Public Engagement in Geography

Schedule and ProgramExpanding and enhancing public outreach and engagement represents a major strategic goal within the American Association of Geographers and a priority among geographers interested in advancing public discussion and debate, evidence-based policy initiatives, and the broader civic struggles over people and places.  This goal has long been important but it is especially imperative in light of our turbulent political times and ongoing institutional pressures at many universities and colleges. 

Geographers have important perspectives on a host of environmental, social, and technological issues.  Moreover, the discipline’s ultimate sustainability and efficacy depends upon being more recognizable and better understood among a broad array of communities.  This special theme within the 2018 AAG Annual Meeting will create and open spaces for demonstrating, debating, and improving how geographers engage public groups through their research, teaching, and other professional practices.      

The AAG welcomes paper, panel, and workshop sessions that explore the practical strategies, ethical considerations, and larger political implications and challenges of geographers interacting with wider publics, especially those outside of scientific, industry, and educational circles. 


Theme Committee

Joseph Wood (Chair), Professor of History and Public Affairs, University of Baltimore
Chris Post
, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, Kent State University
Joshua InwoodAssociate Professor of Geography, The Pennsylvania State University
William MoseleyProfessor of Geography, Director, Food, Agriculture & Society Program, Macalester College
Sriram Khe, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, Western Oregon University
Rebecca TorresAssociate Professor, Department of Geography and the Environment, University of Texas — Austin
Hilda Kurtz, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Georgia
Nicole NguyenAssistant Professor of Social Foundations of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago


The following sessions have been identified by the Theme Committee for special consideration.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: These sessions are organized for the purpose of providing grounded but critical discussion of public engagement and outreach opportunities, strategies, and challenges. Sessions build upon the experiences of panelists/facilitators and the sharing of perspectives from the audience to create a space where geographers can train each other, trade innovations and ideas, and negotiate practical and even political obstacles to public engagement in geography.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: How to Communicate Science and Geographic Knowledge
5:20 PM - 7:00 PM
Napoleon A2, Sheraton, 3rd Floor

Geographers are faced with ever-increasing challenges for transfer of geographic knowledge to a nation increasingly adverse to and skeptical of scientific expertise. Like other scientists, geographers are efficient communicating within their respective sub-disciplines (the so-called ivory tower), but is this enough? Knowledge transfer involves more than communicating among peers. It especially concerns communicating effectively and efficiently to the public, stakeholders, and policymakers. This knowledge transfer can be understood as a closed pathway whereby geographers not only engage intended audiences directly but also become informed by engagement for specific research needs, thereby leading to more informed research proposed to funding sources. In this session, we’ll explore examples of DIY public engagement, some successful, some not, and learn how to more effectively communicate to those most in need of geographic knowledge. We’ll draw upon experiences from audience participants as well to learn the breadth of techniques that can be employed to ensure geographic knowledge is understood, disseminated, and appreciated. We’ll conclude by discussing obstacles that can be expected by geographers as we attempt to effectively communicate more broadly.


Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Bringing Students and Community Members Together in Shared Learning
10:00 AM - 11:40 AM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor 

In the spirit of field work and public engagement in geography, some of the most important and relevant learning our students undertake comes from engaging with community members and leaders in a shared learning process. Yet challenging the classroom/community binary to make the experience work constructively and effectively for both students and community members is often difficult, especially given uneven power dynamics between universities and community-based organizations that treat the community as laboratory. For this panel, three geographers who teach in diverse settings will discuss their work connecting students and communities. Panelist experiences range from taking students into the local community to learn from and with community members and community leaders, to bringing community members and leaders into the classroom itself, to representing a community-based organization and sharing grassroots networks as part of action pedagogy. Panelists will share their own approaches and tools for drawing on community engagement and outreach in the learning process.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Engaging Broader Publics via Op-eds and Opinion Pieces
10:00 AM - 11:40 AM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor 

Now more than ever, many public debates would benefit from the input and perspectives of geographers. Op-eds and opinion pieces are long standing features of well-established news outlets, as well as emerging digital media platforms. Characterized by a clear perspective and a well-supported argument, the opinion piece is a critical medium for the public intellectual. Like any other piece of writing, however, the practice of crafting an effective op-ed is a skill that must be learned and honed over time. This DIY session will lay out the key elements of a good op-ed and discuss strategies for getting such pieces published. The session will also provide hands-on, tangible examples of op-eds, from the first draft, through revisions, back and forth with editors, to actual publication. If time permits, we will also devote time to workshopping op-ed ideas provided by audience members.


Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Teach-Ins
1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor 

This panel approaches public engagement in terms of process pragmatism and public pedagogy, and frame our session around both the nitty gritty of teach-ins as a mode of public engagement and thoughts on why this work is important in 21st century higher education. Jenna Loyd (University of Wisconsin) will share her experiences with co-organizing a series of community workshops on policing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, called Transforming Justice. She will focus on creating shared knowledge and working with social movement organizers. Punam Khosla (York University) will speak to her experience doing workshops with women in low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto as well as a number of other public engagement/ outreach/ education workshops over the years in labour unions, anti criminalization gender based violence campaigns, and community radio. Ebru Ustundag (Brock University) will problematize what we understand as ‘public/community engagement', inviting expanded institutional consideration of what community building and partnership might look like. Hilda Kurtz (University of Georgia) will consider public engagement in relation to public intellectualism as assemblage, and reflect on her work co-organizing a teach-in series on civic engagement called Solidarity Sundays.

Special Sessions

Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Entry Points for GIS in Public Pedagogy
1:20 PM - 3:00 PM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor 

In keeping with the theme of public engagement, this session opens a space for demonstrating how geographers can support public groups through online mapping tools. Geographers engage with maps for a variety of reasons – spatial information gathering, analysis, and data visualization – as part of the geographic research cycle. Maps also grab the attention of individuals not trained in spatial thinking and are powerful tools for conveying spatial relationships and information. While computer users may be adept at finding favorite restaurants or avoiding traffic jams using online mapping tools, underlying data and software used to construct online maps are less familiar. Questions to explore in this session include: How can those knowledgeable about geographic information science (GIS) provide entry points for the public to become literate in online geospatial technology tools and applications? What are different levels of understanding that invite interactions with and contributions to online maps? Who are some of the most effective individuals at bringing map skills to audiences beyond geographers and GIS professionals? What venues, events, or interactions are most effective in dissemination of mapping knowledge? How can geographers and GIS professionals facilitate online mapping knowledge and experience? What role do elementary and secondary teachers play in exposing students to GIS? What role do librarians play in introducing patrons to GIS? Panel members will present brief presentations about work intersecting GIS and the public, discuss barriers and opportunities to reaching wider audiences, and brainstorm approaches to moving GIS into classrooms, nonprofit organizations, and collective public knowledge.


Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Pop-Up Public Programming & Storytelling
3:20 PM - 5:00 PM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor 

Place-making and the memorial resonance of place are shared, contested and accessible to diverse individuals and groups. Pop-pop programs that engage groups or passers-by can reveal hidden stories, yield important insights, and help build community. Successful pop-up public programming depends on solid practical planning, thoughtful engagement with place and community, and a lot of luck. This session will begin with a discussion of why and when to consider pop-up public programming, followed by a brainstorming session about pop-up themes and activities and will conclude with an on-the-spot pop-up made by and for session participants.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Effective Political Action, Evidence-based Advocacy
8:00 AM - 9:40 AM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor 

This session serves as an interactive discussion and opportunity for geographers and geography students to learn ways to be successful as advocates for geography related issues and how to participate in the political process as informed citizens. Geographers play an important role in policymaking as civil servants in local, state, and federal agencies. For colleagues in the academy or working as practitioners in non-governmental settings, the pathways to effective advocacy are not as clear-cut. Scientists in our discipline routinely shape political actions through varied forms of involvement in public decision-making, from attending public meetings to phone calls and writing in various outlets. Speakers come from academic geography, the AAG, and geography graduate students. Emphasis will be placed on bringing geographic expertise to bear when taking an active role in public affairs.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Organizing for Positive Change
3:20 PM - 5:00 PM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor

Colleges and universities are at the front lines in today’s labor movement as corporate interests and their political counterparts compete for control of institutions of higher education. Through social movement unionism, academic workers can organize to influence political and social change from the ground up. Are you interested in winning concrete improvements in people's lives and challenging oppression? In this participatory workshop with experienced labor organizers, hone key skills for building relationships, developing strategic campaigns, and engaging effectively as participants in grassroots movements.


Do It Yourself (DIY) Engagement: Film and Filmmaking
5:20 PM - 7:00 PM
Napoleon A3, Sheraton, 3rd Floor

This panel session focuses on the engagement and use of film for pedagogy, research and creation of informative and artistic works for geographical knowledge production. Whether for media literacy, moving-image research as visual method or as a teaching companion, this panel hopes to initiate a practical but critical discussion of strategies, opportunities, and challenges to pursuing film as a method and tool of engagement. When geographers use or produce video for teaching or presenting their research, how can we measure and assess its impact - what kind of engagement is taking place with the audience and what tools are available to help us find out. 

This panel session aims to explore the connections between the process of making a film but also seeks to find out answers to how we can speak about audience engagement. We wish to explore the interconnections between the production of digital film and video (as well as other formats) and its reception as a form of geographical teaching tool.

Please direct all theme-related queries to publicengagement@aag.org. Theme participants are encouraged to share via social media using the hashtags #AAG2018 and #PublicEngagement.