Improving the Conversational Geography of Environmental Conferences

I’m slowly learning that I’m not the only one who feels like the best—meaning the most interesting, challenging, comfortable and uncomfortable—conversations at academic conferences happen in their marginal spaces. Somehow a bathroom, an awkward corner of a hallway, or Twitter becomes the lively space of heated but amicable debate, while during paper presentations and the question-and-answer periods, only a small minority of voices and perspectives get heard—and those voices and perspectives are often white, cis, male, and otherwise structurally privileged. I’m not complaining about the marginal spaces, and the echo chamber of privileged voices is hardly unique to environmental conferences. However, I have started speculating about and talking with folks about how we might make the more central spaces as inclusive and welcoming as the marginal ones.

Geographer Rebecca Lave describes this problem in my home discipline in a manifesto, “The Unbearable White-Maleness of AAG.” There, she compares the increasing diversity of gender and ethnicity in geography as a whole to the disproportionately white male domination of presentations at the primary annual geography conference for US scholars, the Association of American Geographers’ meeting.

As someone whose work often jumps between environmental geography and science and technology studies, I found myself thinking specifically about the contrasts between the conversational geography of environmental conferences and critical technology conferences, and reflecting more favorably upon the latter. This might not seem intuitive, given that tech conferences and tech culture have much more frequently been critiqued for being sexist, racist, and otherwise oppressive. But whether it’s in response to mainstream tech culture or for other reasons (probably both), the “tech” conferences I’ve been to or talked with folks about seem to do some things really well in terms of creating a welcoming environment for many different voices.

Hence this listicle. Not that a listicle can solve the deep problems of oppression in the academy, but it’s clear that those of us who organize and attend environmental conferences can learn some important lessons from tech conferences.

In many ways, I’m not the best person to be writing about this: while I’ve definitely been a bathroom conversationalist, I also haven’t had too much trouble speaking up in the less marginal spaces. So I’ve tried to listen to folks who are more uncomfortable in the formal spaces of conferences. In that sense, I’m less author of this listicle and more curator. Several of these suggestions are ones I wouldn’t have thought of myself, and became part of this post after talking with folks in my department and eavesdropping on some cartographers debriefing after their annual major conference.

So, without further ado, here are eight things environmental conferences can learn from tech conferences:

Illustration by Heather Rosenfeld.

Illustration by Heather Rosenfeld.

While organizing…

  1. Establish some kind of safer space policy, such as a code of conduct or anti-harassment statement. This approach is less concerned with creating laws that people feel afraid of breaking and more with encouraging people to think about conversational norms, and to become more comfortable speaking up when these norms are potentially challenged.
  2. Actively recruit people with different identities and viewpoints. The blog Congrats, you have an all male panel! calls attention to this. This might mean doing more and different work than sending out a call for papers, and might also mean changing themes. The blog Feminist Philosophers offers strategies for improving the composition of panels, and some male scholars are taking a pledge to not appear on a “panel of two people or more unless there is at least one woman on the panel (not including the chair).” The pledge also entails offering suggestions to improve panel diversity.
  3. Be mindful of divisions of labor and leadership. Too often, women, graduate students, and undergraduates wind up doing the bulk of the work—especially the more mundane, unglamorous work—while higher ranking people, especially men, hold leadership positions and do the “intellectual” work at the conference.

At the event…

  1. Structure the event so as to encourage people to get to know each other and make this thing we call “networking” easier. Options include icebreakers (for the whole group or in smaller events, depending on the size of the conference), introduction go-rounds, special badges for new attendees, and so forth.
  2. Relatedly, invite everyone to say their name and pronouns. If people whose pronouns might be less obvious are the only ones stating them, it sets those people apart.
  3. Create multiple venues for discussion. Some people will be more comfortable speaking up during a Q&A; others will be more interested in informal discussions.

During discussions…

  1. Tanya Buckingham of the UW Cartography Lab says she can’t take credit for this, but she’s the first one who explained the “sandwich” for discussion to me. The “sandwich” involves starting and ending your comment with something nice, and putting the criticism or hard-hitting question in the middle. This isn’t about watering down your criticism/question; it’s about situating it carefully, given that you’re probably asking because the work gripped you in some important way.
  2. Speak up about oppressions, even if you don’t think it’s your “place.” For example, a blogger at Tenure She Wrote gives an example of two male panelists monopolizing the conversation and marginalizing the one female panelist, and calls for the (male) chair to use his position of power to change the conversation.

Finally, although I’ve had my share of awkward and positive experiences at conferences and have tried to hear from many others, I’m sure there are more than eight ways environmental conferences can be improved. Feel free to share additional strategies or experiences in the comments!

Featured Image: Illustration by Heather Rosenfeld.

Heather Rosenfeld is a geography graduate student at UW-Madison and part-time instructor at Madison Area Technical College. Her research interests include human-nonhuman relations, alternative economies, technology and environmental justice, and feminism in the academy. She is currently working on a dissertation on farm animal sanctuaries, focusing primarily on chickens (who are awesome). She makes comics as part of her research process, and for fun. ContactTwitter.

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