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Eric SheppardHow should geographers engage with the world? Building on an initiative of Michael Burawoy, ex-president of the American Sociological Association, I propose that more disciplinary effort be put into public geographies.

One of the great features of geography is that it is grounded—not just because we study the earth, but in the sense that geography is intimately related to everyday life. Almost everything people (and other beings) do on a daily basis engages consciously or unconsciously with the geographies that both find themselves within, and create. (This is why emergent digital technologies shaping communication and interaction are increasingly geographical: Web 2.0.) As academic geographers, we find ourselves quite removed from these everyday geographies. Our expertise, and social credibility, stem from academic credentials, but self-referentiality and abstraction for abstraction’s sake make it harder to transcend the ivory tower. Some seek to make geography more socially relevant by applying academic knowledge to policy issues. Applied, policy-relevant geographies are important, and we should lament any dearth of these and the lack of impact of geographers’ policy recommendations. But how else can we engage with the world, and to which effect? Policy geographies tend to feed into social hierarchies. Often they are directed toward the socially influential, addressing their agendas, priorities and perspectives on society and nature. As policy geographers know all too well, recommendations that are tangential to the concerns of, or address questions not posed by, those paying for advice, run the risk of being filed away. Yet, even well-intentioned elite priorities and perspectives are often distant from the priorities of what the Occupy movement dubbed the 99 percent. (Consider how peoples’ frustration with politicians has become endemic worldwide, as elected politicians’ actions seem increasingly irrelevant or impotent.) Taking advantage of our groundedness, public geographies would engage directly with such alternative priorities.

Public geographies take many forms, but always involve pedagogy, whether in research-oriented universities, community colleges, K-12 classrooms, or alternative teaching initiatives (like the Experimental College of the Twin Cities and Freedom University). Teaching brings geography directly to the diverse populations making up our societies, a vital opportunity not only to provoke critical geographic thinking about socionature but also for us to learn from these students’ diverse perspectives and experiences. Other important venues for prosecuting public geographies include opinion columns, blogs, video documentaries, and social networking tout court. One neglected geographical opportunity to reach the general public is producing ‘trade’ books that engage with and provoke reflection by the general public. Economists and physicists have had much success and influence this way: Why not us? We also should consider the rapid emergence of MOOCs—massive open online courses—an initiative dominated in the U.S. by universities that do not offer geography.

On the societal end of the discipline, public geographies might also involve revealing peoples’ landscapes of living and protest, erased in the name of development (cf. The Peoples’ Guide to Los Angeles). They might involve narrating more broadly peoples’ geographies as an antidote to official accounts, or supporting community geographers. They might involve participant action research, working with communities and collectivities on issues identified by them, empowering their members as co-researchers. They might involve work about and in conversation with diverse economies, social and environmental justice, indigenous and (more-than) human rights.

For those whose scholarship focuses more squarely on biophysical and nature/society issues, public geographies would contest perspectives shaped by market-friendly, state-oriented and corporate agendas. These might include focusing on the biodiversity of places and the sustainability of species marginalized in dominant societal agendas. They might document the climatic and geomorphological effects of such agendas, assessing their viability or desirability. They might connect with societal issues of environmental justice as well as justice for the more-than-human world. For those focused on cartography and other geographical information technologies, public geographies might include community and critical cartography, public participation GIS, or the development of alternative geographic information architectures to facilitate the influence and livelihood possibilities of disadvantaged communities.

Undertaking public geographies entails attending to the challenges and opportunities of working in a geographically differentiated world: e.g., those of working with proximate vs. more distant groups; in places that vary dramatically in terms of culture, ecologies, etc.; at scales ranging from the household to the globe (acknowledging the heterogeneity and inequality at every scale); and working through (and shaping) the connectivities linking places and scales together. Public geographies should be well attuned to such differentiations, by their very nature, yet critically engaging across them remains a major challenge. The ambition should be global, but from the bottom-up rather than top-down.

Public geographies cannot stand alone: Academic and applied geographies are every bit as important, each gaining strength from the others. Without a basis in academic geographies, we have little legitimacy to bring to public issues. In my experience, communities look to geographers for expertise as much as we look to them, and our academic training is the foundation for what we can offer. By the same token, applied/policy geographers offer real-world expertise that can be vital for shifting policy agendas toward public priorities, and for facilitating engagement with existing policy priorities.

The time seems propitious for public geographies: In the United States, community-university partnerships and public engagement are all the rage. Nevertheless, there remain few incentives for students and faculty to pursue public geographies. Academic success is tied to research with impact, measured in citations and policy influence, with teaching also shaped by institutional priorities. Elite universities’ rhetoric talks the talk of public scholarship without walking the walk: It remains too often a pro bono activity, to be undertaken in addition to everything else. Here is where smaller universities and colleges have a real advantage: They are often more directly connected with non-elite communities and their students. In my visits to regional AAG meetings last fall, with elite institutions generally conspicuous by their absence, I was impressed by the kinds of public geographies presented there. Advancing public geographies, then, may require leadership from outside the elite geography programs.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0003

Past president columns can be found in the AAG President’s Column archives.