Timothy Rickard

NESTVAL’s history follows an evolutionary path gradually establishing the characteristics of the organization today.

The New England Geography Conference 1922-1954

NESTVAL’s origins can be traced to 1922, when the first meeting of the New England Geographical Conference was held at Clark University. At subsequent annual meetings, mainly at Clark under Wallace Atwood’s leadership, distinguished geographers at the nation’s most prestigious institutions met with schoolteachers and faculty at teacher training institutions to strengthen geographic understanding and teaching in the region.  The Conference’s Vice Presidents, for example Ellsworth Huntington at Yale, organized spring meetings of state geographers including teachers. That is the origin of today’s state and province representation on the Executive Board in order to serve a more local constituency.

Acquiring the characteristics of an AAG Division 1954-1973

In 1952, the Conference received its first check from the AAG.  It was for $46.71 and represented $0.25 for each AAG member in the region. The New England Geographical Conference became the New England Geographical Society in 1954 and the New England St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society in 1956.  The first NESTVAL representative to the AAG Council was elected in 1967. The AAG division then as now included Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland but not Ontario.  In Quebec, NESTVAL is attractive mainly to Anglophones. Geographers from the Maritimes sometimes travel long distances to be included.

The difficult transition of the 1970’s

Teachers continued to attend the Society’s meetings during the 1960’s but total attendance progressively decreased from a peak of 211 at Clarkin 1939 to about 100 in the early 1970’s. At that time, in 1973, NESTVAL adopted a new mission focusing more on higher education: to promote geography in New England and eastern Canada, to encourage research and investigation of the region and to serve as the Northeastern Division of the AAG. This is still NESTVAL’s mission.  The Society also decided that all AAG members were de facto NESTVAL members who would thus receive the Newsletter. The 1974 Newsletter was mailed to 350 AAG members and 60 non-AAG dues-paying members, down from 124, mainly schoolteachers, in 1971. The new character of NESTVAL was confirmed in 1975, when 90 AAG members paid NESTVAL dues but only 27 non-AAG members did so. Only 11 of these were schoolteachers. Much the same proportion has prevailed to the present despite increasing efforts to include schoolteachers and other geographers not employed in higher education.

Origin of the NESTVAL Proceedings and transition to The Northeastern Geographer The institution of a conference Proceedings in 1971 was one response to the need for NESTVAL to be a forum for research and to disseminate that scholarship through publication. Attendance had been affected by “lack of enthusiasm for giving papers that would not be published.” Number and quality of presentations at the meetings increased throughout the next decade and the Proceedings achieved respectability until its demise in 2005. The initial goal was to record all papers presented after a thorough editing process. In practice fewer than half the presentations were submitted during the 1980’s and 1990’s. This proportion decreased further at the Millennium and NESTVAL decided that a high quality peer reviewed journal would be more attractive to young scholars needing a prestigious publication. So The Northeastern Geographer was born in 2006. Consistent with NESTVAL’s mission, it includes articles, essays and book reviews on the region and on other topics by geographers resident in the region.

Meetings format established 1970’s and continues now

Hal Meeks and Wes Dow wrote Guidelines for NESTVAL meetings which were published in the Newsletter throughout the 1980’s and are followed in principle today. A noon Friday to mid-afternoon Saturday meeting in mid to late October now fits in paper sessions, poster sessions and field trips largely on Saturday. On Friday, a Geography Student Bowl in the afternoon has been customarily followed by a happy hour and evening banquet with a speaker. The business meeting is usually noon on Saturday. Many variations have been tried over the years but the constraint is the length of time faculty and students are willing to stay away from classes and families. Meetings for the last 40 years have intentionally rotated around the NESTVAL region. For example, the meetings were held in Montreal in 1981, 1991, 1998, 2002 and 2011. The Society is always dependent on and grateful to those departments volunteering to host.

Most annual meetings have a theme for exploration in special sessions. The Society’s sole special publication, Geography in New England (1987) resulted from solicitation for papers on the History of Geography and Tourism Geography at the 1984 meeting. It included transcripts of seven Geographers on Film, histories of six departments and assessments of applied Geography at a spectrum of departments. The Editor of The Northeastern Geographer espouses the idea of special publications and will shortly publish the first in a series.

Applied Geography: 1984-present

During the 1980’s, departments in the region, particularly at the state universities and colleges, began to see applied geography programs as a means of departmental security at a time that the AAG was also concerned about the job opportunities for geography graduates. NESTVAL appointed an Applied Geography coordinator in 1987 with a remit for outreach to those applying their geography in careers such as urban and regional planning, tourism/recreation development and environmental management.  This community proved too diverse in interest and location to be held together as a group but a series of coordinators have since maintained outreach efforts with sporadic success. One continuous accomplishment is that former students have usually made presentations or participated in panel discussions when meetings were held in their state/province and by their former department.

