Facing an Existential Crisis or COVID-19 and the Long Term Future of Geography

It does not seem so long ago that people were talking about the compression of space and time, about the “ends of history and geography.” How recent events have obliterated this! The pandemic of COVID-19—with its echoes of the 1918 Spanish Flu and the great contagious scourges of the past—demonstrates again that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And how well this pandemic also affirms geography’s significance! The importance of place, of distance, of context, of networks—all show the enduring importance of geography and how central geographical concerns are in understanding the disease.

Yet while the ideas and methods of geography illuminate the transmission and effects of COVID-19, geography departments have been thrust into peril. Those of us who work in universities have likely heard the same dire budgetary forecasts. States are being hit with a double whammy of declining revenues from mandated shutdowns and an increased need for services. New student enrollments are down, sometimes way down from where they were a year ago.

Colleges have already refunded large sums of money to compensate students for room and board. And while none have rebated tuition, many students and their parents are upset with what they perceive as a true loss of educational value. The promise of true community—making friends, connecting with mentors, enjoying independence and the time away from home—no longer holds.

I can see it myself. My daughter had the last chunk of her freshman year at college snatched away from her. As a bassoon and chemistry double major, there was no way that online learning—however gamely proceeded—could replace what she would have received in a classroom, lab, or concert hall. As a professor, I understand just how faculty have struggled to keep classes going in this alternative format. But as a parent, I also empathize with students who see a diminution of their education.

None of us know now whether colleges and universities will be able to return to in-person classes in the fall. There are many possible scenarios. For those who are curious, The Chronicle of Higher Education provides an updated list. While a small number have announced mostly online plans, the majority of institutions have indicated that they “expect,” “plan,” “hope,” or “intend” to return to in-person classes in the fall. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. As we all realize, higher education will take a huge hit next year; several institutions have already announced major cutbacks in positions and salaries. If in-person classes are not possible, my daughter is considering taking a semester off. This is just the reality and I expect many students would follow suit. Beyond the obstacles in accessing reliable internet connections, those students in less privileged positions may leave and not return—a true tragedy in the loss of human potential.

These are all things out of our control. But Geography departments must also look into doing things that are within our control. In my first presidential column I emphasized just how important the number of majors and enrollments are to our discipline’s health. This year, I have spoken with people whose departments are threatened. There are likely to be many more threats in the new academic year.

Geography departments must figure out the best ways to push against these headwinds. One way is to provide courses that will be most attractive to students. Students will be trying to understand this intrinsically geographical phenomenon, and departments can adjust to make sure that such courses are offered. A second way is to prepare to transition courses to an online or hybrid format if necessary, and make these plans known to administrators. I know that this will compromise a lot of geographical education, as it has already, but our field also enjoys certain strengths that make it more adaptable to a switch. For instance, many of the geospatial courses at Kent State are already taught virtually. If the worst happens and student numbers plummet, university leaders will be grateful for those points of light. The third approach is to ensure geographers are as visible as they can be in the university in responding to this crisis. We already have geographers with direct expertise in the areas of health and disease. We also can muster leadership in the evolving pedagogy, in providing faculty- and student-centered solutions to this urgency.

The way we meet now: AAG Executive Committee Meeting on Zoom (Sheryl L. Beach on IPhone)

As many of you have seen, the AAG decided at the Spring Council meeting (held on Zoom of course) that in these extraordinary times it needed to offer an extraordinary response. We therefore have proceeded to develop a COVID taskforce to develop solutions the AAG can provide to its members. We created five separate committees which will work in parallel through the months of May and early June:

  • The Departments committee will look at how the AAG might assist departments as they seek to survive—with some targeted investments and/or repurposing some staff time.
  • The Regions committee will see what we can do now to ensure the health of our nine regional divisions, especially given the uncertainties of next year. The Council just passed a set of proposals from the Regions taskforce intended to strengthen our AAG regions, and this will build on these initiatives.
  • The Members committee will focus on how best we can help AAG members in difficult situations: international members, members who work outside of academia, and precarious members.
  • The Students committee will attend to the additional stresses experienced by student members of the AAG, noting things that our association can do to ease their burden.
  • Finally, the Virtual Connections committee will examine some of the means by which the AAG can help invigorate how we educate, communicate and collaborate outside the physical realm. No matter what happens in the near term, we have crossed the Rubicon into a new world of virtual connections and this committee will suggest how the AAG can be at the forefront.

Once recommendations from the committees are made, a Blue Ribbon panel will be charged with evaluating the proposals and then sending them forward to the Council. At an extraordinary Council meeting, to occur at the end of June, we will come up with a final set of ideas to initiate in July. I will provide all of you with a final report on what we decide.

This has been such a difficult and trying time. It has been positively terrifying for those who have to worry about their health, their finances, their futures, or all of these together. Even those of us who are fortunate thus far have experienced the steady drain of lives lived without the physical contacts we cherish and with a future still so uncertain and bleak. To pretend that all this is not simply awful would be tone deaf and naïve.

But geography is strong. Geographers are resilient. Each and every one of you will do whatever it takes to allow our discipline to thrive. And your association will do everything in its power to help.

— Dave Kaplan
AAG President

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0071