The Association of American Geographers (AAG) held its largest-ever Annual Conference with over 8,600 attendees in New York City on February 24-28, 2012. As one longtime attendee remarked, 20 years ago, there were few international participants, and little in the way of pragmatic papers or a focus on the basics of applied geography. In the successive 20 years, much has changed the focus of geography. Certainly, global changes such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 have refocused global politics. Three recessions, including the steep global one that is just beginning to ebb, and improving economic conditions in India, China and Russia have not only changed the boundaries of nations, but also changed how we view the globe. Consequently, applied geography and GIS are becoming very important.
There were over 1,100 paper sessions with their usual variety. Over 50 specialty groups, from the more pragmatic (transportation, applied geography, GIS, remote sensing, etc) to the more theoretical and literary (historical geography, Bible geography), sponsored sessions at the AAG. While it is not possible to cover all of these sessions, there are always a number of enlightening and intelligent papers.
The AAG has begun to evolve away from a highly academic-driven institution. The focus from the EDGE project (Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education in Geography) and other research groups has been on increasing geographic research into applied realms. The primary reason for this is that many graduates are not pursuing academic careers. While most professors of geography are talented and very knowledgeable about their subject, many have simply never gone through the private or public sector interview process. This shouldn’t be viewed as disrespectful of those professors who have expanded the community of geography greatly.
Overview | AAG
There are some critical skills that the AAG has attempted to address recently. Through its EDGE project, the AAG has begun to suggest curricula and programs to departments of geography, specifically to encourage applied geographic skills. The AAG has also released a book, "Practicing Geography," written by its membership in the applied fields, and containing interviews with practicing geographers. At the Seattle conference in April 2011, there was a “Jobs in Geography” (JIG) session and some increased presentation of practical skill sets. In 2012, there was a palpable shift in favor of direct career development and soft-skills development presentations, which were well-attended. These included resume workshops, interviews with employers, and panel sessions on internships and other forms of skill building for the students. In many cases, professors were also panelists or attendees, seeking to impart the importance of practical knowledge development, or to learn what they should be teaching their students. More than a few students expressed frustration at a lack of geography-oriented skill development.
As mentioned above, a constant in AAG has been its specialty groups - concentrations of academic and practicing geographers focused around a given topic. There is a definite increase in the number of practical, functional groups or perhaps more accurately, functional groups that are receiving more practicing, as well as academic, members. As discussed in the Transport Geography session, the change in the association, from a largely North American-focused group of academics to a global group of discussants from many geographic disciplines, has increased the broad appeal of the group. However, with that broad appeal comes a demand from broadening student bases who are meeting with a stagnant or shrinking demand for professors. In fact, many Ph.D. students are either exiting their programs with a terminal master’s degree or are seeking employment, after attaining their Ph.D., in the private sector or in research at a “think tank.” I consider this to be the new kind of emerging research that blends the practical and theoretical. Global advocacy groups have grown in the post-Communist era. They advocate for everything from the environment to poverty to food production to trade and export. These groups are often seeking geographers and GIS experts – whether they know it or not – because they need to solve global identification issues or require the sense of place that geographers tend to have.
The AAG also has some questions of its own; many members in some sessions debated the utility of the regional meetings that are strung across the nation. While good for a student-focused conference, they often lack appeal to the senior membership. This led to a discussion in another specialty group meeting that perhaps the AAG regional groups need to conjoin their meeting with practicing groups, such as NEARC (North East Arc User Group) or NYSGIS Association (New York State). In addition, many specialty groups within the AAG also have annual meetings and are likewise considering attaching themselves to practicing GIS, geography or similar trade groups associated with their specialty.
This, perhaps, is the “changing of the guard” in terms of the mentality of the AAG. As geography has grown, it has also diffused across disciplines with which it had not heretofore interacted. It started with GIS, perhaps, but as GIS matured, it became an integral part of logistics, corporate siting and manufacturing location theory, human geography, and even environmental cleanup and post-industrial brownfield re-development. Many aspects of the globally interactive economy rely on solid geographic knowledge to make decisions based on location utility. With these pragmatic, focused, decisions requiring good knowledge of location analysis, geographers and GIS professionals are well-positioned to make a strong push into the 21st century economy.
In the next 15 years, the Department of Labor estimates at least 10,000 jobs will be created in geographic analysis, GIS and related applied geography fields. These jobs will be created in the U.S. by those being educated here, or by foreign citizens moving here, or they will be placed off-shore. The question now becomes: Will the AAG be poised to develop the next generation of geographic experts? Given the new, enhanced focus on practicing geography, the AAG seems to be headed in the right direction.