04 May, 2017

Two Perspectives on the AAG

AAG annual conferences -- too big, or too big to fail?
Markus Hesse

It was truly accidental that, after my return from this year’s Annual Conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in Boston, Massachusetts, in early April, I was sorting out some files on my computer where I usually store my conference contributions, such as abstracts, papers and the like. On that occasion, I ran across a commentary by Claudio Minca (2008) on the last AAG conference that took place at the same venue, Boston, back in 2008. Apparently, that conference was held at a smaller venue in the city compared to this year, and it was attended by about 7,000 people, not 9,500 as now. While I have extremely positive memories of the 2008 conference, particularly in terms of turning session contributions into research papers, Minca's commentary raised some critical reflections that seem even more important from today’s perspective. The question at stake here is whether and when conferences such as AAG get too big. 

While I was tempted to add my own mixed feelings about this year’s conference, my colleague came up with the idea of putting together some related thoughts on the Blog (her entry is below, following this one here), since a number of members from our Institute attended. This is a great chance indeed, as our fellow collaborators may have returned with rather different musings, and it is interesting to share these impressions. Please feel free to share them in the comments section below!

Speaking just on my own, it appears to me that this sort of event has definitely reached its limits, as it seems increasingly difficult to provide what conferences are actually for: letting people meet and encounter, both deliberately and accidentally. Maybe this is also due to particular commitments that I had this time (with family joining for travel, which kept me away from visiting the number of sessions I would have liked to see …). However, I felt the venue at this year’s AAG was dysfunctional in the above respect, most notably the passage between the two main conference spots, leading through different shopping centre areas that one had to pass by almost inevitably, several times a day. Such a ‘captive rider’ experience turned out to be discouraging for any attempt to get in touch with colleagues. 

I do not necessarily argue against big conferences in general, and AAG annual conferences in particular, as the usual purchase of AAG meetings is precisely that they are rather big, which brings a certain critical mass of colleagues to one place. This offers the chance to meet both the usual suspects of conference attendees, and the unexpected as well. However, personal encounter is only possible if the constant flow of people has some natural area of overlap, both physically in terms of space, and also in terms of time — the when and where of a large aggregate herd of colleagues, which needs to allow for the occasional meeting of individuals. This can be considered crucial for any conference success. Space matters, geographers! 

However, besides the peculiarities of one specific locality such as the Boston hotel space, there is a definitive downside of big conferences and the venues that can only host these sorts of mega projects. Do we really want to see the same kind of windowless meeting rooms, synthetic carpets and commercialised environments whenever we want to get in touch with other colleagues? Interestingly enough, we know from mega-projects research in planning and urban studies that the bigger such projects or events in general are becoming, the more likely are their ambiguities and their flaws, particularly the discrepancy between ambition and promise on the one hand, and delivery and outcome on the other. Very large conferences such as this one not only create an imminent burden of getting there (to which immigration procedures may add more in the near future), but also with regards to accommodation, getting around, and trip financing etc. In case this burden gets even bigger, it may no longer pay back to the conference attendee and its funding agent. 

Dysfunctional material spaces could be compensated for by up-to-date digital information, making conference communication much easier than before. In this case, one wonders why the conference app offered by the AAG for smartphones and tablets was unable to incorporate programme changes on a regular basis. As it was this year, attendees were often forced to meander desperately through hotel floors only because the session outline they had was outdated. 

As a consequence of AAG conferences becoming ever bigger and bigger, trying to host as many people as possible (which might also have a certain business rationale behind it), an increasing number of colleagues might begin looking for alternatives: mid-sized conferences or smaller workshops where encounter and interaction are more personal, scientific output is more in-depth, and the chances of creating learning outcomes possibly higher. From time to time, one has to take the risk and the burden of going for the big (conference), in order to meet as many different people and thoughts as possible. However, it might also become more popular to pick the smaller venue option for the above reasons. 

Here, in the small Grand Duchy, we are often critical of the minimum participants’ threshold of conferences that our own national funding agency is willing to support when we apply for conference funding (it usually demands 100 participants at least). In comparison, this looks rather miniature in the light of the huge number of usual AAG conference attendance or other related major events. Hence my lesson to be learned is that we should be more creative here. This applies, first and foremost, to organising ourselves and offering the encounter of a critical mass of people working on similar, or different, topics and bring them together, in a reflective and thoughtful space that fits for encounter and co-production. Second, smaller conferences whose venues are easier to reach (such as the annual meetings of the RGS-IBG in the UK, or conferences offered by associations such as Regional Studies or Aesop in Europe), might become the more frequented alternative to the big thing in North America, at least for researchers from the European realms.

