Today was a fun day. For our historiography class, each of us has to give a twenty-minute presentation on a grouping of three books, explaining how these three fit into the historiography, what they’re about, and how they relate to each other, roughly. My subject was the environment and my three books were Roderick Frazier Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, Elliott West’s The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, and Ian Tyrrell’s True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, and they were all interesting books in their own way. Should you have some interest, I would recommend Nash’s, as it’s probably the most influential and certainly the most accessible: very clearly written and on a topic that would interest most people. It’s on how American attitudes toward wilderness and the environment changed over time, and it came out in 1967 and went through four printings, so it’s still quite important. Anyway, so I was nervous about presenting because it’s week eight and almost everyone else has already done theirs, and since my cohort is so brilliant and articulate and historically well grounded there have been some really excellent presentations; the bar just got raised, every week. I figured the only thing I might do to distinguish myself was not read; that is, not just sit there with my paper and read it off word for word. Most people don’t read well, but the main reason I refuse to read is that once you start reading, you lose your audience, and then you’re not doing anyone any good. Personally I find it nearly impossible to stay awake during a read lecture. My dislike of read lectures has developed over the years, as I’ve endured many dull professors as well as dull speakers at conferences and panel discussions. And I know that reading isn’t the only way of lecturing; I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to some people who have fascinating ideas and who are able to convey them compellingly: Leon Litwack (start at about 4:00) [link broken], Kerwin Klein, Michael Pollan, Eric Foner, and others.
So I’m convinced that there are much better ways to get ideas across than to read off a paper, no matter how brilliant the words on that paper may be. For that reason, I used to just wing it every time I had to present something, and for a time that went well and saved me a lot of trouble. But last year at a conference I discovered that you can’t just wing it all the time, particularly when you’re less well acquainted with your topic than you’d like to be (or, in this case, than you were a year ago). That day, I was insufficiently prepared and didn’t have good notes, and my entire fifteen-minute presentation ended up being one long run-on sentence, with a lot of ums and ands to hold it together. Oddly enough, people liked it anyway–which maybe just goes to show that people really are more attentive when you don’t read and just speak to them instead. But this time I wanted to avoid my previous unpreparedness, so I experimented with preparing longer presentation notes and practicing what I might say beforehand.
Well, I kicked ass. Or at least I did if my classmates are to be trusted, since that’s what they told me afterward. They said they were impressed with what I’d done, that my delivery was clear and easy to understand, and that it looked like I really knew my stuff. Hallelujah! I felt fantastic, and so glad it was over. This was a huge contrast to yesterday. Last night, while I was finishing up my note-taking for the presentation, I practically had a panic attack and had to throw on a jacket and run outside and walk around the neighborhood, just to get rid of nervous energy and tension and force myself to breathe. (Yoga would have been best, but I’m not skilled enough yet to be able to just will the yogic mindset whenever I need it!) I just felt like I was being crushed by nervousness and anxiety, and I couldn’t work. When I came back from my walk because my toes were getting cold, I figured I’d bake some cookies to try and get my mind off myself. But I thought I’d make myself some dinner first, since my walk had made me hungry. While I was chopping onions I had a revelation.
A small voice in my head said, “You know, you’re just scared you’ll be exposed as a fraud. You think you’re going to give your speech and people will point their fingers at you and scream, ‘You know nothing! You’re stupid! You don’t belong in grad school!'”
