What the AAG responses suggest about our direction as a field

Recently, the AAG – the American Association of Geographers – opened calls for articles and sessions for their 2015 conference. The conference runs in April, in Chicago, and attracts something like 7000 geographers from all over the world.

A few of us associated with Deaf Geographies put out a call to those interested to see what the coverage of papers might be. The returns are interesting. Here are a few thoughts on the areas that we work in, and what that tells me about our current direction as a field.

Some areas are holding station: There’s a clear presence of urban geography, historical geography, and geographies of design and of the built environment, social geographies also feature.

Some areas are on the rise: Sensory geographies, activist geographies and methodologies, and explorations of new theoretical areas like utopia.

One area appears to be falling away: Cultural geography.

The patterns here are suggestive of a few directions.

Firstly – the stability of (what I might call) outsider geographies… geographies that observe but don’t necessarily require an insider experience (to be valid to geography as a discipline, at least). Something like historical geography, for example, is an area that – by default – has to be explored by those who are not hundreds of years old. So it’s also a place where even Deaf academics would be ‘outsiders’ to an extent. Built environment work can be objective. Urban geographies is quite closely linked to geographies of the built environment and to social and disability geographies and the question of access which can be observed and assessed from outside. It’s interesting to consider that most of us working in these areas are hearing, and have more or less stable academic careers. Have we selected them because of the safety that they offer us in terms of our ‘hearingness’ in a Deaf-related area? Have we selected them because they sustain our stable careers? Have we selected them simply because we love them…? These are interesting questions.

Second – the rise in more engaged and political geographies; Sensory areas and areas of embodiment that have been – until recently – almost taboo, activism, research ethics and new theoretical approaches. Again, this speaks to me of those who do them – and suggests that it in this more challenging and provocative area of engagement and empowerment that Deaf academics are finding a place. This is also the preserve of the postgrad student, who can go out on a limb in an area that doesn’t have to succumb to the structures and pressures of more traditional academic ‘business’ – barriers to interdisciplinary, standard curricula, funding body visions, journal coverage, REF panel selection, etc. Frankly, I’m delighted that these areas are opening up, but as the next section suggests, there are questions over how we embed them as core areas of Deaf Geography, and work out a foundation for them that will allow them to survive long-term.

Thirdly – the drop in cultural geography areas is interesting… particularly since this is an area in which geography, more generally, is experiencing growth. One reason for this pattern is perhaps simply that those involved in these areas before were postgrads, and have moved onto new focuses. (it would be interesting to find out how many of those previously doing cultural geography work have moved because of the same pragmatic decisions that threaten our new and expanding areas). But it also strikes me that the struggle with cultural geography is symptomatic of a… malaise would be the wrong word… discomfort, uncertainty (?) over quite how to work on Deaf culture when Deaf culture itself is increasingly problematised by: cyborging, transhumanism, performative identities, language shift, the disintegration of Deaf spaces and places, and so on. The emergence of these challenges to a more traditional ‘culture-based’ Deaf identity suggest that now would be a perfect time for cultural geographers to be exploring Deaf culture… and for Deaf Studies scholars to be exploring cultural geography. Sadly, this seems to not be the case.

The AAG next year looks like it’s shaping up to be a very interesting conference.