I recently returned from the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), held this year in New Orleans, Louisiana. I skipped last year’s meeting, the first one I had missed since I first attended in 2000, that year held in Pittsburgh and myself as a newbie MA student at Syracuse University. I passed on the 2017 meeting in Boston because I was on sabbatical, didn’t have much of anything in my research quite ready to present at that point, and just needed a break from the conference. (Also I had tickets to the Final Four in Phoenix, and took a jaunt to the Grand Canyon, which was far more fun than the conference anyway.) It was therefore rejuvenating to go to this year’s conference and see friends and colleagues I had not seen in a long time, and to present some original research. And it’s hard to pass on New Orleans.
For readers unfamiliar with the scope and purpose of such a large academic and professional meeting, I can provide some background. The AAG is the primary US-based professional association for geographers, and the membership is mostly made up of academic geographers who teach and conduct research at colleges and universities, but there are also a large number of professional geographers working in diverse other settings in the public and private sectors who are members or who attend the conference, including those who work for government agencies like the US Census Bureau or US Geological Survey, private companies like Google, Amazon, and ESRI, and non-profit and non-governmental organizations. You can read all about the AAG on the association’s website, so I won’t go into any more detail here on the body’s purposes or structure, but the goal is that you go, you present findings from your recent research to like-minded scholars (or if you don’t have a presentation, you just attend to see what’s going on in the field), you hit the book fair to see what’s new for your research or courses, and you meet with colleagues with whom you don’t normally get to sit and chat. Members of the AAG’s governing bodies, specialty groups focused on various subfields, and department heads, among others, all take the meeting as an opportunity to conduct routine business within the structure of the organization as well.
So the AAG’s annual conference, usually held in March or April, is one of the most important events of the academic year for geographers working in university settings, and now routinely draws over 8000 attendees, mostly from the Anglophone world of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, but increasingly from other parts of the world as well, such as Latin America, China, and continental Europe. This is good and bad, as it demonstrates and advances the discipline’s diversification, but also centers that diversification in the United States. And with scarce resources and time to attend a limited number of annual conferences, putting all one’s eggs and travel money in a single basket to attend the AAG each year, with registration fees of a few hundred US dollars as well as travel and hotel costs, can make attendance at national or regional meetings in other countries unpredictable. As an example, the 2011 AAG in Seattle meant the 2011 meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) in Calgary, just about a month and a half later, was sparsely attended by members from Ontario and Quebec, as it was too expensive and too difficult to smash two major conferences held on or near the west coast into one’s annual travel budget.
But here in 2018, the AAG returned to New Orleans for the first time in 15 years. I enjoyed the chance to walk around and eat my way through one of my favorite cities, though I skipped out on many of the sessions on New Orleans itself. I did attend a number of very good sessions, and this year I tried to hit not just things that were relevant to my research in terms of content but also some panel sessions about writing and teaching, where there was more chance for discussion than you find in a typical session of four or five 20-minute long papers. The best was a panel on “Writing Geography” focused on developing creative and stylistically more engaging forms of writing in academic geography. I also attended a useful panel session on the ethics of publishing and the controversy around the article “The Case for Colonialism” that appeared in Third World Quarterly last fall (I wrote about this in September as well). My own paper on diplomacy, state labor, and collective bargaining in the Canadian foreign service, co-authored with a former research assistant and one of my MA advisees, was part of a lively session on diplomacy and statecraft, and went a lot better than I had anticipated, with lots of comments and questions from and for the discussant, my fellow presenters, and the audience. I am hoping to get the paper cleaned up and sent off later this summer to a journal, and I attended a useful 15-minute “speed editing” session with the editor of a journal during the conference. I have published and reviewed a lot over the last 12 years of my career, but it never hurts to get more input and advice from those working at crucial nodes of the peer review system.
I don’t intend to write much about New Orleans, though I did get out a fair bit, and even left the tourist zones of the French Quarter a few times, though once was to see the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans play in the final game of the regular season against the San Antonio Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis had one of the greatest dunks I’ve ever seen live and in person. In any case, I will not opine on New Orleans, as others have done a far better job of this than I can here and there were many sessions on this at the conference, and I’m not sure my four and a half days there, half of it spent inside large downtown conference hotels, offers enough insight to surpass what you can find elsewhere in terms of understanding the city. This does, however, highlight what I might call the “conferencescape” of the AAG — those places, spaces, and geographies of the large academic conference, how they work, and how we work in and through them. That I have extensive, long-term, multi-site experience with, and so I feel confident in pointing to some of the more important spatial practices in which academics (especially geographers, since this is our stock in trade) engage while attending their large annual professional meetings. Let’s call it “the seven deadly sins of the AAG”. This is all meant (somewhat) in jest and I am, of course, (only half) joking.
