Author Meets Critics at the AAG

I spent last week at the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), a mammoth event with hundreds of sessions spread over 5 days and 3 hotels in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had a fantastic time at the conference, and I loved exploring New Orleans in my time off. I have attended the conference before, in Chicago in 2015, so I knew what to expect from this epic exchange of knowledge and research. But I also had some new experiences, including participating as a panellist in an Author Meets Critics session.

Representing my new employer, the University of Central Lancashire, at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Author Meets Critics sessions are odd. Primarily designed to publicise recent books (I think!), panellists speak about the book, and the author(s) then respond to those comments. Most of the time, the majority of the audience has not read the book, so it can be hard to formulate questions when the floor is opened up to audience discussion. The number of critics depends on the length of the session, but can range from 3 to 5.

At the AAG, I was taking on the role of critic for Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Revolution, and Uprising Shaped a City, which attempts to document almost four centuries of contentious history in one of the most famous cities in the world. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I had an idea what I wanted to say about it, but I had never actually been to an Author Meets Critics session before, and I wasn’t sure if what I wanted to say was appropriate. So I went to two other Author Meets Critics sessions before the Revolting New York one. The critics in the two sessions took very different approaches, and I liked one much more than the other.

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The Author Meets Critics panel for Space Invaders by Paul Routledge at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first session I went to was for Paul Routledge’s new book, Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest (2017). Routledge, and most of the panellists, have published work that has been influential on my understanding of the geography of social movements and protests, so that was a second reason for me to go along. I haven’t read the book, in fact I wasn’t aware of its existence until I saw the title in the conference programme. All of the critics (and there were five of them!) talked about what they liked about the book, and what they didn’t like. It was effectively a verbal review. Times five. With the author in the room. Whilst none of the reviews were overwhelmingly bad, it still felt pretty brutal. I felt quite uncomfortable during the session, and I also found it quite difficult to engage with the discussion.

The second Author Meets Critics was for Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today (2017) by Anna Feigenbaum. I have read this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also got a lot more out of the discussion of the book. There were only three critics, which gave Feigenbaum the time to briefly outline the book for those who hadn’t read it, as well as responding to the critics at the end. In addition, rather than reviewing Tear Gas, the two critics built on it, discussing which elements they found most interesting and how the book fit in to contemporary academic debates. As an audience member, I found this approach much more engaging.

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The Author Meets Critics Panel for Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum at the 2018 AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Luckily, this was the approach I had decided to take in my role as critic for Revolting New York. I do not think it is perfect, but I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out what I didn’t like/agree with when the book’s editor, and several of the authors, were in the room. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t critical, however; it is possible to critique something without being negative about it. I instead discussed the elements of Revolting New York that got me thinking, the issues it throws up that I think are worthy of further discussion. The two issues I focused on were: comparisons between New York and London; and the impact of terminology and whether we study events alone or as part of wider social movements. I think it went pretty well, if I do say so myself, and the terminology issue in particular carried on through the audience discussion.

I suspect that not everyone will agree with me on this, some people might not have a problem with pointing out a book’s weaknesses with the author in the room; it can even be argued that it is more fair than publishing a review to which opportunities for response are limited. For the audience however, I think it is downright awkward. I personally think the constructive approach is more engaging for the audience, particularly if they haven’t read the book yet. I would definitely take this approach again if I get asked to participate in another Author Meets Critics panel.

Highs and Lows of the AAG: Perspective of a Lone Travelling PhD Researcher

Who Am I?

My name is Llinos Brown and I am a final year EPSRC CASE award PhD student at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Preston. My PhD research explores energy cultures in a workplace case study environment. I am particularly interested in exploring how energy cultures differ between manufacturing and office environments within the same workplace. If you are interested in hearing more about my research please get in touch – Lbrown5@uclan.ac.uk or follow me on twitter @LlinosBrownGeog


The AAG this year was held in Chicago, the city that invented the skyscraper.

The AAG this year was held in Chicago, the city that invented the skyscraper. The main conference venue was the Hyatt Regency hotel, to the left of this image (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Like the majority of conferences, the AAG is a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues/friends, build up relationships, meet new people and network…..what you would expect from any conference. But the AAG is a bit different to any conference I had attended. It is extremely big – over 9000 geographers attending, with over 1700 sessions submitted – split over two main venues and two smaller venues, with over 90 parallel sessions. It has a conference app and there are lots of very well-known geographers in attendance (someone should create a Geographer Bingo).

Something that I struggled with and something that overwhelmed me was – how do you systematically go through which session to attend? My approach was first look at the speciality groups, the main one for me– energy, and highlight them. Then look for some key words – for me energy, workplace, and behaviour, and highlight them. Finally if there are any gaps (and I had time to look in more detail) look through particular session slots and highlight anything that you think was a bit different. I spent around 20 minutes each evening going through what I had highlighted for the next day and working out what I really wanted to see. Each day I also popped in something a little bit different into my schedule. I would definitely recommend this, some of the most thought provoking sessions that I attended were sessions that had nothing to do with my sub-discipline of energy geographies. The AAG has a bit of everything, embrace the amazing discipline of Geography and the variety of sessions that are on offer.

