The Future of Physical Geography
For my last column as AAG President, I explore further the role and status of physical geography within the AAG. I share with you some of the input received from AAG members on this topic, and outline some initial steps to capitalize on that input, as well as address concerns that have been raised. My thanks to everyone who spoke to me personally, emailed their thoughts, responded to earlier columns, and/or participated in the well-attended Conversation on the Future of Physical Geography special session at the AAG annual meeting in Tampa. Your input is greatly appreciated. Special thanks go to Frank Magilligan and Kim Medley who joined me at the Tampa special session in providing opening remarks, many of which are captured below, and to Ken Foote, chair of the AAG’s Long Range Planning Committee, for kindly moderating the discussion that followed. The major issues that emerged from these multiple sources of input include: participation in the AAG annual meeting, competitiveness of physical geography graduates for academic positions, the AAG journal suite as an outlet for the research conducted by physical geographers, and the potential for greater outreach. The discussion below is organized around these issues.
The message from members
Last fall, while attending the AAG regional meetings, several early career physical geographers relayed to me their concerns that an unanticipated consequence of the explosive growth in the AAG annual meeting is relatively light attendance at some of the many concurrent sessions, making it more difficult for their research to receive the visibility within the discipline needed to help build their careers. Several other AAG members expressed their concern that the growing attraction of meetings of other scholarly societies, especially if these meetings provide or are perceived to provide greater visibility, further draws attendance away from individual sessions at the AAG annual meeting. These concerns were also repeatedly raised during the special session in Tampa. However, the importance of the AAG annual meeting to the viability of physical geography was also highlighted, along with the need to promote attendance at the annual meeting. Essential intellectual and social networks are disrupted when physical geographers do not participate in the annual meeting. Attendees of the special session expressed considerable support for experimenting with alternative formats to help increase the visibility of individual oral and poster presentations. Of particular interest is a format similar to that of the popular Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), with a modest number of themed oral sessions accompanied by large poster sessions. Several attendees further argued that, if themed sessions were to be adopted, keynote speakers for these sessions should be drawn from multiple disciplines, not only geography, to help attract more non-geographers to the annual meeting, and that the presentations should be peer-oriented and science intensive. Arguments made for large poster sessions include a greater potential for networking compared to an oral or poster presentation in one of multiple concurrent sessions.
The training of physical geographers is an important, ongoing issue that received considerable attention at the Tampa special session. Physical geographers interested in academic positions often compete with graduates from other disciplines, especially when the advertised position is in a merged or a broad geosciences department. Consequently, geography graduates need to have publication records and opportunities for professional development comparable to those of other disciplines. A move to publication-based dissertations, where each chapter is a publishable manuscript, is one approach to placing our graduates in a poised position for advancing their publication records at the time when they are applying for faculty positions. The need for more post-doctoral opportunities for physical geography graduates was also raised, and the AAG was encouraged to take the lead in approaching public and private funding agencies to establish prestigious post-doctoral positions explicitly for physical geography.
The topic for which I have received the most input over the past year has been publishing in the AAG journals. Recently, the AAG Council approved a new AAG-sponsored interdisciplinary journal, Geohumanities, whose two-member editorial team will be drawn from geography and from another humanities discipline. Around the same time, the small number of submissions to the Environmental Sciences section of the Annals, in spite of heroic efforts by current and past editors to solicit manuscripts, led to an issue without an Environmental Sciences section. The confluence of these two events prompted me to propose in my October column that the AAG sponsor a second interdisciplinary journal of interest to physical geographers. This journal would supplement and complement the current AAG journals, and provide an outlet with the AAG imprimatur for those authors wishing to reach a more interdisciplinary audience. The reaction to this proposal has been mixed, with fairly strong opinions on both sides. Several physical geographers have shared their concern that the currently large number of journals, especially in the areas of environmental science and global change, may limit opportunities for a new journal. Others have warned of the considerable resources and effort needed to develop a new journal and nurture it to success. On the other hand, a number physical geographers have expressed support for a new journal. They would like to support the AAG and its journals, but because their research is interdisciplinary in character, they do not consider the current AAG journals with their primarily disciplinary readership to be viable outlets. Some members, including senior physical geographers, told me that they have never published in an AAG journal. Other members recommended that one way to “jump start” a new journal is to acquire, and build upon, an existing journal. Arguments were made at the Tampa session that a new journal, if adopted, should be an outlet for interdisciplinary physical science, not only for interdisciplinary research on global change and natural-human systems. A new journal would need to be highly visible, attract authors from multiple disciplines, and appeal to an interdisciplinary readership. Members also supported further strengthening of the AAG’s current journals, and several shared their recent positive experiences with the review process.
