SFA Take Reblog: A Call to Listen

We wanted to share a blog post, written by Ted Ownby, from the SFA’s site. To see the original post, which includes the CFP under consideration, click here.

Not long ago two professors posted a call for papers that would be critical of southern food studies and especially, it seems clear, the Southern Foodways Alliance and its relationship to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. I’m copying that call for papers at the end of this message.


When facing criticism, it’s difficult to avoid the temptation to be defensive and at least a little irritated, but the call for papers offers a chance to say what I enjoy and admire so much about people who study and learn about the South through foodways.


I’ve been going to Southern Foodways Alliance events since the group’s first symposium in 1999, and here’s one of the best things about it: people listen to each other. I learned that at foodways gatherings, food professionals, food writers, foodways scholars, food-issue activists, and others all have something to contribute, and they’re all there to listen to and learn from each other. No one has anything like the final word, and nobody is the ultimate authority on what questions to ask and how to answer them. Somebody is addressing problems of food deserts, somebody is doing academic work, somebody is working in journalism, somebody is thinking how to improve a restaurant, and somebody else is thinking about the foods his/her grandmother made, and they all have a conversation. Of course it doesn’t always work, but listening is a practice and not just a goal, and when it works, it’s impressive to witness and a pleasure and an education to experience.


So, we listen across lines of profession, expertise, professional language and, sometimes, interests. A second type of listening can be just as important. John Egerton, who for years provided inspiration for the SFA, frequently talked about the need to cut across political lines. Too often, he said, the conservatives go to their places to do their things while the liberals do their things in their own places (for example, John told me that in university towns in the Fall, most of the conservatives spend Saturdays at football games while most of the liberals stay home reading and writing journal articles). There were too few gatherings, he said, where those people talked to each other about topics of importance and shared interest.


Again, that kind of listening faces challenges. As thinking about food has expanded into issues of labor, globalization and localism, environment and sustainability, health, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and the construction and manipulation of images, listening to all political perspectives can be difficult. But again, it’s a both a goal and a practice that takes work.


And third, documentary work relies on a particularly important, skillful form of listening. The SFA’s documentary films, interviews in its publications, conversations in podcasts, oral history projects in classes, and the ever-expanding collection of online oral histories are rooted in listening, that is, in encouraging people to tell their stories and documenting them in responsible ways. The SFA is always looking and listening for more and better stories, more thoughtful questions, more groups, individuals and experiences to document, and new and different ways to share the results of that work. There is something open-minded, empathetic, and kind in that work of listening, and the results have taught a great many people about topics they might never have considered. It has also encouraged productive collaborations between the SFA, other parts of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and many other groups.


To summarize, foodways conversations have a great deal to do with listening—listening across lines of profession, language, and interest, listening across lines of politics, and responsible and thoughtful listening to people willing to tell their stories.


So, if we really believe in listening, there is only one conclusion. We need to listen to potential criticism. Even if we wonder if some of the critics have in the past drawn conclusions without doing much research, even if we might think the language in their call for papers uses too many quotation marks, even when criticism can be difficult to take, we need to listen.


Ted Ownby