong Kong protests for universal suffrage and the principle of one-person one-vote that were occurring, he asked, nonplussed, “Why do they care so much about one-person one-vote? What’s the big deal? Why bother protesting for that?” He was genuinely curious about what could motivate so many people to expend so much effort on something that didn’t seem to him to be much preferable to the alternative.  I explained the benefits of representative and liberal democracy, accountability of one’s elected officials, and the importance of citizens having a real voice in governance, but I could see the skepticism from him and other international students about what US democracy was looking like to the rest of the world.  

There’s also a slightly different way to interpret his question: why were the people of Hong Kong struggling so hard for an ideal that has proven elusive even for the world’s self-proclaimed champion of democracy?  Consider the first meaning of “one-person one-vote” – universal suffrage.  Aside from the obvious fact that voting in the US was originally limited to only white men with property, this year has seen an unprecedented wave of over four hundred voter suppression bills introduced in state legislatures across the country.  Georgia has notoriously made it illegal for anyone other than a poll worker to give food or water to anyone waiting in line to vote, disproportionately affecting minority communities where wait times are very long and barriers to voting formidable. Other bills make it more difficult to register, establish strict photo ID laws, and limit access to voting by restricting mail-in ballots, absentee ballots, early voting, number of polling sites, and hours polling sites are open.  These and other measures disproportionately affect people of color, the elderly, and those with disabilities. In one 2016 inspection, nearly two-thirds of polling places had at least one impediment for those with disabilities, up from less than one-half in 2008.  Many Native Americans who live on reservations do not have traditional street addresses, causing their voter registration applications to be rejected; furthermore, because of increasing limits on polling sites and drop boxes, some Native Americans have had to drive up to 150 miles in order to vote.  

Beyond these obstacles to voting access that belie the idea of universal suffrage, however, there is also a second meaning to “one-person one-vote”: the principle that any one person’s voting power should be roughly equivalent to another’s. Representation in the US Senate does not adhere to this principle (nor the Electoral College for the selection of the president): a voter in rural Vermont effectively has sixty times the clout of a voter in California. The House of Representatives, though, is supposed to be the people’s house, with representation proportional to the population (though every state must have at least one representative).  It is for this reason that there is a decennial census, in order to apportion Congressional representatives based on population change. Since the number of House seats was frozen at 435 by an act of Congress in 1929, reapportionment has meant the movement of Congressional seats from slow-growing to faster-growing states.  Recent scholarship in political geography suggests that this process has disadvantaged lower income, less educated, and minority populations. The findings of the 2020 Census, delayed due to the pandemic, have resulted in seven states losing one seat each, five states gaining one seat each, and Texas gaining two seats.  

After reapportionment comes redistricting: the drawing of electoral district boundaries for Congressional districts as well as state legislatures.  The Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment dictate that in any given state, congressional districts and state legislative districts must have equal populations.  Redistricting must also follow the Voting Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on race (though it has been substantially gutted by 2013 and 2021 Supreme Court decisions).  Beyond this, however, the actual drawing of districts is up to each state.  Common criteria for districts, adopted by many states, include geographic compactness, contiguity, preservation of communities of interest, preservation of counties or other political subdivisions, and competitiveness. 

Fair redistricting is indispensable to a healthy democratic republic. But what exactly is fair?  This turns out to be a rather difficult question; it is much easier to see when things are blatantly not fair – when they don’t adhere to one-person one-vote in the second sense of equal representation. Gerrymandering is the term used to describe a configuration where district boundaries give unfair advantages to an incumbent, a political party (partisan gerrymandering), or another group.  The portmanteau was coined in 1812 after a governor named Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan which looked like a salamander  and was designed to keep his political party in power.  Partisan gerrymandering has a long history in the US, with two of its most common tactics being “cracking” and “packing.”  Cracking refers to spreading members of a political or ethnic/racial minority into many districts to ensure they cannot elect a representative of their choice, while packing is the concentration of voters of one type into one district, to reduce their overall influence.  Although the strategies seem plain enough, interpretations can be contested in practice. In particular, in the 1990s, a wave of majority-minority districts was created to prevent or reverse racial discrimination caused by earlier gerrymandering.  But these attempts to prevent cracking minority representation were seen by others as a form of packing.  

