What's an AWG for?

September 2003

First, I want to thank Pat Buckley for his leadership of this group, and Neil Sorensen before him, and on back. It takes real effort to maintain focus in and on an organization as far-flung and volunteer-dependent as AWG. I feel equally in awe of our current and past Board members, who spend time traveling long distances to attend meetings, where we accomplish things that just do not happen through electronic communication. Geography is both our subject matter and our bane, in a State as large as ours!

The most important thing for me to write in a column on the eve of my presidency is to make explicit what I see as the mission of the Association. The Board discussed these missions at our Winter and Spring meetings. However, this particular ranking and justification is my own.

1. AWG is a vehicle for communication and cooperation among post-secondary Geography educators in the state. Washington State has a higher proportion of its lower-division post-secondary enrolment in community colleges than most states in the U.S. It's important that those who teach Geography in community colleges communicate with the Geography programs in our universities, regarding curriculum, programmatic needs, and student trends. In addition, our university Geography programs are the major source of graduates who teach geography and allied fields in community colleges: another benefit of keeping in regular contact.

2. AWG provides a platform for interaction, presentation skills, and networking by Geography students across the state (and across the larger region). Our students do such interesting work; as educators, we have ramped up our expectations of students' projects' external relevance, methodological clarity, and presentation skills. The resultant projects are things that interest folks beyond our individual classes. Other students learn from the "demonstration effect" of excellent projects, presented well. Professionals benefit from learning what students are able to do. The students learn from the questions and suggestions posed by other students, by educators, and by professionals. Students at one level learn from more advanced students, and learn about opportunities for studying Geography at higher levels.

Most of our students don't go on to teach geography, but engage in every conceivable (and some inconceivable) activity. All of us who have been students remember the huge uncertainty of venturing out into the world, post-degree. AWG can help alleviate that uncertainty by being a conduit for professionals with geography backgrounds (note that I'm not limiting this to "professional geographers") to interact with students. Not only the students benefit: increasingly, organizations rely on interns and part-time employees to round out their staffs, and AWG networks could facilitate that opportunity matching.

3. AWG should be a vehicle for awareness and networking among non-academic professionals with Geography backgrounds, and among academic and non-academic professionals. Compared to the occupational networks available for lawyers, physicians, marketers, or social workers, it's lonely being a geographer, or being a marketer or analyst who identifies with geographic approaches! To the extent that AWG can provide e-mail, on-line, and in-person conduits for interaction, job searching, and problem-solving, we should. Doing so will change us in ways that will help our other missions (see above and below). Secondly, while I strongly believe that the faculty must drive the curriculum, I am very interested in what our alumni (broadly speaking) found useful, and what capabilities they need in our new graduates.

4. AWG should be an advocate for geographic education in Washington State. I place this fourth, because while such advocacy is sorely needed, we're really not set up to do this. I think the most we can do, at least in the medium term of my time as President, is to make ourselves more aware of the forces that influence the state of geographic education at secondary and post-secondary levels, in the State.

5. AWG should liaise with K-12 educators in the State, providing intellectual and content resources when and as needed. This is a mission we've taken quite seriously in the past few years. Our Bylaws now call for the AWG Vice President to serve as a formal liaison to the Washington Geographic Alliance (WAGA), and set aside a spot on the AWG Board for a WAGA representative. However, post-secondary geographic education is sufficiently different in emphasis and especially in institutional context, that I don't think we can expect huge interaction. I suspect that our best hope here is to develop and maintain connections with new Geography graduates who become secondary-school teachers (though, of course, most social studies teachers do not have a background in Geography). One route through which our current activities can support this is the simple step of encouraging student presentations about teaching geographic concepts, thereby encouraging participation by current students interested in teaching.

One thing we could do to further missions 1, 3, and 4 is institute an annual award to a person (or perhaps organization) that has done a great deal, over some period of time, to improve geography education or practice in Washington. Please contact me if this idea interests you, or if you have someone to nominate.

Over the next two years, I'm going to be mindful of all five of these missions. I'll focus, and I think our newly energized Board is happy to focus, on the first three. Please join us!

James W. ("JW") Harrington is Professor and Chair of Geography at the University of Washington. He can be contacted at

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