And then a bigger voice in my head responded, “But I’m not stupid, and I’ve worked hard on this. And I deserve a place in my class as much as anybody.” Cheesy as it sounds, almost at that moment, my stress lifted. I always say it’s amazing the way fear will vanish once you give it a name (JK Rowling knows this: Voldemort versus You-Know-Who), and it had proved true once again. As soon as I understood that that was what had been bothering me, I was free to dismiss my anxiety and concentrate on what I planned to do. By confronting my little demons, I was able to re-affirm the validity of my work and my interpretation, and I felt a hundred times better. Of course, it wasn’t all roses after that; a few hours later I sat down to give my presentation notes a run-through and it turned out I didn’t know half of what I was talking about and I couldn’t put sentences together. It felt like the CCIS conference all over again, complete with ums and ands, and now with long pauses and “Crap, I forgot what I was going to say.” I started to figure out that it actually helps me to have more writing on my paper instead of less; I had thought I could just write down key words and phrases to jog my memory, and that having long sentences on the page would just confuse me, but it turns out that through some strange process, my memory actually deals better with complete thoughts and sentences than keywords. So I tweaked my notes and looked up some info I didn’t really know that thoroughly, and tried again. I sat on my bed at three a.m., three hours after I’d intended to be in bed, and held my notes in my lap and just spoke out what I wanted to say. It took me thirty-five minutes, but I was able to speak the whole time with almost no glances at my notes, so I was satisfied. I knew roughly how much I had to omit for the talk tomorrow, and I was ready for bed. My preparations really paid off, since I hardly had to look at my notes today and I was even able to stay within the time limits. It is so gratifying to think I’m on the path to figuring out how to be a good speaker and lecturer, especially because speaking well is so important to me. I’m even kind of looking forward to our end-of-quarter lecture project. Kind of.
Oh, and I have to say it again, my cohort is just completely totally effin’ awesome. They gave me so, so much encouragement before my presentation, all these wonderful bolstering smiles that just made me feel so supported, when it was almost time to present and I was getting jittery. (Right before I started, my heart began pumping out a beat you could have danced to. At a trance club. It was insane.) Ellen, our prof, is cool too, because our discussion was getting sidetracked again and again and she saw me sitting there and I can’t even imagine what I looked like, but she noticed me and said, “Well, we could go on, but I see Lisa over there dissolving,” and told me to start my presentation. And then afterward all my cohort–and Ellen too–were so nice and complimentary I just felt so good, not just because of what I’d accomplished but because I was surrounded by these incredible people who were cheering me on. Because we all cheer each other on in turn and that’s just what we do.
I said today was fun, but that was really taking a bit of artistic license. The first half of today was fun. After lunch, though, I found myself burned out by my presentation and my lack of sleep. By the time we took our break in my afternoon class, my head was hurting and my throat was sore. I’m still dizzy, and my face hurts; I am really very tired. I left class at break time so I could come home and rest. But I just had to write about my little triumph today because it made me so glad.
One more thing: I have new shoes. I ordered them off Zappos on Friday night, and they sent them out yesterday and upgraded my regular free shipping to overnight for no extra charge. Customer loyalty, I guess. Zappos is pretty cool. I got these shoes because Al got some, and she told me she liked them. And let me tell you, when your fashion-unconscious thirteen-year-old tennis fiend sister tells you she likes her new dress shoes, you sit up and take notice. The last time I’d talked to her about non-athletic shoes she said she would only wear tennis shoes to school because “I don’t want to have to change my shoes for P.E.” Then last week she was online telling me how these shoes were really comfortable, and they were specially designed with the heel lower than the toes, to improve your posture. I thought, “Improve my posture? Al likes these shoes? Okay, I’ll get some, even if it bankrupts me for the rest of the month” (and it did, just about). So when I staggered home today from the bus stop all exhausted and unwell-feeling, the package was waiting for me with my new Earth Shoes. And amazingly enough, the posture thing really does work. The shoe soles are super comfortable and natural-feeling, and I do feel myself standing straighter. It is frankly very discomfiting. I’ve never worn new shoes that fit my feet so well, not even my beloved feather-light Taryn Rose Kelsey shoes that I splurged on this summer (as Linda says about her time before grad school, “when I had money”), and I’ve never achieved such good posture so effortlessly. I know what perfect posture feels like; I experienced it all last year when I was immersed in dance and yoga. But as the past nine months or so have shown me, once I stop exercising, my body just has a much harder time finding its upright pull, and even standing straight up isn’t the same as that lovely upright stance that comes from all one’s muscles being well aligned and in good shape. So I’m a bit disturbed that I can get this kind of alignment from a shoe. It’s not as good as having the posture from stretching and properly exercised muscles, but it’s still amazing. These are incredibly comfortable shoes. I’ve been wearing them ever since I tried them on, even though they make my feet a little sweaty, because when I took them off for a moment to do something I instantly felt my body sag back into bad form again, and it was unpleasant. So I’m sitting here with shoes on, typing.
[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]