Minca, C. (2008). The annual meeting of the AAG is out of control. Commentary. Environment and Planning A 40, 2544-48. 

A second set of thoughts on the AAG
Constance Carr

For me, I can see the value in various conference sizes. I like small workshops for intense scholarly exchange. Midsize, 50-200 participants, is also comfortable. The AAG in contrast seems to be reaching a breaking point, especially in terms of how to host such an event. Even MIT and Harvard, which were just across the river, were not big enough to hold us all. And while university institutions are not capable of hosting us, the commercially oriented venue combined with the digital interface of the AAG was equally disengaging. Illuminating the elephant in the room (the economic aspects of the AAG), the driver of the airport shuttle bus thanked us as we headed back home, “9500 Geographers! You brought a lot of business to the town! Have a safe trip home!” So, there it is.  We were noticed: Our tags, our bags, our languages, our desire for local beer, clam chowder, and taxis. Still, despite this, the AAG offers a breadth and opportunity (serendipitous or not) that smaller conferences do not. All in all, I had a great time at the AAG this year.

The venue - futuristic dystopias of the 70s 

 I agree that the hotel shopping centre complex was an annoying venue, although it renewed my interest in an old cult B-movie, Logans Run – a futuristic sci-fi telling the story of how two people tried to escape an indoor, computer-run, society, which was only able to sustain a limited population size and thus (staying true to the maxim otherwise popular at the time, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”) murdered all members of society upon their 30th birthday (by blowing them up in a blaze of fireworks). 
The indoor world of the 2017 AAG kept me from breathing fresh air or seeing the light of day for what seemed like 29 years (in fact, it was 72 hours). I had rolled off an overseas flight, into a taxi that dropped off at my hotel, and then after some sleep and a breakfast, I jogged through the maze of corridors, glassed-in bridges, and escalators, found my registration card adorned myself with some conference swag, and dashed to my all-day session, where I was the second speaker. Another sleep, and then off again to the next set of presentations. After that, I was old hat at the system and able to help a myriad of other dazed newcomers desperately searching for the You Are Here on the shopping mall maps and trying to figure out where north was. Finally, on day three, I ventured outside and explored life beyond the dome.

Soaking up the magnitude and focusing on the specific

A friend once said to me, “Connie, you look like a loner and you look like you like it.” Some would call this high praise, but it is precisely this solitary comfort zone of mine that gets tested at conferences. Self-conscious and careful about this, I set a low bar for myself concerning what it is I should achieve at a given conference. I won’t tell you how low that bar is, but let’s just say that I overshot it by leagues this year at the AAG.  Part of this is feeling of success is because I can relish in the massiveness, the anonymity, of the conference. I love sifting through the hundreds of pages in the program, or drifting from presentation room to presentation room, taking in the diversity of research foci and the sheer magnitude of the field of studies. (Against the background of local politics that try to diminish the importance of the humanities and social scientists in civil society, 9500 geographers in one spot is a poignant reminder that there is work to do!) The AAG is an opportunity to view the state-of-the art, to see what is being debated at the frontiers of science. Whether one lurks or actively engages (and there is often a gender dimension to this, as AAG Executive Director, Douglas Richardson, pointed out during Noam Chomsky's question period), a visit to the AAG is also an opportunity to survey the range of activities across academic geography, and evaluate where one’s own research position might be in the future.

That said, I can also relish in the specificity and focus of the session in which I am involved. For me, whether at the RGS
, Geographentag, or AAG, the session in which one is involved is the primary focus of the conference. And, this year, my session was great. It was a day-long conference on Environmental Justice Dimensions of Urban Greening organized by – and I thank them here – Hamil Pearsall (Temple University), Jonah White (Michigan State University), and Troy D. Abel (Western Washington University), who gave fabulous inputs in addition to James J.T. Connolly (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and Northeastern University), Ana Mesquita Emlinger (Westfield State University), Rita Bruno (Catholic University Dom Bosco), and Isabelle Anguelovski (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). 
The session was an opportunity to meet these new faces and listen to them speak about their work, which lays close to my own. Held in a room set for 50 participants and jammed with standing room only, I was immersed in thought the whole day. This, the building of new scholarly networks, was itself a valuable outcome. But a second outcome was the opportunity to stay in contact beyond the AAG: The organizers are developing a proposal for a special issue to a major journal in in the field.

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