Several attendees at the special session in Tampa advocated that the AAG and its members reach out to other societies, such as AGU, and have a more visible presence at their meetings to promote the disciplinary-relatedness of geography. To quote an attendee, “the AAG should bring geography to other disciplines.” One potential avenue would be for professional societies to jointly organize sessions at each other’s meetings. Active recruitment of physical scientists, whose primary membership is in another scholarly society, could also be worthwhile. Additionally, outreach within geography itself is recognized as important. Physical geographers need to be involved in structuring the discipline of geography and guiding its future.
What can be done to implement some of the recommendations from physical geography members of the AAG? Experimenting with alternative formats for physical geography sessions at the AAG annual meeting seems an obvious next step given its strong support. To help move this forward, Past Presidents Richard Marston, Carol Harden and I are working with the AAG central office to spearhead the introduction of “AGU-like” sessions for the upcoming annual meeting in Chicago. We are planning two themed sessions on “Environmental Reconstruction: A Nexus of Biogeography, Climatology and Geomorphology”, followed by two large poster session. “Environmental reconstruction” refers to both the study of past climates, landscapes, and biological systems, and to the reclamation of damaged environments. The rationale for this theme is that it captures the breadth of physical geography, and, in addition, complements the climate change theme of the recent AAG meeting in Tampa. These sessions represent an initial foray to evaluate the impact of this format and to work out logistics, such as costs and implications for other components of the annual meeting. Invited speakers for the themed sessions will include geographers and non-geographers, and I encourage you to become involved in planning these sessions, and, in particular, to nominate potential speakers. The oral and poster sessions will be scheduled to minimize conflicts with concurrent sessions. If there is continued support for this type of format, the intent is to develop protocols for requesting and evaluating proposals for future themed sessions.
Some initial steps are also being taken to offer career development support for physical geography students and recent graduates. A career session customized for physical geographers is under discussion for the annual meeting in Chicago. In addition, openings for post-doctoral scholars can now be posted in Jobs in Geography, hopefully making students more aware of these opportunities. These are modest initiatives, but I hope that AAG members, including student members, will step up with additional suggestions and proposals.
Progress has also been made on outreach to other scholarly societies. In February, the AAG hosted a booth at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), an organization that regularly exhibits at our meeting. The booth was well visited and helped to create broader awareness of the AAG and of geography. As one AMS member who visited the booth tweeted under the #AMS2014 hashtag, “Did not realize there was a big climate community there [AAG]”. This was a relatively new endeavor for the AAG, and the lessons learned from the AMS meeting exhibit will be useful for future exhibits at the meetings of other relevant scholarly societies.
That a substantial portion of the physical geography membership does not regularly publish in Association journals presents a potential long-term vulnerability for the AAG, and a wide range of initiatives, including an expanded publication suite, need to be considered. That said, the reservations that have been expressed also need to be acknowledged and considered. Next steps include involvement of the AAG Publications Committee and Long-Range Planning Committee to help assess feasibility, and a survey of the publishing preferences and history of AAG members.
Finally, a Conversation on the Future of Physical Geography II is planned for the Chicago annual meeting to continue the thoughtful discussion from Tampa, and especially to hear more from early career scholars on how to enhance physical geography within the AAG. Please watch the AAG Geogram for information on location and time, and send along suggestions for discussion topics.
All geographers, speak up!
A scholarly society is continually evolving, and input from members is needed to make certain that it evolves to meet member needs. In an inherently integrative discipline such as ours, it is critical that all of our sub-disciplinary voices remain under the larger disciplinary umbrella and join the discussion of our future. It is essential that all geographers, including physical geographers, speak up within our larger community rather than turn inward and become apart. It is only through continued dialog that the AAG can undertake thoughtful and proactive initiatives that enhance and promote geography.
And a personal “thank you”
As noted above, this is my last presidential column — whew! Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to serve as AAG President and for the support you have shown. It has been a privilege and an honor. This year was a wonderful and memorable experience.
Past president columns can be found in the AAG President’s Column archives.