Since the 1960s, there has been increasing litigation as well as citizen attention to the often highly partisan results of redistricting.  One response has been the creation of Independent Redistricting Commissions (IRCs) to either oversee or delineate congressional and legislative boundaries. In addition, many states, regardless of whether they have IRCs, have opportunities for public comment and testimony, public hearings, public map submissions, and citizen review.  

Here is where geographers come in – or, at least, should.  After all, there are few things as geographical as the drawing of maps. Yet, though there continues to be research on electoral geography (for example see recent articles by WebsterForest, and Rossiter et al.), most research on redistricting has been done by political scientists, mathematicians and lawyers.  Even more relevant here is the fact that geographers have by and large been absent from the current redistricting process underway across the US.   This is no doubt due in part to the fact that each state has a different process, making it harder to identify opportunities to get involved. It is for this reason that AAG is launching a virtual Redistricting Panel Series this month to equip geographers with the tools and knowledge to take action in their home states as district maps are redrawn.  There will be panels for up to 15 states this month, organized by geographers and hosted on AAG’s virtual platform. Anyone is welcome to register for a panel, which will focus on the redistricting process of that particular state, how geographers can get involved, and why geospatial thinking is indispensable to the effort to create fair outcomes.  

My own participation in a recent public hearing of the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commission confirmed just how relevant geographical considerations are – for example, in defining “communities of interest.” Preliminary maps had put several small mountain towns in western Boulder County into a large district that crossed county lines and was comprised of many mountain areas. In this version of redistricting, mountain towns tied to the ski industry were treated as a community of interest.  But many at the hearing argued that in fact the more relevant community of interest is the watershed.  “Everything flows downhill” said one participant: residents of the mountain towns come downhill for schools and jobs, much as the water in the reservoir flows east down to larger population centers. Others argued about the donut shape that the city of Boulder had been divided into for a state house district, suggesting that this split a community of interest that has developed around the issue of affordable housing.  Others still argued that, given their concern about the health and environmental impacts of fracking, they should not be placed in a district with a majority pro-fracking and anti-regulation population. An exasperated IRC member asked several times how the speakers would draw the lines instead, given the requirements of equal population.  A former county commissioner sympathized with the IRC, acknowledging the difficulty of their task: “One person’s ‘gerry’,” he noted, “is another person’s ‘mander.’”   

I hope that AAG’s Redistricting Panel Series will inspire geographers to get involved, contributing their geospatial expertise and sensibilities to these extraordinarily important, and difficult, tasks. To see panels and register, visit this link.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0099


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

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Physical Geography and the AAG

Geography is the quintessential interdisciplinary discipline — or, as AAG past president Mona Domosh has described it, a ‘promiscuous discipline,’ an undisciplined discipline — a radically intradisciplinary discipline. For someone like myself whose research is in human and nature-society geography, this means that my work is in conversation not only with that of other geographers, but also in some cases with the work of anthropologists and sociologists, and with those in other interdisciplinary fields like environmental studies, development studies, and even religious studies. My colleagues in Geographic Information Science collaborate with computer scientists and applied mathematicians, among others. And physical geographers — including geomorphologists, climatologists, biogeographers, hydrologists, and soil scientists — read and want their work read not only by geographers but also by geologists, ecologists, atmospheric scientists, civil engineers, and aerospace engineers. If all these other disciplines are the spokes, geography imagines itself as the hub, with porous boundaries but shared concerns, whether about the relationship between humans and the earth’s surface, about space-time, about scale, or about the manifold human and physical landscapes of the earth.

In this arrangement, many Geography departments thrive in producing research and teaching students. And yet, I believe there are some questions we need to ask about the positionality of physical geographers within the discipline, and the role of AAG in serving the needs of all geographers.

Consider this. A 2015 survey of the AAG membership, current and lapsed, found that of those who responded, only 13.7% identified physical geography as their primary focus (compared to 51.6% human geography). Similarly, a 2020 survey by AAG found that of academics, 20% identified physical geography as their primary field (vs. 57% human geography) and only 17% of students identified physical geography as their primary field. This is down considerably from 1979, when Melvin Marcus noted that 36% of members were physical geographers.

