In recent battles with some of geography’s social theory gang (see Beware, Strikes Back, More Sorcery) I was reminded of the inane initiative led by Eric Sheppard to change the name of the Association of American Geographers to the American Association of Geographers. While flexing their verbosity muscles to argue against my advice to avoid social theorists, it was pointed out by one of the disgruntled social theorists that my comment on the name change suggestion was in poor taste (although one among the gang said I was “exactly right” to point out the ridiculousness of the effort). Another suggested the number of “upvotes” I received was “irrelevant” even though it did position me at the top when “Sort by Best” is the chosen option for reading the comments. I think many (at least a dozen) AAG members were happy to see refreshingly candid and direct language, long overdue in geography and throughout academia.
After re-reading the column, and shaking my head in frustration once again, I decided to peruse more recent President’s columns hoping to see something less aggravating.
I was rewarded!
The first three columns written by the AAG’s current President, Sarah Witham Bednarz, are the best I’ve read in a long time.
I was delighted to see she recognizes the disruptive environment facing Higher Education and the need to innovate rather than circle wagons to maintain status quo.
As I organized the agenda for the workshop eight actions emerged as key to healthy geography departments: teach, promote, build, innovate, nurture, manage, reflect, and envision. Departments must have a clear (and shared) vision of what and who they are and be prepared to work to build toward that vision. This may require innovation, a euphemism for change, something that is never easy. Departments need leaders who manage effectively and who are willing to nurture their colleagues, enabling them to succeed across different stages of their careers. Healthy geography departments care about teaching, learning, and the lives of the students they touch. Finally, healthy departments take the time to reflect, to assess, plan, and refocus as needed, together. It’s hard work but important to every department in every institution and thus, to the discipline.
I hope her leadership does indeed facilitate a discussion about “what and who geographers are” before (what I see as inevitable) creative destruction pounds the shores of the academy. If geography is not better positioned when the tsunami comes in I fear the discipline is in danger of being swept further from its rightful place in the academy, wedged prominently between the humanities and pure science. For this reason it is my contention that Social Theorists should play a far less “critical” (pun intended) role in the discipline while geography departments and their curricula should conform to some standard whereby all students receiving a bachelors, masters or doctoral degree know something about each of the 3 pillars of geography: human, physical and technical. As it stands, too many graduates with a degree in geography are familiar with only one or two of these pillars. This has a negative impact on our ability to promote the applicable workplace talents of recent geography graduates. And, as a result, increasingly career-minded students are less likely to choose geography. Ask anyone in the private sector: uncertainty is the best way to chase off a potential paying customer.
Correcting this deficiency should be a top priority before enrollment numbers force the hands of Deans who won’t have many options aside from initiating far less pleasant forms of change.
In addition, the entire academy needs to begin recognizing the value of outstanding classroom instruction as well as the value of alternative, more accessible forms of scholarship having an important impact on society. A good example of the latter is the work being done by Anthony Leiserowitz at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Along with traditional peer-review research, Tony’s work includes videos, downloadable reports sans paywall, outreach on social media, and televised appearances with Bill Moyers and Bill Maher. Geography departments around the world ought to be clamoring for Dr. Leiserowitz to bring his work under the disciplinary umbrella. Way to go, Tony! And Go Ducks!
To me, this multi-channel approach to research dissemination is the future of scholarship. In contrast, publications in obscure academic journals with readership numbers equivalent to the editorial board population should be largely deprecated. The sooner the better.
What’s absolutely clear, at least to me, is the reality that Universities are not adequately preparing students for short-term or long-term career success despite asking, in parallel, for more tuition dollars. Part of the problem is the rapidly changing conditions of the job market and disappearing State funding but I think much of the problem is due to the monopoly held by the academic publishing oligarchy. This cabal may as well be headed by Vladimir Putin or El Chapo Guzman as its grip on the academy is equally thorough and far reaching. Somehow the incentive for teaching professors to remain active, productive and relevant in their chosen field has morphed, in part, into a game of Balderdash where those who make up the fanciest words are rewarded with tenure and promotion while only lip service is paid to those with outstanding teaching records, accessible scholarship on salient contemporary issues and the ability to advise students as they embark upon a variety of career paths.
In short, I think the new AAG President is on the right track. Keep it up, President Bednarz!
And let me know if you need any help battling against the Social Theorists who, I believe, are more likely than anyone within the AAG to filibuster proposed innovation attempting to enhance the clarity of disciplinary focus.