When you’re in grad school or working on a doctorate, professors constantly instruct their students to present their papers at conferences. I always shied away from this. Although I love writing papers and challenging myself when it comes to research and analysing literature, which I often do without thinking, I am not comfortable speaking in front of crowds. And this is really ironic because I teach for a living. The difference is that I have been teaching since 1997, and I am comfortable teaching what I know. I suppose you could say that I have acquired ethos, or authority in this arena of my professional life. Presenting papers at a conference, however, I had not attempted before.
Since turning forty, I decided that I would challenge myself and do that which I fear. In spite of my cautious approach to everything life hands me, I often find myself being impetuous and doing things I wouldn’t normally be expected to do. A good example would be selling my house in NY, buying a new one in NC, and moving all in 3 months while nine months pregnant. Nothing like a good challenge.Perhaps I can blame all this on Joe, since he is impulsive by nature. But for someone like me, who quite often lives inside her thoughts, being impetuous is sometimes a positive and enriching experience.
Presenting a paper at SAMLA was such an experience. Although presenting papers is required for college professors at four-year-institutions and recommended for graduate students, it is not expected for community college professors. But since most of us are endeavoring to write books or papers for publication in scholarly journals, then presenting these papers at conferences is a smart way to approach the process. I didn’t have to attend or to present a paper. I wanted to because I wanted to do something I had never done before and just demystify the experience. The truth is that whatever we fear is always bigger and scarier in our minds. In reality, it just isn’t quite as bad as our imagination paints the thing, whatever that thing might be.
I didn’t have a paper in mind when I applied to present. I looked at the call for paper titles and the one I was most attracted to was the “Food and Memoir” one. The first books that came to mind were My Life in France, Julie & Julia, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Eat, Pray, Love. All three women centered their memoirs on food, and I wanted to show how they each used food, either in eating or cooking it, to establish power and agency in their personal and professional lives.
After my abstract was accepted in June, I had five months to write a paper. Of course, I started and finished the paper the week prior to the presentation, but it doesn’t matter. I sat in a panel of four other presenters and we took turns reading our papers. My reading went well, but what I loved more than that was the young women who came up to me afterwards and told me how much they felt connected to my paper and about their own experiences with food and power. That’s the best part about analyzing books and showing others what I see when I read them.
I suppose I always look for women and how they find positive and uniques ways of transforming alienation and loss of identity into empowerment. Interestingly, these memoirists use cooking and food as a means of attaining power for themselves, especially since cooking and food are closely associated with women’s work. Writing and presenting my paper gave me such a rush, empowered me as a teacher, thinker, and writer so that when I spent the day attending other people’s sessions, I was completely engaged with the work and ideas they presented. My mind was open and receptive to works I had not read and ideas I had not considered before. It reinforced my recent goals in going back to school for my doctorate — to finish it this time. All that intellectual inquiry gave me such a rush, I can’t wait for the next one.
In the end, I feel good about myself, proud even. As they say — whoever they are– love begins at home, and with me, love begins inside. Julia Child, Julie Powell, Frances Mayes, and Elizabeth Gilbert fed themselves the love they needed with food; I feed myself the love that had been denied me with intellectual inquiry, and it fills me on a deeper level than food ever could. My advice to you is to find that thing that fulfills you and to feed yourself. You can’t feed anyone else until you take care of your own emotional/psychic starvations.