Julie WinklerOver the years, the AAG Newsletter has been peppered with presidential columns about the AAG regional divisions. The nine regional divisions host their annual meetings during autumn, and, barring scheduling conflicts, the AAG president represents the national-level Association at these meetings. Hence, it is only natural that former presidents have wanted to share with the AAG membership their thoughts on this intense, motivating, and rather exhausting experience. Foci of past columns have included approaches for enhancing attendance at the regional meetings, ways that the regional meetings can advance geography, opportunities for students, the relative participation of faculty and students from undergraduate-only and Ph.D.-granting geography departments, and the regional division structure itself.

I would like to add my thoughts to this ongoing discussion. However, my travels to the regional meetings coincide with ongoing deliberations by the AAG Council of the challenges and opportunities for the regional divisions. At the AAG Council meeting earlier this month, an entire morning session was reserved for the discussion of two questions posed to the regional and national councillors: How have changes in the “external” environment during the past two decades impacted your regional division, considering both the opportunities they create and the challenges they pose? How can the regional divisions strengthen geography at the national level and the AAG specifically? Thus, I also draw on that discussion for this column.

My overall impression is that the regional divisions have enormous potential for supporting geography and geographers. Some of this potential is very much realized, but much also remains untapped. Geographers require opportunities and venues for professional development throughout their careers. Some geographers will seek development opportunities primarily through AAG national-level activities, such as the AAG annual meeting, and/or through professional offerings from other organizations. But for others, the regional division meetings can provide an important additional, or even alternative, professional development venue. Some geographers may find that the smaller, more intimate regional meetings facilitate networking and the establishment of new research and teaching collaborations. The regional meetings can also be an ideal venue for sharing findings and for interacting with peers for those geographers conducting regionally focused research. For others, the regional meetings can provide an initial foray into disciplinary professional activities. Many geographers, myself included, presented their first paper or poster at a regional meeting. Also, the regional meetings can, and should be, a means for non-geographers interested in working more closely with geographers to introduce themselves to the discipline in a less formal setting. The regional meetings can also fill a professional development role for those geographers whose professional and personal constraints make participation in national-level activities challenging. Some geographers, including many community college faculty, are limited by their employers to only a few off-site days per year, hindering their ability to participate in the nearly week-long AAG annual meeting. Entrepreneurial geographers lose revenue every day away from their businesses. Other geographers are caring for small children or elderly relatives, making extended periods away from home difficult. In these situations, the shorter regional meetings, which often overlap with the weekend, are a more accessible professional development venue.

In order to tap into their full potential, regional divisions need to closely monitor the effectiveness of their annual meeting. Viewing the regional meetings through the lens of professional development can help with this assessment. An initial question is simply whether the meeting attendance is diverse and, if not, whether there are sectors within the geography community who feel that the regional meetings are not providing the professional development opportunities they are seeking. For example: Is attendance from graduate, four-year, and two-year academic programs proportional to the number and size of these programs within the region? Are non-academic geographers in attendance? Do undergraduate and graduate students participate? The quality of the professional development that is offered to attendees is also important: Is informal networking facilitated? Has care been taken to minimize conflicting sessions so that attendees can easily participate in all sessions of interest to them, maximizing exposure to, and feedback on, each other’s presentations? Are workshops or other skill-enhancing opportunities provided? These and similar assessment questions can help identify gaps in what the regional meetings are offering, and also can point to potential enhancements.

Discussion and assessment also needs to occur at the national level, and, in advance of the fall council meeting, the AAG Regional Councillors collectively identified a suite of challenges and opportunities for the regional divisions. A number of the challenges (continued reductions in travel funding, increased conference costs, undervaluation by employers and administration of participation in the regional organizations) are not surprising, but one potential challenge that garnered considerable discussion is that new faculty within a region may be unaware of what the regional meetings have to offer, especially if they are graduates of programs that historically have not participated in their regional division. Potential opportunities include greater advertisement of the regional divisions to AAG members, more joint regional conferences, sponsored plenary speakers who have broad public appeal, and the sharing of best practices among regions. The latter, sharing of best practices, was viewed as having particular potential, as many AAG members are familiar with only a small number of the regional divisions (often the division in which they currently work and the one where they completed their education).

The AAG Council and Central Office are undertaking several initiatives in support of the regional divisions. Regional division chairs have been invited to a luncheon meeting at the AAG annual meeting in Tampa to discuss with Council members their perceptions on the future of the regional divisions and the linkages between the regional and national components of the AAG. Following the luncheon, a two-hour workshop intended for all regional division officers will focus on sharing best practices, including practices and initiatives for membership recruitment and retention, meeting organization, hosting joint meetings, communication with members, and financial management. AAG Central Office staff will also be present to share insights based on their national-level experiences. In further support of the regional meetings, the Council approved at their fall meeting an extension of the childcare subsidy offered to attendees at the AAG annual meeting to attendees of the regional meetings, although at a reduced rate reflective of the shorter duration of the regional meetings. The provision of this subsidy recognizes that for some AAG members the regional division is their professional association, and that these members should have the same benefits as those who mainly participate in national-level activities.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the annual meetings of eight of the nine regional divisions, five this Fall and three last year. Frankly, this experience was one of my more rewarding professional opportunities in quite awhile. Each meeting had its own “flavor,” but some of the lingering highlights and memories, beyond the excellent scientific presentations and posters, include: the APCG member who subsidized the banquet tickets for student first-authors of papers and posters; the moving and relevant keynote address on memorialization of university tragedies at the joint West Lakes/East Lakes meeting hosted by Northern Illinois University, a university that experienced such a tragedy first hand; the pleasure of an esteemed geographer, someone I personally admire, in receiving SEDAAG’s Lifetime Achievement Award; the motion at the SWAAG business meeting to work to make their meetings more family friendly; meeting Maryland’s Chief Innovation Officer at the MAD meeting and discovering that he is a geographer; the vanloads of undergraduate students who attended the Middle States meeting and their incredible presentations; the open house at the University of Nebraska-Omaha Geography Department, host of the GPRM meeting, and viewing their enviable facilities; talking with an assistant professor from a major Ph.D. program, a first time attendee of the SWAGG meeting, who was thrilled with the attendance and feedback for his paper presentation; the gift basket of local products delivered to my hotel by the Geography Club at Stephen F. Austin University; and the Mark Twain impersonator at the APCG banquet who relived Twain’s adventures as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada (absolutely sublime). I also found out that, not only have I forgotten much of my introductory geography, I cannot even follow the Geography Bowl rules (apologies fellow SEDAAG “Dream Team” members!)

You may not receive a gift basket, and the impersonator was perhaps a one-off experience, but nonetheless, give the regional meetings a try. My experiences of the past year certainly have reinvigorated my commitment to my regional division.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the regional divisions and their annual meetings.

Julie Winkler