In my own department, almost all physical geographers attend the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting every year – and the AAG only every few years, if at all. With over 25,000 attendees every year now, AGU’s meeting has rapidly become the preeminent conference for earth and environmental scientists of all stripes. Given limitations of time and dollars (not to mention the carbon costs of conference travel), most of us cannot afford to travel to more than one major conference a year, and for physical geographers, the choice is increasingly AGU over AAG (or for that matter, in some cases, also over the Ecological Society of America (ESA) or the Geological Society of America (GSA) meetings). As AGU, which boasts 60,000 members, gets larger and larger, it is no wonder that it has become a center of gravity for many current research specializations of physical geographers, who by and large identify with the rise of Earth System Science as an integrative approach to the geosciences. As circles of scientists move towards a conference, special sessions, invited talks, side meetings, and other events draw a critical mass of researchers, who often attend as much to see those colleagues as to give talks.

Similarly, for the discipline’s flagship journal in the United States, the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, the percentage of submissions to the “Physical Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences” section has decreased over time. Data from 2014 to 2020 show that on average, physical geography articles constituted about 9% of total new manuscripts and 11% of total accepted manuscripts. Things were not always thus. When the AAG was founded in 1904, physical geography dominated the organization and the field; indeed, at that time geography itself was often equated with physical geography, and specifically, geomorphology (Marcus 1979Rhoads 2004Aspinall 2010).  From 1911-1923 articles in physical geography accounted for between 50-100% of those published in the Annals. There was a significant dip in the prominence of physical geography from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s, followed by a revival from the 1960s to 1980s that coincided with the increasing specialization of and creation of journals for subfields within physical geography. Writing in 2004, Bruce Rhoads stated that from about 1923 to 2004, the long-term average was 21% physical geography articles in the Annals.

The relatively low percentage of physical geography articles in journals of the AAG relative to the number of physical geographers teaching and researching in Geography departments is thus by no means new. However, it has been exacerbated over the past two decades by the proliferation of scholarly journals, the increasing specialization of research areas, and increasing interdisciplinary collaborations between physical geographers and other earth and environmental scientists who have other target journals. Moreover, consider that AAG has two journals, the Annals and Professional Geographer, whereas the ESA now publishes six, and the AGU an astounding twenty-two journals.

Physical geographers naturally want their work read, and cited, by others in their specific research areas – and geologists, hydrologists, ecologists, climatologists, etc. don’t tend to read the Annals or Professional Geographer. The key issue is audience. Geography journals are broad, encompassing multiple subdisciplines, unlike AGU’s specifically targeted journals. AGU has managed to find a way to provide both depth and specialization (in specific journals and membership sections) as well as interdisciplinarity (in the very large annual conference). Another important issue is turnaround time. For many journals in the earth sciences, articles can appear online within three or four months of submission; the Annals takes much longer.

Beyond these, impact factors (IF) may also make a difference, given how much metrics have been made to matter in academia these days. Though the impact factor of the Annals is quite high for Geography (3.3 in 2019, 4.68 in 2020), as is that of Progress in Physical Geography (3.488), the impact factors of journals in other disciplines are comparable, or in some cases higher due in part to the size of the fields. For example, the 2020 IF for the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters was 4.72 and Water Resources Research’s was 5.24. The ESA’s Ecology has an IF of 5.5; American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate has an IF of 5.7 and its Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society an IF of 9.834.

…in many departments, retiring climatologists, geomorphologists, and biogeographers have been replaced by new faculty whose training is from other disciplines with their own strong identities. Without these more senior physical geographers as mentors or models, an identification with Geography as a discipline is likely to become ever more dissipated.

In addition to these issues, though, there is also a tension within physical geography between those — more often geographers trained in Geography departments — who embrace the more holistic dimensions of the discipline, and those who are frustrated that this holistic perspective may disadvantage them in the eyes of geoscientists who see such an approach as less “rigorous.” Related is also a tension between geography’s field-based tradition and broader trends towards a greater emphasis on numerical modeling. Of note too is that in many departments, retiring climatologists, geomorphologists, and biogeographers have been replaced by new faculty whose training is from other disciplines with their own strong identities. Without these more senior physical geographers as mentors or models, an identification with Geography as a discipline is likely to become ever more dissipated.

I don’t think any of this is a problem for individual geographers or even for departments.  My concern is with what else AAG as an organization could be doing for physical geographers. What would make it worth it to physical geographers to join the AAG, itself a way to continually sustain our broader academic community around our holistic, undisciplined discipline? How do we achieve a healthy balance of the centrifugal forces that pull physical geographers into the orbit of other disciplines with the centripetal force that keeps us together as geographers? After all, many of my physical geography colleagues, even if their degrees were not in Geography (as mine too, were not), do really appreciate the holistic nature of the discipline. And, are graduates in physical geography from Geography departments going on to be hired as faculty members in other Geography departments? If not, what might facilitate that?