Schoolteachers: re-engagement in 1980’s; courting the Alliances 1990-present

NESTVAL revived its moribund relationship with K-12 teachers in 1983 with the establishment a pre-college outreach project. In 1986 the Society made its first distinguished teacher award. In 1989, the Pre-College Education Coordinator was able to announce the establishment of the Massachusetts Geographical Alliance and the organization of one in Connecticut.  Thereafter, the Coordinators pursued cooperation with the six alliances and designed a number of K-12/NESTVAL workshops for teachers. The presence of national leaders in K-12 Geographic Education was a draw for teachers as was the distribution of teaching materials.  Also, in the 1990’s, NESTVAL vigorously promoted the new National Geography Awareness Week at the K-12 level. The Distinguished Geography Teachers Award is now made at the annual meeting to an awardee resident in the state in which the meeting is held.  The majority of the state Alliance coordinators are NESTVAL stalwarts but the Society is yet again seeking to strengthen its ties to K-12 educators.

Distinguished Service Award

The other NESTVAL Award is the Distinguished Service Award established in 1980. During that decade two or three awards were made each year often to retired stalwarts.  In the 1990’s one award was made each year until 1996. No award was made from 1997 to 2002. Awards were then made in 2003 and 2005-2009 and in 2012, which revived this important tradition.

Students Scholarship: Participation, Awards and the Geography Bowl

NESTVAL meetings have long been perceived as opportunities for students to broaden their understanding of Geography and Geographers and to present their own scholarship. The Society instituted an award for the best undergraduate paper written and presented in 1980. During the next decade these papers were published in the Proceedings.  Subsequently the nature of the awards varied but now each year the best undergraduate paper, graduate paper and poster presentation receive recognition and a cash award.  The awardees are encouraged to submit manuscripts to the Northeastern Geographer. The outstanding undergraduate paper now receives the David Frost Award, so named in recognition of his outstanding service, not least bringing a busload of Concordia students every year to experience the meeting.

 Another prominent feature of the meeting has been the popular Geography Bowl, instituted by Bryon Middlekauff in 1992. Since then, five to seven teams from the region’s colleges and universities have competed each fall, cheered on by faculty and fellow students.  Then, in spring, the NESTVAL all-star team competes against teams from other regions at the national meeting.

Support for departments

One of the responsibilities of an AAG division is to monitor the health of geography in the region and support departments experiencing difficulties. NESTVAL members have often acted as departmental consultants during routine self-assessments or as disciplinary advocates when administrations reprioritize at times of financial stress. Geography has been remarkably resilient at most of the two dozen small or large geography programs that were active during the 1970’s. It has tended to be tenuous at small private institutions, vigorous at Clark and Dartmouth, increasingly stable at the former teacher training institutions that mostly have become universities, and thriving at the land grant universities. Fortunately, the subsuming of Geography into Marine Affairs and then its disappearance at the University of Rhode Island in the early 1980’s was a unique circumstance.  However an unappreciative administration at Rhode Island College meant that Geography came close to disappearing from higher education in that state.  Its phoenix-like revival at RIC underlines the need for constant reflection and advocacy for departments and the discipline. In the NESTVAL region, good economic periods alternate with periods of recession and budget cutting.


The advent of powerpoint presentations, E-mail, an electronic newsletter and an easily accessible website has made it easier for NESTVAL members to present and communicate information but otherwise the mission and the challenges are much the same as when the Society became an AAG Division. Today NESTVAL is committed to maintain high quality meetings and publications. It must continue its tradition as an open transparent society embracing all geographers in the region, whatever their place of work, encouraging their participation, and welcoming them to leadership roles.

Further Information

Button, Charles E. and Timothy J. Rickard, “A Content Analysis of the NESTVAL Proceedings 1971–2005” presented at meeting of the New England – St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society, Montreal, Quebec, 2011.

Frederic, Paul B., “Two Decades of NESTVAL: 1990-2010” presented at meeting of the New England – St. Lawrence Geographical Society, Montreal, Quebec, 2011

Harmon, John E. and Timothy J. Rickard, Eds., 1988, Geography in New England,New Britain,Connecticut:New England – St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society.

Koelsch, William A., Before NESTVAL: The New EnglandGeographical Conference, NESTVAL Proceedings Vol. XXVII 1997 pp. 23-33.

Martin, Geoffrey J., “Geography in New England Prior to The New England Geographical Conference of 1922” NESTVAL Proceedings Vol. XXVII 1997 pp. 14-22

Meeks, Harold A., “A Short History of the New England – St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society,” NESTVAL Newsletter Spring 1974 pp. 31-34

Meeks, Harold A., “The New England – St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society: a Short History,” NESTVAL Proceedings, Vol. V, 1975 pp.73-78.

NESTVAL Newsletter 1971-1900

NESTVAL Proceedings 1971-2005.

Rickard, Timothy J., A Retrospective Essay on the Publications of the New England – St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society, The Northeastern Geographer Vol. 1, 2009, pp. 3-7.

Rickard, Timothy J., “A History of NESTVAL 1970 – 1990” presented at meeting of the New England – St. Lawrence Geographical Society, Montreal, Quebec, 2011

Riess, Richard O., “Editorial: History of the “Proceedings,” NESTVAL Proceedings, Vol. VI, 1976 pp. 2 and 100.

TJR 4/6/13

History of NESTVAL 1970 – 1990 (a PowerPoint presentation by TJR)