Oh, to be that bright-eyed, eager young graduate student again, poring over the conference program for hours, marking all the concurrent sessions I could attend, and then spending my conference days flitting from meeting room to meeting room, the dizzying highs of seeing all the big name speakers and the inevitable lows when someone you knew gave a presentation that was just a cut above yours (see below, “Envy”). Taking in so many papers and panels that by the middle of day 3 you don’t know your Deleuze from your Guattari, you have a stack of business cards even though everyone just uses the internet for that these days, and you can’t recall whose session you skipped or who asked which question at the end of which paper. In short, you’ve gorged yourself on academic content in a very short period of time, and as a result you can’t actually recall much of it. Such is the conference glutton, but at least they know where all the presentation rooms are in the various hotels that host the event. Time once was that you could also be a glutton in terms of your own participation, with a limit of one paper presentation but no limit on the number of panels on which one could present. The AAG changed this circa 2012 (? – someone will have to fact check this for me), ending the days of someone’s conference index listing popping up with over a dozen session commitments (see below, “Greed”). There is a relationship between quality and quantity, after all, and it’s not usually positive.
As opposed to the glutton, the slothful conference-goer appears to be on vacation, though there is the variant who is merely fed up with academic conferences, attending because it affords a chance for a brief escape from the grinding drudgery of teaching or because it’s just one of those things you simply must do or everyone wonders why you aren’t there. These attendees inhabit both the common spaces of the conferencescape — the hotel lobby bar, the outdoor smoking area, the book fair, the comfy chairs in the hallway outside the presentation rooms — and whatever tourist destination beckons nearby.
This is not to say that anyone taking in the local sights or having a drink at the hotel bar is engaging in this particular deadly conference sin; it does mean that you will know them by their nametags (for the tourists) or the way they avoid eye contact and pretend to be reading something on their phone (for the disaffected). Author’s note: I am often to be found in this particular cohort.
My experience of the AAG, both personally and as a careful observer of my own and my colleagues’ foibles, is that very few of us actually hit the conference with the idea of being a side character in Small World. Yet if we can be honest here, higher education is a sexually charged world in which gender and power differentials can and do fuel a range of behaviors and actions and relations that range from flattery and flirting to creeping and perving. This is the part of the conferencescape that often occurs behind closed doors, or in bars after the day is done, or in passing encounters after sessions. I have heard tales. We all have. From much senior colleagues telling me what it was like “back in the day,” or from other grad students or junior colleagues (usually female) about who has lingering eyes and an interest in “mentoring” (only) the young women in the department. Is it right to call this lust? I’m not sure, but I’ll leave it here for the moment.
I mentioned above those who would, once upon a time, put themselves into harm’s way multiple times in a conference, and perusing older programs you can see some folks with many, many more session commitments than you yourself would agree to. That is, until you actually organize a series of three sessions, present in one of them, chair another one, agree to act as discussant in a fourth, take part in a panel, and, if you’re so inclined and burdened, attend both the business meeting of a specialty group and the specialty group chairs’ luncheon. Suddenly your conference calendar is full, and you’re wondering why you haven’t been outside the hotel in two days. Gluttony can thus easily give way to greed, but greed in this case is, I think, more a desire to collect, to say one has all the things an academic might crave — attention, citations, shout outs, student acolytes, book contracts, grants, and so on. The greedy conference attendee is seen many times, in all spaces of the conference, and often as the center of attention. They must ask the first question of the presenter. They must go slightly beyond their time limit when speaking. They must make sure that the conversation comes back to their achievements, their paper, their interest. Perhaps they’ve asked about your research? Well, let them tell you how it relates to their own. If you’ve recently read something by an up-and-coming author, they read it a year before, or you’ve re-read something by an established theorist, they already taught it in their grad seminar and moved on to the next thing. At the academic conference, attention and airtime and name-dropping are (for far too many) the currency of the realm, and some want to hoard it all.
Did you get stuck as the first presenter in an 8:00 am session for the fourth year in a row? Colleagues and students back home breathing down your neck, emailing you for the umpteenth time even though they know you’re away in [insert host city]? Wanted to sit through that last paper of the session and now you’ve got to wait in line 30 minutes for coffee? You really wanted that book from that one press at the book fair to read on the plane ride home, but they sold the last copy and you’re SOL? Some well-meaning but misguided colleague asked a question for which you had no answer at the end of your paper? Well, your conferencescape is an unending string of disappointments and blows to your ego and sense of self-worth, every corner filled with enemies and empty tote bags. Wrath, anger, rage would all be easy responses, and, as always, the departmental party hosted by your PhD alma mater is the perfect place to rehash all the ways in which you’ve been wronged to anyone within earshot.