There are clearly no easy answers, but here are a few ideas, which I’ve formulated with the help of several physical geography colleagues.

First, the advent of the Special Issues of the Annals since 2009, seems to me to be a very positive development given that the themes have been capacious enough for contributions from the whole range of subspecialities within geography. Such holistic and integrative perspectives are very much geography’s strengths. Perhaps highlighting these special issues to colleagues in other Earth System Science fields would be one productive measure, especially as Earth System Sciences also slowly opens up to more consideration of human dimensions.

Second, there are many ways that AAG as an organization could strengthen its appeal to physical geographers. More recognition for early career faculty as well as students in physical geography could be helpful, for example through early career awards and paper awards. These would have to be not just granted, but also advertised widely to physical geographers in a variety of institutional locations. Addressing the relative absence of postdoctoral fellowships in Geography compared to other departments associated with Earth Systems Scientists is also important. Keynote addresses and high-profile events at AAG meetings, whether in person or virtual, regional or national, could also help increase interest. Finding ways to reinvigorate key AAG specialty groups in physical geography is also important. AAG could sponsor workshops for graduate students and early career faculty on grant proposal writing. Moreover, AAG could be well-situated to help geoscientists tackle issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, given Geography’s integration of human geographic expertise on such issues together with the geosciences.  Finally, training sessions or other initiatives focused on topics such as highlighting women physical geographers or tools for addressing racial inequities in geoscience could help raise AAG’s profile.

I offer these suggestions cognizant that I’m not a physical geographer, so I stand to be corrected if any of what I’ve written here seems off. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0095

Sources

Aspinall, Richard. 2010. “A century of physical geography research in the Annals.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100(5): 1049-1059.

 

Harrison, Stephan, Doreen Massey, Keith Richards, Francis Magilligan, Nigel Thrift, and

Barbara Bender. 2004. “Thinking across the divide: perspectives on the conversations

between physical and human geography.” Area 36(4): 435-442.

 

Marcus, Melvin. 1979. “Coming full circle: Physical geography in the twentieth century.”

Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69(4): 521-532.

 

Rhoads, Bruce L. 2004. “Whither physical geography?” Annals of the Association of American

Geographers 94(4): 748-755.

 


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

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Moving Forward on Climate Change and Professional Ethics

A few weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that atmospheric CO2 concentrations, at 419 ppm, have now reached 150% of their pre-industrial levels – the highest in more than four million years, when sea levels were about 24 meters higher, the global average surface temperature almost 4ºC warmer than today, and the first modern humans had more than three million years yet to appear on earth.   The world-historical COVID-19 pandemic, still wreaking havoc across the mostly unvaccinated globe, temporarily decreased emissions, but not enough to be detectable in rising atmospheric CO2 levels. NOAA has recently defined new “normal” temperatures that are significantly higher than those in the past.  

As I write, a hazardous and extreme heat wave has gripped the Southwestern US, stretching power grids to their limits and threatening heat deaths. The entire Western United States is also in the throes of a severe drought that is expected to last all summer.  Indeed, global warming has contributed significantly to changing what would have otherwise been a moderate drought in the Southwestern US into a megadrought worse than has been seen for almost a millennium. This year, drought is predicted to lead to another ruinous, record-breaking fire season, on the heels of nightmarish 2020 fire season in the Western US – and around the world. It is also affecting access to safe drinking water and forcing farmers to make difficult decisions about what crops to keep, which will likely lead to higher food prices. 

None of this is news to geographers, so why start my first column as AAG president with a reminder of the ongoing climate devastation?  There are several reasons, beyond my embodied experience of consecutive days of record-shattering heat in my home state of Colorado. (These days, my kids and I have taken to sleeping in a tent on our back porch – itself a privilege.)  First, geographers have been at the forefront of research on climate change, adaptation, resilience, and climate justice, but our research as geographers is often not acknowledged in the press or known to the public; this is relevant to the visibility, and ultimately health, of the discipline. Second, climate change is one of four primary policy campaigns that AAG will be undertaking over the next 1-2 years. Through the release of the new AAG website, expected later in 2021, geographers will be able to more easily engage with legislation and policy related to climate change.   

