Attending the AAG Annual Meeting

On March 29th 2016, I attended a week-long conference, the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) at San Francisco, United States. This was the first time I was attending a large conference outside India and furthermore, the first time I was presenting at one.

The AAG Annual Meet was an exhilarating, exhausting, and illuminating experience. As I’d mentioned above, I am not very familiar with large-scale conferences and the scale of the AAG meet was gigantic. Spread out over five days, it included more than 1700 sessions with over 8000 participants. In addition, there were exploratory tours, workshops, and special events scattered across the timetable. Importantly, this was a conference on geography, a field that is vast and varied in itself. Thus the sessions in the AAG Meet dealt with topics as diverse as tectonic plate movements to the geopolitics of migration in Europe.

The stage, just before a lecture by Teresa Caldeira

Needless to say, physical laws prevent a single participant from attending each and every session. Thankfully, I’d been warned about the size of the event beforehand, and had therefore planned my itinerary before I arrived. Things were made easier by an AAG app that I could download from the Google Play Store, where I could check on available sessions and mark them down in my daily schedule.

While marking sessions down, I decided to focus on three themes — urbanisation in Asia (particularly China), water (and its linkages to other resources such as land and energy), and urban infrastructure. The underlying principle I adopted was to focus on sessions related to my own interests, but which had speakers or dealt with issues I normally couldn’t engage with in India. For example, I marked down a session that had someone speaking about the recent drought in Sao Paulo — a topic with potential parallels to the ongoing water crises in Indian cities, but which I had only engaged with from afar.

At one of the sessions I attended, dealing with the work of Jane Jacobs

It will be too cumbersome to go into detail about each session and speaker. However, I must say that each session was an incredible learning experience. Most of the scholarship presented was deep, rich, and transformative, provoking plenty of thought. Some of the talks taught me something new. For example, the session where I presented my paper (“Modern India: Achievements and Challenges”) had another speaker, a central government officer with DeITY, who spoke about co-developing digital learning tools in a Bangla dialect for a school on a Sunderban island in West Bengal. In another session, I learned about Taobao villages — clusters of rural internet entrepreneurs working out of demarcated spaces in Chinese cities like Guangzhou.

Other sessions added immensely to what I already knew. Topics and sessions related to infrastructure were particularly characteristic of this. A talk about a desalination plant in London brought out complex issues of planning, finance, decision-making, and the ways in which concepts like desalination infrastructure spread out across geographies. My earlier notions of north and south, east and west, developed and developing, were regularly challenged as issues of accumulation, dispossession, gentrification, and displacement emerging from sites and spaces across the globe, resonating in similar and different ways.

Saskia Sassen during her talk on bordering

Nowhere was this more apparent than at some of the special events I attended. Unlike sessions whose attendance I’d planned thematically, I allowed myself a little more freedom in the special events, choosing events which were provocative, different, or had speakers I wanted to hear. An “author meets critics” session on Asher Ghertner’s book Rule by Aesthetic (dealing with planning and governance in modern Delhi) was a whirlwind of provocations, as both the author and the critics delved deep into the book, challenging each other with ideas and notions from their own work. A talk by Saskia Sassen on the creation of borders covered topics ranging from migration to surveillance to land values. Teresa Caldeira delivered another scintillating talk, on transformations in Sao Paulo across decades, pivoting the diverse topics she dealt with around the story of a single family in a specific neighbourhood. Michael Watts, retiring from Berkeley, simply titled his talk “What Now?”, using the work of his favourite photographers to talk about issues of identity, masculinity, and violence.

Michael Watts’ presentation, during his talk “What Now?”

In addition, there were numerous other things going on. Special trips were being organised, workshops were being conducted, and some different sessions were being held. A session dealing with poetry had literature professors come up and recite work that deal with space, location, and place. A workshop on mapping evictions in San Francisco was taking place elsewhere. Meanwhile, the whole event was peppered with participants sitting, squatting, standing, walking around, striking conversations, and having informal meetings.

At a session titled “GeoPoetics”, featuring poetry dealing with geography.

Large-scale events like these are often questioned for their usefulness and I see the point of such criticism. Smaller, more focused events can often be a lot more productive in terms of generating work or sharing knowledge. But I don’t think the agglomeration effects of a large-scale event such as the AAG can be ignored. For someone like me, this was a great way to cover broad swathes of research, obtaining wide views of what’s going on in a field like geography and how other research can relate to my own.

My one quibble however, is a much more of a general comment on research and academia. In some of the talks dealing with Indian topics, I found it absurd that I had to fly halfway around the world to learn about what’s going in my own country and region. Of course, a lot of research on India comes out of universities in the west, and a meet like the AAG therefore becomes an excellent platform to engage with them. Nevertheless, the relative lack of such platforms for Indian (and Asian) researchers in India to present and share their work with each other was quite evident. Perhaps, this is something we need to look at more carefully. We probably don’t have to create something the size and scope of the AAG Annual Meet, but creating new platforms to share and disseminate work is a task that I feel is still half-finished.

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