The academic labor market at the moment is … let’s call it a hellish shitshow. In this time of heightened competition for increasingly scarce tenure-track positions, the annual conference becomes ever more important as a space for performing the song and dance of presenting new research (or as is often the case, “new” research, though I have no hesitation in saying our longer-established peers are the ones most often guilty of putting old wine into new bottles and telling us it’s champagne). While many junior academics are supportive of one another and find meaningful mentoring and support from more senior colleagues, and the AAG has started to emphasize career guidance and mentoring more fully and directly, the political economy of academia can nonetheless make the conference a swirling vortex of envy, often accompanied by its cousins, anxiety and self-doubt. I recall my early days of conference attendance and presentations, when a sparse crowd and a smattering of non sequitur questions, or a big name or trendsetter forgetting who you are after meeting you three times before, or giving a less than stellar performance in presenting your work, might induce a period of hand wringing and self-flagellation, followed by an almost gratuitous envy when someone at roughly the same level blows it out of the water in their talk, or you hear their name mentioned in conversation as someone who is going places, or gets noticed as they walk through the hotel lobby while you slink to the couch to pretend to read the program. Personally, I got over this very quickly. I was never invested so heavily in this image of myself as a “star” academic (and all the better, because look at me now), but the conference is like a petri dish, incubating envy and self-doubt at every turn, providing a thousand spaces, both intimate and public, for cultivating doubt, anxiety, covetousness. This spirals inevitably downward toward wrath and misanthropy (and not the fun, comically cynical kind), and undermines our collective sense of purpose and collegiality in the discipline and the academy. So I might say to those who wallow in envy, or who cannot escape its clutches: Relax. Take a breath. Take a session off. Focus on your work, and how you might advance something beyond yourself. Enjoy the milieu of the conference, it comes but once a year. But don’t focus just on being seen, and don’t sweat minor flubs in presentations. A few years ago (Tampa 2014, I believe, and other years before and after) there were some ‘underground’ sessions organized by grad students and young faculty, on issues like work related stress, interviews, union struggles, and peer-to-peer support and mentoring. The few I attended were good, but not part of the regular program. Maybe those can be tried again, but I would be reluctant as a grizzled mid-career person to organize anything like this, but would be more than happy to contribute.
Finally, pride. It goes, as they say, before destruction. It is linked to greed, I think, at least in the way I’ve described it here and it is woven throughout the conferencescape of the AAG. Once, I believe it was the 2004 AAG in Philadelphia, someone at a panel I was attending on urbanism, public space, and homelessness (I think … 2004 was a long time ago now), stood up from the audience and noted that while all of us cushy academics were here in this hotel room taking about homelessness, none of us were doing anything about it, yet it was all around us in downtown Philly. Yes, who better to solve the structural problem of homelessness in America’s major cities than two dozen white men with PhDs sitting in a hotel room. But the point was made, and what could have been articulated as a question leading to meaningful discussion among the panel and audience — what can we do as academics and geographers to address this systemic issue beyond writing for each other behind journal paywalls? — was instead rendered as a self-righteous interjection that served primarily to tout the speaker’s bona fides as a real actor in the world. This is the essence of pride, and the major academic conference is steeped in it. Overwrought appeals to action, presented in a way that lets you know the speaker is the only one who knows what’s what; grandiose statements about our importance, as evinced most clearly by your own narrow research topic and output; eager anticipation of the moment you stop talking so I can tell you about my latest paper, which got really good reviews, even from reviewer 2; a question to the last presenter in 17 parts wait it’s basically just my paper not sure you got to see me present it no well I’ll send it to you it may help you think about you own work in more useful ways; and so on. It’s that tightrope between consistent, high-quality work and meaningful, intellectual give and take with colleagues, and the self-satisfied, self-righteous, and at times pompous academic boasting of someone who does good work but just can’t wait to tell you more more more and is convinced that if they weren’t at the conference this year, no one else would be either.
Now, some may quibble with this list and the manifestations of these deadly sins in the conferencescape. Others may rightfully point out that I have performed the god trick of writing myself out of the story. Maybe this is my own prideful response to getting older, finding the AAG conference less useful and engaging, and coming to grips with the fact that I’m just another workaday dude teaching and researching at a mid-sized public university with a tight budget. Maybe I am wracked with envy and pride in equal measure, and I’m just being mean as a way of finding the midpoint between them. Well to that I say, emphatically, maybe. According to my own calculations, I am slothful and wrathful (let me tell you about the latest shenanigans at my university…), but above all I want to engage my colleagues and peers in the discipline and beyond in an attempt to preserve and extend our collective intellectual capacities, our workplace autonomy, and our collegial solidarity. And if we can’t poke a bit of fun at ourselves at these massive annual meetings, then there is no obverse to the important and socially meaningful work we do the other 51 weeks of the year when we don’t cram ourselves into a couple of downtown hotels in a major North American city to talk to each other all at once.