Third, I want to use this opportunity to highlight the work of the Climate Action Task Force, which has been led by Professor Wendy Jepson and which I joined in 2020.  As a reminder, this task force was formed by Council to undertake the task of realizing the goals of a 2019 member petition: to reduce CO2 emissions related to the Annual Meeting commensurate with what the IPCC states is needed to limit warming to 1.5 C  — that is, a 45% reduction (from 2010 levels) by 2030.  In doing so, the Task Force is seeking ways to position AAG as a leader and model of how large organizations can respond to climate change in a manner that both meets the needs of their members and is environmentally and socially just.   

A 45% reduction is not a trivial change; it’s not a tweak around the margins of business as usual. Achieving this goal would mean a radical transformation in how the AAG stays financially solvent, and perhaps how we form our identities as geographers.  As such, AAG can only move forward through extensive member participation and dialogue about what this means and how we might get from here to there.  These conversations have already begun. At the virtual meeting this spring, the Task Force hosted a collaborative keynote panel of anthropologists who shared their creative and inspiring reflections and experiences on climate-friendly and accessible conferencing, as well as two roundtables of dialogue amongst geographers representing different types of institutions, career stages, and social identities to consider the meaning of annual in-person meetings to their careers, and share ideas for future formats that would be less carbon intensive and yet meet geographers’ needs.   

Going forward, The Professional Geographer will soon publish a Focus Section that presents a variety of perspectives on low-carbon annual meetings.  The Climate Action Task Force is looking forward to community commentary on these contributions and further brainstorming through the new AAG website.  Looking down the road, AAG will also be performing a financial analysis of different future meeting models, working collaboratively with the AAG Regions on a climate-forward initiative, encouraging the formation of meeting nodes, and further soliciting all members’ input through a survey.  I will revisit these important issues in future columns.  

* * * 

If AAG action on climate change has seemed a long time coming to some members, so too has an update of the AAG Statement on Professional Ethics, last revised more than a decade ago, in 2009, long before the implementation of the Professional Conduct Policy. Indeed, graduate students have recently argued that it is outdated, too long, confusing, and falls short of providing clear guidance, especially compared to those of other scholarly organizations.  I am happy to share, therefore, that at its Spring 2021 meeting, AAG Council unanimously approved a revised Statement on Professional Ethics, which can be accessed here. AAG will soon make it readily available for review whenever a member joins or renews, and during the Annual Meeting registration process. 

The impetus for this came from the report of the AAG Geography and Military Study Committee, which was formed in 2017 by AAG Council in response to a member petition calling on the AAG to study the engagement of Geography with US military and intelligence communities vis-à-vis safety, labor demand, curriculum, academic freedom, and ethics, and to offer concrete recommendations based on its report.  Both the Report and the timing of the resulting process have subsequently been subject to critique.  What I want to focus on here, though, are several of the Report’s recommendations that Council voted in Fall 2020 to accept, including: 

 

Revise the AAG code of ethics statement and policy as it relates to the ethical issues that may arise from military-funded research. This should include comparing the AAG statement (current and proposed) with the codes of ethics related to research developed by other disciplines such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) as well as the Department of Defense (DoD) statement of ethics as it relates to research. 

 

and 

 

Update and revise the AAG Statement on Professional Ethics (every few years). With new and revised updates, encourage members of the association to read them as part of the membership renewal and meeting registration processes. 

 

In response to this Report, Council also approved the formation of an implementation committee, which I chaired, to update the ethics statement.   

The committee began its work by consulting other professional organizations’ statements of ethics and, based on those models, revised the 2009 Statement to focus on practical and easily memorable principles and actions.  The committee also integrated references to the 2020 Professional Conduct Policy, removed discussion of issues regulated elsewhere (such as regarding the confidentiality of student grades), updated the language regarding new technologies, and explicitly mentioned the ethics of geographers’ engagements with the military, intelligence, security, policing and warfare where specifically relevant, but with an eye toward a Statement broad enough to cover all ethical obligations. It was a significant undertaking conducted over a short period of time, and I want to sincerely thank the committee members for putting in so much, and such thoughtful, time and effort to this task: Council member Richard Kujawa (Saint Michael’s College), Sue Roberts (UKY), Reuben Rose-Redwood (UVic), and former AAG president Eric Sheppard (UCLA). 