The printed program for the AAG is the size of a telephone book!

The printed program for the AAG is the size of a telephone book! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

One of the highs of the conference for me that I did not realise until I was on the plane home, was how embracing geography for a week helped me formulated new ideas. It’s not just about presenting your paper, networking, or handing out business cards. The conference has helped me develop empirical chapters for my thesis and it has made it much clearer to me how all the bits of my future thesis will link together. Maybe this wasn’t the AAG and it was just having time away from my desk and not directly thinking about my PhD but it was very extremely beneficial all the same.

One of the lows of the conference for me was its size. It is extremely big and it can be a lonely experience. Lunch and refreshments are not provided by the organisers so you can easily end up on your own at lunchtime. There are not the opportunities to chat to the person in front of you or sit next to someone while eating dinner and get chatting to them – which I’ve done at the RGS Annual Conference.  One thing I noticed at the AAG is that there are a lot of British geographers in attendance but they often stay in their university groups which mean if you’re the sole representative from your university it can mean you’re on your own for an evening or two. I was lucky enough to gate crash the Royal Holloway ‘crew’ so most evenings I joined them for food and drink – Thanks guys!

Llinos doing a bit of networking.

Llinos doing a bit of networking (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The N word – ‘Networking’ – we all know the benefits of it and how beneficial it can be but sometimes it can make you reflect on your experience as a researcher and make you wish you were in the person you are speaking to shoe’s. Yes, there is the saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ and this might link to me being the only person from UCLan attending the AAG but some evenings when I was back in my hotel room and had time to reflect on the day, I was a bit jealous of the additional support networks, the variety of supervision and the diversity of PhD research communities at other universities. This can be a bit of a low but there are also some positives such as realising you’ve got better resources than other PhD students – such as a permanent desk.

So to round up some top tips from me:

  • Don’t attend every session, there is a lot going on and you need time to digest the information you’ve obtained;
  • Get in contact with people you have met at previous conferences and see if they are attending, buddy up with them, exchange details and go for a drink.
  • Follow the twitter hashtag, if you’re ever not sure what session to attend check out twitter and see if something exciting is happening.
  • Head to a random session not related to your discipline – embrace Geography

Llinos Brown, University of Central Lancashire.

The AAG: Why Did I Sign Up For This?

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building  in the Western hemisphere.

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers, otherwise known as the AAG. Probably the biggest Geography conference in the world, the AAG continues to grow every year and this year over 9000 delegates gathered in Chicago for the 5 day event. It was my first time attending the conference, and although I had a fantastic time I did find the whole thing a little overwhelming at times. Amongst everything, it is easy to forget why you’re there in the first place. I decided to put this post together of what I believe are the 3 main purposes of going to a large international conference like the AAG, so you can reassure yourself when you find yourself asking the question, which you almost certainly will at some point, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’

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A welcome sign at the AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

  1. Present. And/or organising a session. Although you don’t have to present your work when you go to a conference, it seems a bit daft to fly all the way over the Atlantic Ocean and not present. Each presenter at the AAG only gets 20 minutes for their talk, including questions, so it really isn’t a big commitment. Presenting allows you to share your work with, and get feedback from, people outside your normal academic circle, which can be incredibly helpful. Presenting at such a prominent conference also allows you to stake your claim to your research topic, to make sure other people know what your research involves. Plus, it can actually be quite fun- you might actually enjoy yourself!

    Me Presenting at Chicago AAG

    Yours truly presenting a paper on the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Innes Keighren).

  2. Network. The sheer size of the AAG makes it a unique opportunity for networking, particularly for international contacts. Some really big names in Geography attend the AAG, and it can be a great chance to introduce yourself (I was sat behind David Harvey in one session, although I didn’t say hello!) If you are thinking about publishing your work, many publishers have booths in the exhibition hall, and a lot of journal editors also attend, so there are plenty of people to talk to about your ideas. It is a great chance to meet other PhD students, and catch up with existing friends who you haven’t seen since the last big conference. A PhD can sometimes be a lonely experience, so I like to take every chance I get to socialise with other people in the same boat.

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    My business cards, an invaluable networking tool! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

  3. Learn. My final purpose of going to a large international conference is a bit cheesy I know, but I think it’s a really important one. Conferences are a great chance to find out the latest ideas, theories and concepts in geography and your particular field. As I said, some of the biggest names in Geography attend the AAG, so it’s a great chance to hear them speak, and learn directly from them. Plus, it gives you the chance to ask questions about things you don’t understand, which you can’t do when reading a journal article or book. You can develop your own current projects by listening to others, and perhaps even get some ideas for future projects.

And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you to go along to the next AAG, the 2016 meeting is being held in San Francisco, so if you’ve always wanted to see Alcatraz or the Bay Bridge, then why not squeeze in a massive international conference whilst you’re at it?