Keeping Track of Us and Keeping Us on Track

We know a lot about you. Not that we’re spying of course, but the AAG has been keeping track of its members for quite a long time. We collect data on the number and type of geography degree-granting programs, the gender, race and ethnicity of our members, the types of jobs filled by geographers, the various career paths we’ve taken, etc. But we know very little about other aspects of our discipline and our members that are critical to how we practice, teach, and communicate geography. Because of this the AAG has formed a task force and will be contracting with a firm in order to survey our members about a set of important issues including an assessment of the state of contingency within geography, and an evaluation of AAG members’ satisfaction with the organization’s services, conferences, and suite of publications. In this column I reflect on what we can learn (and infer) from historical survey data, review what and how we know particular things about you, suggest why we’ve decided that it’s important to know more, and urge you to participate in what we hope will be an ongoing assessment of our association and discipline.

You probably remember filling out a form with questions about your gender, “race,” and ethnicity when you became a member of the AAG. The information compiled from this form constitutes one of the most comprehensive databases we have about who we are: ( These data are particularly interesting to me since they contain both quantitative and qualitative information about our changing demographics and our changing times. For example, from this online source one can track the increasing numbers of women members of the AAG, creeping upward each decade: 15.4% in 1975, 21.6% in 1985, 29% in 1995, 35% in 2005, and 46% in the most recent compiled data for 2012. Similarly, we can determine the shifting ethnic composition of our membership. In 1985 for example, only .7% of our members identified as Hispanic and 1.2% as African-Americans, while in 2012 the number is 4.38% identifying as Hispanic and 3.15% as African-American (and as we all know, these numbers are well below the national averages).

Of equal interest to me was what could be gleaned about us from the strategies and categories we used to collect this information. For example, apparently 1980 was the first year that the AAG specifically asked about “minority group representation” on membership forms. Before that, the numbers were estimated through various means – personal contacts, assessments based on whether one attended a historically-black university, and assumptions based on surnames and residence. This tells us a lot about the size of our discipline (our membership was considerably smaller than it is today), the assumed prevalence of whiteness, and the relative importance given to diversity issues. Equally interesting was seeing shifts in the words we used to categorize race and ethnicity. Between 1972 (the first year of online data) and 1975 we collected data on “Blacks” and “Spanish-Americans,” adding “Oriental-American” to the register in 1976. In 1980, when the categories were added to the membership form, the list included American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native Alaskan and Pacific Islander. In 2006 the category “Black” was replaced by “African-American.” No doubt this list will continue to evolve by adding, for example, “mixed race” to the inventory, and/or allowing members to choose more than one racial category (as the U.S. census now does).

Of course this isn’t the only type of membership data collected by the AAG. We collect additional demographic data on those membership forms such as job categories and highest degree attained. Through various initiatives taken by AAG research staff over the years, we have gained very useful insights into the numerous educational and career paths followed by our members and the broader impacts of geography on society. We have also dedicated a good deal of resources to understanding how to become a more diverse and inclusive discipline (see, and in particular the results of our ALIGN program).

So, and I am not saying anything new here, the type of information we collect and how we go about collecting it tell us interesting things about ourselves and our shifting socio-political-cultural contexts. Those shifting contexts, in addition to the “nudges” of several AAG committees, councillors, and staff, have placed several issues front and center that we want to address, and we need information to start. For example, as I suggested in last month’s column we know very little about how many of our members hold contingent positions, making it difficult to (among other things) advise graduate students on career tracks and devise strategies for improving contingent faculty’s lives. We are very proud of our well-attended and open annual conference, but are aware that it is more welcoming to some than to others. In order to change this we need more information about the ‘climate’ of our conferences, and about which strategies that we’ve tried are working and what new ones we might need (see for example our diversity ambassadors). And while we are excited to expand our suite of publications with the soon-to-be-launched new journal GeoHumanities, we are concerned about the relative lack of published physical geography pieces within our journals and wonder how to act strategically in order to maintain the physical sciences at the heart of our discipline. We also want to raise the quality of our journals (measured by citation indices) and are looking for suggestions in this regard.

Everyone seems to be surveying us. Like you, I receive innumerable surveys online wanting to know everything from how satisfied I was with my airline check-in service to whether or not I approve of our new university reimbursement plan. I ignore these emails. Please don’t ignore the one from the AAG that will be coming to your inbox soon. What you say will help determine the future of the AAG.

DOI: 10.14433/2015.0004