Of course, no Statement of Ethics is ever final or perfect, especially as ethics themselves are not a matter that can be settled once and for all. Thus, the AAG should become proactively engaged with the question of ethics, on an ongoing basis. This is already starting to happen, not only with plans for Council to revisit and update the Statement every three years, but also with the ongoing GeoEthics Webinar Series, a partnership between AAG, Esri, and the Center for Spatial Studies at UC-Santa Barbara. Once the AAG’s new website is up and running, we hope to offer a list of links and publications on ethics and geography, and provide a space for feedback for all AAG members, including reactions to the Ethics statement, additional resources, and other discussion. 

If ethics are, in part, about doing no harm, then a commitment to act to reduce the future harms of climate change is one in accordance with our stated ethical principles.  I also want to point out that both the new Statement on Professional Ethics and the work of the Climate Change Task Force are ultimately the results of member petitions to Council.  Both petitions have sparked concrete actions that are moving the AAG forward in a positive direction toward addressing the pressing challenges facing the earth and its peoples in the 21st century.   

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0094


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 emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion. 

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On Teaching, Mentoring, Balance, and Service

With summer almost here, I’m about to head into my last year as an academic. I’m “retiring” June 2022, although in truth I’ll work full time running my family’s winery and nonprofit, both built around the mission of providing training, jobs, and community for those with disabilities. As I transition from academics, Andrew and I are encountering many things we didn’t know were part of running a small business. This transition has prompted me to reflect on my transition from student to faculty member and, in turn, on how we prepare our graduate students for major life and career transitions.

In my case, I was fortunate. Judy Olson, my PhD advisor at Michigan State from 1996 to 1999, was and is amazing. Those three years were life-changing; Judy gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life—the courage to think. Her advising style was respectful and quietly demanding. She didn’t give answers, but provided guidance on how to discover them. Judy also instilled in her advisees the importance of service, something she epitomizes herself. I would not be AAG president if she hadn’t steered me in that direction. Judy and my department also gave me the opportunity to teach my own class, a large multi-section beast of a GIS class that was a major learning experience for students—and for me.

I was lucky to receive so much guidance, support, and preparation. Even so, I was thoroughly unprepared for life as a faculty member. Almost overnight, I went from being a student, focusing only on my own research, writing, and limited teaching to mentoring many students, teaching multiple classes, having much higher research expectations, juggling work-life balance in a whole new way, and… the service. So much service.

As I reflected on my major career transitions, I became curious about the student-faculty transition of others and whether those of us in PhD-granting programs are adequately preparing our students to launch into successful careers. So, I contacted multiple individuals in different positions and institutions (thank you all!) and asked them two questions: “What experience in your PhD program best prepared you for your career?” and “What didn’t you learn that you wish you had?”

Intriguingly, almost no one mentioned research training or field expertise in response to either question. Perhaps that’s because most people feel that their PhD program prepared them for future research and expected that to be the primary focus. Instead, answers focused on the preparedness (or non-preparedness) in two main areas: Teaching and Balance. I’ll provide some very brief highlights below. For a thoughtful and much deeper discussion of mentoring, see Kavita Pandit’s 2020 article Mentoring graduate students in an era of faculty career restructuring.

Teaching: While teaching loads vary by type of institution (e.g., teaching vs. research intensive, community college vs. 4-year college, etc.), all faculty I know teach. Moreover, even at a research-intensive institution, I spend more time talking with colleagues about teaching than I do about research. Likewise, I spend much more time working with graduate students than I do conducting literature reviews or launching new research. And, yet, most PhD students receive little to no formal teaching training, and many PhDs do not even experience teaching our own class until we become faculty members.  This almost inevitably leads to us dusting off our old syllabi and notes taken as students, frantically updating content-related notes right up until class starts and—only occasionally—emulating what we believed were the best practices to help students learn.  As one of my friends said: “I had no teaching experience. I mean none. The first time I taught was when I walked into a classroom of 80 students.”

There was one exception in the answers: a friend said he received an intense amount of formal pedagogic training. In summarizing his experience and its impact, he stated, “The professors were professional educators and the students were in-service teachers. Wow. I learned about pedagogy, good reflective teaching practice, and the language of assessment (student learning objectives, rubrics, normalizing grading expectations, etc.).”

What a show-off.

But… that really should be the standard we set for training the graduate students who will be the future educators in higher education.

Recent years—and particularly the Covid-year-of-teaching-remotely—have added a major issue that makes preparing graduate students for teaching far more complex. It’s true that I spend more time talking about teaching with my colleagues than I do about research. But, lately, I’ve spent even more time talking about issues of mental health and how to help guide students who experience issues across the spectrum of mild anxiety to catastrophic breakdowns. Thus, in addition to preparing our graduate students to use best learning practices, organize stimulating class materials, and prompt discussions, they now need to understand that their roles as teacher/mentors extend well beyond the basics of pedagogy. For many faculty, engaging with students as fellow humans brings challenges that can seem to blend roles of teacher and counselor. One of my friends summed up this challenge brilliantly: “Mental health training–this is, quite simply, the biggest challenge of my career. Teaching is care work, and yet we are rarely (if ever!) equipped with the adequate skills or support networks to deal with a range of mental health challenges in our students and colleagues.”

Let me be clear; I am NOT advocating that we be mental health professionals. But we must prepare our graduate students to know how to direct students with mental health issues to the appropriate people and centers and, equally important, how to avoid being personally ensnared in trying to solve those problems for the students.

Balance: Nearly everyone I know, including most of my friends and colleagues who responded to my email request for input, struggle with work-life balance and time management.

Achieving work-life balance has been a priority for me for about 10 years. I’m pretty much failing. But, here are the four things that I regularly try to accomplish:

  1. Set boundaries and work hours. I’ve actually been pretty good at this one because it involves cocktails. When Andrew first started as Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, I implemented evening cocktail hour.  This is the moment when work stops.
  2. Make time for yourself, family, and friends. I’m super bad at the first, pretty good at the second, and marginal at the third.
  3. Work a job you love. This is absolutely one of the most important things. Because, even if you have achieved work-life balance, if you don’t like your job, you’re not in equilibrium. And, if you do find yourself out of balance, at least the time demands are something that you enjoy.

Finally, 4. accept that there is no constant nor perfect work-life balance.

The last one is especially important for me to focus on as I sit here at 5am working on my column because there’s not enough time in the day.

Solutions: Ideally, the teaching and work-life issues are ones we should be addressing within our programs.  But in truth, most of us learn about these professional expectations and options by observing rather than through any formal training. Even observing is not effective in many cases. Many PhD programs are within R1 universities, but most PhD students get hired in other types of institutions; graduate students thus have little if any opportunity to learn about the kind of careers into which they will arrive. As a friend said, “Getting hired at a R1 and reproducing your advisor’s career is not possible or desirable for everyone.”

But we don’t have to do it all—there are external resources available. In fact, the AAG has taken a lead in providing something that is missing from most graduate programs: professional development.

Here’s where I will shamelessly plug an AAG program which a friend described as “miraculous and life-affirming.” The AAG’s Geography Faculty Development Alliance Early Career Workshop begins this week. If you miss it this year, be sure to put it on your calendar for next year. You will receive 5 days of formal training in pedagogy, professional development, and work-life balance.

The AAG also has taken a strong role in providing opportunities and training elsewhere. Both career workshops at annual and regional meetings and seminar series, such as the recent remote series organized by Ken Foote, provide excellent resources. In addition, more and more universities are providing workshops and resources on these topics for graduate students or new faculty; for example, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon funds many of its new faculty to attend a year-long program run by the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development. We thus don’t always have to develop these programs in our departments, but we should at a minimum make sure we are directing our graduate students or new faculty to these areas of training and learning.

On a different note: This is my last column as the virtual AAG President. Occasionally, people have asked me what it’s like being AAG President. Here are the top 3 Pros and Cons.

Pros:

  1. I have had a chance to get to know some amazing people, especially AAG staff.
  2. I have surprised myself in how much I enjoyed writing these columns (and working on them with Andrew, who is a phenomenal editor). They have been a turn from my usual guarded privacy.
  3. I have learned so much more about geography, geographers, and programs around the world. I’m very grateful for all of the experiences that people have shared with me (even when the experiences weren’t positive).

Cons:

  1. It didn’t help my time management or work-life balance. But, I loved the work.
  2. Email.
  3. As I’ve shared with some people, my biggest regret during my term as President is that I never met another AAG member face-to-face (excluding my husband and UO colleagues). What a strange year to be in this role. I VERY much look forward to seeing a lot of you at future meetings

With my last column words, I’d like to thank everyone for trusting me with this position. I especially want to thank Dave Kaplan for sharing so much knowledge, patience, and time with me. You are a good mentor, Dave.

It’s been an honor to serve as AAG President.

—Amy Lobben
AAG President and Professor at University of Oregon
lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0093


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 lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

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